THINGS OF BEAUTY GROWING

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Lucie Rie tableware. (Estate of Lucie Rie)

I went to see the Fitzwilliam exhibition Things of Beauty Growing: British Studio Pottery for the second time.

One of the changes that has taken place in studio pottery in the years since I first became interested in it is that it has become a topic of academic study, a fact regretted by the more downright potters, but a development that has put it into its proper artistic and historical context. We have come a long way from the early books, which simply listed the author’s favourite potters. Oliver Watson’s survey of the Victoria and Albert Museum’s collection (1990) was the first dispassionate account, and Jeffrey Jones’s Studio Pottery in Britain (2007) established a scholarly discourse. Glenn Adamson, Martina Droth and Simon Olding, the curators of this exhibition, develop that discourse.

The individual art pot dominates this show, but there is a small section devoted to tea-sets and coffee-sets, including sets by Leach, Lucie Rie (above), Ruth Duckworth (a very 1950s-style collection made before she turned to sculpture), an abysmally bad coffee-set by Roger Fry, and high-quality factory-made sets designed by Susie Cooper and Keith Murray, the architect-trained designer whose modernist shapes were manufactured by Wedgwood. The latter call into question the studio potter’s insistence at the time that factory-made pottery was bad and meretricious.

The exhibits of tableware point to the dialogue that took place on and off between the crafts and industry between the 1920s and the 1970s, and the discussions in the crafts about whether the craftsman had a contribution to make to manufacturing. It was inconclusive, rarely productive and sometimes acrimonious. It is not explained in the exhibition but it is discussed in an essay by Tanya Harrod in the accompanying book.

In the the post-war decades potters became preoccupied with repetition throwing. Some vaguely imagined that craft pottery might replace factory-made pottery and potters like Harry Davis, those at Briglin, and Leach’s young assistants mass-produced by hand. But by the end of the ‘sixties, government realised that the crafts had little to offer industry and passed responsibility for them from the Board of Trade (where it had rested since the 1920s) to the Department of Education.

By the 1980s, the market for hand-made tableware was in decline and studio potters had aligned themselves with the arts rather than industry. Now few think studio pottery has much to say about manufacturing, though a notable exception is Sophie Conran’s popular “Pebble” range, which has a deliberately hand-made look and was in fact designed for her by British studio potter.

 

WEDGWOOD’S ETRURIA

Josiah Wedgwood acquired the Ridgehouse estate in 1766 for his Etruria factory during a period of commercial expansion, when he had launched his cream-ware and was beginning to get commissions from the upper class. The company traded there until 1940, when they moved to the new factory at Barlaston, and production at Etruria finally stopped in 1950. The estate was demolished in 1960.

In 1966, when I lived at Keele, the site hadn’t been completely cleared and I took a few photos  – technically poor, but they give an idea of how it looked then. This (below) is the Round House by the Trent and Mersey Canal with the Shelton Bar steel works in the background. At night, the flames from Shelton Bar lit up the sky like Vesuvius in the other Etruria.

Wedgwood Etruria 1966 M Colman

There is a picture (below) taken from a similar angle when the factory was in use:

Wedgwood Etruria roundhouse

The purpose of the Round Houses – there were two, one at each end of the factory – is unknown, but it’s thought they may have been merely decorative, punctuation marks at each end of the building, “in keeping with the 18th century preference for symmetry in architecture” as the Wedgwood archive put it. “It is possible that the Round Houses were Josiah’s own idea possibly having viewed the elevation of Shugborough Hall (below) the home of his patron Lord Anson which is similarly terminated with circular structures.”

Shugborough Hall

LAWN ROAD FLATS

Yesterday we visited Isokon, the Lawn Road Flats in Hampstead, built in 1934 by Wells Coates, which was part of the Open House weekend in London. Three of the residents invited us in. The flats were designed for busy professionals who wanted an uncomplicated life, very small with tiny kitchens originally provided with one hotplate and a grill, so you couldn’t eat much more than beans on toast. There was a restaurant but it turned out that residents weren’t quite ready for that degree of collectivisation and it was replaced by a bar, designed by Marcel Breuer. The flats were intended to be fit for purpose, to discourage excessive consumption and to spearhead social reform. Among the early tenants were Breuer, Walter Gropius, László Moholy-Nagy and Agatha Christie – I like to imagine the conversation between Gropius and Christie. They also had, over the years, a disproportionately large number of Soviet spies.

