BUILDING THE ROYAL COLLEGE OF ART

Arthur Beresford Pite
Arthur Beresford Pite, Professor of Architecture at the RCA, 1900-23. (National Portrait Gallery)

Those like me who have only known the RCA’s Darwin building in Kensington Gore may be interested to know how long it took to build – fifty years if you count from when the decision was made. The College was previously tucked into corners of the Victoria & Albert Museum, where it had been since 1863, and from the turn of the century it was obvious that the premises were too small and badly laid out, incluing sheds and annexes a long distance from the main building in Cromwell Road.

Royal College of Art
The Royal College of Art shortly after its transfer to Kensington Gore, 1962. (Architectural Review)

In 1911 a government committee said that some of the RCA’s teachers were producing students with a bent towards handicrafts and little to offer industry but at the same time the inadequacies of the building were frankly acknowledged.

The Board of Education readily accepted the need for better accommodation. (Reading the files, it’s evident that Sir Humphrey – actually Sir Robert Morant – had decided what the committee should say long before the minister set it up.) They rejected the suggestion that the existing building might be upgraded and decided a new one was needed. In 1912 plans (below) were drawn up by Beresford Pite, professor of architecture at the RCA.

Pite’s proposal for a new RCA building, 1912, to be erected opposite the V&A.

Two world wars intervened and it was only after the second, under the rectorship of Robin Darwin, that serious plans got underway. Looking at Pite’s plan, a new building may have been needed in the ‘sixties anyway if it had been implemented.

SHOULD HANDWRITING DIE OUT?

Michal Hussain interviewed Colm Tóibín and Sally Gardner on BBC Radio 4 today about the disappearance of handwriting. “Is it time to think the unthinkable and let handwriting die out?” she asked, prompted by exam boards’ trialling exam answers input from computers, instead of being written with a pen on paper. Tóibín said, yes, he worked on a computer but he still liked to make letters with a pen and he thought handwriting shouldn’t go the way of Latin, which he was glad he’d learned at school. (He was born in 1955.)

Like Tóibín I do most of my writing on a keyboard and, like him, I’d be sorry if I couldn’t use a pen as well. I always liked the look of writing and the shape of letters. My father did a beautiful roundhand and tried to teach it to me. Instead I bought a special pen and forced myself to do to italic writing.

I never learned to write like my father.

I bought a special pen and forced myself to do italic writing.

There’s a connection between writing and printing. Edward Johnston, known for his London Transport railway type, taught handwriting at the Central School of Arts and Crafts and the Royal College of Art at the beginning of the 20th century. He completely changed the way people wrote, reviving the use of a broad-nibbed pen and kicking off a style based on a 16th-century Italian hand. By 1950, italic handwriting was the mark of what was then called “a cultured person”.

Marion Richardson modified the italic hand for children and by 1970 few people wrote in roundhand any more.

As a graphic designer I had to look at letters and the spaces between them as abstract shapes that have to be carefully chosen and arranged. Even if you know nothing about typefaces, you associate the one below with tradition and the bottom one with modernism. They’re Caslon Italic and Helvetica Bold, in case you’re interested.

A font by Arrighi, c.1523, the basis of modern italic writing.

My original membership certificate from the Society of Designer Craftsman was lettered by Hugh Spendlove, who studied calligraphy at the Central, probably with Mervyn Oliver. He also studied pottery there with Dora Billington. Billington had been in Edward Johnston’s lettering class at the RCA and told Spendlove, “The art of writing is the art of life.” She was a fine letterer herself.

Dora Billington studied lettering with Edward Johnston and taught pottery to Hugh Spendlove. She made this dish in the 1930s.

Hugh Spendlove’s lettering.

BERNARD LEACH: LIFE & WORK

Covid and Christmas gave me the chance to catch up on reading and after Fiona MacCarthy’s life of William Morris, I’ve finally got round to Emmanuel Cooper’s biography, Bernard Leach: Life and Work.

As a man with no doubts about his own importance, Leach (1887-1979) left a large archive, which makes the work of the biographer easy, though Cooper may have been blessed with too much material and remains too close to the sources. In contrast to Leach, Dora Billington, another major studio potter of the period, left nothing. As Leach dominated the pottery studio world, so she dominated pottery in the art schools. She was in a better position to leave an archive than he was. He was peripatetic, had an emotionally turbulent life and was always in search of funds; she remained at the Central School of Arts and Crafts and lived in the same house with one companion for thirty years. The absence of a Billington archive suggests that her papers were destroyed, probably on her instructions.

