GWENDOLEN PARNELL

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.

THE DUDOK STYLE

In case anyone is wondering about the mention of in my last post of Hilversum Town Hall, the creation of Dutch architect Willem Dudok, and its influence on the Middlesex County Council (MCC) architects who copied its style, I’ve put a picture of it (left) with a picture of W.T.Curtis’s and William Burchett’s Kenton public library (1939), their iconic MCC building, now listed.

PINNER PARK SCHOOL

I wrote about Pinner Park School in my post about about W.T.Curtis and William Burchett, the Middlesex County architects who were responsible for its innovative design, and commented that there were no usable pictures of it. Now on the Twitter feed of Harrow Old Views there appears a picture of the school under construction in 1933 or 1934, with a group of children and adults. This was taken from the front of the building in Headstone Lane and shows the central staircase tower under construction.

There is another picture from Google, taken from the side in Melbourne Avenue.

Pinner Park School used concrete slab floors supported by pillars in a radical departure from the County architects’ traditional neo-Georgian buildings, which they had been designing up to about 1933. The new methods forced on them by the recession led to the adoption of a new building style modeled on Willem Dudok’s Hilversum Town Hall (1931).

The construction picture, although poor, shows the typical concrete floors and pillars, which were subsequently filled in with panels and facings of brick and large windows, which created well-lit classrooms. It is interesting that there is no scaffolding in place and it must have been put up later.

The presence of pupils at this early stage is also interesting, because, as far as I know, Pinner Park did not replace an earlier school and it provided for the new families in the new houses of Metroland. As it happens, I lived five-minutes’ walk away, and when I first attended the school there were fields between my home and Pinner Park School, where houses were built only in the late 1950s. So where did these children come from? Probably from the surrounding houses in Pinner and North Harrow, eagerly awaiting the opening of their new school, only the second in this new style after Uxendon Manor.

DESIGNERS IN BRITAIN, 1949

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Ernest Race. Steel-framed rocking chair.

I found a copy of Designers in Britain 1949, the biennial review of the Society of Industrial Artists (SIA), on eBay recently, from which these pictures come.

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Top: George Williams and Misha Black. Reversible and adjustable rail-car seat.
Bottom: Norbert Dutton, Ronald Ingles and Douglas Scott. Green Line Bus for London Transport Passenger Board.

The SIA played a critical role in the development of the industrial design profession in Britain and the review shows how rapidly things had changed during the war. The selection contrasts with that for the Exhibition of Art in Industry at the Royal Academy in 1935, where there was considerably more emphasis on decoration and appearance and less on problem solving.

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Edric Neel, Raglan Squire, Rodney Thomas and A.M.Gear.

Milner Gray, one of the founders of the SIA in 1930 and a member of the council in 1949, told the Royal Society of Arts in that year that the pressures of war had hastened these changes and moved industrial design towards being a technical operation and away from design for selling, which had been the principal motive in the pre-war decade. In fields like aircraft production and the packaging of battle stores, the integration of design with production had become literally a matter of life or death.

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Enid Marx. Furnishing fabrics for the Board of Trade.

In the review there is still a lot of marketing design (Milner Gray had worked in packaging design) and graphic design predominates, but there are interesting examples of interior design, fabrics, ceramics, clothing, transportation and the design of industrial equipment as well.

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3 Tom Eckersley. 5, 6 Abram Games. 7 Edward Wright

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4, 5 Anthony Gilbert. 6 Paul Hogarth. 7 Ann Buckmaster. 8 James Boswell

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School furniture. 3 D.L.Medd. 4, 5 R.D.Russell. 6, 7 James Leonard.

THE BIRMINGHAM GUILD

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Selfridge’s lift, 1928, designed and made by the Birmingham Guild. Now in the Museum of London.

The latest edition of the Journal of the Decorative Arts Society has an article by Tony Peart about the Birmingham Guild, which I knew nothing about. The Guild were successful architectural metalworkers, founded in 1890 and modeled on C. R. Ashbee’s Guild of Handicraft, but unlike Ashbee’s company they prospered. Ashbee’s firm was wound up in 1907 after a trade recession which also did for William de Morgan in the same year, but the Birmingham Guild survived.

