JAMES TOWER

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I caught up with the centenary exhibition of James Tower’s work at the Victoria Gallery, Bath, by chance after seeing a tweet and went to see it at the weekend. There’s a good collection of his ceramics, which I knew about, and his paintings, drawings and sculpture, which I didn’t.

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His shapes and marks show the influence of his childhood by the sea on the Isle of Sheppey. “This is a landscape of long silent marshes,” he said, “Where the sky seems to dominate the grey-green distance. There are few trees or hills. The forms that engage the eye are the small ones of the beach and the tidal wave. Shells, particularly the bivalves, oyster, mussel and razor shell. The flattened fish of the estuary, plaice, flounder and ray.”

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He studied at the Royal Academy and the Slade, then, training to be a teacher at the Institute of Education in 1949, he came under the influence of the potter William Newland and decided that ceramics offered a better means of artistic expression. He attended the Central School of Arts and Crafts part-time under Dora Billington, which gave him excellent technical instruction, though it was, in his view, aesthetically conservative.

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The Central encouraged a wide range of ceramic expression at the time. The artist-potters, Margaret Hine and Maggie Angus Berkowitz, were Tower’s contemporaries, while more traditional tableware was being made by John Solly, Innes Reich and Doreen Lambert. Tower regarded clay as a medium of exploration and was never a potter, though he later ran the pottery department at Corsham.

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His worked derived from vernacular European pottery and Picasso’s ceramics, which were so startling when they were first shown in Britain, but he quickly went beyond both, creating intriguing conversations between monochrome surface and organic form.

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WHAT IF GROPIUS HAD BEEN DIRECTOR OF THE RCA?

I’ve been reading Hilary Cunliffe-Charlesworth’s thesis on the Royal College of Art and was intrigued to discover the British response to Bauhaus teaching and to Gropius, who came to England in 1934.

The RCA under Rothenstein had undergone radical change since 1920, when it was primarily a teacher training college. Rothenstein had brought in professional artists who were to have studios in the college and he encouraged the professional art teachers to leave. In 1924 he visited art schools in Prague, Berlin and Paris and saw that the work being done there surpassed anything to be found in England. His visit persuaded him that the College should neither be a teacher training institution nor offer vocational training for specific industries but that it ought to be delivering a high standard of general education to intending designers and artists. Weimar was not on his itinerary so he didn’t see the Bauhaus. Although he took pains to get more government money for the design department, his main achievement was in the fine arts – Paul Nash, Edward Burra, Henry Moore, Eric Ravilous and Edward Bawden were products of Rothenstein’s RCA.

There had been nagging discontent with the college’s failure to produce enough industrial designers more or less since it was founded in 1896, and these criticisms surfaced again during Rothenstein’s tenure. But the methods of the Bauhaus were never seen as as an alternative. It was thought by some in the Board of Education to be a fine art school and its socialist phase under Hannes Meyer frightened them.

When he came to England, Gropius was consulted on design education and his lectures were well attended, but on Rothenstein’s resignation he wasn’t considered as a successor. It’s fascinating to speculate what might had have happened if he had been. The revolution that occurred under Robin Darwin would have taken place ten years earlier. As it was, the Bauhaus system wasn’t fully applied in British art schools until the Coldstream Report in 1960. What if there had been a Gropius Report in 1935?

 

 

DESIGN EDUCATION IN 1916

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In my last post about the radicalism of Omega designs at around the time of the First World War, I mentioned that the context in which they were produced was the dominance of Arts and Crafts design. Art history focuses on innovation and the history of this period tends to be the history of Post-Impressionism, Cubism, Futurism and Expressionism, so, even if we understand that Omega were designing for a minority with avant-garde tastes, we can easily overlook the fact that the taste of most design-aware people was based on styles developed in the 1880s.

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In 1916, Charles Holme, editor of The Studio, published Arts & Crafts – A Review of the Work  Executed by Students in the Leading Art Schools, from which the illustrations here are taken – a fascinating record of what students were being taught at that time. Since the 1880s, many art school principals and lecturers had been drawn from members of the Art Workers Guild, and by the turn of the century the Arts and Crafts influence was firmly established. Both style and teaching methods changed, with a new emphasis on “designing in materials” rather than on paper. And as Holme’s illustrations demonstrate, art students were producing nothing like the Post-Impressionist and quasi-abstract designs of the Omega Workshops.

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OMEGA WORKSHOPS, CHARLESTON

Charleston Farmhouse have an exhibition about Omega Workshops with a small collection of rarely seen items. The painted box above (maker unknown) illustrates the way they brilliantly expressed Post-impressionism in their output.

Without context it’s hard to appreciate how radical their designs were. The Arts and Craft style was dominant. All the art schools in Britain were teaching it in their design departments. Roger Fry was understandably frosty. The leaders of the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society were getting old and he found them to be precious and moralistic. Nevertheless, for commercial reasons, he negotiated a stand for Omega in their 1916 exhibition.

Omega had an impressive unity of design. They embraced colour, abstraction and a narrow range of motifs that makes everything hang together. Charleston itself developed a coherent palette of grey, black, slate blue, dusty pink and mustard yellow, which you can see in embryo in this rug designed by Duncan Grant and executed by Vanessa Bell in 1913.

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Omega differed from the Arts and Crafts not only in design but also in their indifference to execution, which was cheerfully amateurish. The Workshops were set up to provide employment to artists, not to advance industrial design or to elevate craftsmanship. They bought furniture to decorate and did not make it. Their surface decoration was startling but their products were shoddy. The best are their textiles, designed by them but manufactured in France. Omega was not part of the design movement emerging from the Arts and Crafts. They had no connection with the Design and Industries Association in Britain or the Werkbund in Germany. They led nowhere. They carried out impressive house design contracts for friends of Bloomsbury but they had no followers or influence and, artistically, Omega, Bloomsbury and Charleston were out of the current of 20th century design and were uninterested in it.

CENTRAL ST MARTINS ARCHIVE

I’m looking at photos in the Central St Martins archive showing the ceramics class and students’ work in the mid 20th century, to find images to borrow for the exhibition about Dora Billington that I’m curating at the Crafts Study Centre.

The archive has artefacts as well as documents and I was amazed to find that they have a collection of the pigments Billington used. They are in paper packets and they’re dated, some with dates from the 1920s when she started teaching at the Central. They are remarkable because Billington, who had no children, has left no archive and no personal effects and nothing if her survives apart from her own pottery, which will form the core of the exhibition.

The pigments might not have survived. The archivist told me that Billington left some of her effects to Ian Auld, whom she’d taught and who had worked as her technician. Auld married Gillian Lowndes, of a later generation of Central students (and the most original ceramist of that period.) Auld and Lowndes died several years ago, but their daughter thoughtfully donated this interesting item.