NEWS FROM NOWHERE

The V&A facsimile of News from Nowhere

The V&A and Thames & Hudson have produced a facsimile of William Morris’s utopian novel News from Nowhere in a nice edition at a reasonable price. It was written by Morris and printed by him at the Kelmscott Press in 1890 in Golden Type, which he designed himself.

It’s one of the great socialist novels and sets out Morris’s vision of a world without private property, big industry, poverty, crime or marriage. He had been a political activist in the 1880s, during which time he became less interested in design, but by 1890 he was worn out by the petty squabbles in his Socialist League and by the fanatics who were only interested in him for his money. The Kelmscott Press was his last venture, into which he poured most of his energy.

From the British Library scan

News from Nowhere has a charming quasi-medieval look. The British Library scan of the original edition  shows the typeface very clearly (above). Although pretty, it is not very legible. It’s too black and there isn’t enough contrast between thick and thin strokes. John Lewis and John  Brinkley (Graphic Design, 1954) say that, in designing it, Morris took Nicholas Jensen’s 15th century Venetian typeface (below), gothicized it and trebled its weight.

Nicholas Jensen’s typeface, 1476

“To more than one version of this very black typeface,” they say, “he designed and cut on wood rich borders of entwined leaf and flower forms. He had a rough rag paper made, and with a clean but heavy impression he printed his books, which were bound in vellum and tied with silk ribbons. His greatest printing achievement was the folio Chaucer, with decorations by Burne-Jones. This monumental work he finished within a few months of his death. The Kelmscott books were completely out of the tradition of European printing. They could not be imitated for they were unique. To the lover of Renaissance typography, they may appear heavy and ugly. Their virtue in our opinion, was in the attention they drew to good workmanship, to careful presswork, to fine materials and to considered design. The principles that Morris established were later to be practised by every typographer and designer of note and in a wider field were to be the keystone for the teaching of the most influential design school of our age, the Bauhaus.”

KINGSBURY BARN, ST ALBANS

I’m exhibiting with the Dacorum and Chiltern Potters Guild at Kingsbury Barn St Albans, built by St Albans Abbey for threshing in the fourteenth century. It’s a wonder of vernacular building, its beauty of form and texture arising simply from the methods and materials employed. I’ve borrowed the excellent pictures from the Kingsbury Barn website because they’re better than any I could take and give a very good impression of the structure. The barn was restored about ten years ago at cost of £1 million.

The Abbey was a major landowner at the time of building and the barn obviously represented a huge capital investment, its size indicating the extent of their lands and the amount of grain they harvested. It’s supposed to have been part of the Abbey’s programme of attracting farmers after the the Black Death, but the increase in the price of labour gave the peasants confidence and there was a major revolt in 1381, led by William Grindcobbe, whose name suggests that he was a miller with a grudge against the Abbey’s monopoly. The revolt focused on the Abbey gatehouse, but I’d be very surprised if the peasants didn’t attack the Kingsbury Barn half a mile away.

It’s now used for weddings and exhibitions and local residents complain if there’s too much noise. Grindcobbe, you have been warned.

ADOLF LOOS: ORNAMENT AND CRIME

The Müller House, Prague

After writing about how British design promoters were shy of ornamentation in the 1930s, I thought I ought to go to the ur-text, Adolf Loos’s essay Ornament and Crime (1908). Influential designers and architects are bound to be opinionated but I hadn’t realised quite how opinionated Loos was. The essay was a response to the critics of his landmark Vienna building for Goldman and Salatsch in the Michaelerplatz, designed as one in the eye for the Secession.

Loos said that ornamentation belonged to an earlier stage in cultural evolution and that using it in the 20th century was no longer appropriate. But he said it more forcefully:

“The Papuan tattoos his skin, his boat, his oar, in short, everything that is within his reach. He is no criminal. The modern man who tattoos himself is a criminal and a degenerate. Those who are tattooed but are not imprisoned are latent criminals or degenerate aristocrats. If a tattooed person dies at liberty, it is only that he died a few years before he committed a murder.”

“The evolution of culture,” he said, “is synonymous with the removal of ornament from objects of daily use.”

Ornament was wasteful because decorated items soon bored their users, who replaced them before they needed to, and it impoverished the worker because he was not adequately compensated. Ornament “represents a crime against the national economy, and, as a result of it, human labour, men and material are ruined.”

