THOMAS BEVINGTON

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The South Kensington Museum in its early days had a Chamber of Horrors that showed bad design as an object lesson to contrast with the good design in the other galleries – there’s still a case in the V&A today with a selection from the Chamber of Horrors. Because museums preserve the best, we can easily forget or we simply don’t know why they are the best and what was the worst. William de Morgan’s pottery, for example, has become so representative of pottery of the period that we have no idea how bad some of the products of Stoke-on-Trent could be. I came across some while looking through Pottery Gazette the other day, this advert (above) showing some gloriously awful designs by Thomas Bevington of Hanley, made in 1890.

Bevington came from a prolific pottery family who were in business in Hanley for most of the 19th century. He described himself as a “Manufacturer of Novelties in Fancy China, combining the Useful and Ornamental in Raised Flower Goods, consisting of Flower Baskets, Vases, Centre-pieces, Table Ornaments and Artistic China of every description”.

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Bevington ignored the rules set down by design reformers like Henry Cole, Owen Jones and William Morris. His forms were over-ornate and impractical; he used representational decoration that was three dimensional rather than flat; his “Raised Flower Goods” (below) used modeled flowers and imitation mosses; and his pottery was pretty ugly.

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But he appears to have been successful, appealing to a public who enjoyed his Novelties in Fancy China and didn’t care a fig about good design. The picture is of a Bevington piece that appeared on Ebay, and it’s not the only one, which shows that people still buy his pottery and like it.

ALAN CAIGER-SMITH

I learned the other day of the death of Alan Caiger-Smith, an outstanding potter who revived the art of tin glaze and who became an important scholar of the tin glaze tradition.

Caiger-Smith was born in Buenos Aires in 1930. He studied at Camberwell Art School of Art and read history at King’s College, Cambridge. Inspired by French painted pottery in his mother’s kitchen, he enrolled in pottery evening classes at the Central School of Arts and Crafts under Dora Billington. His aims were unformed at the time, but when he told Billington of his interest in decoration she said, “Then you want to do tin glaze,” which he had never even heard of.

In 2013 I interviewed him about his time at the Central and his memories of Billington. His recall was sharp and he was a brilliant raconteur. The Central in around 1950 was an old building filled with ex-servicemen and young girls, known to the students as The Central School of Tarts and Drafts. Billington had taken on an old Yorkshire country thrower, Richard Bateson, whom Caiger-Smith found to be endlessly patient and helpful, though preferring to give advice outside the classroom where he could have a sly smoke at the same time.

Caiger-Smith warmed to his work, coming to the evening class earlier and earlier, eventually arriving at 8.30 a.m. William Johnstone, the college principal, called him in and instructed him to stop doing that, but Billington, who spotted his potential, took him aside and advised him to quietly ignore Johnstone.

By this date Billington was over sixty. One of Caiger-Smith’s colleagues, a student who frequently got drunk at lunchtime, stood at the back of the class sniggering as his prim old teacher showed them how to pull a handle by stroking and squeezing a sausage of clay. She looked up and said sharply, “Yes, Mr B— , it is phallic. Now sober up and pay attention and you may learn something.”

Caiger Smith remained grateful to Billington for her teaching and encouragement. Tin glaze was so out of fashion that the college technician (who I think at the time was Ian Auld) refused to fire his work and he had to smuggle it into the back of the kiln.

As it happened, his Aldermaston Pottery stuck a chord and his work was soon in demand. Last year, Jane White, published an account of Alan Caiger-Smith and the Legacy of the Aldermaston Pottery that traced the assistants who had worked with him there. Alan spoke at the book launch at the Ashmolean with Tim Wilson, an expert in maiolica, whom he had consulted during his historical researches and who also consulted him.

Tin-Glaze Pottery, published in 1973, was a rare thing, combining deep scholarship with practical understanding, and in my view it’s the standard account of the subject.

In a search for a real red pigment, Caiger-Smith rediscovered the technique of reduced lustre glaze (picture, top) after long experiment and many failures. His reduced lustre pottery is among his most beautiful work and is now very collectable. As an indication of how well-respected he became, he was honoured by the town of Gubbio, which had brought Italian lustre to the peak of refinement in the 16th century.

ALFRED H. POWELL

Alfred Hoare Powell interests me because he persuaded Wedgwood to revive the art of freehand painting and worked with them to produce beautiful decorated pottery that was made from 1903 right up to the 1940s. The partnership was one of the most successful between arts and manufacturing on Arts and Crafts lines. And I should not omit to mention Powell’s wife Louise – “Lalla” – whose training in embroidery and calligraphy was germaine to the enterprise and whom Alfred always insisted should be named alongside him. Powell is pictured at the back of the photo (above) with Louise in front of him.

