CHILDWICKBURY ARTS FAIR

Childwickbury Arts Fair, St Albans, is one of the highlights of my summer calendar. Sometimes I exhibit and demonstrate there and even when I don’t I go as a visitor.

The fair is in the grounds of Childwickbury, the house that Stanley Kubrick bought in 1978. His widow Christiane and her daughter Katherina are artists and for three days they throw open the stable yard to painters, potters, glass artists, hatmakers, leatherworkers, jam and chutney makers, metalworkers and textile artists. There’s music throughout – and in case you forgot your packed lunch, lots to eat and drink.

The Fair opened today, Friday 30th June, and runs to Sunday 2nd July.

Opening hours
Friday 30th June   10am -5pm
Saturday 1st July   10am-6pm
Sunday 2nd July   10am-5pm

Admission
Adults – £8
Seniors – £7
Child (5-15) – £5
Under 5  -FREE

Free parking.

I’m showing my ceramics with the Dacorum and Chiltern Potters Guild. Today we had visits from the local primary schools. The children wanted to have a go making something in clay. We showed them how to make a little pot on the wheel, in noisy, enthusiastic groups of twenty-four. Half an hour with seven year olds is more tiring than a day in the studio. Hats off to the teachers! I was bombarded with unexpected questions, like, “Can you make it into wood?”

Come and have a go!

WHY NOTHING REALLY WORKS

How come we can get a man on the moon but a sink always leaks?

Plumbers will tell you that the simple task of replacing a sink trap is one of the most trying jobs they do. After twenty years our sink started to leak. How difficult could that be to mend? Six attempts later, two trips to the D-I-Y store and five hours work, and I say “very”. Water has a way of getting through every connection, new part, washer and layer of putty.

The plastic parts are cheap and they’re simple to assemble. They are the same parts that professional plumbers use, you can’t upgrade to a product with better performance. Their cheapness encourages the amateur to do the job himself, but there’s a knack to it and in the end, you have to employ someone who knows what he’s doing.

It’s in the nature of DIY that you do most jobs only once, so that however much you learn in the course of your life, you never know what you’re doing. In situations like this I’m reminded of Hilaire Belloc’s rhyme:

Lord Finchley tried to mend the electric light
Himself. It struck him dead, and serve him right.
It is the duty of the wealthy man
To give employment to the artisan.

If the parts are cheap and the expert has the knack, there’s no incentive to the manufacturer to design them better or make them easier to use. David Pye, one time professor of furniture at the RCA, and one of the most original thinkers on design, had an explanation. He said that functionalism was nonsense. “Things simply are not ‘fit for their purpose’,” he said. “At one time, a flake of flint was fit for the purpose of surgery; and stainless steel is not fit for the purpose now. Everything we design and make is an improvisation, a lash-up, something inept and provisional.”

In other words, nothing really works.

OLD SHOP FRONTS AND FASCIA LETTERING

As I once worked as a graphic designer, I keep a look out for old shop signs with interesting lettering. They’re often preserved because the shop  is doing badly or the owner is old. Thanks to them, we see layers of urban archaeology that would otherwise be covered. This dress shop in Hatfield (above) is in the old town, not the new town of the 1950s, but its name is spelled out in a classic slanted Clarendon letter almost identical to the lettering used on the Festival Hall in 1951. The Festival Hall lettering was designed by lettering historian Nicolete Gray and is illustrated in her Lettering on Buildings (1960).


Armi (above) is a gun shop in Bologna. It uses an art deco letter on its fascia a bit like the 1929 Vogue typeface designed by Stephenson Blake. The sign maker has spaced the lettering very nicely. Odd to see a gun shop using lettering designed for Vogue magazine.



This old fur shop in Vienna, which I passed in a side street a few years ago, looks as if no-one has been in it for twenty years. I liked the script lettering, picked out in neon.


This is the rather self-conscious window display of Eleskamra, an organic food store on the Wekerle Estate in Budapest. Wekerle was an early 20th century housing development build by a progressive city council, mainly for civil servants and public sector workers. The Arts and Crafts architect Károly Kós was responsible for the town square where Eleskamra is located.