Leach’s first wife, Muriel, said that no man was ever more in need of a religion than he was. Pottery was a religion for him. He thought that Beauty was to be found in the Absolute. Industry had no soul and bad pottery was “dead”. He could never accept that his work was simply a style that he preferred: he had to believe that it reflected a universal, unvariable and absolute standard that all pottery should measure up to, and damn it if it didn’t. He was brought up a Catholic and was educated by Jesuits. When doubts crept in, he became a follower of a charlatan called Alfred Westharp, who combined polygamy with the Montessori method of education. Westharp conveniently persuaded Leach that his discontent with monogamy was spiritually significant and that he would never develop as an artist if he didn’t follow his sexual urges.

Later, under the influence of Mark Tobey, Leach adopted the Baha’i faith. His employees at the pottery had to attend daily prayer meetings. He stood on a soap box in St Ives harbour to preach on the evils of modern life, which, by the 1950s, included not only industry but also cinema, chewing gum and Music While You Work.

Leach’s mission was to bring together East and West. In Japan he sold pottery based on the English vernacular tradition and he introduced Japanese potters to the clay handle instead of the traditional bamboo handle. He and his colleagues, Soetsu Yanagi and Shoji Hamada, encouraged a Japanese reading of Ruskin and Morris. But as he was so opposed to the values of the West it’s hard to see what he brought to the East – unlike, for example, Charlotte Perriand, whose design was inspired by Japan but who remained a significant Western designer.

Leach made successful tours of the United States, which challenged him because he couldn’t understand a country with diverse traditions and a love of innovation. Cooper is frank about his aloofness and dogmatism in America, but for all that he was often open to new experiences in the arts, society and nature. Most remarkable was his warm response to the designers Charles and Ray Eames, who, despite their collection of folk art, represented the antithesis of Leach’s values. He wanted to produce a small number of things for a discerning élite: their objective, in their memorable phrase, was getting the best to the greatest number of people for the least.

There’s nothing surprising about a man developing odd ideas but it is suprising that Leach’s odd ideas gained so much traction. He and Hamada irrupted from Japan into England in 1920 and worked in disregard of other art potters. There were broadly speaking three groups: Leach and his small band; the late followers of the Arts and Crafts movement, like Alfred and Louise Powell; and the figurative potters like Charles Vyse and Gwendolen Parnell, who were untouched by Orientalism, had little interest in the vernacular and didn’t share Leach’s aesthetic of simplicity, modesty and utility.

Leach’s style was slow to catch on. Some, like the Marxist Henry Bergen and William Slater, the managing director of the Dartington Trust, were unafraid to interrogate his vague ideas, but after the war there was an avalanche of interest. That is partly explained by Leach’s unshakable self-confidence, his talent for publicity and A Potter’s Book, but there have been many confident self-publicists without a following. Murray Fieldhouse, an enthusiastic follower, I think explained it. He told me that after the war a lot of people were looking for a new way of life and that the crafts seemed to offer it. He and several others who went for this way of life were pacifists like Leach. The Leach idea of a small pottery in the country, in the shadow of the atom bomb, away from the rat race, seemed to fit the bill. If oriental religion could be added to the mix, so much the better.

FIONA MacCARTHY

I have a love/hate relationship with William Morris and I had a love/hate relationship with Fiona MacCarthy’s biography. William Morris was one of those volcanic Victorian personalities – stupendously energetic, deeply moral, highly persuasive, dazzlingly brilliant, massively influential, greatly change-making – like W. E. Gladstone, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Charles Darwin, Henry Cole, Charles Dickens and Florence Nightingale. The Victorian era threw up people like that. Morris’s energy was legendary. He did six things at once and he wanted to do everything for himself: designing, writing poetry, embroidery, wood-engraving, dyeing, printing, lecturing, preserving old buildings and revolutionary politics. Physically he was remarkable: short and stout, scruffy, loud, rapid in his movements and subject to rages, which Fiona MacCarthy thinks were a form of epilepsy because they were followed by trances and forgetfulness. When he died aged 62, his doctor said he died of being William Morris.

It’s not without significance that his first intention was to go into holy orders, and his life was a moral crusade against ugliness and injustice. He said that he was motivated by a hatred of modern civilisation. In 1861, at the age of 26, he started his company, Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. with great self-confidence and rapidly won decorating and furnishing contracts for ecclesiastical and institutional buildings – one of his earliest jobs was St James’s Palace. By the time of his death in 1896, every house of taste had some Morris wallpaper or Morris furniture in it. He was the dominant influence in the Arts and Crafts Movement, which was at its height from about 1880 to 1914. He was probably a greater inspiration to the early members of the Labour Party than Karl Marx. His approach to design and manufacturing revolutionised the teaching of art in Britain and his influence was felt in the art schools right up until the end of the Second World War.

