One group that benefitted from the pandemic was the booksellers. My last outing before the first lockdown was to the National Art Library, and since it’s been closed I’ve had to look for second-hand copies of the books I wanted to read there. Now we’re not sure when it’s going to open, while they work on their unwelcome restructuring plans. In the meantime, in no particular order, here’s some of my lockdown reading.
I was curious about William de Morgan’s novels, which brought him more money and fame than his pottery ever did, and I read a couple. Joseph Vance, the first and best-known, is pretty good, fizzing and bubbling with wit and joie d’écrire and with a fine Dickensian character in the person of Vance senior, a jolly, sympathetic builder who becomes unexpectedly rich, drinks too much and comes to a sad end. Mark Hamilton’s De Morgan biography, Rare Spirit, is unusual in that he takes him seriously as a writer, which few do nowadays. His main problem is that he wrote for a more leisurely age – Joseph Vance is 500 pages, about 200 too many.
But we’ve had leisure this year and I went back to a favourite, Little Dorrit, re-read it and borrowed the DVD of Christine Edzard’s wonderful film again, which at six hours is not too long. It has a starry cast with Derek Jacobi, Alec Guinness, Joan Greenwood, Max Wall, Patricia Hayes, Miriam Margolyes, Roshan Seth – the list goes on – and Sarah Pickering as a perfect Little Dorrit in her first and last film role. Its depiction of nineteenth-century street life is gorgeous.
It was fun to read Cold Comfort Farm again, a wicked little book of which I don’t tire.
Ian Dunlop’s Louis XIV is based on contemporary documents but it’s a compelling biography of the man who both made modern France and was a cause of the French Revolution. Ines Murat’s Colbert (one of the few biographies available in English) follows a similar pattern. I was interested in Colbert’s economic policy and the advantages it gave to French manufacturing – not least to Sèvres – by grants of royal patronage and monopoly. Voltaire’s The Age of Louis XIV is good on religion and explaints how Louis’ persecution of Protestants undid his protection of industry by forcing the best tradesmen in the country to emigrate (tens of thousands of whom, to our gain, settled in England).
Stephen Games of Envelope Books introduced me to Robert Best, the Birmingham brass founder with an interest in design and links to Pevsner and Gropius, and I read From Bedales to the Bosch. Best’s businessman father was a governor of Birmingham art school, the first school to follow Arts and Crafts principles, but he had doubts about its principal, Robert Catterson-Smith, an associate of William Morris and a principled socialist. So he sent Robert to Düsseldorf art school, which was associated with the more progressive Deutsche Werkbund.
As I’m interested in the studio-pottery modellers of the early 20th century, I got The Cheyne Book of Chelsea Pottery, a well-illustrated account of a 1924 exhibition at Chelsea Town Hall that showed old Chelsea porcelain alongside work by contemporary potters, including De Morgan, Charles Vyse and Gwendolen Parnell. The Chelsea potters were neglected after the war and this old volume is the main source of information about them. It was intriguing to discover that a big patron of Parnell, the doyenne of the Chelsea potters, was Sir Basil Zaharoff, a hugely rich arms dealer of obscure origin, a Bond-type villain known at the time as the Wickedest Man in the World.
Deborah Sugg Ryan’s Ideal Homes 1918 – 39 describes the suburban houses whose owner might have bought pottery figurines. Sugg Ryan introduced me to the idea of “other modernisms” that’s now well-developed in design history – the modernisms that combined Tudorbethan exteriors with labour-saving interiors. She has a wonderful collection of printed ephemera showing happy homeowners mowing lawns, the jumble of styles in the 1930s lounge, moderne kitchens and period motifs like galleons and elephants.
Cheryl Buckley’s Designing Modern Britain also recognises the “other modernisms” in a comprehensive history of design from late Victorian to the 1980s. It’s a good introduction with excellent illustrations, though Buckley tries, needlessly in my opinion, to force her narrative into a quasi-Marxist framework.
These studies of design as anthropology rather than morality started with the Festival of Britain, when Barbara Jones organised the Black Eyes and Lemonade Exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery. In 1951 she wrote The Unsophisticated Arts and Margaret Lambert and Enid Marx published English Popular Art. I had Jones’s book and I got a reprint of Lambert and Marx. It’s more systematic than Jones’s book and is organised by materials and methods.