Finally a shop front in London that everyone knows, F.Cooke’s jellied eel shop, with its beautiful glass and gold fascia.


GIACOMO BALLA: DESIGNING THE FUTURE

“Atmospheric Dynamism”, c.1923-25

The Estorick Collection in Canonbury Square, N1, is a little jewel box, a far cry from the national museums whose expensive acquisitions and big staff mean they have to put on blockbusters all the time. Anything likely to be unpopular with the public at £15 a head won’t show, even if it’s artistically and historically important.

The Estorick is devoted to 20th century Italian art with special emphasis on Futurism. Consequently, you will see small but well curated exhibitions of Futurist art that will make you change your ideas. Such was “Piety and Pragmatism” in 2007, about the surprising sacred art produced by Futurists in the 1930s, following Mussolini’s Treaty with Rome. Now the Estorick has, until the weekend, a show about Giacomo Balla, one of the founders of Futurism and the only founder except Marinetti who stayed with it after the First World War. From the painter’s signature, FUTURBALLA, you guess that it became a part of his identity.

Futurism

Although other art movements had political ambitions, Futurism was, outside Russia, the most closely associated with politics. The Futurists were devoted to Mussolini and Marinetti kept trying to ingratiate himself with the regime, even declaring, following the Lateran Treaty, that Jesus was a Futurist. Mussolini wasn’t interested, even though Marinetti’s Futurist Party was a precursor of Fascism, and despite the fact (or so it is said) that Mussolini learned his style of oratory from Marinetti’s declamatory poetry. (You can judge for yourself by comparing Marinetti reading “The Battle of Adrianople with a speech by il Duce.)  Anyhow, Futurism was more than easel painting. It found expression in literature, music, applied arts, interior design, theatre, clothing and food, where, in a surprisingly un-Italian move, Marinetti conducted a war on pasta. Its ambitions were set out in Depero and Balla’s “Futurist Reconstruction of the Universe” (1915), albeit in abstract terms:

“We will give skeleton and flesh to the invisible, the impalpable, the imponderable and the imperceptible. We will find abstract equivalents for every form and element in the universe, and then we will combine them according to the caprice of our inspiration, creating plastic complexes which we will set in motion.”

“Failure”, 1902

MODERNISM

In her introduction to the Estorick catalogue, Roberta Cremoncini says that the exhibition – the first in Britain to be devoted to Balla – reveals him to be “a true pioneer whose work not only comprised a number of Futurism’s most iconic images, but also included some of the earliest experiments in abstraction and proved hugely influential in terms of Modernism’s ability to transform all aspects of everyday life.”

“Chatting”, 1934

Balla was largely self-taught. His early works, in Divisionist style, demonstrated his radicalism. His painting “Failure” (1902) shows a detail of closed doors covered in graffiti. The angular placing and close cropping of the subject was typical. The influence of Bergson’s philosophy on Futurism is well-known, but Balla’s Futurist paintings were also underpinned by his interest in Theosophy and his attendance at séances. Conceiving of art as a total enterprise (in the case of Futurism we may say a Totalitarian enterprise) Balla turned to designing clothes and furniture. Although their patterns are abstract and formal, they are closer to the output of the Omega Workshops and the Wiener Werkstätte than to the modern industry that the Futurists affected to admire.

PRECURSOR OF POP ART

After twenty years of producing work in a consistent style, Balla realised that working in the same way for so long was a bit passéiste, and he made a sudden change to representational paintings derived from images in commercial advertising, popular magazines and newspapers. Fabio Benzi in his catalogue essay points out that he anticipated Pop Art by quarter of a century.

Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art
39a Canonbury Square
London N1 2AN

Telephone: +44 20 7704 9522
Fax: +44 20 7704 9531
Email: info@estorickcollection.com

Opening Times
Wednesday to Saturday
11.00 – 18.00
Sunday 12.00 – 17.00
Closed Mondays and Tuesdays.

