W.T.CURTIS AND WILLIAM BURCHETT

kenton library 1
Kenton Public Library (1939)

I wrote earlier about W.T.Curtis and William Burchett, architects to Middlesex County Council, who were responsible for many schools and public buildings in north-west London, including the iconic Kenton Public Library, recognisable by their brick construction, strong horizontal emphasis, flat roofs and prominent staircase tower. I was pleased to find that they’d designed my primary school, Pinner Park, in 1934, which used innovative construction methods. (No usable pictures, alas.)

My secondary school, Harrow Weald Grammar, a Neo-Georgian brick construction, opened in 1933, was very different. As the building is now being converted to housing, I became curious about its designer. I was amazed to find that it was also W. T. Curtis. Curtis’s change from traditional to modern was very sudden.

64821.1.434.434.FFFFFF
Harrow Weald County School (1933)

In their page on Curtis and Burchett, Modernism in Metroland explain how it came about:

The Wall Street crash and world financial crisis of 1931, one year into W.T. Curtis’ reign, forced a change in the departments’ designs in order to cut costs. Aiming to reduce spending by 30%, Curtis and Burchett adopted a more modernist utilitarian approach to school building. Their first innovations were using steel framing at Uxendon Manor School, Wembley (1934), and then concrete slab floors supported by pillars at Pinner Park School (1934). These techniques allowed flexibility in internal planning, whilst also keeping the traditional Victorian school courtyard layout.

 

LUTON TOWN HALL

town hall

I’ve been reading my diary for 1993 when I worked for Luton Borough Council, where I moved from the London Borough of Camden.

Luton was the worst example of callous post-war town planning in England. It was cut in half by the massive Arndale Centre (now called The Mall), where ghosts of old vanished streets lingered in the names of corridors. In the deserted side roads, old trades survived – a grocer with a bacon slicer, a bag and case shop with a window full of jumble, a stove enameller – and an exceptionally large number of nonconformist chapels. I liked Luton, which was untidy, varied, comic and glum. Although it was in the south, it felt like a northern city, largely because of Vauxhall Motors.

The philosophy of town planning was very different in the 1990s from what it had been in the 1960s and the Council was trying to atone for its sins. The district surveyor, who was on the point of retiring when I arrived, told me that the greatest regret of his professional life was acquiring the land for the Arndale. In the town planning guidance of the period, modernism was bad and Victorianism good.

I was reminded how much I liked the town hall. It was built in 1935 to replace the old town hall burned down in the infamous Peace Day riots of 1919, when disgruntled ex-servicemen revolted against their mistreatment and their exclusion from the official celebrations. Although the mayor was lucky to escape with his life, the riots had a funny side when a music shop was looted and a piano pushed out into the street to accompany a rendering of Keep the Home Fires Burning.

The listed building by Bradshaw, Gass and Hope is a mixture of civic classical and art deco, with a Doric entrance and a neon clock. The council chamber is walnut-panelled and lit by cubist pendants and retains original fittings and finishes in timber, plaster and metal designed by the architects.

luton council chamber

When I worked there, the office doors had PRIVATE in gold letters on frosted glass panels but no name of the officer who worked inside. The building was beautifully preserved and smelled of furniture polish, a welcome change from working in Camden town hall, whose walls were smothered in unofficial placards and whose stairways smelled of piss.

HERBERT READ’S ‘ART AND INDUSTRY’

download

Herbert Read’s book Art and lndustry, which I’ve been reading, was a major influence in the interwar debate that constructed the notion of “good design”. Read had worked at the Victoria and Albert Museum in the 1920s and was professor of fine art at Edinburgh university and editor of The Burlington Magazine in the early 1930s. It was during that decade that he published his best-known books, Art Now (1933), Art and Society (1937) and Art and Industry (1934).

His ideas about design are underpinned by an aesthetic theory similar to Roger Fry’s and Clive Bell’s formalism. In Art and Industry he divides art into humanist art, by which he means European pictorial art and ornamentation from the Renaissance onward, and formal art, which is pure shape and colour without content or reference. He fiercely deprecates ornament in similar terms to Adolf Loos, says little about humanist art and is strongly biased in favour of abstract art.

According to Read, formal beauty in art, nature or everyday objects, is either rational or intuitive. Rational beauty consists in conformity to rules of harmony and proportion, which were understood in the Renaissance but which have deeper and more ancient roots and which are to be found in nature. Read does not explain why proportions found in nature should be beautiful and others not. Intuitive beauty is that which deviates in some way from strict rules of harmony but which is recognised in an unconscious process that is not fully understood and cannot easily be explained. Apart from a few comments, Read does not explain it.

