LÁSZLÓ MOHOLY-NAGY

 

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I was interested to read that the Hungarian designer László Moholy-Nagy (above) was turned down for a teaching post at the Royal College of Art during his residence in England between 1934 and 1937. Walter Gropius, as I mentioned elsewhere, was considered for the post of director when William Rothenstein stepped down, but was thought to be unsuitable because the Bauhaus was mistakenly understood by the Board of Education to be a fine-art school and because of its association with the political left under Hannes Meyer.

The Bauhaus had not been on Rothenstein’s horizon when ten years earlier he made a tour of continental art schools to see how the RCA might be brought up to date, and although he made radical reforms in the teaching at the college and was aware that the arts-and-crafts ethos was holding it back, he was not an apostle of modernism. He wittily dismissed the followers of Cézanne as ces ânes (these donkeys) and he appointed to the post of professor of design E. W. Tristram, a specialist in medieval wall painting. Britain’s premier art school in the 1930s made little contribution to the development of modernism (although Reco Capey and Paul Nash were notable exceptions). 

Tristram was recruited to the government committee on Art and Industry in 1931, the Gorell Committee, which was tasked with advising on the best ways of exhibiting high standards of design in consumer goods, presumably because of his position, but his interests and experience did not fit him to advancing industrial design.  Many of the other members of the Committee were fully signed up to the arts-and-crafts philosophy and it is extraordinary to consider that its report was regarded by Pevsner as “the first official document to emphasize the vital importance of improvements in British industrial art” when it was suspicious of industry and mass production.

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The attitude of the Gorell Committee and other contemporary British initiatives on art and industry was the inverse of that of Moholy-Nagy. Gorell sought ways of applying an artistic appearance to industrial products while Moholy-Nagy was interested in applying industrial technology to art. During his direction of the metal workshop at the Bauhaus, his class developed industrial prototypes and he was associated with the transition from a craft school to a school designing type-forms. Although made by hand, typical products of the workshop, like its famous table lamps, looked machine made and eliminated the mark of the maker and there have been many industrial iterations of it since (above).

Moholy-Nagy and Gropius were for a short while neighbours in the Isokon building in Hampstead, along with another Bauhaus exile, Marcel Breuer. It’s interesting to think how industrial design in Britain would have advanced if Gropius and Moholy-Nagy had been allowed to join the staff of the RCA at that time.

PUBLIC STATUES

The Decorative Arts Society writes of an interesting and significant difference of views about public statues: “The argument over statues and monuments continues. The Andrew Mellon Foundation has announced the Monuments Project, ‘a five-year, quarter-billion-dollar commitment [to] support efforts to recalibrate the assumed centre of our national narratives to include those who have often been denied historical recognition. This work has taken on greater urgency at a moment of national reckoning with the power and influence of memorials and commemorative spaces.’ By contrast, the UK government has told museums and galleries, including the British Museum and Tate Gallery, not to remove statues or other objects of contested cultural heritage from display—or risk losing their public funding. Oliver Dowden, Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport set out bluntly the government’s position on contested heritage: ‘The Government does not support the removal of statues or other similar objects.’”

MARGARET BULLEY (2)

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I described Margaret Bulley’s aesthetic theories as “gushing”, full of ideas of “spirit” and “vital energy”. R. R. Tatlock, editor of The Burlington Magazine, who published several of her reports on artistic taste, said that –

“From one angle she is an aesthetician, from another a collector, from a third a teacher. It might be truest of all to call her a missionary, for it is in the pertinacious and fervent spirit of the spreader of a gospel that she works and writes. It is not easy to make out just of what her gospel consists, and I believe it would be impossible to account for it in so many words; but what is abundantly clear to those who so much as glance at her book is that art is for her a fact that inspires and compels the soul and puzzles and torments the brain: it is the nucleus round which Miss Bulley and similarly constituted electrons giddily spin; it is the indefinable Presence before whom they prostrate themselves and present offerings of books.” (1926)

Bulley’s books were occasionally mentioned in the philosophical journals, which remarked on the incoherence of her ideas. Philosophy, reviewing Art and Understanding, liked the illustrations in it but thought that “however pleasing the reproductions from ancient and modern masters, they cannot wholly atone for the conspicuous absence of any real knowledge of aesthetics exhibited by the first and theoretical half of the volume.” (1939) And a review of Art and Everyman in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research (1954) regretted that “Unfortunately, the terms in which the author expresses her esthetic views are unduly opaque.” Although she wrote repeatedly on aesthetics, her ideas were really just an undigested mish-mash of outmoded ideas about taste.