Ashbee complained of unfair competition between the factory and the craftsman and thought the crafts should be subsidised because of the benefits they brought to society. (Similar pleas were made in the 1940s by the furniture-maker Harry Norris and the potter Bernard Leach.) Graham Wallas (one of the founders of the LSE) calculated, à propos Morris & Co., that if society were to be run on arts-and-crafts principles, the cost of labour would exceed the value of outputs. The Birmingham Guild, however, found a way of combining art and business, as indeed, did Morris & Co. Employing skilled artisans from the Birmingham metal industries, they show that, even at the end of the 19th century, quality hand-production had been far from obliterated by the advancement of mass production, as the arts-and-crafts narrative asserted.

The company’s success was built on a good product, strong artistic input, originality, active marketing – and presumably sound accounting. During the First World War they turned to aircraft production, forming a relationship with De Havilland that they were able to revive during the Second World War. Their business was stable enough to be unaffected by the 1929 crash. They managed to combine profitability with idealism: one of their founders, Arthur Dix, said in 1895 that, “The Guild does not minimise the importance of this commercial aspect of its industry, but seeks only to make as much profit as is necessary to cover the expenses of its work, and to provide its designers and craftsmen with a sufficient remuneration.” They steadily innovated, introducing enameled inlays to lettering, which gave them a profitable new line. Enameling was one of their specialisms and they recruited the Japanese master enameler Shozo Kato in the 1920s, who somehow managed to keep his technique secret from everyone else in the company.

The Birmingham Guild successfully combined art and industry but stood slightly apart from others seeking to raise design standards, such as The Design and Industries Association, a proto-modernist breakaway from the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society that tended to disapprove of ornamentation. It was only after the Second World War that the company’s decorative style lost favour with architects, despite a partnership with the Crittall window company and a history of corporate contracts. Problems finding skilled labour in Birmingham after the war and the greater appeal of the motor industry exacerbated their problems and contributed to the company’s decline

“THE THINGS WE SEE”

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In the late 1940s and early 50s, during the era of post-war reconstruction, Penguin Books published an attractive, well-illustrated, large-format series called The Things We See, setting out the principles of good design in an attempt to raise visual literacy. There were volumes on Houses, Furniture, Pottery and Glass, Public Transport, Gardens and Ships. The introductory volume was called Indoors and Out, by Alan Jarvis, Director of Information at the Council of Industrial Design (CoID).

The Things we See was descended from the South Kensington museum’s Chamber of Horrors through the Arts and Crafts movement and the art-and-industry debates of the 1930s. Alan Jarvis’s volume, although illustrated with contemporary designs like a factory-built house and an Underground station on the Piccadilly line, expresses ideas about design, taste and industry familiar since Ruskin’s day. He said that the degradation and shabbiness of the built environment resulted from public indifference to the way things look and from liking the wrong things. This had a tinge of immorality about it. When someone said to Henry Cole that people’s tastes varied, he replied, “I think to act on the principle of ‘every one to his taste’ would be as mischievous as ‘every one to his morals’.” The sentiment persisted.

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Jarvis said that modern housing is wrong because the Englishman has modelled it on the castle instead of designing at an appropriate scale. He disdained the suburb and the Tudorbethan house (as all design reformers did), but by the late 1940s anti-suburb snobbery had clothed itself in democratic ideals: “Just as manorial rights, feudal economics and a rigid system of social castes are inappropriate to a modern industrial democracy,” said Jarvis, “so are the architectural forms which we still copy.” It was a precept of the good-design movement that one material should not imitate another and that previous styles should never be copied, but the Georgian Revival had played into Jarvis’s thinking and he held up the Georgian house as a model of elegance and restraint.

He compared good and bad taste in design with good and bad taste in food and drew interesting parallels between, on one hand, a modern bedroom and a wholemeal loaf, and, on the other, a bad-taste bedroom and a plate of sticky iced cakes.

There are Arts-and-Crafts attitudes throughout. Industry bred a new type of man detached from the land and confined to the factory. Modern transport systems spoiled the town and the countryside. Mass production debased the quality of goods and suppressed individuality. There is only a grudging acceptance that mass production brought cheaper commodities and no recognition of the value of predictability and reliability.