But Loos’s buildings don’t  meet the expectations created by Ornament and Crime. They are lavishly finished. In the Müller House in Prague (1928-30) there were few white walls, as there were in some of Voysey’s Arts and Crafts houses, which are puritanical by comparison. Surfaces were painted dark green, grey-green, brick red, navy blue and yellow, veneered in mahogany and maple or constructed of travertine and Cippolino marble.

The living room, Müller House

Loos specified decorations, light fittings, furnishing and pictures. In the living room there is a simple brick and marble fireplace but patterned carpets. He chose Chippendale chairs for the dining room, which has a coffered mahogany ceiling. The Library is also furnished in mahogany, with deep-buttoned Chesterfield sofas and a Dutch tiled stove.

The library, Müller House

TORQUAY WARE TEAPOTS

Something quite different from the didactic exhibitions of industrial design I’ve been writing about recently –  a Torquay ware teapot (above). I bought this one from a charity shop today. I’m sure these popular items would have been execrated by the leaders of good taste.

I wrote about Torquay ware in another post, saying that it was made from the local brown clay, was covered in white or blue slip and then decorated, either by scratching through the white to make a line of brown, or by painting with coloured slip. It was made for tourists, who paid sixpence for it, and although it’s pretty and cleverly made, the sheer quantities manufactured means it’s still cheap in the shops.

Typically, my teapot has a motto round the top in Devon English (below), “Cum me artiez ‘elp yersels”  Geddit?

It was made by the Aller Vale Pottery, which closed in the 1920s, so it has been kept on a shelf for at least ninety years and well looked after. The “Scandy” pattern (rather like Prince of Wales feathers) on the side was used by many of the potteries in the second decade of the century – they ruthlessly plagiarized one another in search of the holidaymaker’s sixpence.

ENGLISH POTTERY OLD AND NEW

I have been looking at the exhibition catalogue for English Pottery Old and New at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in 1935. It was intended to illustrate “modern industrial art in its relation to English historical styles”. It displayed a range of pottery, from rough medieval earthenware jugs to modern factory tableware, including 18th century Staffordshire wares, laboratory porcelain, some plain far-eastern pottery of the fourteenth century and examples of modern studio pottery. The idea was to show the thread of simplicity, fitness to purpose and decorative restraint that linked them.

The choice of both the contemporary pottery and the historical styles was clearly inspired by modernist principles. The editors stated that “English pottery has always been distinguished by the devotion of its makers to utility as the prime reason for the existence of their wares; the virtues of these wares are generally the outcome of intelligent use of their materials with this end in view, rather than a deliberate aim at decorative effect.”

Decoration could not be excluded from the selection because it was so much a part of pottery, but it was downplayed.  The exhibition included modern dinner services with spare patterns by A. E. Gray, Keith Murray and Millicent Taplin, 18th century transfer ware and modern freehand painting by Louise Powell, Dora Billington and Truda Carter. But these had to be seen in the context of the plain surfaces of Keith Murray’s Art Deco designs, white 18th century  tableware and undecorated modern ceramics by Doulton and the Poole Pottery.

The exhibition was organised by the Council for Art and Industry (CAI), the government-sponsored body formed to raise the standards of industrial design. Its directors were Frank Pick, whose influence on the design of the London Underground is well-known, and Eric MacLagan, the director of the V&A.

Their opinion that “Decoration has been most notably successful where the technique proper to clay has been the vehicle for it” was identical to that of the studio potters and it illustrates the artistic context in which studio pottery emerged, with its combination of modernism, historicism and ruralism. The modernist aversion to ornament played powerfully into the studio pottery ideal and explains why the admiration of far-eastern pottery focused on Sung rather than Ming wares. A couple of years after English Pottery Old and New, Dora Billington expressed similar ideas about decoration in The Art of the Potter when she said, “Modern taste has for some years been in revolt against too much ornament, or even any ornament at all. … The average pottery showroom is enough to make any one prefer plain pottery.”

This harmony of views between Billington  and the selectors of the exhibition is not surprising since they were part of the same circle. The selectors included Fred Burridge, principal of the Central School of Arts and Crafts where Billington taught, W. B. Honey, the keeper of ceramics at the V&A, who was well known to her, and W. B. Dalton, a pioneering studio potter and one time principal of Camberwell School of Art.

GLUCK

BBC TV recently broadcast a programme about the painter Gluck (1895-1978), who was born Hannah Gluckstein into the family that started the successful J. Lyons catering empire. She was a considerable artist and is now a gay icon.

Gluck dressed in a masculine style, had her hair cut short, and, if one is to judge from the photos she had taken of herself (above), she was aware of her striking and handsome appearance. She refused to be called Hannah, or Miss Gluck – she was just Gluck without forename or prefix. She benefited from her family’s money and did not risk it by taking her lovers to meet them.