Objects that possess intuitive formal beauty can be illustrated, and Read has many such illustrations in his book, but this quality cannot be “rationalised” (to use his term). It can, however, be identified by noting what persons of taste recognise as beautiful. For example, he shows an ancient Greek drinking bowl and a Sung dynasty vase, and says that, although the former conforms to rules of proportion and the latter deviates from it, those who know about this kind of thing have no doubt that the Sung vase is better. Read implies that there is an aesthetic elite who possess the ability to intuitively recognise formal beauty, and although he says that the average man is capable of it, one suspects that Read thinks the average man must submit to the guidance of the elite. Read does not explain in what way the discerning person differs from the undiscerning, except in the objects he chooses. Read thus follows the same circular route as Fry and Bell: formal beauty is that which produces a response in people whose discernment can be identified by the objects they they choose. This kind of elitism may have been formed in his career as a curator at the V&A. Today it is clear that his argument is a way of defining cultural capital.

Like other writers of the period, Read appeared to believe that beauty is a quality of objects, like colour, that can be perceived, and that is not just a matter of personal preference. That implies that aesthetic appreciation is a cognitive ability and that those that lack it have a defect like colour-blindness. Read thinks that, by and large, the British manufacturing class lack it, and he expresses disdain for their supposed philistinism.

British manufacturers produce inferior goods, says Read, not only because they cannot tell the good from the bad, but also because they are motivated by purely commercial considerations. Because their goods are inferior, they have to demand tariffs to protect them from better-designed Continental goods, but Read does not really explain why the Continental capitalist produces better goods than his British counterpart, or why, if well-designed goods sell better than badly-designed goods, the profit motive does not generate better design. Because of this perceived incapacity in the British manufacturing elite, Read is compelled to advocate a cultural elite who have the ability to intuit formal beauty and, if who if they were given half a chance, could reform industry.

Like so many writers on art with a programme or manifesto, Read is immensely irritating. Although he was interested in mass production and took a left-wing position in politics, his ideas are snobbish and elitist. He talks about the “average man”, but is uninterested in what he likes (in contrast to pioneering curators of popular art, Barbara Jones and Enid Marx). He has a psychological theory of aesthetics and leans on a sketchy Freudianism, but cites no psychological research. Had any been done at that date? The new discipline of neuro-aesthetics is now making it possible to understand what is happening in the brain when people respond to art works and it may even be able to help designers and manufacturers.

WILLIAM ROTHENSTEIN AND E.W.TRISTRAM

1951_Festival_of_Britain_Guide_as167a103b
Festival Titling typeface by Phillip Boydell

I misrepresented William Rothenstein’s views on design teaching in my last post, commenting on his association with the arts-and-crafts colony in the Cotswolds and his appointing E.W.Tristram, a medievalist, to the post of professor of design at the RCA. Rothenstein wanted to modernise design education at the College and was well aware of new developments on the continent.

After having been in post at the RCA for a while, Rothenstein recorded his impressions. In a memorandum to the Board of Education, he wrote in 1921:

I hope I have your support in looking on the College as a centre which serves, not so much to give a vocational training, as to give each student, whether he intends to be a simple designer of cotton fabrics or an ambitious painter or sculptor, the best general education through the arts. Some commercial men hold that an industrial designer does not require so complete an education as a more ambitious artist. But I feel sure that Board considers this to be a short sighted view, and that well educated designers will finally prove of greater service to British industry than less well educated men.

Much of the work in the Schools of Pottery, of Painting and Decorating and of Metalwork is too unexperimental and derivative. No consistent attempt has been made to deal with the interpretation of the contemporary world in design and execution. A wrong understanding of the spirit which made mediaeval art so vital persists at Kensington, and the research work towards the discovery of new subject matter and new treatment, so noticeable on the Continent, seems to have ben wanting. It is important that we do not fall behind the Continental industries, and the freshness of design, execution and subject matter which s characteristic of the best French, German and Austrian work has not been sufficiently encouraged and sought for at the college, in my opinion.

Rothenstein recommended E.W.Tristram, faute de mieux, for the post of professor of design on the resignation of Anning Bell.

