CRAFT WORDS

I was talking to Kati about the way our parents furnished their homes in the 1960s, when mine moved to to a new house in the London suburbs and hers to an apartment in the Budapest suburbs. Both used the move to dispose of their old-fashioned furnishings and to buy modern pieces. Kati admired the armchairs her father bought, I liked my parents’ Grundig radiogram.


Her father bought his chairs in an iparművészeti bolt, a small shop selling interior design and decorative items like jewellery. I asked Kati what iparművészeti meant, recognising the word from the Iparművészeti Muzeum, the Budapest equivalent of the V&A. Its literal meaning is “industry art”, but it doesn’t mean that exactly, it means hand-made objects manufactured in small quantities – so it’s close to our “arts and crafts” but it has extra connotations of design and originality.

The Italian equivalent is artigianato, but that has different connotations still, suggesting, as far as I can understand, any product of a small workshop – there’s plenty of gelati artigianale and “craft ice cream” doesn’t sound quite right. Italy has managed to retain far more small artigianale workshops alongside its advanced industries than Britain, despite Britain and Italy having a similar GDP per capita, and they’re more mainstream than any arts-and-crafts producer in the UK. Now, however, the English “craft” is acquiring something of the Italian meaning, with craft beers and craft coffees. In Italy, artigianato became current later than than “arts and crafts”, during the fascist era, not surprisingly, compared to the early 20th century in Britain, and it peaked later, in 1960, compared to 1940 – in other words, in the era of rapid post-war growth.

THE ADORATION OF THE LAMB

In my A-level art class I studied Netherlandish painting and was pleased to be able to visit and visit again The Arnolfini Portait in the National Gallery, and I hoped one day to go to Ghent to see the Van Eycks’ polyptych The Adoration of The Lamb. As luck had it, in my school holidays I was given a lift by someone who had a friend in Ghent, an Englishman married to a Belgian woman, and we stopped with them for lunch. I looked forward to seeing the Van Eyck altarpiece.

We were given a splendid meal and a lot to drink – an aperitif before and plenty of wine throughout the meal. Then I said I’d like to go to the cathedral to see the altarpiece. “Not before you have a brandy,” my host insisted, and I accepted out of politeness. I wasn’t used to drinking.

By the time he drove me to the cathedral I was drunk. After I’d spent ten minutes squinting at The Adoration and trying to focus on it he became impatient and said, “Let’s go for a drink.”

He drove to an anonymous grey building with closed doors. He rang the bell and someone let us in and led us up a dark staircase to a smart, brightly-lit bar on the first floor. Glamorous and expensively dressed women sat around on sofas. My host seemed to know them and kissed them all. He ordered a brandy and offered me one. This time I refused. He wasn’t in a hurry and he had another. Then another. I couldn’t follow the conversation. My head was spinning and I just wanted the jaunt to end. After about forty minutes he kissed all the women again, lurched down to the street and fumbled for his car keys.

At last I asserted myself.

“You’ve had too much, you’re in no condition to drive,” I said, and tried to take the keys away from him.

“Don’t be such a prissy little ass. Give me my fucking keys!”

A taxi came into view and I hailed it.

“We’re getting a taxi,” I said.

“Don’t be so fucking wet. I can drive perfectly well; I’ve done it a thousand times.”

The taxi pulled over.

“What’s your address?” I said.

“I don’t need a taxi.”

I turned to the taxi driver. “I’m trying to find out his address.”

“It’s OK,” he said quietly, “I know him, I know where he lives.”

So we fell in and went home by taxi.

This year the restored altarpiece was put on display and I thought I should see it sober. But then came COVID-19, so I guess I’ll have to wait a few more years.

ROBERT BEST, ‘FROM BEDALES TO THE BOCHE’

Robert Best’s From Bedales to the Boche, edited by Stephen Games, is an intimate account of Robert’s Edwardian youth and that of his brother Frank. The Best brothers were heirs to Best & Lloyd, the leading Birmingham brass-founder and manufacturer of lighting equipment, which embraced modernism and survives into the 21st century.

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It’s a fascinating narrative of a prosperous, progressive-minded, busy and outgoing family. Robert (above) conveys the ethos of Bedales, his progressive public school, with its high-mindedness, inspiring teachers, sports and crafts. The Bests embraced everything new – motor cars, aeroplanes, motorbikes, the cinema and ragtime. In the war, Robert and Frank jumped at the opportunity to join the Royal Flying Corps, which officers were asking to be transferred to because, we learn, they disliked commanding conscripts. Frank’s plane crashed in 1917 and his body was never recovered. The book, based on copious letters and diaries, is Robert’s tribute to his brother.

Owing to the Bests’ business and family connections, they were Germanophiles, or at least Best père was: his mother became “exhausted by Father’s uncritical insistence on the excellence of all things German.” Robert’s reflections in hindsight may have been coloured by two intervening wars. He records that their German neighbour “was generous and benevolent towards friends and relatives but that his treatment of children tended to be dictatorial. Frank and I felt intuitively and with distaste something domineering in his relationship with his family and this emphasised our prejudices against Germany and Germans.” Looking back on his time in Germany in 1911, he says that he was “more or less conscious of a feeling akin to fear … something to do with the inherent animal coarseness which you can’t help noticing in a lot of the people.” 

