The Decorative Arts Society have started their guided visits again and the other day I joined them at the William Morris Gallery for a talk by Roisin Inglesby on the the Century Guild exhibition that she has curated. The Guild was a short-lived Arts and Crafts body, started by Arthur Heygate Mackmurdo and Henry Horne and soon joined by Selwyn Image, lasting only from 1882 until 1893, when each member went his own way to follow his particular interests.
I knew little about the Century Guild other than that Pevsner had pointed out that their sinuous designs (above) anticipated Art Nouveau and that fifty years later Mackmurdo was one of the founders of the William Morris Gallery. From the Mackmurdo donation the Gallery has come to have the largest holding of Century Guild artifacts anywhere, which has enabled them to put on this event with little borrowing.
The Guild lacked some of the common prejudices of the Arts and Crafts movement, notably Morris’s dislike of everything Italian, and Horne went on to make a study of Boticelli. They were also less enamoured of Gothic. Their furniture is more classical than anything produced by Morris and Co., as are Mackmurdo’s and Horne’s architectural designs.
The exhibition has textiles, wallpaper and designs on paper that illustrate their use of plant forms and their departure from the symmetry of Morris’s designs. The name of the group refers to their 19th century and indicates a forward-looking attitude. They were designers and were not wedded to the idea of a craft-based economy.
This charming little ceramic figure came into my possession today. It’s about 15cm tall, signed MW and dated 1924 but otherwise unidentifiable. Enquiries have failed to come up with any ceramic modeller with those initials and I shall probably never find out who made it – though surely the artist was a woman? The 1920s were the heyday of this sort of studio-made figurine and there were many good makers who came and went without leaving any permanent trace.
It’s worth mentioning the mysterious MW because this is, technically and artistically speaking, quite a good piece and was made by someone who clearly knew what they were doing. The marks on the base, if we can rely on them, suggest an experienced and fluent artist if not a professional one, because there are several reference numbers suggesting that this was one of a series.
I head the post School of Charles Vyse because the style and method are very much his. It’s cast from a mould, hand painted in underglaze colours with a transparent glaze over it, an informal, everyday subject, and a pattern on the dress like many of Vyse’s figures. If not for the initials I’d say it was by Vyse’s pupils Jessamine Bray and Sylvia Williams of the Dulwich Pottery. Vyse taught at Camberwell and so it may well be by someone who was in his class.
Curious as to how ceramic figures were displayed in their heyday in the 1920s and 1930s (I’ve written about them here and here), I popped down to the University of Sussex archive to read the Mass Observation report on Mantlepieces yesterday. Ceramic figures were produced in large quantities by factories, especially Doulton and Royal Worcester, and by studio potters. In fact, they were so common that, for most people, ‘studio pottery’ meant ceramic figures and not the plain stoneware vessels that it came to mean after the war, something that it’s hard for us to appreciate today. But we really know very little about their place in the home.
Osbert Lancaster included in his sardonic cartoons of Homes Sweet Homes the Modernistic home (above), with its comfortable-looking Art Deco furnishings and its comfortable-looking owner, her nicely curated mantlepiece with a square clock in the centre and figurines on either side. Was that how they were displayed?
Mass Observation was a famously muddled attempt by poet Charles Madge, anthropologist Tom Harrison and filmmaker Humphrey Jennings to make anthropological studies of the British people. There were intriguing results, like the chapter on the Lambeth Walk, the ‘thirties dance fad, in the Penguin book Britain by Mass Observation. But in other studies (MO called them ‘Directives’) the bias and capriciousness of the selections are obvious. In the Mantlepiece Directive, for example, it’s noticeable how many of the subjects are reported to be left-wing in their views and to have books by writers like Dostoevsky on the mantlepiece.
But what about the figurines? In fact there were very few on the mantlepieces observed and the overwhelming impression given in the reports was of chaos. Sociologists reading through the observations today and hoping to find pattern or significance in them have recorded their despair, irritation and ennui. There were 158 MO observers and they listed getting on for three thousand items. Unlike Osbert Lancaster’s Moderne lady, these mantlepiece-owners had little interest in display. There were a few china dogs and crinoline ladies, but on the whole there were random deposits of clocks, pipes, matches, postcards, brass ornaments, photos, vases, ashtrays, pencils, pens, bottles of ink, bowls with collar-studs and paper clips in them, and generally the detritus of everyday life whose classification would be like Luis Borges’ Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge.
The 1926 Yearbook of Decorative Art published by The Studio magazine was frank about British design conservatism: ‘On the Continent and in the United States the enterprise was greater than in this country and the results more hectic. We Britons have always been somewhat slow in the uptake in the matter of design; but our conservatism in the long run has done us little harm.’ Remember that the 1925 Paris Exhibition is seen as the launch pad of Art Deco and then see that many if not most of the designs featured by The Studio are still in Arts-and-Crafts mode.
Architectural examples were predominently vernacular in inspiration, with a trace of neo-Georgian in the examples from Welwyn Garden City. But although interiors were traditional, they were stripped down and free from clutter, as in work by the Deutsche Werkstätten. Gordon Russell’s simple and useful furniture was made by the best cabinet makers available. Heal’s furniture anticipated Utility, with which Russell, of course was associated.