For some time I thought it would be possible to find an artist as renowned as Professor Bell to undertake the direction of the most important school of the College. But the movement started by William Morris and his friends seems to have spent itself. I know of no younger men associated with the arts and crafts society endowed with the wide culture which was, and still is, characteristic of Morris’ immediate disciples. It is true that a new life Is stirring among the younger painters and craftsmen. But this movement, which had its origins in France, has not yet taken firm root in this country. Of the present men associated with traditional English craftmanship and design, I know of no-one more capable and scholarly than Mr Tristram. His patient and profound study of English wall painting – in fact of every kind of English painting – has at last won for him a unique position among his contemporaries.

dinkel
Ernest Dinkel poster for London Underground

Noting Tristram’s shyness, Rothenstein recommend the appointment of Paul Nash, Ernest Dinkel and Philip Boydell to work with him in the design department. Nash is well-known. Dinkel was a bold poster designer for the London Underground and Boydell designed the Festival Titling typeface used in Festival of Britain publications. Tristram’s main work was in medieval wall painting, and although Rothenstein referred to his work in modern textile design, it is still questionable whether he was the best representative of design education for the Gorell committee.

THE GORELL REPORT

GORELL

 

I’ve been reading Art & Industry, the Gorell report, a milestone in the design debate in the decade before the war. The Board of Trade set up the Gorell committee to consider “the production and exhibition of articles of good design and everyday use”. Its result was the Council for Art and Industry, a precursor of the Design Council. Fiona MacCarthy perceived the long arm of the Arts and Crafts Movement reaching as far as the Festival of Britain and Terence Conran. It certainly influenced public discussions about design in the 1930s and its ideas pervade the Gorell report.

Of the committee’s nineteen members, three were artists or designers, five were industrialists and the largest cohort were politicians and public officials. Lord Gorell was a Liberal politician, an author and journalist. The industrialists were: A. E. Gray, the Staffordshire pottery manufacturer, who employed Susie Cooper and Gordon Forsyth; C.H. St John Hornby, the successful head of W. H. Smith, who also had an interest in fine printing and ran the Ashendene Press; Charles Richter, director of Bath Cabinet Makers and a member of the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society; Howard Robertson, a leading architect and later President of the RIBA; and H. Trethowan, president of the china and glass retailers association. It’s clear that the business representatives were chosen for their arts-and-crafts bent and that they were untypical of businessmen in Britain.

 

gorell members

 

The arts representatives were Roger Fry, E. W. Tristram, professor of design at the RCA, Clough William-Ellis, now known mainly for his whimsical creation at Portmeirion, and the art writer Margaret Bulley, author of Have You Good Taste?

The committee looked at the problem of design from an arts-and-crafts perspective and saw it essentially as the “divorce of design from execution” that had taken place during the industrial revolution. It sought “a reunion of Art and Industry”. It focused wholly on consumer goods and it considered design as good appearance rather than product engineering.

A pressing matter for industry while the committee was sitting was world recession and the lack of competitiveness of British goods. There was a long-standing view that our exports suffered because of poor design compared to continental goods, particularly French and German goods. There may have been some truth in that. The superiority of French goods was arguably the overhang of the royal monopolies of the Grand Siècle and Colbert’s forcing up of standards. Germany had developed the arts and crafts into modernism, while Britain compromised with what Michael Saler has called “medieval modernism”, modernism mitigated by the ideas of Ruskin and spiritual uplift. But tariffs may have been more salient than design in Britain’s balance of trade.

 

c h st john hornby

C. H. St John Hornby, director of W. H. Smith, at his Ashendene Press

 

Gorell urged training in principles of design for everyone – manufacturers, craftsmen, buyers and sellers – so that they could appreciate good design when they saw it. Its ideas about improving design were confused with the idea of improving taste, which was a long-standing feature of the art-and-industry debate. Fry in his memorandum to the committee said that many manufacturers had lost contact with educated taste. There was always something  patronising about “good design”, from the Chamber of Horrors in South Kensington in the 1850s, which showed up the ghastly against the good, to Anthony Bertram’s Penguin book Design (1938), which preached about white walls and tut-tutted about patterned rugs. Gorell insisted that that the new central design body it recommended should be staffed by “persons of taste and cultural standards” – by which it had in mind persons such as themselves.

The report lacks recommendations for improving art education at secondary and tertiary level. The presence of Tristram on the committee may have made its members reluctant to criticise the RCA. Rothenstein had shaken up the RCA, but his main improvement was in the teaching of fine art and his ability to change the design school may have been compromised by his association with the Cotswolds arts-and-crafts colony. When he toured continental art schools in the 1920s, the Bauhaus was not on his itinerary. Tristram himself was a medievalist and was probably not the best representative of design education for deliberations of this sort.

