BRYAN MAGEE’S HOXTON CHILDHOOD

Wandering through the streets of Hoxton made me pick up Bryan Magee’s childhood memoir Clouds of Glory: A Hoxton Childhood. He is blessed with a sharp memory – he said that until the age of nineteen he remembered everything he had read, which helped him from his working-class environment into Oxford – and his book is an extraordinarily vivid record of Hoxton in the 1930s. It is well written and probably one of the best childhood memoirs you will find.

Magee lived at the top end of Hoxton Street, near the canal, behind his father’s menswear shop. From about the age of three he lived much of his life in the streets, many of which he describes in detail. Being in the tailoring trade, his father came into contact with many Jews, with whom he was on good terms, and some of his business associates taught Bryan scraps of Yiddish, which he has since forgotten. His father hated the fascists. Because he was dark, smartly-dressed and had a big nose a gang of them tried to beat him up in the street.

I knew Magee when he was the Labour MP for Leyton around 1980. He never seemed to fit into the Leyton Labour Party, he was too smooth and too intellectual. He announced his defection to the SDP to the Leyton party and calmly walked out of a meeting that had burst into uproar around him.

He appeared too well dressed, in a banker’s overcoat and a good suit. He never carried a briefcase or anything, and when he gave his monthly report he took a single sheet of notes from his breast pocket. To people who said he was a toff and a snob he said that he had a working-class upbringing. I found it hard to believe until I read this book, which, as well as recording the vanished life of Hoxton, explains much about himself.

His father prided himself on the sale of good quality clothes and took trouble to find them. To advertise his trade, he was always well-dressed himself, and that’s obviously where Bryan inherited his taste for good suits. Magee senior used to measure customers and send the measurements to Jewish tailors. Bryan was his messenger and had to collect the suits, which were wrapped in a brown paper parcel and carried back through the streets. He hated this job and records that ever since he has hated carrying things about with him, hence no briefcase.

MORE HOXTON SIGNS

Metropolitan Borough of Shoreditch, abolished 1965

Yesterday I walked from the Geffrye Museum to Old Street via Falkirk Street, further north than previously, where the smart restaurants and designers have hardly reached, an area of public housing and local shops. City landmarks including The Shard can be seen between the flats. Most of the area was built after the war, either following bombing or slum clearance. (By the 1970s conservationists were complaining that the GLC destroyed more housing than the Luftwaffe).

Signage is everywhere so I had to make a rule about what to include and what to ignore. The No Parking sign by the Metropolitan Borough of Shoreditch gave me a cut off of 1965 when the borough was abolished and Hackney was created. Otherwise the lettering had to be visually appealing or historically significant.

Haberdasher’s Place was destroyed by enemy action and rebuilt in 1952, the lettered plaque laid by the Master of the Worshipful Company of Haberdashers.

The connection with the Worshipful Company of Haberdashers dates from Robert Aske (1619-1689), the prosperous merchant who owned land in Hoxton and bequeathed his estate to the Company. The first Haberdashers Aske’s school was here.

Many London County Council blocks of the ‘thirties to the ‘fifties are identified in these elegant Roman capitals.
The products offered identify this sign as recent, but I had to include it.
This lettering, popular on pubs around 1900, was adapted for print by the Stephenson Blake type foundry as their Windsor typeface in 1905.

HOXTON SIGNS

“E pulveri lux et vis.” From the dust, light and power. They generated electricity by burning rubbish.

I’m exhibiting with fifty potters in Ceramics in the City at the Geffrye Museum as part of London Design Week and today I walked back to Old Street station through Drysdale Street, Hoxton Street, Coronet Street and Brunswick Place. The attraction of Hoxton is the modern, design-led businesses in an industrial setting with varied and curious buildings recalling the area’s past trades. The actual purpose of the old buildings isn’t always obvious but some of them still have their names in carved stone, brick or tiles. The lettering is interesting , and  I like old fascias and signs like this. Here are a few I saw on my way.

