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 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.
This ceramic sculpture was sold by Bonham’s in 2004. It’s a rare piece by Phyllis Simpson, one of the so-called Chelsea Potters, the modellers whose studios were in and around Chelsea between the two world wars.
Simpson was one of the most talented modellers of the period but almost nothing is known about her. She went into partnership with Ethel Sleigh in the 1920s and they’re best known – it’s not an exaggeration to say they’re only known – for their remarkable model Phyllis and Strephon in the V&A. Sleigh died in 1928 and after her marriage Simpson stopped working.
Who were they? Where did they train? What has happened to the products of their studio? Until another piece like this comes up for sale we may never know.
I’ve been discovering the hidden history of the British studio potters who made figurative ceramics in the 1920s and 1930s, the most notable of whom were Charles and Nell Vyse, Gwendolen Parnell and Stella Crofts. In the small world of studio pottery then, no distinction was made between the modellers and the vessel-makers, who joined in the Guild of Potters and regularly exhibited together. I say “discovering” because the modellers have been excluded from the studio pottery canon and little is written about them. The culprit was Muriel Rose, who created the canon in her book Artist Potters in England (1955), an accomplished work of exclusion that omitted nearly every artist potter in England.
Gordon Forsyth’s broader review of 20th Century Ceramics (c.1935) covered both vessel makers and modellers, but nearly all his figurative artists were continental and the only British makers he mentioned were Alfred G. Hopkins and William Ruscoe (a modeller for the pottery industry). Among the continental ceramicists were Michael Powolny, whose strongly-modelled animals (above) may have seemed more relevant to Forsyth than the modellers in England who looked backed nostalgically to old Chelsea and North Staffordshire. Forsyth had expressed similar preferences in his review of ceramics at the Paris International Exhibition, 1925, singling out the Danish exhibitors.
It can certainly be argued that the continental modellers were more original, more responsive to currents in contemporary art and more ironic in their historical references than the British modellers, for example the playful rococo in the work of Austrian ceramicists Vally Weiselthier and Susi Singer-Schinnerl (below).
Vally Wieselthier, Vanity (1925)
Susi Singer-Schinnerl, Bust of Woman with Hat (c.1925)
Powolny was one of Lucie Rie’s teachers and it’s interesting to see what Rie’s biographer Tony Birks has to say about him. “In the absence of other significant potters, the well-intentioned Powolny had a negative influence on ceramics. He was out of his depth. … It is hard to believe that, clever technician though he may have been, Powonly had any clear idea of what ceramics were about in the twentieth century. Even when working with his partner, the more dynamic and austere Löffler, their work never rose about the kleinkunst, and to many the personal work of this bewildered man is dire.”
In this bizarre passage Birks revealed the narrowness the Leach followers could fall into and not a little British arrogance as well. It’s lazy writing that can’t be bothered to think about Powolny’s motivation and artistic environment.
The same arrogance comes out in the popular idea that Leach was “the father of studio pottery”. But Leach’s followers disinherited most studio potters and narrowed the definition of “studio pottery” to refer only to their own work. Until then, the term meant any ceramics produced in a studio and it was first used in the USA (1910) to refer to The Potters Craft, by Charles F. Binns, though it could also be applied to Ernest Chaplet, Hugh C. Robertson, Bernard Moore and Vilmos Zsolnay. Leach, it has to be said, took a more educated and catholic view than his followers, having worked with Gwendolen Parnell, and he thought she should be included in the story as well.
An important source of information about the now-neglected studio pottery modellers of the 1920s is The Cheyne Book of Chelsea Pottery and Porcelain, the catalogue of a 1924 exhibition in which the work of the studio potters was exhibited alongside products of the Chelsea Porcelain Manufactory. That indicates the frame of reference of the modellers, and if course it is a very different frame of reference from that of the arts-and-crafts potters and the emerging studio pottery led by Bernard Leach, William Staite Murray and Michael Cardew. The latter were influenced by the ideas of Ruskin and Morris, which entailed simplicity, directness, modesty and honesty. Quite different, then, from the Rococo of Chelsea ceramics – anathema to Ruskin and Morris because of its association with frivolity, luxury, wealth and power.
