ROTHENSTEIN AND LETHABY

William Rothenstein knew everyone in the art world of the early 20th century, so his memoirs – Men and Memories and After Fifty – are informative as well as entertaining. Since I’ve been writing about W. R. Lethaby, I thought I should go and see what Rothenstein had to say about him. Not surprisingly they knew one another well. They visited Paris and Chartres together. Rothenstein respected Lethaby’s scholarship, judgement and integrity and his contribution to the crafts. I’ve copied the relevant passage below.

Rothenstein became principal of the Royal College of Art shortly after Lethaby had retired as professor of design and while his infliuence was still strongly felt. In a confidential memorandum Rothenstein expressed reservations about the air of medievalism that he’d left behind him and the poor work being done in some of the subjects in the design school.

BERNARD LEACH: LIFE & WORK

Covid and Christmas gave me the chance to catch up on reading and after Fiona MacCarthy’s life of William Morris, I’ve finally got round to Emmanuel Cooper’s biography, Bernard Leach: Life and Work.

As a man with no doubts about his own importance, Leach (1887-1979) left a large archive, which makes the work of the biographer easy, though Cooper may have been blessed with too much material and remains too close to the sources. In contrast to Leach, Dora Billington, another major studio potter of the period, left nothing. As Leach dominated the pottery studio world, so she dominated pottery in the art schools. She was in a better position to leave an archive than he was. He was peripatetic, had an emotionally turbulent life and was always in search of funds; she remained at the Central School of Arts and Crafts and lived in the same house with one companion for thirty years. The absence of a Billington archive suggests that her papers were destroyed, probably on her instructions.

Leach’s first wife, Muriel, said that no man was ever more in need of a religion than he was. Pottery was a religion for him. He thought that Beauty was to be found in the Absolute. Industry had no soul and bad pottery was “dead”. He could never accept that his work was simply a style that he preferred: he had to believe that it reflected a universal, unvariable and absolute standard that all pottery should measure up to, and damn it if it didn’t. He was brought up a Catholic and was educated by Jesuits. When doubts crept in, he became a follower of a charlatan called Alfred Westharp, who combined polygamy with the Montessori method of education. Westharp conveniently persuaded Leach that his discontent with monogamy was spiritually significant and that he would never develop as an artist if he didn’t follow his sexual urges.

Later, under the influence of Mark Tobey, Leach adopted the Baha’i faith. His employees at the pottery had to attend daily prayer meetings. He stood on a soap box in St Ives harbour to preach on the evils of modern life, which, by the 1950s, included not only industry but also cinema, chewing gum and Music While You Work.

Leach’s mission was to bring together East and West. In Japan he sold pottery based on the English vernacular tradition and he introduced Japanese potters to the clay handle instead of the traditional bamboo handle. He and his colleagues, Soetsu Yanagi and Shoji Hamada, encouraged a Japanese reading of Ruskin and Morris. But as he was so opposed to the values of the West it’s hard to see what he brought to the East – unlike, for example, Charlotte Perriand, whose design was inspired by Japan but who remained a significant Western designer.

Leach made successful tours of the United States, which challenged him because he couldn’t understand a country with diverse traditions and a love of innovation. Cooper is frank about his aloofness and dogmatism in America, but for all that he was often open to new experiences in the arts, society and nature. Most remarkable was his warm response to the designers Charles and Ray Eames, who, despite their collection of folk art, represented the antithesis of Leach’s values. He wanted to produce a small number of things for a discerning élite: their objective, in their memorable phrase, was getting the best to the greatest number of people for the least.

There’s nothing surprising about a man developing odd ideas but it is suprising that Leach’s odd ideas gained so much traction. He and Hamada irrupted from Japan into England in 1920 and worked in disregard of other art potters. There were broadly speaking three groups: Leach and his small band; the late followers of the Arts and Crafts movement, like Alfred and Louise Powell; and the figurative potters like Charles Vyse and Gwendolen Parnell, who were untouched by Orientalism, had little interest in the vernacular and didn’t share Leach’s aesthetic of simplicity, modesty and utility.