Tatlock went on to describe her research methods in Art and Counterfeit, in which her industry, thoroughness and persistence made up for the weakness of her driving ideas:

“The best part of Miss Bulley’s days through many a year have been occupied in labouring to infect audiences of school-children and of adults with the love of art. But in various directions her zeal has over-flowed from that mission and has driven her to carry out long series of “tests ” with the object of settling what proportion of persons in a given category are able, without being prompted by others, to distinguish between a good and a bad work of art. Three papers, embodying Miss Bulley’s results of this kind, were published in these pages (October, 1919; October, 1923; and October, 1925), and these and others are included in the book. To help her in her teaching, Miss Bulley has made an enormous collection of photographs of every species of work of art. These she has arranged in pairs – one of each kind, good and bad, “of clean beasts and those that are not clean” – without the names of their creators being divulged; and many a reputation has been blasted through the functioning of that relentless instrument. But she has not only collected photographs; with equal zeal she has accumulated innumerable specimens of art criticism. These she has now arranged in groups and has most ingeniously attempted to illustrate by means of certain of her photographs. The result is a unique book – a Noah’s- ark of a book-whose subject may be described as comparative art and whose interest is at once literary and artistic.”

MARGARET BULLEY: ‘HAVE YOU GOOD TASTE?’

After writing about the Gorell Committee, which reported to government in 1932 on the production and exhibition of articles of good design, I became curious about one of its members, the art writer Margaret Bulley (1882 – 1960). The Gorell Committee was one of the many official and unofficial initiatives in the 1920s and 1930s created to improve the standard of design in industry and the result of its deliberations was the setting up of the Council for Art and Industry (CAI), a precursor of the Design Council.

Margaret Bulley was born into a prosperous but socially progressive family in Cheshire. Her early work was in teaching children in galleries and museums. She was involved in war relief work in France where she met Margery Fry and it may have been through her that she made the acquaintance of her brother Roger Fry. Fry introduced her to Marion Richardson, the influential and innovative art teacher, and Bulley arranged an exhibition of children’s art at the Whitworth Gallery, Manchester. Bulley herself became interested in children’s art and she arranged for children’s designs to be manufactured by her husband’s textile firm Armitage and Rigby. She carried out extensive research into children’s responses to art, seeking universals in art appreciation that were unconditioned by culture, publishing her findings in The Burlington Magazine in the 1920s. She espoused the common idea that children have an innate and well-developed aesthetic sense that adults suppress.

Bulley was invited to join the Gorell committee probably because of her acquaintanceship with Fry (also a member of the committee), her researches into art appreciation and her prior involvement in the British Institute of Industrial Art (BIIA), predecessor of the Council for Art and Industry, to which she had contributed a large collection of contemporary consumer goods, and which on the closure of the BIIA, she donated to the Victoria and Albert Museum. The V&A describe her as a friend of Vanessa Bell and she had been an associate of Fry’s since the days of the Omega Workshops, of which she was a generous patron. Bulley was thus on the fringe of the Bloomsbury Group and her ideas of art and taste are close to theirs in many ways.

The Gorell committee, comprising public officials, artists, writers and industrialists, entangled questions of design with questions of taste and how it might be improved, as did nearly all contemporary discussions about the advancement of design and taste, which was vaguely defined if defined at all. Such discussions inevitably fell back on the taste of those who staffed committees like Gorell. Shortly after Gorell, Bulley wrote Have You Good Taste?, which filled out her ideas in more detail, and throughout her career she wrote several books in a similar vein, like Art and Counterfeit, Art and Understanding and Art and Everyman.