Still Shaftesbury House but no longer the  Hoxton Market Christian Mission
Gill Sans numbers and tesserae painted over.

The Alexandra Trust Dining Rooms, built by tea magnate Sir Thomas Lipton, to offer “very cheap meals to the poor working classes.”

One of Passmore Edwards’ many libraries.

The Hop Pole. Well-preserved lettering from c.1890.

The Leysian Mission, a large Methodist initiative begun by Cambridge students. Now apartments.

HAMADA AND LEACH AT THE JAPANESE EMBASSY

The Japanese embassy has an exhibition of ceramics by Shoji Hamada, Bernard Leach and some of their early pupils, put on to celebrate the friendship between Mashiko, where Hamada had his studio, and St Ives, where they came in 1920 to start the Leach Pottery, Mashiko: Imagined in the UKThe relationship between the towns remains strong, Mashiko town contributing two million yen to the restoration of the Leach Pottery a few years ago.

We went to the exhibition launch on Wednesday, where the main speakers were Tomoo Hamada, Shoji’s grandson, and Rupert Faulkner, senior curator, Japan, in the Asian department of the V&A.

Leach, as we know, had a mission to bring together East and West, combining the best of both cultures, and the Eastern influence on his pottery is familiar, but the speakers made it clear that there was traffic the other way as well. Leach’s Japanese milieu in the second decade of the 20th century was infused with ideas from Ruskin and  Morris and there has been appropriation in Japan of English craft objects and methods, such as rush-bottomed chairs and the English method of making handles on pots, with a loop if clay at the side rather than a loop of bamboo on the top.

LAWN ROAD FLATS

Yesterday we visited Isokon, the Lawn Road Flats in Hampstead, built in 1934 by Wells Coates, which was part of the Open House weekend in London. Three of the residents invited us in. The flats were designed for busy professionals who wanted an uncomplicated life, very small with tiny kitchens originally provided with one hotplate and a grill, so you couldn’t eat much more than beans on toast. There was a restaurant but it turned out that residents weren’t quite ready for that degree of collectivisation and it was replaced by a bar, designed by Marcel Breuer. The flats were intended to be fit for purpose, to discourage excessive consumption and to spearhead social reform. Among the early tenants were Breuer, Walter Gropius, László Moholy-Nagy and Agatha Christie – I like to imagine the conversation between Gropius and Christie. They also had, over the years, a disproportionately large number of Soviet spies.

Jack Pritchard, the owner and developer, worked worked for Venesta, the Estonian plywood company, and specified extensive use of plywood, including walls, floors and furniture. Gropius was the design director of the Isokon company which was set up to produce the furniture. Some of the Lawn Road fittings are currently on loan to the V&A’s Plywood exhibition.

It was interesting to hear that this modernist Grade I listed building is uncomfortable to live in, cold and damp in the winter. Public housing similarly constructed in the ‘sixties and ‘seventies was notorious for damp and condensation. Design and construction have moved on and the Lawn Road Flats are really a museum.

Isokon Plus produces some of the original designs that were made for Lawn Road. The the original Isokon company was committed to standardisation of parts, rationalisation of process and methods, and modern industrial design based on the principle of conspicuous economy, all of which imply low cost, but Isokon products are very expensive now – the famous Isokon Penguin Donkey, for example, is £670. This is conspicuous consumption and runs counter to ideas of producing simple, well-designed products that everyone can afford. The baton has been picked up by Ikea where you can buy comparable products at a tenth of the price.

GORDON BALDWIN IN STOKE-ON-TRENT

Gordon Baldwin

Gordon Forsyth, who I wrote about yesterday, was well-known to Dora Billington, who taught at the Central School of Arts and Crafts for thirty-five years and who is also famous for her sympathies with factory pottery; but she had an ambivalent attitude towards her home town of Stoke-on-Trent and I don’t believe she ever worked there after leaving Hanley art school in 1912. Nevertheless, after the second world war she made a term in The Potteries a compulsory part of the course at the Central.

