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.
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.
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).
Vally Wieselthier, Vanity (1925)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
3 Tom Eckersley. 5, 6 Abram Games. 7 Edward Wright
4, 5 Anthony Gilbert. 6 Paul Hogarth. 7 Ann Buckmaster. 8 James Boswell
School furniture. 3 D.L.Medd. 4, 5 R.D.Russell. 6, 7 James Leonard.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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