HERBERT READ’S ‘ART AND INDUSTRY’

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Herbert Read’s book Art and lndustry, which I’ve been reading, was a major influence in the interwar debate that constructed the notion of “good design”. Read had worked at the Victoria and Albert Museum in the 1920s and was professor of fine art at Edinburgh university and editor of The Burlington Magazine in the early 1930s. It was during that decade that he published his best-known books, Art Now (1933), Art and Society (1937) and Art and Industry (1934).

His ideas about design are underpinned by an aesthetic theory similar to Roger Fry’s and Clive Bell’s formalism. In Art and Industry he divides art into humanist art, by which he means European pictorial art and ornamentation from the Renaissance onward, and formal art, which is pure shape and colour without content or reference. He fiercely deprecates ornament in similar terms to Adolf Loos, says little about humanist art and is strongly biased in favour of abstract art.

According to Read, formal beauty in art, nature or everyday objects, is either rational or intuitive. Rational beauty consists in conformity to rules of harmony and proportion, which were understood in the Renaissance but which have deeper and more ancient roots and which are to be found in nature. Read does not explain why proportions found in nature should be beautiful and others not. Intuitive beauty is that which deviates in some way from strict rules of harmony but which is recognised in an unconscious process that is not fully understood and cannot easily be explained. Apart from a few comments, Read does not explain it.

Objects that possess intuitive formal beauty can be illustrated, and Read has many such illustrations in his book, but this quality cannot be “rationalised” (to use his term). It can, however, be identified by noting what persons of taste recognise as beautiful. For example, he shows an ancient Greek drinking bowl and a Sung dynasty vase, and says that, although the former conforms to rules of proportion and the latter deviates from it, those who know about this kind of thing have no doubt that the Sung vase is better. Read implies that there is an aesthetic elite who possess the ability to intuitively recognise formal beauty, and although he says that the average man is capable of it, one suspects that Read thinks the average man must submit to the guidance of the elite. Read does not explain in what way the discerning person differs from the undiscerning, except in the objects he chooses. Read thus follows the same circular route as Fry and Bell: formal beauty is that which produces a response in people whose discernment can be identified by the objects they they choose. This kind of elitism may have been formed in his career as a curator at the V&A. Today it is clear that his argument is a way of defining cultural capital.

Like other writers of the period, Read appeared to believe that beauty is a quality of objects, like colour, that can be perceived, and that is not just a matter of personal preference. That implies that aesthetic appreciation is a cognitive ability and that those that lack it have a defect like colour-blindness. Read thinks that, by and large, the British manufacturing class lack it, and he expresses disdain for their supposed philistinism.

British manufacturers produce inferior goods, says Read, not only because they cannot tell the good from the bad, but also because they are motivated by purely commercial considerations. Because their goods are inferior, they have to demand tariffs to protect them from better-designed Continental goods, but Read does not really explain why the Continental capitalist produces better goods than his British counterpart, or why, if well-designed goods sell better than badly-designed goods, the profit motive does not generate better design. Because of this perceived incapacity in the British manufacturing elite, Read is compelled to advocate a cultural elite who have the ability to intuit formal beauty and, if who if they were given half a chance, could reform industry.

Like so many writers on art with a programme or manifesto, Read is immensely irritating. Although he was interested in mass production and took a left-wing position in politics, his ideas are snobbish and elitist. He talks about the “average man”, but is uninterested in what he likes (in contrast to pioneering curators of popular art, Barbara Jones and Enid Marx). He has a psychological theory of aesthetics and leans on a sketchy Freudianism, but cites no psychological research. Had any been done at that date? The new discipline of neuro-aesthetics is now making it possible to understand what is happening in the brain when people respond to art works and it may even be able to help designers and manufacturers.

WILLIAM ROTHENSTEIN AND E.W.TRISTRAM

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Festival Titling typeface by Phillip Boydell

I misrepresented William Rothenstein’s views on design teaching in my last post, commenting on his association with the arts-and-crafts colony in the Cotswolds and his appointing E.W.Tristram, a medievalist, to the post of professor of design at the RCA. Rothenstein wanted to modernise design education at the College and was well aware of new developments on the continent.