So Morris was a man of enormous significance in Britain – and, indeed overseas: he was looked up to by design reformers in Europe, America and Japan – and he’s a man whom it’s hard not to love. But he was backward-looking and he encouraged Britain to be backward-looking too. He hated modern society, hated the railways, hated the factory system, hated the city, hated the division of labour and wanted everyone to be a craftsman. His inspiration was a fantasy of the Middle Ages drawn from Chaucer and the Morte d’Arthur. His first reading was The Waverley Novels, which he had completed by the age of seven. He and his Arts and Crafts Followers were, to a large extent, gentlemen with a contempt for trade and commerce. His ideal society, as described in News from Nowhere was a fantasy of tiny craft workshops, no government, no police, no prisons, no religion, no marriage, held together by the force of public opinion in an uncomfortable anticipation of cancel culture. It was written not in his adolescence but towards the end of his life as a mature statement of his creed.

His influence as a designer is impossible to ignore. His wallpaper designs have never been out of print. He is hugely popular, though he was not unique. The revolt against the design excesses of the Great Exhibition of 1851, ornate, overblown and ugly, was actually begun by Henry Cole, the very man who organised the Exhibition. His contemporary, Owen Jones, produced a large illustrated Grammar of Ornament that advocated the flat, simple designs that Morris produced. Every designer in the 19th century read it and they continue to read it in modern editions. Jones’s protege, Christopher Dresser, went further than him and some of his designs from the 1880s are so modern-looking that they appear to have been made in the 1930s. Morris’s superficially attractive craft ideas were not accepted by all designers. Even though he was a Master of the Art Workers Guild, Lewis Foreman Day argued against the Arts and Crafts idea that every artisan should be a designer and every designer an artisan, because designing and making were specialised skills and you could not do either well if you did not concentrate on one or the other.

Graham Wallas, an admirer of Morris and later a founder of the London School of Economics, shot Morris’s economics to pieces: “Once, while I listened to him lecturing, I made a rough calculation that the citizens of his commonwealth, in order to produce by the methods he advocated the quantity of beautiful and delicious things which they were to enjoy, would have to work about two hundred hours a week. It was only the same fact looked at from another point of view which made it impossible for any of Morris’s workmen, or indeed for anyone at all whose income was near the present English average, to buy the products either of Morris’s workshop at Merton or of his Kelmscott Press.”

Fiona MacCarthy has written probably the best biography of Morris. It covers Morris as designer, poet, political activist and man. It’s subtitled “A Life for our Time”. But Morris, in my humble opinion, has nothing to offer our time. After he died, his influence on design in Britain was wholly negative and held up progress for fifty years. The initiative passed rapidly to Germany and Britain became an Arts and Crafts backwater. The design lessons had been learned and were being applied to industry. His socialism was woolly and romantic and had no practical application. His idea of a craft-based economy, which pervaded the crafts in Britain until the 1970s, was reactionary and irrelevant. MacCarthy does well with Morris’s poetry and novels, which are of variably quality, and admits that he wrote verse too easily – 1,000 lines a day was normal for him.

This is an immensely warm and readable biography of a great but flawed individual. MacCarthy’s passion for Morris and her belief in his ideals makes it a good read, though, for myself, I would have preferred a more critical account.

DAMASCUS TILES

I looked at Arthur Milner’s gorgeous large-format book Damascus Tiles yesterday, which is a history, a gazetteer and a large collection of high-quality photos.

It explained why there was such confusion in Britain until the 20th century about the precise origin of these tiles, because there was not only influence and export but also movement of the potters from place to place. The story isn’t just of Damascus but also of Jerusalem, Istanbul and Cairo and the rise and fall of empires over a thousand years.

Milner calls the enthusiasm for Damascus tiles in Britain at the end of the 19th century “a craze”, and the focus of the craze has to be the Arab Hall in Frederic Leighton’s house (which he describes as the largest one-bedroomed house in London), mainly tiled with panels from the Near East but also with fill-in sections by William de Morgan. It’s closed till the spring, but I’ll look at it again then with fresh eyes.

TURKISH CERAMICS AND CULTURAL APPROPRIATION

Ceramics has alway been a field of cultural appropriation and there may have been little ceramic art without it. One of the most obvious cases is the appropriation of material culture both by and from Turkish potters. Istanbul’s great glory is its Iznik tiled mosques, so I was disappointed to find that, athough the walls of the Topkapı Palace are gorgeously tiled, the Palace’s collection of ceramics is from China, not from Iznik. If you want to see Iznik pottery, go to London, where the British Museum has the best collection in the world.

Topkapı Palace, wall with Iznik tiles.

The development of Iznik pottery was motivated by the desire to imitate Chinese porcelain, which was done in a roundabout way, covering the local greyish clay with fine white slip then painting it in brilliant colours under a clear glaze. There are Chinese motifs on Iznik vessels, with their characteristically Turkish decorations of tulips, carnations and saz leaves, in the form of the cloud patterns round the margins of plates. The Chinese returned the compliment by taking Iznik motifs and painting them in blue and white on porcelain dishes for export.