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Jarvis held out Frederic Gibberd’s modest and democratic factory-built steel house (above) as the hope for future design. It had harmonious proportions and no ornamentation other than the integral patterns of brick, roof tiles and fluted panels. It was simple and practical and did not refer to the past or have any connotations or extraneous meaning.

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He viewed decoration and ornament with suspicion. He acknowledged the human urge to decorate and admitted that it had to be indulged if we were not to go down the route of “crude or second-hand satisfactions, with a synthetic taste in visual things, like a taste for soups and custard made of powder.” There was the predictable worry about vulgarity and a reminder of Adolf Loos in Jarvis’s horror of tattooing.

At the same time as this Penguin series came out, Barbara Jones, in The Unsophisticated Arts and the exhibition Black Eyes and Lemonade, was recording and celebrating vulgar and popular art including tattooing, fairground painting, confectionery and funerary art, at the start of an anti-design movement that accepted demotic taste and even democratic bad taste.

WILLIAM STAITE MURRAY

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I have been reading Julian Stair’s thesis on critical writing about English studio pottery, 1910 – 1940, which foregrounds Roger Fry’s formative influence in the first three decades of the 20th century, something that was not mentioned in 20th-century accounts of studio pottery and which is only now being realised, largely due to Stair’s research. In the early years of the studio pottery movement there was a wary rivalry between William Staite Murray, who was the star of studio pottery in the 1920s, and Bernard Leach, who until 1920 worked in Japan. What I didn’t realise, and what Stair explains, is there was a change of gear in the 1930s when Leach’s reputation rose and studio pottery turned from exhibition pieces towards utility, inspired by a late resurgence of the Arts and Crafts philosophy that Leach followed.  In the 1930s, Stair discovered, reviews of Staite Murry’s exhibitions became more critical and eventually petered out completely.

Although Staite Murray is still recognised as a major pioneer, auction values of his pots (above) are not as high as might be thought. In MAAK’s latest online sale, expected prices range between £250 and £800, while recent work by living potters is expected to raise much more, for example, Daniel Reynolds: £800 – £1200, Sarah Scampton: £1,200 – £1,500, Tanya Gomez: £800 – £1,100, Sarah Flynn: £1,200 – £1,800, and Edmund de Waal: £2,500 – £3,500

LÁSZLÓ MOHOLY-NAGY

 

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I was interested to read that the Hungarian designer László Moholy-Nagy (above) was turned down for a teaching post at the Royal College of Art during his residence in England between 1934 and 1937. Walter Gropius, as I mentioned elsewhere, was considered for the post of director when William Rothenstein stepped down, but was thought to be unsuitable because the Bauhaus was mistakenly understood by the Board of Education to be a fine-art school and because of its association with the political left under Hannes Meyer.

The Bauhaus had not been on Rothenstein’s horizon when ten years earlier he made a tour of continental art schools to see how the RCA might be brought up to date, and although he made radical reforms in the teaching at the college and was aware that the arts-and-crafts ethos was holding it back, he was not an apostle of modernism. He wittily dismissed the followers of Cézanne as ces ânes (these donkeys) and he appointed to the post of professor of design E. W. Tristram, a specialist in medieval wall painting. Britain’s premier art school in the 1930s made little contribution to the development of modernism (although Reco Capey and Paul Nash were notable exceptions). 

Tristram was recruited to the government committee on Art and Industry in 1931, the Gorell Committee, which was tasked with advising on the best ways of exhibiting high standards of design in consumer goods, presumably because of his position, but his interests and experience did not fit him to advancing industrial design.  Many of the other members of the Committee were fully signed up to the arts-and-crafts philosophy and it is extraordinary to consider that its report was regarded by Pevsner as “the first official document to emphasize the vital importance of improvements in British industrial art” when it was suspicious of industry and mass production.

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The attitude of the Gorell Committee and other contemporary British initiatives on art and industry was the inverse of that of Moholy-Nagy. Gorell sought ways of applying an artistic appearance to industrial products while Moholy-Nagy was interested in applying industrial technology to art. During his direction of the metal workshop at the Bauhaus, his class developed industrial prototypes and he was associated with the transition from a craft school to a school designing type-forms. Although made by hand, typical products of the workshop, like its famous table lamps, looked machine made and eliminated the mark of the maker and there have been many industrial iterations of it since (above).