After having been in post at the RCA for a while, Rothenstein recorded his impressions. In a memorandum to the Board of Education, he wrote in 1921:

I hope I have your support in looking on the College as a centre which serves, not so much to give a vocational training, as to give each student, whether he intends to be a simple designer of cotton fabrics or an ambitious painter or sculptor, the best general education through the arts. Some commercial men hold that an industrial designer does not require so complete an education as a more ambitious artist. But I feel sure that Board considers this to be a short sighted view, and that well educated designers will finally prove of greater service to British industry than less well educated men.

Much of the work in the Schools of Pottery, of Painting and Decorating and of Metalwork is too unexperimental and derivative. No consistent attempt has been made to deal with the interpretation of the contemporary world in design and execution. A wrong understanding of the spirit which made mediaeval art so vital persists at Kensington, and the research work towards the discovery of new subject matter and new treatment, so noticeable on the Continent, seems to have ben wanting. It is important that we do not fall behind the Continental industries, and the freshness of design, execution and subject matter which s characteristic of the best French, German and Austrian work has not been sufficiently encouraged and sought for at the college, in my opinion.

Rothenstein recommended E.W.Tristram, faute de mieux, for the post of professor of design on the resignation of Anning Bell.

For some time I thought it would be possible to find an artist as renowned as Professor Bell to undertake the direction of the most important school of the College. But the movement started by William Morris and his friends seems to have spent itself. I know of no younger men associated with the arts and crafts society endowed with the wide culture which was, and still is, characteristic of Morris’ immediate disciples. It is true that a new life Is stirring among the younger painters and craftsmen. But this movement, which had its origins in France, has not yet taken firm root in this country. Of the present men associated with traditional English craftmanship and design, I know of no-one more capable and scholarly than Mr Tristram. His patient and profound study of English wall painting – in fact of every kind of English painting – has at last won for him a unique position among his contemporaries.

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Ernest Dinkel poster for London Underground

Noting Tristram’s shyness, Rothenstein recommend the appointment of Paul Nash, Ernest Dinkel and Philip Boydell to work with him in the design department. Nash is well-known. Dinkel was a bold poster designer for the London Underground and Boydell designed the Festival Titling typeface used in Festival of Britain publications. Tristram’s main work was in medieval wall painting, and although Rothenstein referred to his work in modern textile design, it is still questionable whether he was the best representative of design education for the Gorell committee.

THE GORELL REPORT

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I’ve been reading Art & Industry, the Gorell report, a milestone in the design debate in the decade before the war. The Board of Trade set up the Gorell committee to consider “the production and exhibition of articles of good design and everyday use”. Its result was the Council for Art and Industry, a precursor of the Design Council. Fiona MacCarthy perceived the long arm of the Arts and Crafts Movement reaching as far as the Festival of Britain and Terence Conran. It certainly influenced public discussions about design in the 1930s and its ideas pervade the Gorell report.

Of the committee’s nineteen members, three were artists or designers, five were industrialists and the largest cohort were politicians and public officials. Lord Gorell was a Liberal politician, an author and journalist. The industrialists were: A. E. Gray, the Staffordshire pottery manufacturer, who employed Susie Cooper and Gordon Forsyth; C.H. St John Hornby, the successful head of W. H. Smith, who also had an interest in fine printing and ran the Ashendene Press; Charles Richter, director of Bath Cabinet Makers and a member of the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society; Howard Robertson, a leading architect and later President of the RIBA; and H. Trethowan, president of the china and glass retailers association. It’s clear that the business representatives were chosen for their arts-and-crafts bent and that they were untypical of businessmen in Britain.

 

gorell members

 

The arts representatives were Roger Fry, E. W. Tristram, professor of design at the RCA, Clough William-Ellis, now known mainly for his whimsical creation at Portmeirion, and the art writer Margaret Bulley, author of Have You Good Taste?

The committee looked at the problem of design from an arts-and-crafts perspective and saw it essentially as the “divorce of design from execution” that had taken place during the industrial revolution. It sought “a reunion of Art and Industry”. It focused wholly on consumer goods and it considered design as good appearance rather than product engineering.

A pressing matter for industry while the committee was sitting was world recession and the lack of competitiveness of British goods. There was a long-standing view that our exports suffered because of poor design compared to continental goods, particularly French and German goods. There may have been some truth in that. The superiority of French goods was arguably the overhang of the royal monopolies of the Grand Siècle and Colbert’s forcing up of standards. Germany had developed the arts and crafts into modernism, while Britain compromised with what Michael Saler has called “medieval modernism”, modernism mitigated by the ideas of Ruskin and spiritual uplift. But tariffs may have been more salient than design in Britain’s balance of trade.

