It’s an outstanding example of post-war civic architecture and the mural of the History of the Old Kent Road is representative of the elevating, slightly didactic public art of the period. Kossowski, a Catholic artist, most of whose work was religious, was an interesting and surprising choice for the commission, and I hope one day to discover how he came to be selected. His artistry is effective, his technique superlative and the story told is perfectly appropriate to the location. A similar mural today, however, would say much less about the past and much more about the present.
This Derby figure of Pitt the Elder, 1766, caught my eye in the British Museum: well-modelled and painted, lively posture in both the figures, large for a Derby figure and uncomfortable for the modern viewer. Who is that subservient figure?
It’s America, in an established emblem of the continent, one of the four that had been used in art for a couple of centuries. The others were Europe, Asia and Africa. Pitt had changed taxation for the benefit of the colony and here it kisses his hand. There is a similar Derby figure in the V&A where America is black. Modellers were indifferent about such matters and every continent but Europe was similar in its strangeness.
The description in the museum refers to the fact that the Iroquois Confederacy was an ally of England in the Seven Years War against the French, but that alliance does not appear to have been commemorated.
Although ceramic modelling went out of fashion among studio potters after the second world war in Britain, there were one or two who resisted the trend to utilitarian ceramics. One was Rosemary Wren, who, as it happens, was a founder of Ceramic Review. I came across this entry in the 1977 edition of the directory of Craftsman Potters Association members which describes what she was doing then.
The row over statues seems to be dying down, but someone on Facebook posted a picture (left) that illustrates how they have been democratised – Standing Man by Sean Henry in Paddington Basin, a Bloke on the Ground sort of sculpture that Henry specialises in: anonymous, ordinary people without plinths, natural size and at the same level as the viewer.
For contrast I add The Duke of Cambridge by Adrian Jones, the 1907 equestrian sculpture in Whitehall that is so familiar that it is never looked at, representative of the 19th-century statuary that populates our cities: grand, elevated, establishment and not a little oppressive.
The latter sort is being gradually reviewed and sometimes suddenly and violently removed, but the process of democratisation that the review is part of began long ago with the Blokes on the Ground who are slowly and silently replacing them.
On the beach at Swanage I was pleased to see the Punch and Judy show in the same place as it was when my daughter was little, so I stopped to watch it. Punch appeals to small children because he is very, very naughty and triumphs over everybody and comes out on top at the end. His little squeaky voice seals their connection with him.
There is no point in cleaning up his act. A nice Mr Punch would be as attractive as warm ice cream. The Swanage performance has most of the traditional elements: Judy leaves Punch in charge of the baby, baby won’t walk, Punch throws baby downstairs, beats Judy, fights the crocodile, nonsense with the sausages, and so on.
After the show I met Joe Burns, the Professor, (above) and told him how much I enjoyed his show and how I remembered his predecessor, Professor Pete. Joe took over from Pete six years ago after Pete had been on the beach for thirty years. Today’s Mr Punch has a website, a Facebook page and a Twitter feed.
There has been a show on this spot since 1906, though the town council banned it at first because it brought the wrong sort into Swanage. Joe is one of the last three beach performers in the country – there are more Professors who are hired to perform at parties. A Guardian article quoting Joe reported that audiences are getting as badly behaved as Punch and that some adults abuse his bottler and refuse to pay.
Margaret Lambert and Enid Marx had a section on marionettes and glove puppets in English Popular Art (1951), reporting that Mr Punch had changed from one into the other, but they said nothing else about him. In The Unsophisticated Arts (also 1951) Barbara Jones wrote, “One glove puppet remains triumphantly traditional and can still be found at fairs and at the seaside: the Punch and Judy Show. The costumes are commedia del’arte via the English early nineteenth century theatre, and the whole script has hardly changed. Needless to say it is violent and much concerned with death and hanging. Punch and Judy also exhibit the determination of English pantomime to change sex – Punch squeals viciously in a high falsetto, his wife retains the puppet master’s natural bass.”
Bournemouth has a financial sector and a new university, and the western suburb is full of grand villas and lovely pine-clad cliffs, which they call ‘chines’. (As a child on family holidays I thought that a ‘chine’ was a pine-clad cliff: it’s not, it’s a ridge and the pines are incidental.) The gardens, running right through the town from top to bottom like lettering in a stick of rock, upon which the town was founded when they were made out of the swampy fringes of the River Bourne two hundred years ago, are still beautiful and relaxing.