British ceramics emphasised craft methods: hand-painted pottery from Pilkington, Wedgwood and Poole, work by the up-and-coming studio potters, William Staite Murray and Bernard Leach, figures by Stanley Thorogood, Wilfrid Norton, Harold Stabler and Stella Crofts. Handicraft was also emphasised in Continental ceramics but the Deco element was evident in pieces designed by Claude Lévy and Madeleine Sougez for Atelier Primavera (top), who had exhibited at the 1925 Paris Expo.
Figurative ceramics were more evident in the illustrations from the Continent, despite the fact they were at the height of their popularity in Britain.
By 1933, there had been a major change. The rchitecture and interiors featured in the Yearbook were now mainly modernist, including British examples by A.V.Pilchowski and Stanley Hall and Eastern & Robertson. Fewer ceramics were shown but they included mass-produced factory wares like those designed by M. Friedlaender.
Readers will know that I’ve been finding out about English figurative pottery in the 1920s and 1930s. Most has to come from looking at it because it’s almost completely undocumented, but from doing so one can uncover some of its influences and sources. Charles Vyse, for example, shared the contemporary idealised view of Romany life with Augustus John, Laura Knight and Alfred Munnings, and both he and Munnings drew Romanies at Epson Races.
Gwendolen Parnell designed one of her rare figure groups for Royal Worcester Porcelain in the 1930s, The Planter’s Daughter, which depicts a lady in 18th-century dress (Parnell’s stock in trade) attended by a Black servant. It directly parallels Continental European figures by Valley Wieselthier and Paul Scheurich for Meissen.
That was not a common theme in ceramics but it has a long pedigree in painting, dating at least to the 16th century.
There’s now a debate about these servants, who were acquired as status symbols and paraded in public: were they free labourers or were they actually slaves? The Planter’s Daughter suggests a setting in the USA unique in Parnell’s work, which case the servant would be a slave, though the title is unexplained. Parnell, distantly related to Charles Stewart Parnell, may be referring to the Irish poem of that name, but then why the Black servant?
After my posts about Deal and Margate, I was interested to find that my friend, retired journalist Hugh Thompson, makes annual visits to Hastings and finds on his recent trip that that its score on The Thompson Scale, which measures the ratio of art galleries/antique shops to fish and chip parlours, has gone up. He particularly likes the pier. https://wp.me/p2sDlO-4xU
Museum of the Home in Hackney re-opens. Statue of slaver Geffrye remains in place The Museum of the Home (@MuseumoftheHome) in Hackney re-opens on Saturday after a lengthy closure for refurbishment. Some important and interesting changes have been made. One change that hasn’t been made is to remove the statue of slave trader Robert Geffrye […]
As well as the revival of figurative ceramics by manufacturers like Doulton and Meissen in the early 20th-century, there was a revival among the studio potters. In England the most high-profile of these was Gwendolen Parnell, who was also the most invested in Rococo. Of her figures in Georgian dress, the most famous was her series based on The Beggar’s Opera, which had a phenomenally successful three-year run in London in the 1920s. The show inspired other modellers too. This Georgianism in ceramics was an interesting pendant to the wider Georgian revival that found in the architecture and furniture of the period an anticipation of modernist values of simplicity and reserve. But of course, its aesthetics were very different.
Some of Parnell’s figures were a pastiche of 18th-century Chelsea porcelain, replete with bocage and scrolled bases. The most outstanding, in my judgement, was the figure group called The Pompadour, which is in National Museums Scotland.
It has two ladies and a gentleman on a rustic seat with a lamb at their feet. The young man is in attractive déshabillé; one lady holds a fan, the other a tambour frame. Its affinity to Rococo shepherdesses is obvious. The title refers to the period and the pinks and purples, but it’s also bound to recall Boucher’s portraits. Parnell’s ladies, however, aren’t shown to have the serious intellectual interests that Boucher depicted – his Pompadour often has a book in her hands.
Figurative ceramics underwent a revival in the first part of the 20th century, with Doulton beginning a series of modelled figures in Britain just before the First World War, Meissen advancing its tradition of figure-making with the recruitment of new modellers in Germany, and parallel developments in Austria, Hungary, Denmark and Italy. Within modelling there was a strong counter-current to modernism, a revival of Rococo, an inevitable dialogue with 18th-century porcelain, whether Chelsea or Dresden.
Vally Wieselthier (1895 – 1945), lead ceramicist of the Weiner Werkstätte, won Gold at the Paris Expo in 1925 for her figure Vanity, a remarkable fantasy in porcelain reminiscent of Dresden but wholly modern, playful and mocking, showing a woman at her toilette with African and Chinese attendants. Vanity was not unique though, and a similar piece, Lady with a Moor, had been designed by Paul Scheurich, a brilliant sculptor employed by Meissen, in 1919. Scheurich’s clothed figure, however, is less ironic, more restrained.
The similarity of Wieselthier’s and Scheurichs’ work disguises different artists and very different intentions. Wieselthier was from a bourgeois Jewish Viennese family. Vanity was in many way an untypical work. Her other ceramics were more experimental and expressionistic. In 1928 she left Vienna for New York and established her career there before her premature death.
Sheurich (1883 – 1945) was a much more establishment figure, designing German banknotes in the 1920s and 1930s, continuing to work under the Nazis, for whom he designed a tapestry at the Reich Propaganda Ministry. As early as 1907 he had illustrated an anti-Semitic pamphlet in Berlin about the “Judaization” of the theatre.