Part of the Powells’ motivation was to make the task of the decorators at Wedgwood’s enjoyable for them, believing that the production methods developed in the 19th century had dehumanised them by reducing decorating to the mere placing of blobs of colour on printed outlines.

At the end of his life, Powell wrote an autobiographical note, which I saw yesterday in the British Library’s manuscript collection, and in which he recorded his satisfaction with his long association with Wedgwood.

I asked Frank Wedgwood if I might go and learn to paint pottery at Etruria. I had the warm & hearty welcome that was so characteristic of JW’s and for 30 or 40 years I was with LP painting and teaching girls how to draw correctly and to use a brush neatly and swiftly. I had the run of the works & every worker on the place seemed at my disposal & glad to help – to tell me things and show all the tricks of the trade. In all this I was backed up by long and interesting letters from Lethaby, who was delighted to hear of any efforts to bring JW’s to see better and do better and I did help them as they have often agreed since. In 1906 Lalla joined me at this work, taught me & encouraged me & kept me alive to the pottery and pottery painting. Of the brilliant beauty of her own work I need not write here.

Lethaby’s “long and interesting letters” have not survived, unfortunately.

Powell’s appreciation of the skill of working people, his interest in them and his willingness to learn from them, is absolutely characteristic. He wrote similarly, in the context of his architectural work, of his respect for building workers and his preference for being on site with them rather than sitting and writing letters in an office. And his acknowledgement of Louise Powell’s contribution to the pottery painting is also characteristic of the man and, I thought, rather touching.

ROGER FRY, BERNARD LEACH AND WEDGWOOD

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Roger Fry occupies a noteworthy position in 20th-century decorative arts, and pottery in particular.  He tried to make pottery himself, not very successfully, attending classes at Camberwell School of Art. His formalist conception of art helped to establish the new studio pottery of W.B.Dalton, Charles Vyse, Bernard Leach and William Staite Murray. He recognised the genius of Josiah Wedgwood but ultimately dismissed his work as retrograde, as I found from his interesting review of an exhibition of Wedgwood china published in The Athenaeum in 1905. (Reproduced in A Roger Fry Reader.)

Writing about Flaxman’s recently-discovered wax models from which Wedgwood’s relief figure were cast, Fry says:

They all show extraordinary technical skill, and are marked by a cold excellence and negative perfection. … [I]t gives one an idea of the shrewd intelligence and resource of the man who accomplished what hardly anyone else has – the feat of making a commercial success of fine-art pottery. As pottery, Wedgwood’s work is beyond praise, though it probably contributed to the final destruction of the art, as an art, in England, since it set a standard of mechanical perfection which to this day prevents the trade from accepting any work in which the natural beauties of the material are not carefully obliterated by mechanical means. In fact. Wedgwood destroyed the craftsman’s tradition by substituting the artist turned craftsman for the craftsman turned artist by experience and natural aptitude.

1905 was the high-water mark of the Arts and Crafts movement and Fry’s views are typical, though he had little time for the moralising representatives of the movement. In this evaluation of Wedgwood and his successors, he forms a bridge between the Arts and Crafts movement and the studio potters. Leach’s evaluation of Wedgwood thirty-five years later in Towards a Standard was similar but harsher and less sensitive to cultural and artistic context:

The small establishments of the Tofts and other slipware potters were succeeded by the factories of the Wedgwoods and the Spodes, and in a short space of time the standard of craftsmanship, which had been built up by the labour of centuries, the intimate feeling for material and form, and the common, homely, almost family workshop life had given way to specialization and the inevitable development of mass production.

RICHARD LUNN

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I saw some pottery made by Richard Lunn (above), who is important because he taught the first art-school course in pottery in Britain, set up at the Royal College of Art in 1901. Some pottery painting had been taught at art schools earlier and clay modelling was commonplace, but Lunn’s was the first course where students were taught to design, make, glaze, decorate and fire pottery from first to last. Even the Stoke-on-Trent art schools did not teach pottery in such a comprehensive way. As art schools in the early 20th century adopted similar courses, the graduates of his course provided several of the teachers.

Lunn’s pottery, in a private collection, was quite a find, because his own work is almost unknown. He worked as art director of the Crown Derby Porcelain company in the 1880s, and in the 1890s set up his own pottery in the old Cockpit Works in the town, but apart from these pieces, its output is unknown.

