JESSAMINE BRAY

I have written before about Jessamine Bray, one of the two young women who ran the Dulwich Pottery in the 1920s and 1930s. The figurative potters have become so unfashionable that even relatives can tell you nothing. Thus, when I contacted a great-nephew of Gwendolen Parnell, the doyenne of the figurative potters, I found that he’d never even heard of her. Jessamine Bray fared a little better. Her great nephew told me that he knew that she was a potter but it wasn’t something she talked about. But when in her old age he took up pottery as a hobby, she dug out her old glaze materials and passed them on to him.

The picture is a portrait of Bray made by her partner in the Dulwich Pottery, Sybil V. Williams in 1935, sold by Woolley and Wallis a few years ago.

LUCIE RIE

I am looking for information about the figurative ceramics exhibited at the Paris Expo in 1925, the Exposition Internationale des arts décoratifs et industriels modernes, knowing that they were the height of fashion in the mid 1920s and being particularly interested in the Austrian exhibits. In Vienna, innovative ceramics were being made at the school of applied arts and the Weiner Werkstätte under the tutelage of Josef Hoffmann and Michael Powolny. Ceramics classes at the art school had a large female presence (as, incidentally, did the classes in London at the time at the Central School of Arts and Crafts) and extraordinary talents were emerging, inlcuding the figurative ceramists Susi Singer and Vally Wieselthier. Another of Powolny’s students was Lucie Rie (née Gomperz). It was surprising to find her collaborating in the making of a figure by Grete Salzer (above) that was entered in the Paris exhibition, so unlike any of Rie’s pottery made in either Vienna or London.

ADRIEN DALPAYRAT

When I wrote about Art Nouveau ceramics I said that there were few books about these potters, but recently a lavish volume about Adrien Dalpayrat by Etienne Tournier has been published. It’s large format and has wonderful detailed, full-page pictures showing Dalpayrat’s complex, irridescent glazes. Like the previous titles on this subject – Paul Arthur’s French Art Nouveau Ceramics (2015) and M. Lambrechts’ L’Objet sublime: Franse ceramiek 1875-1945 (2016) – Tournier’s book is not cheap. Phaidon’s RRP is £200.

LOCKDOWN READING

lockdown-reading

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.