I was interested in Gluck because she is a cousin of my friend David Cheepen, who is also an artist. David’s mother, Dorothy Gluckstein, was a hairdresser and his father a proof reader. They were pretty hard up and saw none of the Gluckstein money. They were members of the Communist Party until 1956 and then were politically homeless.

Gluck’s biographer, Diana Souhami, was helped by a rich personal archive. The love of Gluck’s life was Nesta Obermer but she also had an affair with the floral artist Constance Spry, who inspired the stylised flower painting for which Gluck is best known, and it was a surprise to me that one of her lovers was the actress Annette Mills, who fronted the early BBC TV children’s programme familiar to all baby boomers, Muffin the Mule. At the time no-one imagined Muffin was gay, but we are now told that he had a suggestive name.

Gluck got good portrait commissions. Her picture of the fantastically bewhiskered psychiatrist Sir James Crichton-Browne is in the National Portrait Gallery, as is her moving self-portrait of 1942. She insisted that her work should be exhibited in a special frame, which she patented as the Gluck Frame and which was used in Art Deco interiors.

The TV programme was gossipy and focused on Gluck’s style, character, love life and on her subversion of gender categories rather than on her her art. She was a fluent but conventional painter, which obviously helped her to get the good commissions, but although she challenged sexual conventions, she was, in contrast to, say, the Bloomsbury group, not at all Bohemian. At her height, she had smart houses at good addresses, servants and skiing holidays when that signified something. Later she lived modestly in Cornwall and did small, sincere landscapes.

IMPROVING PUBLIC TASTE: THE 1935 EXHIBITION OF BRITISH ART IN INDUSTRY

Designed by Keith Murray, made by Thomas Webb and Corbett

There is a long history of attempts to improve design standards and to bring together artists and manufacturers. As early as the 1830s fears that continental design was outstripping British design led to the creation of government schools of design and The Great Exhibition was the occasion for further hand-wringing. By the end of the century, the design schools had sunk into an arid syllabus of laboured drawing and they were reformed to offer students  some craft-based training. But even after these reforms the Royal College of Art was seen to be failing industry by producing craftsmen who could only make luxury goods in ateliers.

 

susie-cooper-1935

 

By the 1930s the terms of debate had changed. Now the tasks at hand were the modernisation of industry, the need for standardisation, international competitiveness and the problems of mass unemployment. Herbert Read and Walter Gropius doubted the relevance of the crafts, but many hoped the crafts might contribute to mass production.

Designed by A. E. Harvey, made by Hukin and Heath.

One of the key exhibitions in the series was the 1935 Exhibition of British Art in Industry, put on by the Royal Academy and the Royal Society of Arts. It was sponsored by the King and Queen, had a vast infrastructure of the great and the good, a committee of titled individuals, a general committee of notables, an executive committee and numerous trade advisory committees. I have been looking through the attractive souvenir publication, which gives an idea of the contemporary consensus on good design and shows some interesting products, which I’ve illustrated here.

Calf handbag with raised work on chromium frame (left) –
designer and maker: Anglo-French Handbag Co.
Beige suede bag with heavy wooden top lined in suede (right) –
designer and maker: Beatrice Dawson

The preface says: “The machine has opened up a new world of production unknown in the days of handicraft. Hand craftsmanship, of course, has its advantages. It can give individuality, character and charm which the machine by its very nature could not attempt to produce. For over half a century there has been a struggle for supremacy between the rival schools of thought thus created. Experience has proved both to be right and both to be wrong. Many attempts have been made, abroad, to exhibit the ideal combination of both methods … .”

Designed by Professor R. Y. Gleadowe, made by Wakely & Wheeler with
G. T. Friend (engraver) for the Goldsmiths and Silversmiths Co. Ltd.

The items selected give the impression of cautious modernism, streamlined forms and simple, elegant ornamentation.

A running theme in these debates was public taste, which was thought to be in need of improvement. Design reformers thought that manufacturers’ taste should also be educated. The uncomfortable thought behind these ideas, lightly disguised as the notion of fitness for purpose, was that the public didn’t know what was good for them and needed a design elite to tell them. But fitness for purpose was eventually debunked by David Pye, who demonstrated that the final form of an object is shaped by aesthetic as much as by practical decisions and sometimes even more so. Many still admire the kind of things in the Exhibition of British Art in Industry, but most would accept that taste is a personal matter, and there are now fewer patronising lectures about good design.