Have You Good Taste? was an investigation of the taste of the public based on an experiment in which their preferences were compared with the judgement of “six well-known art critics or experts”: Roger Fry, W. Constable (Director of the Courtauld Institute), Charles Holmes (late Director of the National Gallery), Percy Jowett (Director of the Central School of Arts and Crafts), Eric Maclagan (Director of the V&A) and R. R. Tatlock (Editor of the Burlington Magazine). Her use of these individuals as a touchstone immediately arouses the suspicion that good taste as understood by Miss Bulley might simply be the taste of the English cultural elite.

Bulley’s view of art, design and taste was barely different from that of Ruskin and Morris. In her gushing theory of aesthetics, beauty is a spiritual quality that resides in objects, is universal and does not change over time. It is not merely personal choice or preference and Bulley notes that many of the things that people prefer are actually ugly. In order to distinguish artistic beauty from beauty in manufactured goods (which, as a rule she thinks, are inferior to art and handmade things), she adds that artistic beauty is the product of passion, so it appears that even though beauty is a quality of objects, process is essential too. She acknowledges beauty in nature, which is not the product of artistic creation, but the difference between the beauty of nature, everyday objects and art is not explained or thought through and she falls back on beauty being a spiritual value that cannot be described in words.

Bulley appears to have absorbed some formalist ideas from Fry and also to have been influenced by Bergson’s Creative Evolution. From the formalists she takes the idea of beauty expressing harmony and from Bergson the idea of creative energy – “the vitality that comes from free creative force” – and a deprecation of science, materialism and “over-intellectualisation”.

Her terms for things that don’t meet her standards of beauty have the echo of Bloomsbury about them – “sham”, “bloated”, “mean”, “anaemic” – but, unlike Bloomsbury, her taste appears to be a Quakerish simplicity and a preference for interiors that are plain and workmanlike, pleasant and unselfconscious and that don’t try too hard to be artistic.

From the Arts and Crafts movement Bulley inherited an anti-industrialism, a dislike of trade and a belief that hand-made things are better than mass-produced things. Her belief in spirit lead her to reject the functionalism of the modern movement, which she says is not enough to produce a work of art.

The book contains 19 pairs of photos that readers of The Listener had been invited to appraise as good or bad and their verdicts are compared with the verdicts of the experts. About three-quarters of the public agreed with the experts, but, in an interesting anticipation of Bourdieu, upper-class, highly-educated respondents were more likely to agree with the experts than labourers, servants and those with an elementary education.

Bulley’s Arts and Crafts philosophy remained widespread in England until the Second World War. Michael Saler saw Ruskin’s philosophy inspiring Frank Pick, despite his association with the modernisation of the London Underground. It pervaded the Gorell report. Bernard Leach’s philosophy, expressed in the best-selling A Potter’s Book, which he wrote in the late 1930s, is similar to Bulley’s and they both dislike modern journalism, cinema and contemporary culture. The appointment of a person like Bulley to advise on the improvement of industrial design raises questions about how suited to the task Britain’s Board of Trade was in the 1930s.

Biographical details from Alan Powers, “Margaret Bulley”, Crafts , No.192, January – February 2005, p.24

THE WILLIAM MORRIS SUSSEX CHAIR

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Woolley and Wallis are offering a set of four Morris & Co. Sussex chairs from the house of Emery Walker in their sale on 6 October (above) with an estimated price of £400 to £600. 

The Sussex range, based on traditional country furniture, was intended to be cheap and simple, very much in line with Morris’s principles. The V&A say that Morris used Sussex chairs himself in Red House and Kelmscott House. Burne-Jones had Sussex chairs in his studio and so did the sculptor Alfred Gilbert. Sussex chairs were bought for students’ rooms in Newnham College, which was decorated in Arts and Crafts style, and for galleries in the Fitzwilliam Museum. Other firms, notably Liberty & Co. and Heals, produced their own versions of the Sussex chair. Sussex chairs in various versions were made in very large numbers but they’re collectible and the sale estimate is reasonable.

In 1912 Morris & Co. were selling a Sussex chair for nine shillings and ninepence, which a skilled worker could buy after 13 hours work. Today a skilled worker – say a car auto worker – would have to work 10 hours to buy a chair in the Woolley and Wallis sale if the set sells for £600. 

