ROCOCO REVIVAL (2)

Gwendolen Parnell, The Pompadour (National Museums Scotland)

As well as the revival of figurative ceramics by manufacturers like Doulton and Meissen in the early 20th-century, there was a revival among the studio potters. In England the most high-profile of these was Gwendolen Parnell, who was also the most invested in Rococo. Of her figures in Georgian dress, the most famous was her series based on The Beggar’s Opera, which had a phenomenally successful three-year run in London in the 1920s. The show inspired other modellers too. This Georgianism in ceramics was an interesting pendant to the wider Georgian revival that found in the architecture and furniture of the period an anticipation of modernist values of simplicity and reserve. But of course, its aesthetics were very different.


Some of Parnell’s figures were a pastiche of 18th-century Chelsea porcelain, replete with bocage and scrolled bases. The most outstanding, in my judgement, was the figure group called The Pompadour, which is in National Museums Scotland.

François Boucher, Madame de Pompadour (National Gallery Scotland)

It has two ladies and a gentleman on a rustic seat with a lamb at their feet. The young man is in attractive déshabillé; one lady holds a fan, the other a tambour frame. Its affinity to Rococo shepherdesses is obvious. The title refers to the period and the pinks and purples, but it’s also bound to recall Boucher’s portraits. Parnell’s ladies, however, aren’t shown to have the serious intellectual interests that Boucher depicted – his Pompadour often has a book in her hands.

ROCOCO REVIVAL

Vally Weiselthier, Vanity

Figurative ceramics underwent a revival in the first part of the 20th century, with Doulton beginning a series of modelled figures in Britain just before the First World War, Meissen advancing its tradition of figure-making with the recruitment of new modellers in Germany, and parallel developments in Austria, Hungary, Denmark and Italy. Within modelling there was a strong counter-current to modernism, a revival of Rococo, an inevitable dialogue with 18th-century porcelain, whether Chelsea or Dresden.


Vally Wieselthier (1895 – 1945), lead ceramicist of the Weiner Werkstätte, won Gold at the Paris Expo in 1925 for her figure Vanity, a remarkable fantasy in porcelain reminiscent of Dresden but wholly modern, playful and mocking, showing a woman at her toilette with African and Chinese attendants. Vanity was not unique though, and a similar piece, Lady with a Moor, had been designed by Paul Scheurich, a brilliant sculptor employed by Meissen, in 1919. Scheurich’s clothed figure, however, is less ironic, more restrained.


The similarity of Wieselthier’s and Scheurichs’ work disguises different artists and very different intentions. Wieselthier was from a bourgeois Jewish Viennese family. Vanity was in many way an untypical work. Her other ceramics were more experimental and expressionistic. In 1928 she left Vienna for New York and established her career there before her premature death.

Paul Scheurich, Lady With a Moor


Sheurich (1883 – 1945) was a much more establishment figure, designing German banknotes in the 1920s and 1930s, continuing to work under the Nazis, for whom he designed a tapestry at the Reich Propaganda Ministry. As early as 1907 he had illustrated an anti-Semitic pamphlet in Berlin about the “Judaization” of the theatre.

JEAN RENÉ GAUGIN

Reading Gordon Forsyth’s review of the ceramics entries in the Paris Expo 1925 I came across a reference to Jean René Gaugin, a ceramic sculptor I’d never heard of before. He was indeed related to Paul Gaugin, one of his five children with Mette-Sophie Gad, though he barely knew his father and they could not communicate because Jean René was raised in Denmark and did not speak French and his father did not speak Danish.

Jean René was working for Bing and Grøndahl in 1925, with whom he achieved considerable success, and then went on to work for Sèvres. This fine Rape of Europa is dated 1925, though I don’t know if it was exhibited at Paris. Below the headline items like the Art Deco of Lalique and the Corbusier pavilion it’s actually quite difficult to find out what was exhibited there. More catalogues are available online now but they sometimes lack detail and they usually lack pictures. In fact, there are few pictures of the many thousands of exhibits at Paris.

Forsyth lavished praise on the Danish exhibitors, but it was surprising, given that Jean René Gaugin is now so little known, that he declared him to be ‘one of the greatest artists that have ever worked in pottery’.

JESSAMINE BRAY

I have written before about Jessamine Bray, one of the two young women who ran the Dulwich Pottery in the 1920s and 1930s. The figurative potters have become so unfashionable that even relatives can tell you nothing. Thus, when I contacted a great-nephew of Gwendolen Parnell, the doyenne of the figurative potters, I found that he’d never even heard of her. Jessamine Bray fared a little better. Her great nephew told me that he knew that she was a potter but it wasn’t something she talked about. But when in her old age he took up pottery as a hobby, she dug out her old glaze materials and passed them on to him.

The picture is a portrait of Bray made by her partner in the Dulwich Pottery, Sybil V. Williams in 1935, sold by Woolley and Wallis a few years ago.

LUCIE RIE

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.

ADRIEN DALPAYRAT

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.

THE DULWICH POTTERY

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.

PHYLLIS SIMPSON

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.

MICHAEL POWOLNY

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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).

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Vally Wieselthier, Vanity (1925)

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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.

GWENDOLEN PARNELL (2)

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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.

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