The history of studio potters offering their talents to industry is not happy. Michael Cardew, who we think of as one of the most anti-industry potters, was inspired by a temporary interest in Marxism to work in one of the Stoke-on-Trent potteries, but they considered his work too “Art and Crafty”. Lucie Rie had a better relationship with Wedgwood, but her prototypes were not put into production. David Queensberry started on the Central course in the early ‘fifties but found that no-one there knew anything about designing for industry and transferred to Robert Baker’s course at the RCA.

Gordon Baldwin told me about his experience as one of Billington’s students. “We all had a sort of down on what had gone on in Stoke-on-Trent,” he said. “We were breaking free of Leach, we were breaking free of Stoke-on-Trent, doing all manner of things.” But he enjoyed his term at Burslem art school, visiting potteries, finding out about industrial techniques, sitting in in with paintresses, learning rosebud painting and how to put on transfers, all of which he used in a different way.

GORDON FORSYTH: "20th CENTURY CERAMICS"

László Hradszki posted a picture on Facebook of a tile by István Gádor with a leaping horse that he’d bought recently. As it happens, I’d been looking at another picture of this tile (above) (or, more likely, another cast from the same mould) in Gordon Forsyth’s book 20th Century Ceramics, published by The Studio in 1936.

20th Century Ceramics is a good account, one of the best ever written, because it’s an even-handed survey of both factory and studio pottery and it covers studio pottery from around the world in an impartial manner. Forsyth was principal of the Stoke-on-Trent schools of art and a fine designer, known particularly for his decorations in lustre for Pilkington, rather in the style of William de Morgan.

The book covers pottery from Britain, the USA, Austria, China, Denmark, France, Germany, Holland, Hungary, Italy, Japan, Poland, Sweden and Switzerland. It’s good on Hungarian and Italian potters. The Hungarians are Gádor, Géza Gorka, Margit Kovács and Lili Márkus. I was interested to see some of Kovács’s vessels (above), as she is known mainly for her sculpture, but these vessels are decorative pieces rather than tableware. Forsyth shows a bias towards studio pottery in his coverage of the continent, unlike his excellent coverage of the best British factory pottery, and there is nothing from the well-known factories of Herendt or Zsolnay. The Italian potters are Guido Andlovitz and others of the Società Ceramica Italiana, Dante Baldelli, the Cantagalli pottery, Industria Ceramica Salernitana, Giuseppe Mazzetti, Ugo Zaccagnini and others of the Monteolivito pottery, Mario Morelli, Gio Ponti, Ricardo Ginori, and Luigi Zortea. From Austria, there is pottery made by Lucie Rie (below) before she left for London.

Forsyth occupied that thought-provoking position between factory and studio pottery and he expressed views that were common in the 1930s:

“A wholly artificial gulf has been created between the studio potter and the large-scale manufacturer. Sometimes studio pottery is dismissed as being ineffective “Art and Crafty” productions, technically defective. This is in the main wholly erroneous and unjust criticism of studio potters, but it is equally erroneous for studio potters to think that all manufacturers are Philistines and only concerned with commercial and technical success. 

“We feel very strongly that progress in industry has been considerably retarded by unbalanced enthusiasts on both sides, and the time has now arrived for co-operation between the individual experimenter and his collaboration with large-scale producers. The position at the moment is that all such stupid prejudice that has hitherto kept artists and manufacturers apart should be immediately dropped, and that industrialists must find a solution of the problem of incorporating the best artists that can be found and bring them into industry. 

“Many of our first-class studio potters who at present are having a struggle as individual manufacturers could be well employed within mass production concerns without loss of their own individuality or lowering their own ideals, and with far larger scope and far greater security than they at present enjoy. We look forward to the time when there will be no gulf between the studio potters and the manufacturers.”