Leach’s style was slow to catch on. Some, like the Marxist Henry Bergen and William Slater, the managing director of the Dartington Trust, were unafraid to interrogate his vague ideas, but after the war there was an avalanche of interest. That is partly explained by Leach’s unshakable self-confidence, his talent for publicity and A Potter’s Book, but there have been many confident self-publicists without a following. Murray Fieldhouse, an enthusiastic follower, I think explained it. He told me that after the war a lot of people were looking for a new way of life and that the crafts seemed to offer it. He and several others who went for this way of life were pacifists like Leach. The Leach idea of a small pottery in the country, in the shadow of the atom bomb, away from the rat race, seemed to fit the bill. If oriental religion could be added to the mix, so much the better.

SCHOOL OF CHARLES VYSE (2)

I posted earlier about this little ceramic sculpture I picked up in an auction, speculating that it was made by a follower of Charles Vyse. After a couple of days looking in the archives of Camberwell School of Art I was pleased to find that I was right. Vyse taught modelling at Camberwell in the 1920s and in The Cambian, the college magazine, I saw a similar piece by J.West, a student. West never seems to have practiced professionally, like a lot of art students, and I’ve found no other pieces by him. Him or her? My first thought was that a tender piece depicting a girl with a baby must have been made by a woman, but the convention of the time would have been to describe a woman student as “Miss J. West,” so J.West was probably a man.

SOPHIE TAEUBER-ARP

In 1964 The Tate Gallery had an exhibition devoted to Hans Arp. It’s taken them almost sixty years to catch up with his more interesting wife Sophie Taeuber-Arp in the latest exhibition recovering the reputations of neglected women artists. (I wrote earlier about the recent MAK exhibition Women Artists of the Wiener Werkstätte.)

Sophie Taeuber-Arp is revealed here as embodying perhaps more than anyone else the idea of the Unity of the Arts, moving easily between painting, architecture, interior design, sculpture, tapestry, rug-making, jewellery, costume and puppetry. She also trained as a dancer with Laban and there is a dancer’s sense of movement and fun in her abstract compositions. She was never a painter descending to decoration or a craft worker trying to elevate her status – she believed absolutely that all art was of significance.

https://fb.watch/8vIweK8LsB/

WOMEN OF THE WIENER WERKSTÄTTE

Charlotte Billwiller, Mathilde Flögl, Susi Singer, Marianne Leisching
and Maria Likarz, artists of the Weiner Werkstätte.

The Museum of Applied Arts in Vienna (MAK) has a large exhibition devoted to the women artists of the Wiener Werkstätte (WW), the company of artists, designers and craft workers who defined Viennese modernism in the first decades of the 20th century. Women played a prominent role, increasingly after the First World War. The work shown is varied, innovative, clever and faultlessly executed.

Mathilde Flögl, Invitation to the artists’ costume party, 1924.

The Wiener Werkstätte started as a metal workshop founded by Joseph Hoffmann and Koloman Moser, professors at the Vienna School of Arts and Crafts, and Fritz Waerndorfer, their business manager. It expanded to include textiles, fashion, pottery, graphics, architecture, furniture and toys, selling to the Viennese bourgeoisie though their upmarket stores in the Neustiftgasse and Kärntner Strasse, particularly to the cultured and assimilated Jewish bourgeoisie of the kind recently depicted in Tom Stoppard’s Leopoldstadt. (I wrote about their New York store here.)

Dress made from WW fabric designed by Hilda Jesser, 1921/2.
Hilda Jesser, Poster for the WW, 1919.
The WW store in Kärntner Strasse.