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This collection of bowls place Lunn firmly in the tradition of Art Pottery. They are hand-painted in underglaze colours, each one with a different design, thinly potted in a cream earthenware body and probably made in moulds, a method Lunn favoured over throwing on the wheel.

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The drawing of Lunn (top) was made by R.R.Tomlinson, one of his RCA students, who later became art inspector for the London County Council and principal of the Central School of Arts and Crafts in the 1940s when another of Lunn’s students, Dora Billington, was running the pottery course there.

THE ARTS AND CRAFTS EXHIBITION SOCIETY

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I have been looking at the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society catalogue for their 1935 exhibition, which shows the Society (which gave its name to the Arts and Crafts movement and had doubts about the propriety of machine-made goods) flirting with design for mass production.

It was a small step but a significant one. William Morris’s ambivalence about machinery had hardened into outright opposition and in the 20th century the craftsman evolved from a generalist with a wide range of abilities (usually based on architecture), who sometimes contracted the execution of his work to a tradesman, into a specialist, frequently working alone and controlling every stage of production.

Pevsner argued that the lead in design in the 20th century passed from the Arts and Crafts to pioneer modernists like Adolf Loos, Peter Behrens, Josef Hoffman, the Deutsche Werkbund and the Bauhaus, and by the 1930s, some design thinkers doubted that there was much room for the crafts. Gropius, in a lecture he gave in England in 1934, argued that their future lay not in production but in “research work for industrial production and in speculative developments in laboratory workshops where the preparatory work of evolving and perfecting new type-forms will be done.” Herbert Read took a similar view in Art and Industry.

These ideas became so widespread that craftspeople were either persuaded by them or understood the need to engage with them. Among potters, even two of the most craft-based were briefly enchanted by them, Bernard Leach toying with the idea setting up a small factory and Michael Cardew trying to design for Stoke-on-Trent. John Farleigh, who was on the modernising wing of the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society, responded to this current of thought by declaring to members that “We are in a machine age, and to ignore it is to ignore life as it is lived today,” but he contended that craft objects that could be reproduced by machine would be better if craftsmen supervised their manufacture, proposing a larger role for the craftsman in industry than that indicated by Gropius and Read.

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In 1935 the Society included in its exhibition a section devoted to design for Mass Production, stating that the artist-craftsman “is admirably fitted to design for ‘batch-production’, ‘quantity-production’ or ‘mass-production’ in industry”. It led with Farleigh’s wood engravings for Bernard Shaw’s Adventures of the Black Girl in Search of God (above) and the exhibit was dominated by design for print, with lettering by Edward Johnston, Noel Rooke, Grailey Hewett and Alfred Firbank. There was some furniture by Romney Green and Gordon Russell, some printed fabrics by Heals, and some pottery designed for Doulton by Reco Capey. This was a hardly a major departure from hand-work. Ambrose Heal was a staunch supporter of the crafts and a member of the Society, and Doulton’s was an art pottery rather than a manufacturer of tableware. There was no evidence of any serious engagement by the Society with industry or any real interest in industrial design. Nevertheless, it was too much for some members. Leach was in the opposing faction and resigned. Staite Murray agreed with him that the Society’s policy of encouraging design for industry would “subvert the object of the Society to preserve the Crafts.”

The exhibition of British Art in Industry in 1935 talked of a “struggle for supremacy” between machine methods that made possible cheap goods and hand craftsmanship that could give goods individuality and character. The “art and industry debate” that persisted throughout the 1930s was never resolved and was brought to an end by the war, when craft production became an impermissible luxury. By 1944, two-thirds of Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society members were said to be designing for industry.

ANITA BROOKNER

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I’ve just read Anita Brookner’s wonderful monograph on Watteau, her first book (1967), published before she published her first novel. It’s written with a novelist’s insight into character and is beautifully expressed, perfectly scholarly (French 18th century painting was her specialism), but it draws you in to the subject.

Of Les Fêtes Vénitiennes (detail above) she writes:

As the Grand Turk can be identified as Vleughels, a perceptive scholar has suggested that the bagpipe player may in fact be Watteau himself. Underneath his obviously borrowed (or hired) costume, he appears to be rougher and lumpier in texture than his fellows, and is wearing an expression of haggard benignity which betokens both physical exhaustion and social strain. The implication are obvious and acceptable. The man wearing a cloak  and tricorn hat in the background is caught in a deeply theatrical attitude; though nobody is looking at him, he is about to make a resounding exit. Odd items of Comedia del’Arte costume can be detected here and there in the audience – a hat, a ruff, a green satin doublet – but the setting has been turned into something totally straightforward: a clearing in one of the allées of any of the great woods around Paris.