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.

BUT IS IT ART? BUT IS IT COPYRIGHT?

A small argument has broken out on Wikipedia about whether a photo of a soup bowl can be included. The bowl (above) was one of the St Ives Pottery’s range of standard wares, introduced in the 1940s by Bernard Leach and his son David to provide an income stream for the business. Making standard ware was how generations of potters learned their trade in the much-coveted Leach pottery apprenticeships. Someone on Wikipedia said that the photo was a breach of copyright and that it had to be removed. Like all artists, I’m concerned to protect my intellectual property but I don’t know much about copyright law, and the law as it applies here is complex.

The Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 (section 62) says that an artist has copyright in a work of “artistic craftsmanship” and that such work can’t be copied and that a photo of it taken without the artist’s consent is a breach of copyright. An exemption is made for works of artistic craftsmanship displayed in public places, but the pot in this this photo is in the photographer’s private collection, not in a public place, and, odd as it may seem, that means that the exemption in section 62 doesn’t apply, and so, it is argued, the photo breaches the copyright of the artist. There is another exemption for “fair dealing” where copying is done for the purposes of private study, non-commercial research, criticism, review or comment on current events. Whether this covers Wikipedia or not is a question I leave to the copyright lawyers, but Wikipedia errs on the side of caution and removes anything doubtful.

A more important question, however, is whether the bowl is a work of artistic craftsmanship. These bowls were made in large quantities and over the years thousands of identical objects were produced. It is an example of mass production by hand in which the distinction between “craft” and “manufacture” is blurred. In the Wikipedia discussion, someone said it was not mass production but “limited repeat production by hand”, which implies that work made by hand cannot be mass production, but that is doubtful. The place where hand production ends and machine production begins is hard to define, and so is the place where a tool becomes a machine. Bernard Leach wanted to avoid machine production in his pottery and used foot-driven potter’s wheel, but it’s arguable that a kick-wheel is a machine and not a tool even if it is not steam-driven or electrically-driven. The argument that mass production is not possible without steam-driven or electrically-driven machinery, as opposed to human-driven machinery is also hard to sustain. Although such machinery facilitates mass production and turns out more than can be made by hand, hand workers are also capable of mass production. Country potters working on kick wheels could make hundreds of flower pots in a day and the Delft tile makers, who worked without machines of any kind, are estimated to have made eight hundred million tiles in two hundred years. Where does mass production begin? With a hundred pots a day, five hundred or five thousand? There is certainly a case to be made that the Leach pottery apprentices were engaged in small-scale mass production.

Bernard Leach admired country potters and tried to reproduce some of the conditions of their workshops at St Ives. His apprentices practiced repetition throwing and were given shapes to make in large quantities, and the lidded bowl in question was almost certainly made in that way. It is a work of craftsmanship, but in what sense can it be said to be a work of artistic craftmanship, which connotes inventiveness, creativity and originality – the qualities of the individual, one-off pieces made in the St Ives Pottery by Bernard Leach and Shoji Hamada and impressed with their personal marks? There is a certain degree of inventiveness and creativity in the design, but not a great deal of originality, but the output of the employees and apprentices of the pottery show none of those qualities.

The law protects intellectual property in artistic crafts, but not in crafts as such – so not, for example, a thatched roof.  In artistic craftsmanship there has to be

  • A conscious intention to produce a work of art
  • A real artistic or aesthetic quality
  • A sufficient degree of craftsmanship and artistry (existing simultaneously)

Considering the conditions of production in the St Ives Pottery under which this bowl was made, it is arguable that there was no intention to produce a work of art even if it has real artistic quality and a high degree of craftsmanship. As I said, I don’t know much about copyright law and lawyers might argue differently, but in my opinion the bowl is just a bowl and anyone can take a photo of it.

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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