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.
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.
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.
I received this message today from the V&A which I’m passing on.
Hi Marshall, we wanted to get in touch as saw you’d posted the petition against the proposed changes to the National Art Library at the V&A.
We have just shared an update on our website which might be of interest here https://t.co/ftqasrNcN9
To give an overview, The NAL service review will now be fast tracked to 6m, rather than a year meaning the closure period will reduced to the absolute minimum. A core library service will be maintained during the review ensuring those who need access to collections will be supported, and thanks to the extension of the govt furlough scheme, the 33 roles are no longer at risk. A new plan for the NAL will be shared by the end of the year.
Thanks for your interest
The Victoria and Albert Museum is £10 million down after COVID and they’re not the government’s top priority, so Tristram Hunt has proposed a re-organisation. Beyond his statement and a summary of V&A Future Plan it’s hard to find out much about it.
The idea is to arrange the collection by chronology rather than materials, presenting cross-sections of time. The number of curators will be cut and many fear a loss of expertise. But curators apart, displaying objects by period is a material-culture approach and has the advantage of revealing each item’s place in the culture of its age.
Museums change. The V&A was founded as a sort of sample-book for designers, with moral-aesthetic judgements about Good and Bad Design. We don’t look at it like that now, but its arrangement still reflects that purpose to some extent. There was once a time when the V&A didn’t acquire anything under 50 years old. Now its most successful exhibitions are about contemporary design. No-one could object to creating a department of Africa and Asia cultures, which is part of the plan.
The National Art Library (NAL) is another matter. The number of librarians is to be cut by two-thirds. The hitherto faultless service is bound to suffer. Uniting the V&A Research Institute with the NAL makes sense and with the removal of the archive from Olympia to V&A East (pictured), it might make sense to move the NAL there as well. I haven’t seen that suggested but it must have occurred to Tristram Hunt.
Tristram Hunt says he wants to open the NAL reading room to more users and to improve digital access so as to make the library accessible to audiences worldwide. That sounds good, as a friend in Yorkshire said who doesn’t get to London much. Hunt promises that a special-collections reading room will be maintained, which also sounds good, but it suggests that a general reading room will not. Anyone wanting to use the reading room now can apply to do so and use it free. How could it be more open than that?
Digitisation of the NAL’s million volumes won’t be cheap and will take a very, very long time. And as the digitisation of the National Census in collaboration with Ancestry shows, digitisation implies monetisation.
I found a picture of a figure by Jessamine Bray and Sybil Williams of the Dulwich Pottery, one of those lost works of art recorded in old newspapers that whet the appetite, an interesting example of the kind of portrait pieces that the figurative potters often made between the wars. The accompanying article answers my question about Bray’s and Williams’ relationship with Charles Vyse, whose work theirs so closely resembles, reporting that they trained with him. There’s little documentation about these potteries and Terry Cartlidge’s detailed study of Charles Vyse depended very much on the memories of surviving associates when he carried out his researches twenty-five years ago; but although he was able to identify some of Vyse’s workshop associates, nobody mentioned Bray and Williams to him.
One of the best of the potteries making figures in the 1920s and 1930s was the Dulwich Pottery, which was run by two young women, Jessamine Bray and Sybil V. Williams, but like so many of the modellers of this period almost nothing is known about them. They practiced together for about ten years, then marriage, the war and changing fashions in ceramics condemned them to obscurity.
Their work is quite similar to that of Charles Vyse, the only one of the so-called Chelsea Potters with a lasting reputation. There may have been a connection, yet to be discovered, because both Vyse and Jessamine Bray taught at Camberwell School of Art in the late 1920s. Jessamine was only in her twenties at the time, yet there is a self-assurance in her work and she clearly impressed the appointments panel of the school.
Some scenes from Regent’s Park in the sun this afternoon. The front of Lasdun’s Royal College of Physicians looking north towards Chester Terrace:- Some penguins also enjoying the sun:- Cumberland Terrace:- And Casson’s Elephant House (1964), described as ‘zoomorphic brutalism’:-Regent’s Park
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 (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.
City of Westminster street signs. A condensed Univers font with letter spacing in the name.
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.
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.