Moholy-Nagy and Gropius were for a short while neighbours in the Isokon building in Hampstead, along with another Bauhaus exile, Marcel Breuer. It’s interesting to think how industrial design in Britain would have advanced if Gropius and Moholy-Nagy had been allowed to join the staff of the RCA at that time.

MARGARET BULLEY (2)

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I described Margaret Bulley’s aesthetic theories as “gushing”, full of ideas of “spirit” and “vital energy”. R. R. Tatlock, editor of The Burlington Magazine, who published several of her reports on artistic taste, said that –

“From one angle she is an aesthetician, from another a collector, from a third a teacher. It might be truest of all to call her a missionary, for it is in the pertinacious and fervent spirit of the spreader of a gospel that she works and writes. It is not easy to make out just of what her gospel consists, and I believe it would be impossible to account for it in so many words; but what is abundantly clear to those who so much as glance at her book is that art is for her a fact that inspires and compels the soul and puzzles and torments the brain: it is the nucleus round which Miss Bulley and similarly constituted electrons giddily spin; it is the indefinable Presence before whom they prostrate themselves and present offerings of books.” (1926)

Bulley’s books were occasionally mentioned in the philosophical journals, which remarked on the incoherence of her ideas. Philosophy, reviewing Art and Understanding, liked the illustrations in it but thought that “however pleasing the reproductions from ancient and modern masters, they cannot wholly atone for the conspicuous absence of any real knowledge of aesthetics exhibited by the first and theoretical half of the volume.” (1939) And a review of Art and Everyman in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research (1954) regretted that “Unfortunately, the terms in which the author expresses her esthetic views are unduly opaque.” Although she wrote repeatedly on aesthetics, her ideas were really just an undigested mish-mash of outmoded ideas about taste.

Tatlock went on to describe her research methods in Art and Counterfeit, in which her industry, thoroughness and persistence made up for the weakness of her driving ideas:

“The best part of Miss Bulley’s days through many a year have been occupied in labouring to infect audiences of school-children and of adults with the love of art. But in various directions her zeal has over-flowed from that mission and has driven her to carry out long series of “tests ” with the object of settling what proportion of persons in a given category are able, without being prompted by others, to distinguish between a good and a bad work of art. Three papers, embodying Miss Bulley’s results of this kind, were published in these pages (October, 1919; October, 1923; and October, 1925), and these and others are included in the book. To help her in her teaching, Miss Bulley has made an enormous collection of photographs of every species of work of art. These she has arranged in pairs – one of each kind, good and bad, “of clean beasts and those that are not clean” – without the names of their creators being divulged; and many a reputation has been blasted through the functioning of that relentless instrument. But she has not only collected photographs; with equal zeal she has accumulated innumerable specimens of art criticism. These she has now arranged in groups and has most ingeniously attempted to illustrate by means of certain of her photographs. The result is a unique book – a Noah’s- ark of a book-whose subject may be described as comparative art and whose interest is at once literary and artistic.”

MARGARET BULLEY: ‘HAVE YOU GOOD TASTE?’

After writing about the Gorell Committee, which reported to government in 1932 on the production and exhibition of articles of good design, I became curious about one of its members, the art writer Margaret Bulley (1882 – 1960). The Gorell Committee was one of the many official and unofficial initiatives in the 1920s and 1930s created to improve the standard of design in industry and the result of its deliberations was the setting up of the Council for Art and Industry (CAI), a precursor of the Design Council.

Margaret Bulley was born into a prosperous but socially progressive family in Cheshire. Her early work was in teaching children in galleries and museums. She was involved in war relief work in France where she met Margery Fry and it may have been through her that she made the acquaintance of her brother Roger Fry. Fry introduced her to Marion Richardson, the influential and innovative art teacher, and Bulley arranged an exhibition of children’s art at the Whitworth Gallery, Manchester. Bulley herself became interested in children’s art and she arranged for children’s designs to be manufactured by her husband’s textile firm Armitage and Rigby. She carried out extensive research into children’s responses to art, seeking universals in art appreciation that were unconditioned by culture, publishing her findings in The Burlington Magazine in the 1920s. She espoused the common idea that children have an innate and well-developed aesthetic sense that adults suppress.