William Morris’s struggles over pricing are well known, with his famous complaint about being forced to cater for the swinish luxury of the rich. I’ve written before about the difference in price between goods designed with a view to simplicity and cheapness (where form followed function), like the Isokon Donkey, and the price of modern reproductions (where meaning follows form). There’s also a reproduction of the Sussex chair by Nafisi Studio, who make a beautiful modern version in coloured lacquers (below), retailing at £1,375 – about 11 days’ work for a car auto worker. Far from the swinish luxury of the rich but not quite Ikea.

CHILDREN’S ILLUSTRATORS

As a child I looked at the illustrations of books before I read them. I had a guilty feeling that this wasn’t the right thing to do and indicated laziness and a lack of seriousness, but I now realise that my imagination was visual, maybe even hyperphantasic. Talking to my brother recently about the books we read as children, I was surprised to find that these illustrations made little impression on him, but several impressed me greatly and I’ve remembered the artists ever since, even when I’ve stopped liking the books.

Maxwell Armfeld’s art nouveau-ish illustrations to Hans Anderson, in line and colour, published in 1910, perfectly matched the cruel and magical mind of the author. His depictions of the tortured Girl Who Trod on a Loaf and Mermaid were, to me, inseparable from the narratives.

Later I discovered Rex Whistler’s Anderson, far superior artistically, (below) but I still picture Anderson’s tales like Armfeld did. Apart from recognising Anderson’s sadism I now find his moralising intolerable, but some of his best stories, like The Steadfast Tin Soldier and The Snow Queen, still resonate.

R.S.Sherriffs’ strong graphic style jumped out at me from a now almost-forgotten book of short stories. His still-remembered picture calls to mind an episode in which a military officer rides through the street ogling the girls. Only through my memory of the picture do I remember that I’d never come across the word “ogling” till then and wasn’t sure what it was or how he did it.

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Sherriffs was a perceptive caricaturist who did a few children’s books and was one of the artists who introduced me to the potential of illustration. My liking for him was reinforced by his vignettes in Punch (above), which I came across in the doctor’s waiting room. His style was perfectly suited to the Rubaiyat (top) and made a lovely edition.

As it happens, the mocked and maligned Ladybird books employed illustrators with a talent for literal representation, which, in the case of their natural history titles, like What to Look For in Spring/Summer/Autumn/Winter (below) was wholly appropriate, and brought in Royal Academician Charles Tunicliffe, a wildlife illustrator who specialised in birds. He did pictures for Brooke Bond tea cards and the RSPB magazine as well as the Ladybird books and introduced me to the wonderful potential of both natural history and illustration. The RA had an exhibition of his work in 2017.

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I loved Enid Blyton’s Adventure books between the ages of 10 and 12 and was quite indifferent to the weakness of her plots and characterisation, to say nothing of her casual racism. But even more than the stories I loved the illustrations by Stuart Tresilian (below) and studied them closely. Tresilian, the son of a clerk, studied at the RCA (as did Tunicliffe) and taught at the Regent Street Polytechnic. He was a member of the Art Workers Guild and the Society of Graphic Artists and became respectively Master and President. He is well known for his illustrations to Kipling and also did work for educational  natural history publications. He is the least of the illustrators mentioned here, but I wasn’t so discriminating at the age of ten and liked his work a lot.

 

TULLIO CRALI, THE LAST FUTURIST

Self Portrait (1935)

We went to the Estorick Collection’s postponed exhibition of the art of Tullio Crali A Futurist Life, the first devoted to him in the UK. Crali was a key figure in the second wave of Futurism, to which he remained attached with idealistic devotion, and the major proponent of aeropittura, painting inspired by aerial flight.


The Force of the Bend (1930)

Crali was born in 1910 in Montenegro and spent much of his life in Gorizia, near Trieste. He developed an enthusiasm for Futurism as a schoolboy and taught himself to paint in a Futurist style. Marinetti wrote to him in 1929, “Dear Futurist, Delighted to have you with us in the Futurist struggle.” Meeting Marinetti, who favoured him with a smile, was the high point of his life.