DESIGNER AND EXECUTANT: AN ARGUMENT BETWEEN WALTER CRANE AND LEWIS FOREMAN DAY

Walter Crane

Walter Crane, a leading designer of the late 19th century, is now best remembered for his medievalising book illustrations. He was a major artist in the Arts and Crafts movement, the first president of the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society, a friend of William Morris and a significant figure in art education. He had senior positions in Manchester and Reading art schools and was principal of the RCA, where he spearheaded major reforms.

ARTS AND CRAFTS EXHIBITION SOCIETY

His friend Lewis Foreman Day is less well-known but was also a leading designer. He was a friend of Morris, an active member of the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society and was master of the Art Workers Guild. He was an influential educator and was an advisor to government. He was commercially successful and dissented from some of the more idealistic Arts and Crafts theories. In particular, he thought it was wasteful and inefficient for a designer to execute all his own designs. The question of Designer vs. Executant dogged the Arts and Crafts movement, and although few Arts and Crafts artists made their own designs, doing so was held up as an ideal.

Some years after Crane’s reforms of the RCA, (described in my post about the RCA’s pottery instructor, Richard Lunn) it became evident to government and industry that they had made little change to the relationship between artist and industry, and in 1910 the government set up a committee of inquiry to look into the problem. Day told the committee, against the growing orthodoxy of learning by doing, that the route the RCA was following, teaching design by direct working in materials, was mistaken and that there should be more emphasis on principles of design.

ARTIST VS. BUSINESSMAN

Day and Crane had earlier published a friendly argument on a similar topic in Moot Points (1903). Crane comes over as an idealist who puts principle before profit, Day as a sensible businessman, nevertheless wedded to Arts and Crafts design principles. I was particularly interested in their discussion of the designer/executant issue (pp. 16-23).

Lewis Foreman Day

Day argues that it is neither necessary or desirable for the designer always to execute his own designs. His main objection is that, “Artists of imagination are not all patient workers, and able workmen are not all gifted with invention.” He agrees with Crane that the designer should be familiar with the material he is designing for, but he does not think that demands the designer to be the executant. There is an economic objection, but that is secondary to Day. His principal argument is that it is best for people to do what they are good at and that the good designer is not always a good maker. In practice the artist-craftsman is often less competent in his craft than the apprenticed craftsman – amateurism had already become a hazard of the Arts and Crafts movement. Crane insists that, on the contrary, most of the products of Arts and Crafts workshops are actually very good.

EARNING A LIVING

To Day’s practical objection that it is inefficient and unprofitable for every designer to make his own designs, Crane falls back on utopian ideas. “That an artist could not maintain his standard of life if he executed all his own designs” says Crane, “is merely an indictment against present economic conditions.” The artists of the Arts and Crafts movement often blamed their financial difficulties on present economic conditions and believed that they would thrive when they were swept away and replaced. But with what? It was never explained how an artist could live under any system if he consumed more than he produced. The Arts and Crafts critique of present economic conditions inevitably led artist craftsmen – from C.R.Ashbee to Bernard Leach – to explicitly demand public subsidies.

Here’s the chapter about whether an artist should make all his designs himself.

L.F.D. The theory that every artist should carry out what he designs and every work man design what he does, will not hold water. To begin with, the thing is impossible. 

W.C. Softly, friend. Are you not attacking an ideal, a principle of work at least, which by its influence has already produced excellent results in our Arts and Crafts? Do you not as an artist desire to see designs well adapted to their material and executed with feeling? 

L.F.D. You don’t answer my direct challenge directly. Of course I want design to be adapted to its material and executed with feeling; but neither one nor the other depends upon designer and executant being one. I am attacking the delusive idea propounded in the name of Arts and Crafts that, to ensure on the one part adaptation and on the other feeling, design and execution must be the work of one man. 

W.C. When a man makes direct statements controverting a given position or opinion he must expect to be asked to support or prove them. The defender of the position attacked may choose his own method, I presume. I therefore ask you why you say ” delusive”? 

L.F.D. Because it tends to mislead. Artists of imagination are not all patient workers, and able workmen are not all gifted with invention. 

W.C. Do you think, then, that arty workmanship is of any value, from the artistic point of view, without imagination or feeling? 