 

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C. H. St John Hornby, director of W. H. Smith, at his Ashendene Press

 

Gorell urged training in principles of design for everyone – manufacturers, craftsmen, buyers and sellers – so that they could appreciate good design when they saw it. Its ideas about improving design were confused with the idea of improving taste, which was a long-standing feature of the art-and-industry debate. Fry in his memorandum to the committee said that many manufacturers had lost contact with educated taste. There was always something  patronising about “good design”, from the Chamber of Horrors in South Kensington in the 1850s, which showed up the ghastly against the good, to Anthony Bertram’s Penguin book Design (1938), which preached about white walls and tut-tutted about patterned rugs. Gorell insisted that that the new central design body it recommended should be staffed by “persons of taste and cultural standards” – by which it had in mind persons such as themselves.

The report lacks recommendations for improving art education at secondary and tertiary level. The presence of Tristram on the committee may have made its members reluctant to criticise the RCA. Rothenstein had shaken up the RCA, but his main improvement was in the teaching of fine art and his ability to change the design school may have been compromised by his association with the Cotswolds arts-and-crafts colony. When he toured continental art schools in the 1920s, the Bauhaus was not on his itinerary. Tristram himself was a medievalist and was probably not the best representative of design education for deliberations of this sort.

Herbert Read was critical of the Gorell Report at the time, and a modern writer, Tanya Harrod, has described it as muddled. But Nikolaus Pevsner described it as “the first official document to emphasize the vital importance of improvements in British industrial art and to confirm the urgent necessity of immediate action.”

WILD BEASTS AND TAME


We rushed to watch Becoming Matisse on BBC TV the other day because of his association with Colliure, the seaside town in the southeast corner of France that we like so much.

The programme made much of Matisse’s 1905 portrait of his wife (above), which caused a stir because of its wild colours and introduced fauviste into the vocabulary. Matisse was irritated by the incomprehension he’d caused but sort of enjoyed it.

I said earlier that 1905 was the high tide of the Arts and Crafts Movement in England. The difference between London and Paris at that date was great. Arts and crafts in the continent were straining towards modernism but the followers of William Morris had become timid now he wasn’t there to shake them up. The Studio magazine was comfortable with the paintings of the New English Art Club but not with the new French art. Fry’s Fauvist exhibition revolutionised the style of his little Bloomsbury circle, but they too became stuck and didn’t change in forty years. The art schools were stuck in arts-and-crafts mode right up until 1945, when Britain finally woke up to the need for competent industrial designers.


It wasn’t until the Tate’s retrospective in 1960 that Picasso ceased to be regarded as a charlatan in Britain and began to be taken seriously as an artist. But Matisse, whom Picasso admired, was ahead of him: in 1905, when Matisse was sticking up two fingers with his Woman in a Hat, Picasso was still in his Rose Period.

WILLIAM DE MORGAN AND WILLIAM MORRIS

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Evelyn and William de Morgan, c.1900

Sarah Hardy of the William de Morgan Foundation gave a lively talk on Facebook the other day about de  Morgan and William Morris. I thought I knew about them but I learned a lot.

The character of the men came out well. Morris liked to cajole artists into working in crafts he didn’t know about, and as he never turned his hand to pottery he persuaded de Morgan, who had begun as a painter and stained-glass artist, to take it up. I liked the account of Morris bounding up the stairs in de Morgan’s home in Cheyne Row, shouting “Bill!” at the top of his voice, and of the different personalities of the two men – de  Morgan’s nickname was “Mouse” – who nevertheless were lifelong friends

De Morgan was the Arts and Crafts potter par excellence, but in 1907 his business failed and he turned to writing. His success as a novelist was great – he was classed with Dickens – and the obituaries overlooked his ceramics.  Disappointed, Evelyn de Morgan asked May Morris to remedy the omission. She wrote this memoir of de Morgan in The Burlington Magazine.

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Hard to credit but de Morgan’s pottery was out of favour for many years, but who, I wonder, reads his novels now? Few are available. An American bookseller is asking $750 for a first edition of his most famous, Joseph Vance, but I’m going to try A Likely Story  on Kindle (99p).