But the town centre, which is a BID, a Business Improvement District, with helpful BID guides, has a sad, hollowed-out look about it. There are marks of former grandeur in self-confident, ambitious and sometimes pompous buildings, several in the Deco style like the former offices of the Bournemouth Daily Echo. The purpose of others, like the Cosy Club, is still labelled. The former use of others, however, is impossible to find out from the buildings themselves.
We came to Dorset’s Jurassic coast, which is full of dramatic abstraction.
The Kingston Lacy guidebook notes that Rubens’ Marchesa Maria Grimaldi (above) is one of the most important works of art in the house, but the painting is not labelled and few of the other many important paintings, which include some by Titian, Jan Breughel the Younger and Sir Peter Lely are labelled either, far less described. There is no description whatever of furniture, ceramics and other items. The volunteer guides are as helpful as they can be but they are not art historians and they are not provided with a catalogue of the works they are looking after and cannot answer every question. In fact, the volunteer I spoke to had ferreted out information for herself, for which I was grateful. Nor is there a catalogue available to the public.
I was told today that information sheets were removed because the repeated handling was thought to be unhygienic. Museums and art galleries place labels on walls next to each object on display. I don’t understand why the National Trust don’t do it or won’t do it.
National Trust houses are museums with the care of important collections of art, but they are not presented properly. Kingston Lacy, one of the National Trust’s most visited properties, has been in its possession for almost forty years, during which time they’ve made extensive improvements, not least to Henrietta Bankes’s kitchen garden, which it was a pleasure to visit. That surely is enough time to attach descriptions to the works of art they hold.
The entrance fee is £18, roughly the entrance fee to a major temporary exhibition in a London museum, which is thoroughly curated and fully explained. Kingston Lacy only has to do that once, but they haven’t. The artworks are doubtless listed on the Art UK website, but, of course, you have to identify them first.
The Trust’s current strategy doesn’t encourage optimism. Its 10-Year Vision talks of the “loyal but dwindling audience” for their historic houses, and suggests that they distance themselves from major national cultural institutions such as the British Museum, the V&A and the Tate.
The Decorative Arts Society have started their guided visits again and the other day I joined them at the William Morris Gallery for a talk by Roisin Inglesby on the the Century Guild exhibition that she has curated. The Guild was a short-lived Arts and Crafts body, started by Arthur Heygate Mackmurdo and Henry Horne and soon joined by Selwyn Image, lasting only from 1882 until 1893, when each member went his own way to follow his particular interests.
I knew little about the Century Guild other than that Pevsner had pointed out that their sinuous designs (above) anticipated Art Nouveau and that fifty years later Mackmurdo was one of the founders of the William Morris Gallery. From the Mackmurdo donation the Gallery has come to have the largest holding of Century Guild artifacts anywhere, which has enabled them to put on this event with little borrowing.
The Guild lacked some of the common prejudices of the Arts and Crafts movement, notably Morris’s dislike of everything Italian, and Horne went on to make a study of Boticelli. They were also less enamoured of Gothic. Their furniture is more classical than anything produced by Morris and Co., as are Mackmurdo’s and Horne’s architectural designs.
The exhibition has textiles, wallpaper and designs on paper that illustrate their use of plant forms and their departure from the symmetry of Morris’s designs. The name of the group refers to their 19th century and indicates a forward-looking attitude. They were designers and were not wedded to the idea of a craft-based economy.
Arts and Crafts Pioneers by Stuart Evans and Jean Liddiard accompanies the exhibition.
This charming little ceramic figure came into my possession today. It’s about 15cm tall, signed MW and dated 1924 but otherwise unidentifiable. Enquiries have failed to come up with any ceramic modeller with those initials and I shall probably never find out who made it – though surely the artist was a woman? The 1920s were the heyday of this sort of studio-made figurine and there were many good makers who came and went without leaving any permanent trace.
It’s worth mentioning the mysterious MW because this is, technically and artistically speaking, quite a good piece and was made by someone who clearly knew what they were doing. The marks on the base, if we can rely on them, suggest an experienced and fluent artist if not a professional one, because there are several reference numbers suggesting that this was one of a series.
I head the post School of Charles Vyse because the style and method are very much his. It’s cast from a mould, hand painted in underglaze colours with a transparent glaze over it, an informal, everyday subject, and a pattern on the dress like many of Vyse’s figures. If not for the initials I’d say it was by Vyse’s pupils Jessamine Bray and Sylvia Williams of the Dulwich Pottery. Vyse taught at Camberwell and so it may well be by someone who was in his class.