CRAFTSMANSHIP

L.F.D. It is because I want imagination and feeling and something more – craftsmanship (which I suppose you want too), and know that it is only by exception that I shall get all three from the same person, that I protest against the assertion that one man is to do everything. 

W.C. I never made the assertion you protest against, but I presume you would admit that a designer is all the better for a first hand acquaintance with the conditions, necessities and limitations of the work for which he is designing. 

L.F.D. Certainly; but it doesn’t follow in the least that he should execute his design with his own hand. 

W.C. How then would a designer obtain his first-hand acquaintance with a method or material unless he had actually worked out his own design in that method or material?

L.F.D. he might often (not always) gain necessary knowledge by seeing others do the thing in the workshop. But I am not denying it is good for him (in some cases necessary) to do it himself and learn by actual experience what can be done. That is quite a different thing from doing all that he designs. 

W.C. He would never be able to pay his rent and taxes if he did so, under present conditions! But I take it you concede the principle of the thing. Obviously if a designer does not realise the conditions of his design and the nature of the method and material by which it is to be carried out, he cannot, practically, design at all. 

L.F.D. I began by saying it was impossible. You grant me that, when you allow that it would not enable a man to live. I do not concede that, even were it possible, it is desirable that design and execution should be the work always of one man. It is not merely your bogey, commercialism, which determines that one man should invent and another carry out – our faculties ordain it too. 

W.C. Not so. Besides, I did not say a man could not live if he always carried out his own designs, only that “he could not pay his (present) rates and taxes.” That is to say, he could not maintain the same standard of comfort or living as he could as a designer only, except perhaps in some special crafts such as bookbinding or jewellery or small decorative articles of luxury. There we are in economics, again! 

L.F.D. For all practical purposes, “living” means paying your way – no less the duty of an artist than of other men; but that is not the point 

W.C. Seriously I do think that, without denying divergence of abilities, commercialism has been chiefly answerable for the separation of designer and craftsman. Our movement has been to re-unite them as far as possible – and, surely, so far all to the good. 

L.F.D. I am not attacking the Arts and Crafts – “our” society, in so far as its aim is to bring together art and craftsmanship – but only the policy of those who go beyond that, and argue from the undue sub-division of labour that there should be no division of work according to capacity. I maintain that, in the first place, there must be – we can’t help it – and, in the second, that we need not regret it 

W.C. Well, for my part, I consider what has really had most influence in our modern revival of design and handicraft, in giving freshness of treatment in all sorts of ways, and infusing new life into thoroughly commercialised crafts, has been this very principle of the combination of designer and craftsman in the same person. Many artists might be named who have “found” themselves in this way of working. I go further and say it is the ideal way of working. 

L.F.D. Artists have of late, I admit, brought freshness of design into crafts that had got deep into trade ruts; but the more important “who might be named” do not execute with their own hands all they design. To do that may be the “ideal” way of working – it is not (when it comes to the crafts) the practical one. 

TRAINED ASSISTANTS

W.C. What would become of painting, for instance, if the execution were to be delegated to other hands than those of the man who conceived and designed the picture? 

L.F.D. A painter’s pride is in his painting; but a decorator or designer can, and may, entrust execution to assistants he has trained – must, indeed. Or would you waste the energy of a man of rare invention in doing what a workman of only ordinary qualifications can do quite well? 

W.C. The ideal way of working in the crafts is no doubt on the workshop system – a designer working with assistants, whom he trains and inspires, and from whom are developed fresh designers from time to time, who learn every detail of the craft. Some crafts depend more upon individual expression than others. Every designer should be able to discover the craft in which he can find himself the most. I was thinking more of the ultimate artistic expression in any method of work, though I do not think a man of invention, even, wastes his time in elementary or subsidiary work; it strengthens his grasp, and keeps him in sympathy with every stage. 

L.F.D. It is wasteful to set inventive brains to do work that wants only skilled hands – except in so far as it is well for a designer to do manual work enough to keep himself in touch with the workshop. 

W.C. You cannot separate brains from hands really. It is a favourite industrial device (or pretence), but it has nothing to do with art. In all forms of art one’s brains should be at the ends of the fingers, as well as in one’s head. I fear you must have got touched with a little industrial imperialism. 

