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.

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.

BOURNEMOUTH

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.

MASS OBSERVATION: ‘MANTLEPIECES’

Osbert Lancaster, ‘Modernistic’, from Homes Sweet Homes (1939)

Curious as to how ceramic figures were displayed in their heyday in the 1920s and 1930s (I’ve written about them here and here), I popped down to the University of Sussex archive to read the Mass Observation report on Mantlepieces yesterday. Ceramic figures were produced in large quantities by factories, especially Doulton and Royal Worcester, and by studio potters. In fact, they were so common that, for most people, ‘studio pottery’ meant ceramic figures and not the plain stoneware vessels that it came to mean after the war, something that it’s hard for us to appreciate today. But we really know very little about their place in the home.

Osbert Lancaster included in his sardonic cartoons of Homes Sweet Homes the Modernistic home (above), with its comfortable-looking Art Deco furnishings and its comfortable-looking owner, her nicely curated mantlepiece with a square clock in the centre and figurines on either side. Was that how they were displayed?

Mass Observation was a famously muddled attempt by poet Charles Madge, anthropologist Tom Harrison and filmmaker Humphrey Jennings to make anthropological studies of the British people. There were intriguing results, like the chapter on the Lambeth Walk, the ‘thirties dance fad, in the Penguin book Britain by Mass Observation. But in other studies (MO called them ‘Directives’) the bias and capriciousness of the selections are obvious. In the Mantlepiece Directive, for example, it’s noticeable how many of the subjects are reported to be left-wing in their views and to have books by writers like Dostoevsky on the mantlepiece.

But what about the figurines? In fact there were very few on the mantlepieces observed and the overwhelming impression given in the reports was of chaos. Sociologists reading through the observations today and hoping to find pattern or significance in them have recorded their despair, irritation and ennui. There were 158 MO observers and they listed getting on for three thousand items. Unlike Osbert Lancaster’s Moderne lady, these mantlepiece-owners had little interest in display. There were a few china dogs and crinoline ladies, but on the whole there were random deposits of clocks, pipes, matches, postcards, brass ornaments, photos, vases, ashtrays, pencils, pens, bottles of ink, bowls with collar-studs and paper clips in them, and generally the detritus of everyday life whose classification would be like Luis Borges’ Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge.

DECORATIVE ARTS IN THE 20s AND 30s

The 1926 Yearbook of Decorative Art published by The Studio magazine was frank about British design conservatism: ‘On the Continent and in the United States the enterprise was greater than in this country and the results more hectic. We Britons have always been somewhat slow in the uptake in the matter of design; but our conservatism in the long run has done us little harm.’ Remember that the 1925 Paris Exhibition is seen as the launch pad of Art Deco and then see that many if not most of the designs featured by The Studio are still in Arts-and-Crafts mode.

Architectural examples were predominently vernacular in inspiration, with a trace of neo-Georgian in the examples from Welwyn Garden City. But although interiors were  traditional, they were stripped down and free from clutter, as in work by the Deutsche Werkstätten. Gordon Russell’s simple and useful furniture was made by the best cabinet makers available. Heal’s furniture anticipated Utility, with which Russell, of course was associated.

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British ceramics emphasised craft methods: hand-painted pottery from Pilkington, Wedgwood and Poole, work by the up-and-coming studio potters, William Staite Murray and Bernard Leach, figures by Stanley Thorogood, Wilfrid Norton, Harold Stabler and Stella Crofts.  Handicraft was also emphasised in Continental ceramics but the Deco element was evident in pieces designed by Claude Lévy and Madeleine Sougez for Atelier Primavera (top), who had exhibited at the 1925 Paris Expo.

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Figurative ceramics were more evident in the illustrations from the Continent, despite the fact they were at the height of their popularity in Britain.

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By 1933, there had been a major change. The rchitecture and interiors featured in the Yearbook were now mainly modernist, including British examples by A.V.Pilchowski and Stanley Hall and Eastern & Robertson. Fewer ceramics were shown but they included mass-produced factory wares like those designed by M. Friedlaender.

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SLAVERY AND CERAMICS

Gwendolen Parnell, The Planter’s Daughter

Readers will know that I’ve been finding out about English figurative pottery in the 1920s and 1930s. Most has to come from looking at it because it’s almost completely undocumented, but from doing so one can uncover some of its influences and sources. Charles Vyse, for example, shared the contemporary idealised view of Romany life with Augustus John, Laura Knight and Alfred Munnings, and both he and Munnings drew Romanies at Epson Races.

Gwendolen Parnell designed one of her rare figure groups for Royal Worcester Porcelain in the 1930s, The Planter’s Daughter, which depicts a lady in 18th-century dress (Parnell’s stock in trade) attended by a Black servant. It directly parallels Continental European figures by Valley Wieselthier and Paul Scheurich for Meissen.

Vally Wieselthier, Vanity, 1925
Paul Scheurich, Figure Group

That was not a common theme in ceramics but it has a long pedigree in painting, dating at least to the 16th century.

Titian, Portrait of Laura dei Dianti, c. 1523

There’s now a debate about these servants, who were acquired as status symbols and paraded in public: were they free labourers or were they actually slaves? The Planter’s Daughter suggests a setting in the USA unique in Parnell’s work, which case the servant would be a slave, though the title is unexplained. Parnell, distantly related to Charles Stewart Parnell, may be referring to the Irish poem of that name, but then why the Black servant?

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.

THE DULWICH POTTERY (2)

THE KENNEL MAID 1925

I found a picture of a figure by Jessamine Bray and Sybil Williams of the Dulwich Pottery, one of those lost works of art recorded in old newspapers that whet the appetite, an interesting example of the kind of portrait pieces that the figurative potters often made between the wars. The accompanying article answers my question about Bray’s and Williams’ relationship with Charles Vyse, whose work theirs so closely resembles, reporting that they trained with him. There’s little documentation about these potteries and Terry Cartlidge’s detailed study of Charles Vyse depended very much on the memories of surviving associates when he carried out his researches twenty-five years ago; but although he was able to identify some of Vyse’s workshop associates, nobody mentioned Bray and Williams to him.

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.