The plate shows some of the works of Gwendolen Parnell displayed in the 1924 show, typically in Georgian costume and unmistakably related to Chelsea figures. But in the small print I read that they were nearly all donated by Sir Basil Zaharoff (below). Who he? I knew that Parnell was good at cultivating a society clientele, but Zaharoff was something else: a dubious arms dealer and financier, supposedly stupendously rich and described by some as the wickedest man in the world.
Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera had a phenomenally successful revival at The Lyric Hammersmith in 1920 – 21, with one of the longest runs in English theatre. The lively tale of lowlife, in Claud Lovat Fraser’s clever adaptation of Georgian dress (above), was, like the Festival of Britain in the wake of another war, “a tonic to the nation”. With tactful excisions of references to whores and whorehouses, it created a fantasy for London theatregoers. I came to it after looking at the many ceramic figures made at that time, of Polly Peachum, MacHeath, Mrs Traipse and Lucy Lockit, and wondering why they were so popular. In a way, it set the direction of ceramic figures for decades, first for the studio modellers like Gwendolen Parnell (below) and Agatha Walker, and in the longer term for the Doulton factory, who were still modelling ladies in diluted Georgian frocks right up to the 1990s.
I came across this delicious memoir by James Holland of student life in the 1920s and 1930s, which refers to his outings to The Beggar’s Opera:
“In a quite different tradition, Nigel Playfair’s stylized version of the Beggars’ Opera at the Hammersmith Lyric repaid many visits. Sets and costumes had been designed by Claud Lovat Fraser, and the ballad score arranged for a small group of period instruments, mostly played by several elderly ladies and related members of the same family, who were alleged to knit assiduously between numbers and during the very long run could have completed many garments. This version was a charming charade, artificial and entertaining as a pantomime. The stylized pannier dresses had their influence on contemporary fashion, Polly Peachum and Lucy Locket becoming popular pottery figures, and many a telephone was coyly concealed under the ladies ample pannier skirts.“
Incidentally, he has some fascinating gossip about life at the RCA in that period, which is also worth quoting:
“In converting the Royal College into what was essentially a School of Painting, or certainly Fine Art, Rothenstein was diverting it from the original intention that it should be primarily a centre of design education, though he was perhaps not the first nor the only master to exert such pressure. I have frequently quoted his warning to recalcitrant fine art students – “If you can’t do better than this, you will find yourself in the Design School” – and indeed a few students did from time to time find themselves so transferred, though whether this was to their eventual disadvantage was far from certain. “Illustration” was his damning indictment of much painting, “Magazine illustration” the ultimate and unforgivable condemnation. It was not done for the painting student to be concerned about his post-College future. Something would turn up, a patron, a part-time teaching job, a successful exhibition.”
One of the most successful of the pottery modellers of the 1920s and 1930s was Gwendolen Parnell, one of the so-called Chelsea Potters, whose studio was in Paradise Walk, near the Royal Hospital. She had a good eye for the market and her series of characters from The Beggar’s Opera, made while it was enjoying a long run at the Lyric, Hammersmith, gained her much publicity and put her right in the public eye.
Her upper-class connections served her art well. She sold a piece to Queen Mary while still a student at Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts and, when her career was established, modelled society figures including Lady Diana Cooper and Gladys, Baroness Swaythling.
This figure of Marlene Deitrich was featured on the front page of The Sketch in 1933.
Studio pottery figurines were popular in Britain in the 1920s and were exhibited in galleries alongside the new abstract pottery of William Staite Murray and Bernard Leach, but they fell out of favour and their absence from histories of studio pottery was total, as if they had been airbrushed out.
Now that the scope of pottery is broader, however, they are coming back into view. A few years ago Paul Hughes wrote a detailed biography of Stella Crofts, with catalogue raisonée. And, looking for more information, I came cross the website of Robert Prescott-Walker’s Polka Dot Antiques, who show figurines by Molly Mitchell-Smith, Marion Morris, Gwendolen Parnell, Jessamine Bray, Sybil V. Wiliams, Anne Potts, William Ruscoe, J. Palin Thorley and Charles Vyse. The picture shows a very nice figurine by Bray and Williams from their Dulwich Pottery.