Herbert Read was critical of the Gorell Report at the time, and a modern writer, Tanya Harrod, has described it as muddled. But Nikolaus Pevsner described it as “the first official document to emphasize the vital importance of improvements in British industrial art and to confirm the urgent necessity of immediate action.”

THE ARTS AND CRAFTS EXHIBITION SOCIETY

0 front cover

I have been looking at the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society catalogue for their 1935 exhibition, which shows the Society (which gave its name to the Arts and Crafts movement and had doubts about the propriety of machine-made goods) flirting with design for mass production.

It was a small step but a significant one. William Morris’s ambivalence about machinery had hardened into outright opposition and in the 20th century the craftsman evolved from a generalist with a wide range of abilities (usually based on architecture), who sometimes contracted the execution of his work to a tradesman, into a specialist, frequently working alone and controlling every stage of production.

Pevsner argued that the lead in design in the 20th century passed from the Arts and Crafts to pioneer modernists like Adolf Loos, Peter Behrens, Josef Hoffman, the Deutsche Werkbund and the Bauhaus, and by the 1930s, some design thinkers doubted that there was much room for the crafts. Gropius, in a lecture he gave in England in 1934, argued that their future lay not in production but in “research work for industrial production and in speculative developments in laboratory workshops where the preparatory work of evolving and perfecting new type-forms will be done.” Herbert Read took a similar view in Art and Industry.

These ideas became so widespread that craftspeople were either persuaded by them or understood the need to engage with them. Among potters, even two of the most craft-based were briefly enchanted by them, Bernard Leach toying with the idea setting up a small factory and Michael Cardew trying to design for Stoke-on-Trent. John Farleigh, who was on the modernising wing of the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society, responded to this current of thought by declaring to members that “We are in a machine age, and to ignore it is to ignore life as it is lived today,” but he contended that craft objects that could be reproduced by machine would be better if craftsmen supervised their manufacture, proposing a larger role for the craftsman in industry than that indicated by Gropius and Read.

farleigh black girl

In 1935 the Society included in its exhibition a section devoted to design for Mass Production, stating that the artist-craftsman “is admirably fitted to design for ‘batch-production’, ‘quantity-production’ or ‘mass-production’ in industry”. It led with Farleigh’s wood engravings for Bernard Shaw’s Adventures of the Black Girl in Search of God (above) and the exhibit was dominated by design for print, with lettering by Edward Johnston, Noel Rooke, Grailey Hewett and Alfred Firbank. There was some furniture by Romney Green and Gordon Russell, some printed fabrics by Heals, and some pottery designed for Doulton by Reco Capey. This was a hardly a major departure from hand-work. Ambrose Heal was a staunch supporter of the crafts and a member of the Society, and Doulton’s was an art pottery rather than a manufacturer of tableware. There was no evidence of any serious engagement by the Society with industry or any real interest in industrial design. Nevertheless, it was too much for some members. Leach was in the opposing faction and resigned. Staite Murray agreed with him that the Society’s policy of encouraging design for industry would “subvert the object of the Society to preserve the Crafts.”

The exhibition of British Art in Industry in 1935 talked of a “struggle for supremacy” between machine methods that made possible cheap goods and hand craftsmanship that could give goods individuality and character. The “art and industry debate” that persisted throughout the 1930s was never resolved and was brought to an end by the war, when craft production became an impermissible luxury. By 1944, two-thirds of Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society members were said to be designing for industry.

MICHAEL CARDEW

I viewed the upcoming auction of items at Woolley and Wallis yesterday, dominated by two large collections of Martinware, which were introduced to members of the Decorative Arts Society by Dr Christopher Jordan.

There are also many lots of 20th century studio pottery, including some good examples of work by Michael Cardew. I suppose it’s because many potters were production throwers that there are numerous examples of their work around, but I was still surprised at the low guide prices for some of the items. This group of five Cardew pots, for example, is expected to sell for £120 – £180 for the lot.

WHAT IF GROPIUS HAD BEEN DIRECTOR OF THE RCA?

I’ve been reading Hilary Cunliffe-Charlesworth’s thesis on the Royal College of Art and was intrigued to discover the British response to Bauhaus teaching and to Gropius, who came to England in 1934.

The RCA under Rothenstein had undergone radical change since 1920, when it was primarily a teacher training college. Rothenstein had brought in professional artists who were to have studios in the college and he encouraged the professional art teachers to leave. In 1924 he visited art schools in Prague, Berlin and Paris and saw that the work being done there surpassed anything to be found in England. His visit persuaded him that the College should neither be a teacher training institution nor offer vocational training for specific industries but that it ought to be delivering a high standard of general education to intending designers and artists. Weimar was not on his itinerary so he didn’t see the Bauhaus. Although he took pains to get more government money for the design department, his main achievement was in the fine arts – Paul Nash, Edward Burra, Henry Moore, Eric Ravilous and Edward Bawden were products of Rothenstein’s RCA.