THOMAS BEVINGTON

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The South Kensington Museum in its early days had a Chamber of Horrors that showed bad design as an object lesson to contrast with the good design in the other galleries – there’s still a case in the V&A today with a selection from the Chamber of Horrors. Because museums preserve the best, we can easily forget or we simply don’t know why they are the best and what was the worst. William de Morgan’s pottery, for example, has become so representative of pottery of the period that we have no idea how bad some of the products of Stoke-on-Trent could be. I came across some while looking through Pottery Gazette the other day, this advert (above) showing some gloriously awful designs by Thomas Bevington of Hanley, made in 1890.

Bevington came from a prolific pottery family who were in business in Hanley for most of the 19th century. He described himself as a “Manufacturer of Novelties in Fancy China, combining the Useful and Ornamental in Raised Flower Goods, consisting of Flower Baskets, Vases, Centre-pieces, Table Ornaments and Artistic China of every description”.

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Bevington ignored the rules set down by design reformers like Henry Cole, Owen Jones and William Morris. His forms were over-ornate and impractical; he used representational decoration that was three dimensional rather than flat; his “Raised Flower Goods” (below) used modeled flowers and imitation mosses; and his pottery was pretty ugly.

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But he appears to have been successful, appealing to a public who enjoyed his Novelties in Fancy China and didn’t care a fig about good design. The picture is of a Bevington piece that appeared on Ebay, and it’s not the only one, which shows that people still buy his pottery and like it.

ALAN CAIGER-SMITH

I learned the other day of the death of Alan Caiger-Smith, an outstanding potter who revived the art of tin glaze and who became an important scholar of the tin glaze tradition.

Caiger-Smith was born in Buenos Aires in 1930. He studied at Camberwell Art School of Art and read history at King’s College, Cambridge. Inspired by French painted pottery in his mother’s kitchen, he enrolled in pottery evening classes at the Central School of Arts and Crafts under Dora Billington. His aims were unformed at the time, but when he told Billington of his interest in decoration she said, “Then you want to do tin glaze,” which he had never even heard of.

In 2013 I interviewed him about his time at the Central and his memories of Billington. His recall was sharp and he was a brilliant raconteur. The Central in around 1950 was an old building filled with ex-servicemen and young girls, known to the students as The Central School of Tarts and Drafts. Billington had taken on an old Yorkshire country thrower, Richard Bateson, whom Caiger-Smith found to be endlessly patient and helpful, though preferring to give advice outside the classroom where he could have a sly smoke at the same time.

Caiger-Smith warmed to his work, coming to the evening class earlier and earlier, eventually arriving at 8.30 a.m. William Johnstone, the college principal, called him in and instructed him to stop doing that, but Billington, who spotted his potential, took him aside and advised him to quietly ignore Johnstone.

By this date Billington was over sixty. One of Caiger-Smith’s colleagues, a student who frequently got drunk at lunchtime, stood at the back of the class sniggering as his prim old teacher showed them how to pull a handle by stroking and squeezing a sausage of clay. She looked up and said sharply, “Yes, Mr B— , it is phallic. Now sober up and pay attention and you may learn something.”

Caiger Smith remained grateful to Billington for her teaching and encouragement. Tin glaze was so out of fashion that the college technician (who I think at the time was Ian Auld) refused to fire his work and he had to smuggle it into the back of the kiln.

As it happened, his Aldermaston Pottery stuck a chord and his work was soon in demand. Last year, Jane White, published an account of Alan Caiger-Smith and the Legacy of the Aldermaston Pottery that traced the assistants who had worked with him there. Alan spoke at the book launch at the Ashmolean with Tim Wilson, an expert in maiolica, whom he had consulted during his historical researches and who also consulted him.

Tin-Glaze Pottery, published in 1973, was a rare thing, combining deep scholarship with practical understanding, and in my view it’s the standard account of the subject.

In a search for a real red pigment, Caiger-Smith rediscovered the technique of reduced lustre glaze (picture, top) after long experiment and many failures. His reduced lustre pottery is among his most beautiful work and is now very collectable. As an indication of how well-respected he became, he was honoured by the town of Gubbio, which had brought Italian lustre to the peak of refinement in the 16th century.