MARGARET BULLEY: ‘HAVE YOU GOOD TASTE?’

After writing about the Gorell Committee, which reported to government in 1932 on the production and exhibition of articles of good design, I became curious about one of its members, the art writer Margaret Bulley (1882 – 1960). The Gorell Committee was one of the many official and unofficial initiatives in the 1920s and 1930s created to improve the standard of design in industry and the result of its deliberations was the setting up of the Council for Art and Industry (CAI), a precursor of the Design Council.

Margaret Bulley was born into a prosperous but socially progressive family in Cheshire. Her early work was in teaching children in galleries and museums. She was involved in war relief work in France where she met Margery Fry and it may have been through her that she made the acquaintance of her brother Roger Fry. Fry introduced her to Marion Richardson, the influential and innovative art teacher, and Bulley arranged an exhibition of children’s art at the Whitworth Gallery, Manchester. Bulley herself became interested in children’s art and she arranged for children’s designs to be manufactured by her husband’s textile firm Armitage and Rigby. She carried out extensive research into children’s responses to art, seeking universals in art appreciation that were unconditioned by culture, publishing her findings in The Burlington Magazine in the 1920s. She espoused the common idea that children have an innate and well-developed aesthetic sense that adults suppress.

Bulley was invited to join the Gorell committee probably because of her acquaintanceship with Fry (also a member of the committee), her researches into art appreciation and her prior involvement in the British Institute of Industrial Art (BIIA), predecessor of the Council for Art and Industry, to which she had contributed a large collection of contemporary consumer goods, and which on the closure of the BIIA, she donated to the Victoria and Albert Museum. The V&A describe her as a friend of Vanessa Bell and she had been an associate of Fry’s since the days of the Omega Workshops, of which she was a generous patron. Bulley was thus on the fringe of the Bloomsbury Group and her ideas of art and taste are close to theirs in many ways.

The Gorell committee, comprising public officials, artists, writers and industrialists, entangled questions of design with questions of taste and how it might be improved, as did nearly all contemporary discussions about the advancement of design and taste, which was vaguely defined if defined at all. Such discussions inevitably fell back on the taste of those who staffed committees like Gorell. Shortly after Gorell, Bulley wrote Have You Good Taste?, which filled out her ideas in more detail, and throughout her career she wrote several books in a similar vein, like Art and Counterfeit, Art and Understanding and Art and Everyman.

Have You Good Taste? was an investigation of the taste of the public based on an experiment in which their preferences were compared with the judgement of “six well-known art critics or experts”: Roger Fry, W. Constable (Director of the Courtauld Institute), Charles Holmes (late Director of the National Gallery), Percy Jowett (Director of the Central School of Arts and Crafts), Eric Maclagan (Director of the V&A) and R. R. Tatlock (Editor of the Burlington Magazine). Her use of these individuals as a touchstone immediately arouses the suspicion that good taste as understood by Miss Bulley might simply be the taste of the English cultural elite.

Bulley’s view of art, design and taste was barely different from that of Ruskin and Morris. In her gushing theory of aesthetics, beauty is a spiritual quality that resides in objects, is universal and does not change over time. It is not merely personal choice or preference and Bulley notes that many of the things that people prefer are actually ugly. In order to distinguish artistic beauty from beauty in manufactured goods (which, as a rule she thinks, are inferior to art and handmade things), she adds that artistic beauty is the product of passion, so it appears that even though beauty is a quality of objects, process is essential too. She acknowledges beauty in nature, which is not the product of artistic creation, but the difference between the beauty of nature, everyday objects and art is not explained or thought through and she falls back on beauty being a spiritual value that cannot be described in words.

Bulley appears to have absorbed some formalist ideas from Fry and also to have been influenced by Bergson’s Creative Evolution. From the formalists she takes the idea of beauty expressing harmony and from Bergson the idea of creative energy – “the vitality that comes from free creative force” – and a deprecation of science, materialism and “over-intellectualisation”.

Her terms for things that don’t meet her standards of beauty have the echo of Bloomsbury about them – “sham”, “bloated”, “mean”, “anaemic” – but, unlike Bloomsbury, her taste appears to be a Quakerish simplicity and a preference for interiors that are plain and workmanlike, pleasant and unselfconscious and that don’t try too hard to be artistic.

From the Arts and Crafts movement Bulley inherited an anti-industrialism, a dislike of trade and a belief that hand-made things are better than mass-produced things. Her belief in spirit lead her to reject the functionalism of the modern movement, which she says is not enough to produce a work of art.

The book contains 19 pairs of photos that readers of The Listener had been invited to appraise as good or bad and their verdicts are compared with the verdicts of the experts. About three-quarters of the public agreed with the experts, but, in an interesting anticipation of Bourdieu, upper-class, highly-educated respondents were more likely to agree with the experts than labourers, servants and those with an elementary education.

Bulley’s Arts and Crafts philosophy remained widespread in England until the Second World War. Michael Saler saw Ruskin’s philosophy inspiring Frank Pick, despite his association with the modernisation of the London Underground. It pervaded the Gorell report. Bernard Leach’s philosophy, expressed in the best-selling A Potter’s Book, which he wrote in the late 1930s, is similar to Bulley’s and they both dislike modern journalism, cinema and contemporary culture. The appointment of a person like Bulley to advise on the improvement of industrial design raises questions about how suited to the task Britain’s Board of Trade was in the 1930s.

Biographical details from Alan Powers, “Margaret Bulley”, Crafts , No.192, January – February 2005, p.24

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