Bulley was invited to join the Gorell committee probably because of her acquaintanceship with Fry (also a member of the committee), her researches into art appreciation and her prior involvement in the British Institute of Industrial Art (BIIA), predecessor of the Council for Art and Industry, to which she had contributed a large collection of contemporary consumer goods, and which on the closure of the BIIA, she donated to the Victoria and Albert Museum. The V&A describe her as a friend of Vanessa Bell and she had been an associate of Fry’s since the days of the Omega Workshops, of which she was a generous patron. Bulley was thus on the fringe of the Bloomsbury Group and her ideas of art and taste are close to theirs in many ways.

The Gorell committee, comprising public officials, artists, writers and industrialists, entangled questions of design with questions of taste and how it might be improved, as did nearly all contemporary discussions about the advancement of design and taste, which was vaguely defined if defined at all. Such discussions inevitably fell back on the taste of those who staffed committees like Gorell. Shortly after Gorell, Bulley wrote Have You Good Taste?, which filled out her ideas in more detail, and throughout her career she wrote several books in a similar vein, like Art and Counterfeit, Art and Understanding and Art and Everyman.

Have You Good Taste? was an investigation of the taste of the public based on an experiment in which their preferences were compared with the judgement of “six well-known art critics or experts”: Roger Fry, W. Constable (Director of the Courtauld Institute), Charles Holmes (late Director of the National Gallery), Percy Jowett (Director of the Central School of Arts and Crafts), Eric Maclagan (Director of the V&A) and R. R. Tatlock (Editor of the Burlington Magazine). Her use of these individuals as a touchstone immediately arouses the suspicion that good taste as understood by Miss Bulley might simply be the taste of the English cultural elite.

Bulley’s view of art, design and taste was barely different from that of Ruskin and Morris. In her gushing theory of aesthetics, beauty is a spiritual quality that resides in objects, is universal and does not change over time. It is not merely personal choice or preference and Bulley notes that many of the things that people prefer are actually ugly. In order to distinguish artistic beauty from beauty in manufactured goods (which, as a rule she thinks, are inferior to art and handmade things), she adds that artistic beauty is the product of passion, so it appears that even though beauty is a quality of objects, process is essential too. She acknowledges beauty in nature, which is not the product of artistic creation, but the difference between the beauty of nature, everyday objects and art is not explained or thought through and she falls back on beauty being a spiritual value that cannot be described in words.

Bulley appears to have absorbed some formalist ideas from Fry and also to have been influenced by Bergson’s Creative Evolution. From the formalists she takes the idea of beauty expressing harmony and from Bergson the idea of creative energy – “the vitality that comes from free creative force” – and a deprecation of science, materialism and “over-intellectualisation”.

Her terms for things that don’t meet her standards of beauty have the echo of Bloomsbury about them – “sham”, “bloated”, “mean”, “anaemic” – but, unlike Bloomsbury, her taste appears to be a Quakerish simplicity and a preference for interiors that are plain and workmanlike, pleasant and unselfconscious and that don’t try too hard to be artistic.

From the Arts and Crafts movement Bulley inherited an anti-industrialism, a dislike of trade and a belief that hand-made things are better than mass-produced things. Her belief in spirit lead her to reject the functionalism of the modern movement, which she says is not enough to produce a work of art.

The book contains 19 pairs of photos that readers of The Listener had been invited to appraise as good or bad and their verdicts are compared with the verdicts of the experts. About three-quarters of the public agreed with the experts, but, in an interesting anticipation of Bourdieu, upper-class, highly-educated respondents were more likely to agree with the experts than labourers, servants and those with an elementary education.

Bulley’s Arts and Crafts philosophy remained widespread in England until the Second World War. Michael Saler saw Ruskin’s philosophy inspiring Frank Pick, despite his association with the modernisation of the London Underground. It pervaded the Gorell report. Bernard Leach’s philosophy, expressed in the best-selling A Potter’s Book, which he wrote in the late 1930s, is similar to Bulley’s and they both dislike modern journalism, cinema and contemporary culture. The appointment of a person like Bulley to advise on the improvement of industrial design raises questions about how suited to the task Britain’s Board of Trade was in the 1930s.

Biographical details from Alan Powers, “Margaret Bulley”, Crafts , No.192, January – February 2005, p.24