L.F.D. Allowing assistants and executants at all, where would you stop? It must end in letting the men with fertile brains invent, and those with facile fingers execute. 

W.C. With a true workshop system one would not “stop” at all. There would be a continuous living tradition in design and workmanship; and invention is wanted both in design and workmanship. 

L.F.D. “Continuous living traditions” are just what are neglected by artists dabbling in crafts to which they have served no sort of apprenticeship. 

W.C. I did not speak of dabblers and I was upholding the old workshop system which includes apprenticeship. 

L.F.D. The relative separation of brains and hands is neither a device of industrialism nor a pretence, but the work of nature. 

W.C. The actual separation of brains and hands in modern manufacture, accompanied with the ideal of mechanical and “trade finish,” has been the chief cause of the decline of art in industry. The revival has been owing to artists. 

L.F.D. We are born with gifts of one kind or another. It is very rarely that a man is doubly gifted; and it is of no use arguing as if one great faculty did not practically imply some lack of capability in the opposite direction. 

W.C. I cannot admit your last proposition. If a designer has no executive faculty, his designing faculty is of very little use and is practically latent, since a design is dumb unless it is expressed in some form or other – and even draughtsmanship is a craft 

L.F.D. The protest against “trade finish” goes too far when it is content with the unfinish of artists playing at craftsmanship. Your last remark falls flat. I said “relative” separation of brains and hands. 

WILLIAM MORRIS, MAN OF GENIUS

W.C. You misunderstand my remark; I was merely asserting the fact (in contradistinction to your relative separation) that the actual separation of brains and hands in modern industry had brought about the death of art. (That is flat, but I don’t see it falls flat!) Who do you mean is so content with amateur work while protesting against trade finish? The charge is unfair. Morris was an emphatic protester: was his work unfinished? One of the most remarkable results of the movement has been the development of competent artist-craftsmen. Commerce is quick enough to imitate, anyway. 

L.F.D. I don’t mean Morris, of course – men of genius may do what they like – but artists (and they are not a few) who exhibit craftsmanship which gives the workman good reason to scoff. My contention is that in the “artist-craftsman” work, of which we hear so much, the craftsmanship is (naturally) very often less than competent. 

W.C. I was not considering inefficient workmanship at all. You might condemn any movement by taking its lowest standards and results, perhaps. The fact remains that the Arts and Crafts movement has produced competent craftsmen in various crafts who are at the same time artists, and has also infused new life and feeling into the decorative arts generally. I do not understand why, if you are in sympathy with the aims and ideals of a movement, you should try to undervalue its work. 

L.F.D. I am not trying to undervalue anything, but to rate things at their worth. Much of artist-craftsmanship, so called, is inefficient. And the delusion that there should be no sub-division of labour goes to account for its inefficiency. 

W.C. One would think from your words, however, that you hated an artist-craftsman and all his works! 

L.F.D. I have no prejudice against the artist-craftsman as such. I do resent his bounce; but I respect his modest effort, and admire his real accomplishment. 

W.C. I am not aware of any faddist who goes so far as to say there should be no sub-division of labour. I have already put forward the workshop as the true system, where craftsmen and designers can learn every process and condition of a handicraft, and where also there is helpful co-operation and mutual assistance in carrying out a work, and where men may differentiate. Our technical schools now to some extent endeavour to fill the place of the old workshop in the handicrafts; but schools are apt to be theoretic at the best. Very few men like anything new, and trades are very conservative. But we have had to upset bad trade traditions. As to the scoffer, he generally makes a mock for jealousy. But, after all, the trade journals write much more sympathetically about the Arts and Crafts than the literary critics, who, of course, are eminent craftsmen (!) and know everything. 

L.F.D. What have technical education, trade journals, and literary critics to do with it? 

W.C. As our technical schools are educating students to execute their own designs in various materials, and as at the outset you declared it impossible for a designer to be his own executant, I think this reference of mine does bear on the question. 

L.F.D. Your point of view wants making clear. You admit the impossibility of a man’s paying his way by executing his own designs, and you allow some sub-division of labour. And yet you take up my challenge. Where, precisely, is it that you join issue?