Jack Pritchard, the owner and developer, worked worked for Venesta, the Estonian plywood company, and specified extensive use of plywood, including walls, floors and furniture. Gropius was the design director of the Isokon company which was set up to produce the furniture. Some of the Lawn Road fittings are currently on loan to the V&A’s Plywood exhibition.

It was interesting to hear that this modernist Grade I listed building is uncomfortable to live in, cold and damp in the winter. Public housing similarly constructed in the ‘sixties and ‘seventies was notorious for damp and condensation. Design and construction have moved on and the Lawn Road Flats are really a museum.

Isokon Plus produces some of the original designs that were made for Lawn Road. The the original Isokon company was committed to standardisation of parts, rationalisation of process and methods, and modern industrial design based on the principle of conspicuous economy, all of which imply low cost, but Isokon products are very expensive now – the famous Isokon Penguin Donkey, for example, is £670. This is conspicuous consumption and runs counter to ideas of producing simple, well-designed products that everyone can afford. The baton has been picked up by Ikea where you can buy comparable products at a tenth of the price.

SEVERINI’S STATIONS OF THE CROSS, CORTONA

Gino Severini was one of the founders of Italian Futurism. Only because of his first-hand knowledge of the latest art in Paris did the Futurists develop anything like a coherent style. After the First World War, Severini was one of the first artists to abandon the aggressive modernism advocated by the Futurists.

From about 1930, he became interested in classical mosaics. He painted still lifes inspired by wall paintings excavated at Pompeii and Herculaneum and undertook church commissions in mosaic.  Even his 1934 portrait of his daughter Gina (below) shows the influence of mosaics.

Gino Severini, Portrait of Gina Severini. (1934)
Turin, Civica galeria d’arte moderna

In 1944, while Italy was in war and chaos, Severini made a series of mosaics of the Stations of the Cross for his native Cortona, a beautiful little Tuscan hill town. The mosaics were put up along the Via Crucis leading out of the town and up to the church of Santa Margherita. They are a good example of his mature work, beautifully atmospheric, with bold figures of Christ in modern settings and with strong, emotional colouration.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to show them here. They are in the open air, under glass and reflect the sky, so it’s impossible to get a good photo of them. The detail at the head of this post is the best I could make.

Not only are the mosaics difficult to photograph, the reflections make it difficult to see them at all. Why are they covered up like this? There doesn’t seem to be any danger from tourists because the Via Crucis is off the beaten track and difficult to climb in the summer – hardly anyone visits it.

Holiday crowds along the Via Crucis, Cortona.
Severini’s mosaics are in the niches covered with pitched roofs

Severini’s cartoons for the mosaics are on show in the Museo Diocesano del Capitolo di Cortona.  You can get a better view of the cartoons than the mosaics, but even those are not very well displayed and the museum has no notes, no book and no postcard reproductions.

Gino Severini, The Deposition  (1944) Cartoon for the mosaic.
Museo Diocesano del Capitolo di Cortona.
The red sky is characteristic of the series.

I have been unable to find any good reproductions of the Stations of the Cross anywhere. Four were put on Maltese postage stamps, and there are six small images on the Cortona website.  

The neglect of these works is typical of the neglect of traditional twentieth century art. My introduction to modern art was Herbert Read’s Concise History of Modern Painting, written at the high tide of abstract expressionism in the late 1950s and giving the impression that the only important art was that which led to Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning.

Severini’s Futurist career covered seven years.  His post-Futurist career covered fifty years and was extremely productive.  His entire career was covered in the exhibition at MART in Trento last year, curated by Daniela Fonti (below).  It should receive better coverage outside Italy.



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