The artists of the Werkstätte were influenced by the British Arts and Crafts movement but rapidly went beyond it and were less doctrinaire than Morris & Co. They valued art but they were unfazed by machinery. They esteemed handwork but they didn’t think it was essential for designers to make everything themselves. And they didn’t share the social concerns of the Arts and Crafts movement. Unlike Morris, who wanted to create a democratic art and hated pandering to what he called “the swinish luxury of the rich,” the Gesamptkunstwerk to which the WW aspired – designing a project from house to teaspoons to the highest specification – presupposed a wealthy clientele.

The Austrian pavilion at the 1925 Paris Expo, designed by Josef Hoffmann.
Women of the Wiener Werkstätte setting up the Austrian Pavilion in Paris, 1925.

The curators have found 178 women who designed for the WW. They made a major contribution to exhibits in the Austrian pavilion in the 1925 Paris Expo and are pictured above setting it up. Hoffmann’s design is well-known but most of the women have been overlooked. In their day the Werkstätte was mocked because it employed so many of them and dismissed as “Weiner Wieberkunstgewerbe“, Viennese Feminine Crafts.

Vally Wieselthier, ‘Flora’, 1928, glazed ceramic.

Their diverse talents are illustrated by the graphics, textiles and ceramics designed by Hilda Jesser that I’ve shown. She also designed lace, embroidery, wallpaper, jewellery and leather goods.

Vally Wieselthier, Fireplace, c.1925, glazed ceramic.

This is a just small selection from this superb exhibition. There is a publication with illustrations and biographies of the artists.

Maria Likarz, Postcards of fashionable hats, 1912.
Hilda Jesser, Jardiniere, 1921, glazed ceramic.

LUCIE RIE IN VIENNA

Turning to Tony Birks’s life of Lucie Rie, I saw that the model she made with Grete Salzer, exhibited at the 1925 Paris Expo, about which I wrote earlier with a fuzzy image from L’Autriche à Paris 1925, is better illustrated in his book (above), which is based on conversations with Rie and makes use of photos from her archive.

I’ll be writing soon about the exhibition Women Artists of the Weiner Werkstätte at MAK (the Vienna Museum of Applied Art) which I saw a couple of days ago. In the meantime there’s a beautiful photo of Lucie in Vienna taken by Lotte Meiner-Graf.

WIENER WERKSTÄTTE IN NEW YORK

Valli Wieselthier’s hope (mentioned here) that people would get as much pleasure from one of her “silly little glazed pots” in a modest apartment as they would from a precious sculpture in a sumptuous drawing room gives a slightly misleading impression of the Wiener Werkstätte, with which she was associated for many years.

I’ve been looking at Christian Witt-Dörring and Janis Staggs’ well-illustrated account of the Weiner Werkstätte 1902-1932 and reading Janis Staggs’ description of their New York showroom. Many of their Viennese customers were the higher bourgeoisie and the New York branch sought a similar clientele.

It was backed and directed by Joseph Urban, an Austrian émigré architect who had had a successful career designing sets for Hollywood and the Metropolitan Opera. Ziegfeld hired him for set designs on his Follies. The New York store was a cross between a stage set and an art gallery. Customers had to wait until the end of the season to take away their purchases and Urban sometimes refused to sell items he particularly liked. At the centre of the window display on Fifth Avenue was Victor Lurje’s life-size gilt sculpture of a male nude, for which Urban was reputedly offered thousands of dollars, which he turned down.

The picture (above) shows the store’s reception room. The chairs were inlaid with mother-of-pearl. The flanking tables held silverware by Josef Hoffmann and Dagobert Peche. The large painting (top) was by Klimt (now in the Neue Galerie, NY).

The Palais Stoclet, the Werkstätte’s most famous work, was similarly sumptuous, every detail designed by Hoffman at horrendous cost, which almost bankrupted the company. Hoffmann however later became interested in modern, convenient working-class housing, and there are several rather anonymous blocks in Vienna that he designed – perhaps containing some of Wieselthier’s “silly little glazed pots.”