Border decoration on Iznik plate derived from Chinese cloud motifs

This Turkish pottery was naturally admired everywhere. In Britain in the 19th century it was copied and adapted without understanding. Its origins weren’t known because the Iznik manufactories were long gone. As every visitor to Turkey discovers, Iznik designs are sold everywhere, but the pottery comes from Kütahya now.

A 19th-century Cantagalli vessel using Iznik motifs.

A large cache of this pottery had been brought to England from Syria, so it was called Damascus ware. Some was found in Greece too, so it was also called Rhodian. The British thought that Ottoman Turks were incapable of creating such lovely work but that Persians were, so these wares were called Persian as well.

A “Persian” vessel by the Crown Derby Porcelain Company, mid 1880s. (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.)

Under these confused names, Iznik patterns were put on tiles, which were all the rage at the time. Some were made by hand by William de Morgan for Sir Frederic Leighton’s Arab Hall, many more were produced in industrial quantities by Minton Hollis. The “Persian” style was freely adapted and elaborated by Crown Derby, with raised gilt patterns, to make amazing bling for export to the USA. Homage was also paid to the Iznik potters by the Cantagalli company in Italy, who made much closer copies.

Sir Frederic Leighton’s Arab Hall in Kensington, a mixture of antique tiles from Turkey and new ones from London.

THE 999 CENOTAPH

The 999 Cenotaph project, to put up a monument to health service workers, is part of the current of democratic statue-building that I’ve written about here and here that runs alongside campaigns to remove statues of slave owners.

Most of the statues in our cities were put up before universal suffrage and remain because of inertia and the fact that they’re invisible. The idea that they tell us about our history is laughable: no-one knows who they are in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred.

Covid is changing Britain in many ways: more online shopping and online everything; more space on commuter trains; more outdoor exercise; less hugging and kissing; and more statues to ordinary people and public-service workers.

To support the 999 Cenotaph project visit http://www.999cenotaph.org.uk

VALENCIA (2)

La Lonja, the elegant and spacious medieval Silk Exchange in Valencia is one of the city’s most popular attractions and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and justly so. The stonecarvers of La Lonja were given only the vaguest brief by the master mason – Ruskin would have approved of the way they were allowed to devise their own work. There are striking spiral-grooved pillars in the main hall and decorated door arches, one with a carving of the Virgin (above) with the motto Ave Maria Purissima.

But there are details at odds with the nobility of the building. Around Mary The Most Pure are men drunk and incapable, people pissing in bowls, a devil inflating a sheep’s arse, a dragon biting a woman’s tits and bums, bums and bums galore.

JONATHAN CHISWELL-JONES

I went to see Jonathan Chiswell-Jones’ pottery at the Artworkers Guild (AWG) yesterday at their beautiful home in Queen Square, the perfect setting for ceramics with allusions to William de Morgan. The building has changed little since the AWG acquired it about a hundred years ago. The name of every member past and present is carefully lettered on the walls and there are portraits of all the guild’s masters. This may give the impression that the AWG is old-fashioned but it’s not and its members produce very up-to-date craft work as you can see here.

Reduced lustre pottery is extraordinarily difficult to make and very few people try it. It requires three firings at different temperatures and precise control of kiln atmosphere to change the decoration (which looks like mud when it’s put on) to gold and silver in a magical alchemical transformation. The method was revived by De Morgan and copied by a few large potteries like Maw & Co. and Pilkington, who did it cheaper and put him out of business. Alan Caiger-Smith rediscovered it by accident in the 1950s trying to produce a red glaze and it took him twenty-six unsuccessful firings to get it.

ADAM KOSSOWSKI

The Adam Kossowski mural on the old North Peckham Civic Centre will be removed when the building is demolished and is to be put up on the new building, but there it will be above the first floor windows and it will be less visible.

The Everlasting Ministries Church that used to occupy the building has closed and you can see the state of the mural in the picture above. Amazingly, it’s almost completely free of graffiti – the graffiti you see is on the shutters over the windows.

This is a wonderful mural. It works from a distance as a general view of The History of the Old Kent Road, it works from six feet away where you can see the characters in the story – the picture below is Kossowski’s portrayal of a sneering King Charles – and it works close to, where you can see the details and textures the artist has added. Yesterday I noticed for the first time the little Camberwell Beauty butterflies in the corners.

None of that effect will be perceptible when the mural is ten feet above the ground.

I walked to the Old Kent Road from South Bermondsey and asked the way from a young man. He was studying digital media and was intrigued by the camera tripod sticking out of my rucsac. I told him about the mural and the Civic Centre and Kossowski’s time in a second world war concentration camp. “I live in the Old Kent Road. I’ve never noticed it,” he said, and came with me to look.