Their father, R.H.Best, chose not to send his sons to the Birmingham School of Art, which was steeped in the arts and crafts outlook and whose students’ work he considered to be merely “ethereal smudges”. Instead they went to the Düsseldorf  Kunstgewerbeschule, which had strong links with the Deutscher WerkbundPeter Behrens, its director from 1903 to 1907 and the current director, Wilhelm Kreis, were co-founders of the Werkbund and several other teachers were also members. The Werkbund’s mission, “the refinement of industrial work”, set them apart from English designers, many of whom were still wedded to handicrafts. Best’s later acquaintance with Nikolaus Pevsner is significant in this context because Pevsner relates in Pioneers of the Modern Movement (1936) how the baton of design had passed from England to bodies like the Werkbund and designers like Behrens. 

At Düsseldorf, Robert’s artistic intentions were practical and he complained that the drawing he was being taught was “more Art than Trade”. He  wrote that he was drawing poppy heads that he planned to turn into lamps and lanterns. He wanted to model acanthus leaves in different styles but was discouraged from doing so because the school was averse to styles, which were thought to discourage originality. Originality was greatly valued. “That they give scope to originality much more than we in their buildings, etc, there is no doubt,” Robert said. “Whether they have much sense of the beautiful is another matter. I was at the judging of the Kunstgewerbe Competition when Kreis gave a speech over the merits of each prize-winning work. It didn’t matter if a man had not the ghost of an idea of anatomy: so long as it was original it was booked for a prize.”

He took classes with Max Benirschke, a Behrens appointee and another Werkbund member. Robert found Benirschke to be a hard taskmaster but respected his values: “Simplicity, Harmony of all parts – and if possible Originality.” He reported, “I am doing a ripping lamp with Benirschke of the refined, constructional, vornehm [elegant] type.” Benirschke was later commissioned by Best & Lloyd.

surpise lamp

Back in Birmingham business was booming and the company was expanding. R.H.Best approached it less as a businessman than as an enthusiast, liking nothing better than to absorb himself in technical and artistic problems. His “Surprise” gas pendant (above) had been hugely profitable and allowed investment in innovation. But, like the Birmingham Guild, Best & Lloyd were cautious about modernisation. “There was considerable hesitation about selling machine-made technical products on the grounds of aesthetic inconsistency,” wrote one director. “We won our reputation on beauty and design and ornament and to come into the open market with mass-produced and utilitarian small parts seemed incongruous to Mr Best.” Robert and Frank, however, were able to persuade them to move into the manufacture of motor-cycle parts.

Robert judged Düsseldorf’s training in product design to be years ahead of Birmingham’s, despite Düsseldorf’s lack of workshop facilities and Birmingham’s emphasis on direct working in materials. Students at Düsseldorf were using geometrical forms in their designs, although they were still influenced by Jugendstil, and the German emphasis on originality contrasts with the quasi-medieval style that British art schools had settled into.  Their concentration on craft was arguably detrimental to innovative design. It was something that Lewis Foreman Day had warned about, and the government inquiry into the Royal College of Art had found that its training in handicrafts had rendered students unable to apply themselves to the problems of production, and that fewer than one in ten went on to be designers.

bestlight

Robert Best went on to be active in the Werkbund-inspired Design and Industries Association and he hosted the visit of Walter Gropius to the Midlands after Gropius’s exile from Germany in 1934. His Bestlite has become a design icon and is often reproduced (above).

 

TAKING THE KNEE

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Following the booing by Millwall supporters last Saturday of players who took the knee, Sanjay Bhandari, Chair of Kick It Out, negotiated with club managers and came to an agreement that in the Millwall v QPR game today the players should link arms in a gesture of solidarity. Bhandari said that it wasn’t taking the knee, but that it was an anti-racist gesture and he supported it.

Bhandari thought the objections to taking the knee on Saturday were mischievous (a mild description) and said that taking the knee isn’t a recent thing: it didn’t originate in the protests against the killing of George Floyd and it could be traced back to Josiah Wedgwood’s anti-slavery medallion (above), made in 1787.

wedgwood

In his biography of Wedgwood (above) Robin Reilly recounts that in the case of a runaway slave, James Somerset, Lord Mansfield ruled in 1772 that English law had never recognised the right to property in slaves and as Somerset did not belong to the claimant he should remain free. His judgement led to the release of 14,000 slaves in Britain. But the slave trade continued.

Wedgwood was familiar with the trade through business with the port of Liverpool and was active in the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. He made the Society’s seal in black jasper on white ground, showing a slave on one knee with chained hands raised and the words “Am I Not a Man and a Brother?” lettered round the rim.

Wedgwood distributed the cameo free and it became fashionable. Men had them inlaid on the lids of their snuff boxes. Ladies wore them in bracelets and in their hair.

In 1788, Wedgwood sent a quantity to Benjamin Franklin, President of the Pennsylvanian Society for the Abolition of Slavery. He wrote to Franklin, “I embrace the opportunity to inclose for the use of your Excellency and friends, a few Cameos on a subject which I am happy to acquaint you is daily more and more taking possession of men’s minds on this side of the Atlantic as well as with you.”