Cosmic Maternity (1960)

This remarkable exhibition gathers works from the Crali family collection that span the artist’s long life (he died in 2000), many unseen for decades. His most famous painting Nose-Diving the City (which the Estorick included in its 2005 exhibition Painting the Skies) is not included, but his intoxication with flying is well-represented.


The Forces of the Infinite (1931)

After the war the position of Futurists became difficult in Italy. Crali never had much interest in politics and engaged as a naïve patriot – “acquiescence”, the word the curators choose to describe his relationship with the regime, is accurate. In 1942 Crali and Marinetti produced a manifesto (always a manifesto!) about the potential artistic contribution to the war effort, Plastic Illusionism of War and Perfecting the Earth, whose ideas about camouflage did not appeal much to the military mind:

“Spiritualise materiality and vulgarity by means of gigantic winged colourful transparent free-word compositions in such a way that a smoking factory might metamorphosise into an evanescent mystical chapel fringed with angels and bells.”


Vegetable Volumes (1948)

Unlike Depero, who had to emigrate to the USA to continue as an artist, Crali survived with a teaching job in Italy. His post-war still lifes (above) gained in depth and subtlety.

Futurism was a way of life to Crali, not to be abandoned when circumstances changed. At a meeting of Futurists in 1950 – and I was surprised to learn that there was still an organised Futurist movement after Marinetti’s death – Benedetta Marinetti dissolved the movement, a decision Crali refused to accept, and in his own mind he remained a Futurist.


Lights at Sunset in Ostia (1930)

Teaching posts in Paris and Cairo introduced Crali, ever curious about his world, to new scenes, new people, new shapes and new possibilities. His late embrace of found art from rocks, the Sassintesi (“Stonetheses”) was, in his mind, still a Futurist enterprise.


Crali with his wife Ada Savelli in Paris, 1950s

BERNARD LEACH

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Clara Grein

Bernard Leach’s A Potter’s Book, which has never been out of print in Britain since it was published in 1940, has been translated into Italian for the first time by Clara Grein. The long delay is explicable by Italy’s very different ceramic tradition, into which the Leach style of stoneware has made few inroads. I learned of Il Libro del Ceramista from British potter Terry Davies, who has been making stoneware pottery in Italy for many years.

Emmanuel Cooper’s biography of Leach refers to Leach’s admiration for Ruskin but I looked in vain for any reference to Bergson, whose whose anti-rationalism and philosophy of élan vital pervade A Potter’s Book. Leach regarded “vitality” as a virtue in pottery, talked of “the intuitive craftsman” and used “intellectual” as a term of disapprobation. This short quotation gives a flavour of his thinking:

Judgment in art cannot be other than intuitive and founded upon sense experience, on what Kawai calls ‘the body’. No process of reasoning can be a substitute for or widen the range of our intuitive knowledge. This does not mean that we cannot use our common sense in examining the qualities in a pot which give us its character, such as form, texture, decoration and glaze, for analytic reasoning is important enough as a support to intuition.

It’s hard to know whether Leach ever read Creative Evolution, the book in which Bergson expounded his idea of the vital spirit that drives evolution and that can be interpreted as the source of human creativity, but it was popular in the first half of the twentieth century, was widespread in artistic circles and (as Rachel Gotleib showed) was marshaled in service of the new ceramics.

CHARDIN

Ernst Gombrich was typically gracious in response to Charlie Rose’s sometimes silly questions in his 1995 interview (below). He wouldn’t admit to a favourite colour but he did admit to favourite painters, Valasquez and Chardin.

Michael Levey’s beautiful passage about Chardin in Roccoco to Revolution is worth re-reading:

There never was such a perfect world as Chardin’s … . It is a puritan, perhaps almost more truly Quaker, life that is depicted in simple, windowless rooms, dark and sheltered domestic interiors in which nothing more is happening than the preparing or serving of frugal meals, the education or amusement of children. The appeal is in the restriction: an emphasis on plain living and clean linen – linen, not silk. There is humbleness without poverty. Above all, everything indicates industry. The few possessions are polished and harmoniously arranged; the plain-coloured clothes are cared for, neatly worn. Gravity is present not only in the mood, but in the sense of each object finding its own place in the scheme of things. And objects are as important as people: they coexist, so that the copper cistern is no mere prop but is as fully realized, as measured and plotted, as the girl who bends at it.