W.C. That an artist could not maintain his standard of life if he executed all his own designs, is merely an indictment against present economic conditions. Much depends upon the kind of craft, too. In some crafts, it seems essential that designer and crafts man should be one: such as painting and modelling, calligraphy and illumination, book binding, jewellery, enamelling. Others, which involve multiple and perhaps heavy labour, may be co-operative, rightly. So far as artists have become craftsmen I think it has been all to the good. 

L.F.D. I did not say it was impossible for a designer to be his own executant – in some crafts it is very possible. What I am combating is the theory that, where he is not, he ought to be. 

W.C. Surely it entirely depends upon what sort of a designer he is?

L.F.D. That it all hangs upon the sort of design is just my contention. 

W.C. We are agreed, then, that it depends upon the sort of design how far it is essential that design and execution should be in the same hands? 

L.F.D. You grant me all I ask.

COCKPIT ARTS OPEN STUDIOS

I went to the open studios at Cockpit Arts, Deptford, on Friday. They are open today as well.
Cockpit Arts Deptford
18-22 Creekside
London SE8 3DZ
16-18 June. Sunday 11am – 6pm
Free entry
The studios house up to 170 designer makers in Holborn and Deptford. Cockpit describe themselves as the UK’s only business incubator for craftspeople, supporting those at the start of their careers and those who are more established. They began in 1986. In the early 1990s, I worked with them as part of my job in economic development at Camden Council.
The standard of work on display at Deptford is very high indeed. Partly due to the efforts of organisations like Cockpit and the Crafts Council, but mainly because of a more discerning public, the quality of craft production has improved There is more demand for personal products and a connection with the maker, and at the same time an expectation that the quality and finish of hand-made goods will be as high as that of machine-made goods. The old idea that you found a generation ago, that crafts had to prove that they were hand-made by being rough, has vanished. The increased number of designer makers (Cockpit estimate there are 25,000 in the UK with a combined turnover of £3.4bn) also raises the bar, with the best challenging the not-so-good.
On Friday, I paused to speak to a few makers in crafts other than my own, always interesting.

CHARLES LAURIE Leather 

Charles has developed a range of items exploiting the qualities of top-grade leathers. Those he displayed were all in black, simple in outline, highly practical and a little severe. They are adaptable and would suit people with either classic taste or modern taste. He said he supplied retailers and also took commissions. I pointed to the briefcase shown here: “Would you make this in bright orange if a customer asked for it?”  He gulped. “Oh, yes,” he said.

 
STEPHEN THOMSON Bow maker

I admired Stephen’s small, neat workshop. His tools were ranged in order, his drills stood in a block of hardwood. (Mine are flung into a tin.) The bows, seen close-up, are beautiful objects in themselves. The materials come from around the world: the wood from Brazil, the horsehair from China, the mother-of-pearl collected by Stephen himself on the Essex coast, and the finish of the handle in bone or mammoth ivory – yes, you read that right, mammoth ivory.

MARIA McLEAN Shoemaker

Maria’s workshop is a work of art. Bespoke cases stand on her parquet floor to take her tools and materials. They are on wheels so that they can be moved around the studio or even taken elsewhere: Maria, a graduate of Cordwainers College and the RCA, has the idea that she might be a peripatetic shoemaker. He sandals are exquisitely made and have that combination of beauty and utility that marks out the best craft products.

DOVILE B Jeweller

Dovile makes jewellery in a starling combination of silver and resin.

ELEANOR LAKELIN Wood

Wood turning is a staple of village craft shows and tends to be the redoubt of retired gents with more lathes than artistic judgement. Eleanor Lakelin’s wood products are on a different level. Many of them don’t look like wood at first, so wide is the range of colour, contour, texture and making methods.

MATTHEW WARNER Ceramics


Of course, I had to see a potter. Matthew Warner’s work is a tour de force. He is inspired by 18th century tableware and produces refined objects that, once again, combine beauty and utility. He has a range of soft coloured glazes and a successful combination of outside colour and clear glaze inside on a cream clay body, reminiscent of Wedgwood.