There had been nagging discontent with the college’s failure to produce enough industrial designers more or less since it was founded in 1896, and these criticisms surfaced again during Rothenstein’s tenure. But the methods of the Bauhaus were never seen as as an alternative. It was thought by some in the Board of Education to be a fine art school and its socialist phase under Hannes Meyer frightened them.

When he came to England, Gropius was consulted on design education and his lectures were well attended, but on Rothenstein’s resignation he wasn’t considered as a successor. It’s fascinating to speculate what might had have happened if he had been. The revolution that occurred under Robin Darwin would have taken place ten years earlier. As it was, the Bauhaus system wasn’t fully applied in British art schools until the Coldstream Report in 1960. What if there had been a Gropius Report in 1935?

 

 

COUNTY COUNCIL BAUHAUS

charles aslin
Charles Aslin (1893-1959)

I saw the RIBA’s exhibition Beyond Bauhaus on Saturday, which charts the influence of Walter Gropius, László Moholy-Nagy and Walter Breuer during and after the years when they lived in England.

As I live in Hertfordshire, I was intrigued to discover that the rapid school-building programme in the county after the Second World War was implemented by by a team of architects under Charles Aslin (above), whose debt to Gropius was explicit. The population was growing fast and there was great demand for schools. The county architects, backed by the director of education, John Newsom, who was reputed to be good at sourcing materials in a time of scarcity, devised a standard prefabricated model, mainly used for single-storey buildings and making great use of natural light, colour and art.

carpenders park
Designs for interior colour schemes for the entrance hall at Carpenders Park School, Oxhey by Oliver Cox, HCC Architects.
Image from RIBApix

I’d noticed the criss-cross ceiling girders in nearly every Hertfordshire school I visited (below)- round the corner from me is Margaret Wix Primary School built on such a model. My daughter went to St Albans Girls School, also built like that, with a Barbara Hepworth sculpture in the foyer. The Hertfordshire achievement was quickly recognised and it influenced school building elsewhere – by 1970 about 40 per cent of British schools had used it.

green lanes croxley
Green Lanes School, Croxley Green, 1949

The exhibition made me curious about the primary school I’d attended, Pinner Park, then part of Middlesex County Council. When we’re children we accept the world as it presents itself and have little sense of context or history, but looking back I remember a modernist building with flat roofs and metal-framed windows. I discovered it was of the many modernist buildings constructed before the war by Middlesex County architects  William Thomas Curtis and his assistant Howard William Burchett. They created dozens of public buildings in Metroland , including the now-listed Kenton Public Library (below), recognisable from their brick construction, strong horizontal emphasis, flat roofs and prominent staircase tower. They used innovative methods and materials such as the concrete slab floors supported by pillars at Pinner Park School.

kenton library 1kenton library 2

Historic England’s description of Kenton Public Library gives an idea of Curtis and Burchett’s style and influences:

The square tower has two small, latter projections on the south-east corner, one of brick and one glazed. Both wings lit by tall metal windows. Entrance hall lit by east wall of glass bricks. Interior: original staircase, issuing desk and screen, and original bookcases. The main reading room is both side-lit and top-lit by means of circular perforated openings. Included as a good example of the Middlesex County Architect’s Department’s style adopted after 1933, owing much to the work of Wittem Dudok in Hilversum, yet giving a distinctive architectural form of calibre and panache to the London suburbs. This example is especially notable for its boldly geometric composition and the survival of internal fittings.

IMRE MADÁCH SQUARE

After writing about Zoltán Boboreki-Kovács’s sculptures in my last post, I tried to find out something about the building they decorate.

It’s part of Imre Madách Square, a Budapest city led development designed by Gyula Wälder and commenced in 1937. The Square leads to a grand arch and on either side are matching apartment blocks. Kovac’s reliefs are cut into travertine facings on the south block (shown with a marker in the picture).

Wälder is said to have adapted Baroque forms to modern developments, though I can’t see that in the Madách Square development. Early in his career he designed sections of the Wekerle Estate, an Arts-and-Crafts style development influenced by the English garden city movement. His historicism drew criticism from his contemporaries and from architects of the socialist period, but Madách Square is now a protected development and is pleasantly pedestrianised.