I said in my last post that the inspiration of the ceramic modellers – Gwendolen Parnell (above), Charles Vyse, Stella Crofts and others – was very different from that of the Eastern and country pottery influence on the studio pottery of Bernard Leach, State Murray and their followers, and that their philosophy was very different as well. That’s true, but they had friendly relations in the early days of studio pottery and they exhibited and organised together.
For a while they joined together in The Guild of Potters and organised joint exhibitions. For us, who see them as very different, it’s not easy to understand what they had in common. Jeffrey Jones in his book on 20th-century studio pottery records some dismissive comments by Leach about the modellers. And so it appears that the modellers dropped out of the picture and had had their day by the Second World War.
I just came across a 1951 review by Bernard Leach of Reginald Haggar’s book on Country Pottery, which was in fact about more than that, and was surprised to find that one of Leach’s reservations was that it said nothing about Gwendolen Parnell. Leach knew Parnell from twenty-five years previously when he attended meetings of the Guild of Potters in her Chelsea studio, and it’s clear that he had more respect for her than Jones suggests and that you might expect from the vast difference in their work.
An important source of information about the now-neglected studio pottery modellers of the 1920s is The Cheyne Book of Chelsea Pottery and Porcelain, the catalogue of a 1924 exhibition in which the work of the studio potters was exhibited alongside products of the Chelsea Porcelain Manufactory. That indicates the frame of reference of the modellers, and if course it is a very different frame of reference from that of the arts-and-crafts potters and the emerging studio pottery led by Bernard Leach, William Staite Murray and Michael Cardew. The latter were influenced by the ideas of Ruskin and Morris, which entailed simplicity, directness, modesty and honesty. Quite different, then, from the Rococo of Chelsea ceramics – anathema to Ruskin and Morris because of its association with frivolity, luxury, wealth and power.
The plate shows some of the works of Gwendolen Parnell displayed in the 1924 show, typically in Georgian costume and unmistakably related to Chelsea figures. But in the small print I read that they were nearly all donated by Sir Basil Zaharoff (below). Who he? I knew that Parnell was good at cultivating a society clientele, but Zaharoff was something else: a dubious arms dealer and financier, supposedly stupendously rich and described by some as the wickedest man in the world.
As I can’t get to libraries I’ve been buying more books online. Some are very reasonably priced, unfortunately due to the fact that so many libraries have reduced their stock. On my last visit to the local library I counted only a hundred books in the section on art, craft and architecture. I talked to a friend about this and he said that when his further education college filleted their library, everything was thrown into a skip. Readers treat books as holy and find something shocking about this that we wouldn’t find shocking if it were old shoes or saucepans. So there are bargains to be had – I got Rosemary Hill’s excellent biography of Pugin (ex-library) for 1p plus postage. It’s hardly worth the bus fare to town.
A series I really like is the Faber monographs on pottery. They were written by scholars like Arthur Lane and W.B.Honey who not only knew their stuff but wrote beautifully as well. And I like the way they look. Faber were using a proper cloth binding quite late (this one below is 1961) and the typography is perfectly elegant, set in the not-often-used Walbaum type, which happens to be suited to books on 18th-century topics, and printed on a matt, off-white paper that is easy on the eye. I looked on the Monotype website and saw that Walbaum’s been redesigned for modern use, much of which will be on screen now, and the extreme contrast between dark and light strokes has been reduced.
Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera had a phenomenally successful revival at The Lyric Hammersmith in 1920 – 21, with one of the longest runs in English theatre. The lively tale of lowlife, in Claud Lovat Fraser’s clever adaptation of Georgian dress (above), was, like the Festival of Britain in the wake of another war, “a tonic to the nation”. With tactful excisions of references to whores and whorehouses, it created a fantasy for London theatregoers. I came to it after looking at the many ceramic figures made at that time, of Polly Peachum, MacHeath, Mrs Traipse and Lucy Lockit, and wondering why they were so popular. In a way, it set the direction of ceramic figures for decades, first for the studio modellers like Gwendolen Parnell (below) and Agatha Walker, and in the longer term for the Doulton factory, who were still modelling ladies in diluted Georgian frocks right up to the 1990s.
I came across this delicious memoir by James Holland of student life in the 1920s and 1930s, which refers to his outings to The Beggar’s Opera:
“In a quite different tradition, Nigel Playfair’s stylized version of the Beggars’ Opera at the Hammersmith Lyric repaid many visits. Sets and costumes had been designed by Claud Lovat Fraser, and the ballad score arranged for a small group of period instruments, mostly played by several elderly ladies and related members of the same family, who were alleged to knit assiduously between numbers and during the very long run could have completed many garments. This version was a charming charade, artificial and entertaining as a pantomime. The stylized pannier dresses had their influence on contemporary fashion, Polly Peachum and Lucy Locket becoming popular pottery figures, and many a telephone was coyly concealed under the ladies ample pannier skirts.“
Incidentally, he has some fascinating gossip about life at the RCA in that period, which is also worth quoting:
“In converting the Royal College into what was essentially a School of Painting, or certainly Fine Art, Rothenstein was diverting it from the original intention that it should be primarily a centre of design education, though he was perhaps not the first nor the only master to exert such pressure. I have frequently quoted his warning to recalcitrant fine art students – “If you can’t do better than this, you will find yourself in the Design School” – and indeed a few students did from time to time find themselves so transferred, though whether this was to their eventual disadvantage was far from certain. “Illustration” was his damning indictment of much painting, “Magazine illustration” the ultimate and unforgivable condemnation. It was not done for the painting student to be concerned about his post-College future. Something would turn up, a patron, a part-time teaching job, a successful exhibition.”
One of the most successful of the pottery modellers of the 1920s and 1930s was Gwendolen Parnell, one of the so-called Chelsea Potters, whose studio was in Paradise Walk, near the Royal Hospital. She had a good eye for the market and her series of characters from The Beggar’s Opera, made while it was enjoying a long run at the Lyric, Hammersmith, gained her much publicity and put her right in the public eye.
Her upper-class connections served her art well. She sold a piece to Queen Mary while still a student at Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts and, when her career was established, modelled society figures including Lady Diana Cooper and Gladys, Baroness Swaythling.
This figure of Marlene Deitrich was featured on the front page of The Sketch in 1933.
Studio pottery figurines were popular in Britain in the 1920s and were exhibited in galleries alongside the new abstract pottery of William Staite Murray and Bernard Leach, but they fell out of favour and their absence from histories of studio pottery was total, as if they had been airbrushed out.
Now that the scope of pottery is broader, however, they are coming back into view. A few years ago Paul Hughes wrote a detailed biography of Stella Crofts, with catalogue raisonée. And, looking for more information, I came cross the website of Robert Prescott-Walker’s Polka Dot Antiques, who show figurines by Molly Mitchell-Smith, Marion Morris, Gwendolen Parnell, Jessamine Bray, Sybil V. Wiliams, Anne Potts, William Ruscoe, J. Palin Thorley and Charles Vyse. The picture shows a very nice figurine by Bray and Williams from their Dulwich Pottery.