VALLI WIESELTHIER

The Museum of Applied Arts in Vienna has an exhibition about Women Artists of the Wiener Werkstätte that I’m looking forward to, and one whose work I’ll seek out is Valli Wieselthier, whose playful and innovative ceramics I wrote about earlier. The Werkstätte were strongly represented at the Munich Exhibition of German Crafts in 1922, and the catalogue, which I came across today, includes a well-illustrated article by Weiselthier about her ceramic work, including this figure (above), thrown vessels and a tiled stove. It also shows work in other media that I wasn’t aware she worked in, including elegant marquetry cabinets and boxes (below). I love her subversion of Rococo conventions in her vigorously modelled and coloured maiolica figures.

Writing in the catalogue, Valli said, “I’d like to add that I really enjoy my work, and to be making things in my workshop, which I set up six months ago, gives me more pleasure than anything else. I have only one wish, that those who own a piece of my work should get as much pleasure from a silly little glazed pot in a modest apartment as they would from a precious sculpture in a sumptuous drawing room.”

ART POTTERY (2)

Thinking about Robin Emmerson’s article which I mentioned in my last post, in which he said that Art Pottery emerged from the anti-utilitarian Aesthetic Movement, I realised that studio pottery in the 1920s was also anti-utilitarian. Bernard Leach exhibited a teapot at the Beaux Arts Gallery in 1933 (illustrated by Jeffrey Jones in his big survey of 20th-century studio pottery). Roger Fry made some amateurish cups and saucers for the Omega Workshops. Dora Lunn, another potter of the period, also tried tableware, but it didn’t sell. These were the exceptions. Studio pottery was not meant for use – and there’s a story that when someone complained to Leach that his teapots didn’t pour well, he said they weren’t meant for making tea in. The other big beast of studio pottery in the 1920s, William Staite Murray, made vases as fine art. Much of the studio pottery of the inter-war years was figurines.

After the Second World War studio pottery took a different turn, with an emphasis on useful wares. Winchcombe Pottery had a huge contract from Cranks, the vegetarian restaurant, much of it fulfilled by Sidney Tustin at considerable personal cost, and Tustin said a machine should have made the pots, not a man. Harry Davis, one of the fastest studio throwers (who were nowhere near as skilled as the Stoke-on-Trent throwers) was deeply committed to the idea of tableware made by hand. There was a proliferation of potteries of varying quality turning out cups and saucers and plates and bowls in large quantities. Why did studio pottery take that direction?

Jeffrey Jones doesn’t really answer the question, but he passes on Harry Davis’s interesting obervations. Davis was one of the few people to recognise the upper-class origins of studio pottery. Although they talked about the virtues of a craft economy, studio potters lacked the organisational ability to create it. Michael Cardew, a gentleman-potter who was only interested in making pots, delegated the loathsome business side to Sidney Tustin and Elijah Comfort. Studio pottery continued the upper-class dislike of trade that had driven the Arts and Crafts movement.

By the 1950s, when utilitarian pottery began to be made in quantity, the design critiques of William Morris and Henry Cole had become irrelevant. The design profession had come to maturity and the critiques had been taken to heart by manufacturers. The best pottery manufacturers, like Wedgwood, had for decades been making beautiful and practical pottery, such as that designed by Keith Murray or decorated by Eric Ravilious (illustrated), that was arguably superior to studio pottery. The training of every art student was shaped by the Bauhaus.

So what could account for a turn to utility when it was least needed? I got some idea when I spoke to the studio potter Murray Fieldhouse (1925-2018) a few years ago. Murray was a passionate advocate of the Leach style of pottery. He explained to me that after the war many potters like him became pacifists, even though they’d been in the armed forces. He wanted to create an alternative society and he looked for a craft he could create it through.  He served his apprenticeship with Harry Davis, who had similar utopian leanings. The idea was that society could be changed by getting out of the factory and into the workshop, preferably run democratically or by craftsmen working alone. The art was secondary, and it’s interesting to see from Murray’s Pottery Quarterly magazine, which he edited from the 1950s to the 1980s, that he had equal disdain for industry, the design profession and fine art.

SCHOOL OF CHARLES VYSE

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.