CHARLES VYSE

One of the most notable of the figurative potters of the inter-war years was Charles Vyse, whether you judge him by the quality of his work, his lasting popularity or his longevity: he took a studio in Chelsea in 1915 and only finally vacated it in 1959.

The studio potters have little interest in this sort of ceramic sculpture, despite the fact that plenty of sculptors show in pottery fairs nowadays, and despite the fact that Bernard Leach thought that Gwendolen Parnell should be included in accounts of the craft. Yet the demand for Vyse’s ceramics outstrips demand for the stoneware vessels of the period, and even Lucie Rie’s post-war bowls, usually the most expensive studio pottery in auctions.

That is, of course, partly due to rarity. Vyse made about fifty figures from each mould and destroyed the moulds when he retired. A Balloon Woman, the iconic Vyse figure, was sold at Bohnam’s for £1,560 in 2006 and could well fetch ten times that amount now. Elizabeth Fry, a design for Doulton, is offered for $18,000, though considerably less for the uncoloured version, $2,200. The Return of Persephone (pictured above) (a rare classical reference), also made for Doulton and said to have been cast few times, was offered recently for $26,000.

ADRIAN FRUTIGER AND UNIVERS

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Adrian Frutiger (1928-2015), the Swiss typographer, designed the Univers  typeface, which you have seen everywhere but never noticed. Which is how a good typeface should be. The Univers family of 20 fonts, cleverly related by weight, slope and width, is rational, versatile and comprehensive. Frutiger abandoned the conventional desciptions of “bold”, “condensed” and “italic”, and numbered the typfaces on a grid sytem. Univers 55 was the standard font for text, 65 the bold version and 56 the italic. Frutiger designed it at the high tide of modernism when decoration was taboo. It was a typeface for every need. You didn’t need fancy fonts. There were superb books, brochures, posters and catalogues set entirely in Univers.

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City of Westminster street signs. A condensed Univers font with letter spacing in the name.


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It was produced by the Deberny and Peignot foundry in 1957 and licensed by the Monotype Corporation. It’s hard to imagine now that such a modern typeface was made to be cast, but it was the first to be designed for both hot metal and film production.

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It was a designer’s font. I’d be annoyed when I specified Univers and the printer did the job in Gill Sans. Gill was an eccentric typeface: it was really a Roman typeface without serifs rather than a true sans-serif (look at that lower case g like a pair of spectacles). But Gill is more suitable for post-modern typesetting and (apart from City of Westminster street signs) we don’t see Univers much now. Ariel, the standard, bland typeface for screens, has pretty well replaced it.

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PHYLLIS SIMPSON

This ceramic sculpture was sold by Bonham’s in 2004. It’s a rare piece by Phyllis Simpson, one of the so-called Chelsea Potters, the modellers whose studios were in and around Chelsea between the two world wars.

Simpson was one of the most talented modellers of the period but almost nothing is known about her. She went into partnership with Ethel Sleigh in the 1920s and they’re best known – it’s not an exaggeration to say they’re only known – for their remarkable model Phyllis and Strephon in the V&A. Sleigh died in 1928 and after her marriage Simpson stopped working.

Who were they? Where did they train? What has happened to the products of their studio? Until another piece like this comes up for sale we may never know.

MICHAEL POWOLNY

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I’ve been discovering the hidden history of the British studio potters who made figurative ceramics in the 1920s and 1930s, the most notable of whom were Charles and Nell Vyse, Gwendolen Parnell and Stella Crofts. In the small world of studio pottery then, no distinction was made between the modellers and the vessel-makers, who joined in the Guild of Potters and regularly exhibited together. I say “discovering” because the modellers have been excluded from the studio pottery canon and little is written about them. The culprit was Muriel Rose, who created the canon in her book Artist Potters in England (1955), an accomplished work of exclusion that omitted nearly every artist potter in England.

Gordon Forsyth’s broader review of 20th Century Ceramics (c.1935) covered both vessel makers and modellers, but nearly all his figurative artists were continental and the only British makers he mentioned were Alfred G. Hopkins and William Ruscoe (a modeller for the pottery industry). Among the continental ceramicists were Michael Powolny, whose strongly-modelled animals (above) may have seemed more relevant to Forsyth than the modellers in England who looked backed nostalgically to old Chelsea and North Staffordshire. Forsyth had expressed similar preferences in his review of ceramics at the Paris International Exhibition, 1925, singling out the Danish exhibitors.

It can certainly be argued that the continental modellers were more original, more responsive to currents in contemporary art and more ironic in their historical references than the British modellers, for example the playful rococo in the work of Austrian ceramicists Vally Weiselthier  and Susi Singer-Schinnerl (below).

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Susi Singer-Schinnerl, Bust of Woman with Hat (c.1925)

Powolny was one of Lucie Rie’s teachers and it’s interesting to see what Rie’s biographer Tony Birks has to say about him. “In the absence of other significant potters, the well-intentioned Powolny had a negative influence on ceramics. He was out of his depth. … It is hard to believe that, clever technician though he may have been, Powonly had any clear idea of what ceramics were about in the twentieth century. Even when working with his partner, the more dynamic and austere Löffler, their work never rose about the kleinkunst, and to many the personal work of this bewildered man is dire.”

In this bizarre passage Birks revealed the narrowness the Leach followers could fall into and not a little British arrogance as well. It’s lazy writing that can’t be bothered to think about Powolny’s motivation and artistic environment.

The same arrogance comes out in the popular idea that Leach was “the father of studio pottery”. But Leach’s followers disinherited most studio potters and narrowed the definition of “studio pottery” to refer only to their own work. Until then, the term meant any ceramics produced in a studio and it was first used in the USA (1910) to refer to The Potters Craft, by Charles F. Binns, though it could also be applied to Ernest Chaplet, Hugh C. Robertson, Bernard Moore and Vilmos Zsolnay. Leach, it has to be said, took a more educated and catholic view than his followers, having worked with Gwendolen Parnell, and he thought she should be included in the story as well.