In all this there is rebuke, if no more than a tacit one, to rococo sensations. A cold bath of purity replaces the heady hot-house languor of Boucher. Those tendencies for everything to shimmer, melt, dissolve – for art to hover on the point of orgasm – are counteracted by chastity: chaste draughtsmanship and chaste activity. Women remain the chief subject, but treated as household managers and mothers; girls are firmly put back into a domestic environment, often shown assuming maternal responsibilities. Chardin’s technique is equally in opposition to rococo fluidity. Like Piazzetta again, he was a slow worker. His Father had been a carpenter and there is something almost of joinery in Chardin’s tiny slabs and slices of saturated paint which are, as it were, assembled and slotted into place in the composition.

RICHARD BATESON

Richard Bateson at the Central School of Arts and Crafts. (From Dora Billington, ‘The Technique of Pottery’)

Lee Cartledge of Bentham Pottery has written a fascinating article about Richard Bateson, an old country potter from Burton-in-Lonsdale, North Yorkshire, who in later life taught students at the Royal College of Art and The Central School of Arts and Crafts. Lee has sent me the manuscript to look at and has kindly allowed me to quote from it and use some of the photos.

Richard Bateson is a legendary character, having taught potters like Gordon Baldwin, Alan Caiger Smith and William Newland, all of whom remembered him with affection. Mary Wondrausch interviewed him for her book On Slipware when he was in his nineties and noted his excellent recall and clarity of expression.

Lee first encountered Bateson in 1977 when a stranger came into the pottery with his grandchildren to asked if he might show them what he used to do for a living. Within a few minutes of sitting down at the wheel, it became apparent that this was an astoundingly good thrower. Lee later got to know Bateson and his family well.

Bateson was born in 1894 and started work at 13 in the Waterside Pottery, which was owned by his father and uncle. Waterside specialised in stoneware bottles, for which there was high demand. His father was a thrower but his uncle never seemed to do any work except counting bottles. He was a man of so few words that he was incapable of negotiating and just dropped the price until he got the contract. As a result the potters had to work harder than they ought to have done. Business was booming in the early 20th century but the demand on the throwers was onerous. Two men were required to produce 3,000 bottles a week, which meant using 700 tons of clay a year. Lee comments that at Bentham Pottery today they get through 4 tons a year.

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Richard Bateson at Waterside Pottery, 1907, in the centre of the front row holding a bottle. His father, Harry is on the left. (Photo: Lancaster Guardian)

But in the 1920s demand began to fall as stone bottles went out of fashion, and during the depression the Waterside pottery went down to three days a week. It closed in 1933.

Bateson then then bought Bridge End Pottery, where, working alone with a boy, he made terracotta pots and some decorated wares. Between them they did everything from mining the clay to marketing the finished pots. Despite his humble occupation, Bateson was invited by the Council for Art and Industry to display his work at the International Exhibition of Art and Technology in Modern Life in Paris. (Which, by the way, illustrates how anchored in craft the Council for Art and Industry remained.)

The International Exhibition of 1937 with the Soviet pavilion on the right.

The second world war brought big changes to Bateson’s life. The RCA had evacuated to Ambleside, about 30 miles from Burton, and Helen Pincombe, the acting head of ceramics, discovered Bridge End Pottery and got her students to use its facilities, thus introducing Bateson to teaching, which he took to very readily.

He closed his pottery at the end of the war and shortly after joined Pincombe at the RCA to teach throwing, and it was probably through Pincombe that he met her friend Dora Billington at the Central School of Arts and Crafts, where he became such a notable fixture. Alan Caiger Smith recalled a roguish and engaging teacher, always encouraging, often looking for an excuse for a smoke and with liking for the female students. 

Bateson ended up running the pottery course at Wimbledon Art School but as he had no qualifications he was compelled to retire in the late 1950s. He continued to teach informally. There was no shortage of amateur potters and former students who were pleased to employ him. In 1960, he set up a small pottery at Assington, near Ipswich, mainly for teaching. In 1965, aged 71, he retired to Yorkshire, where he lived until his death, aged 98.