NEW CAROLINGIANS


Queen Elizabeth’s reign began with optimism. The war had ended, the dictators had been defeated and the country looked forward to prosperity. Attlee’s government had introduced irreversible improvements and although the NHS and free secondary education are associated with Labour they were Conservative policies too.

The cheerful mood had been deliberately created by the Festival of Britain and was symbolised in the architecture of the Lansbury Estate, the modernity of the Dome of Discovery and the quirkiness of Roland Emmett’s Far Tottering and Oyster Creek Railway. The watchwords were reconstruction, town planning, full employment and health for all.

With the Festival came the Contemporary style, that tamed British modernism that William Feaver described as “Braced legs, indoor plants, lily-of-the valley sprays of lightbulbs, aluminium lattices, Cotswold-type walling with picture windows, flying staircases, blond wood, the thorn, the spike, the molecule.”

Other symbols were the Royal Festival Hall, the New Towns and the New Universities. The most famous and most fashionable of the new universities was Sussex, designed by Basil Spence, who had worked on the Festival of Britain and had designed the new Coventry Cathedral.

Coventry, a modernist building rising symbolically from the ruins of war, made modern art prominent: Jacob Epstein’s St Michael, Graham Sutherland’s Christ in Glory, stained-glass by John Piper and candlesticks by Hans Coper.

People knowingly called themselves New Elizabethans. New Elizabethans believed in science. They were wowed by Sputnik, the Comet and the Avro Vulcan aircraft. Food manufacturers boasted that their products were made in modern factories and that they had scientific ingredients. There was no Hovis-style nostalgia and no fear of chemicals. The Two Cultures were united in textile designs based on molecular structures and X-ray crystallography. This was Modern England.

Charles begins his reign in a more insecure, doubtful, and self-critical age. A dictator is waging war in Europe. Many people think the active state that made post-war Britain does more harm than good, that science is a conspiracy of experts and that what we thought was progress will kill us.

Charles himself has channelled much of this doubt. His sincere concern about the environment is why many people like him. He ran a company promoting organic food. His hatred of modern architecture is legendary. His style of dress makes him look older than his father.

But every change creates the hope of a better future. The mood of the country is bound to change. Perhaps we will become New Carolingians.

DULWICH POTTERY

This little figure was made by Jessamine Bray and Sybil Williams at the Dulwich Pottery in 1939. They were the last and Jessamine was the youngest of the Chelsea Potters, makers of the figurative ceramics that were so popular in the 1920s that they were the first things that came to mind when people talked about ‘studio pottery’.

Jessamine studied at Camberwell School of Art in the early 1920s, where she became interested in modelling, of which the school was the leading exponent. She worked for Charles Vyse and then became a teacher of ceramic sculpture at the art school. Sybil, who was older, also studied with Vyse and they probably met in his studio. The two women began their partnership in 1926.

This small model is typical of their work, with its mild Continental exoticism, its portrayal of a child with an animal and its meticulous underglaze painting.

Changing artistic fashion, changing family circumstances and the outbreak of war brought the Dulwich Pottery to an and, but Jessamine continued modelling at home at least until the late 1950s. This picture (below) was taken of her at the art school in the early 1920s.

PAULA REGO: SECRETS AND STORIES

I caught the repeat on BBC2 of Nick Willing’s film, Secrets and Stories, about his mother Paula Rego, a useful pendant to the recent retrospective at Tate Britain – a long interview interspersed with images of her at work and film of her younger self. What was obscure at Tate became clear: the autobiographical sources of her art and the way she exorcised her demons through painting. She inherited her father’s disposition to depression and admitted that her childhood was full of fears.

Willing said that until her eighties Rego was almost secretive about her life, but then she began to tell stories. The cause of her reticence may have been the way her experiences motivated her. If she talked she wouldn’t have painted. Well-adjusted people aren’t great artists.

The film was informative about Victor Willing, Rego’s husband. It was he who was tipped for artistic stardom at the Slade, not her, but as his inspiration withered, hers grew, and he enouraged her without jealousy.

Rego followed an undistracted figurative course through post-war fashions to become one of our greatest artists, but we saw here that she took 25 years to make the paintings we recognise her for. Not unconnected with her greatness is the fact that her talk was free of artbollocks. There was no wish to impress, to which lesser artists are prone, no conventional jargon, no theorising. She said what she felt and believed. Everything was real.

SHAW’S CORNER


Bernard Shaw bequeathed his house at Ayot St Lawrence in Hertfordshire to the National Trust in 1950. He was fifty when he moved in in 1906 and already successful. He became rich but remained a socialist of a peculiar kind, at first wedded to Fabian gradualism but from the 1920s onwards preferring dictatorship and admiring Lenin, Stalin and Mussolini. We went on a tour the other day.

Shaw’s study with a portrait of William Morris above the desk and Morris & Co. curtains. The little monogrammed pot on the right of the typewiter was made by Louise Powell.


When I moved to Hertfordshire in the 1980s, old people remembered him driving through the lanes either in his Rolls Royce or on his tricycle. The tricycle bore witness to his passion for healthy living, including vegetarianism, wool next to the skin, sleeping with the windows open and opposition to vaccination, but it also bore witness to socialist principles.

Bare boards and an electric fire. On the mantleshelf, a Staffordshire figure of Shaw’s chosen rival, Shakespeare, and his 1938 Oscar for the screenplay of ‘Pygmalion’. The portrait is of his wife, Charlotte.


Shaw’s Corner is modestly furnished in the style of a clerk or a schoolteacher and doesn’t look like the house of a wealthy man. The house had servants’ bells but Shaw refused to use them, going down to the kitchen and knocking on the door if he wanted to talk to the cook. Shaw liked the quiet villlage without a train station or a bus service.

The sunny veranda, which Shaw called ‘The Riviera’. The house was built without running water or electricity but Shaw was quick to adopt technical innovations.


It has Arts and Crafts connections. Shaw was a follower of Ruskin and Morris, greater influences on progressive thinkers in England than Marx, and a portrait of Morris hangs above his desk. He was part of the Morris circle. He preached socialism in street-corner meetings with Morris. He flirted with May Morris, she fell in love with him and Morris might have liked him as a son-in-law.

May Morris, her fiancé Henry Halliday Sparling, Emery Walker and Bernard Shaw.


Like every advanced middle-class house of the period, Shaw’s Corner has Arts and Crafts touches throughout: Morris & Co. furniture and fabrics, a piano designed by Walter Cave, secretary of the Art Workers Guild, pottery by Alfred and Louise Powell and a sense of The Simple Life.

A patterned vessel by Alfred and Louise Powell, china and varied reading.


ALTHEA MCNISH AND JOHN WEISS

John Weiss and Althea McNish. Photo by Arvin Isaac

I’ll be visiting the exhibition of Althea McNish’s textiles at the William Morris Gallery shortly, but I wanted to relate the remarkable story of the N15 Archive devoted to her and her husband, the jeweller John Weiss.

Althea died in 2020 aged 95. John had died shortly before. I knew John as a fellow trustee of the Society of Designer Craftsmen and met Althea a couple of times at SDC exhibitions. Althea’s achievements in textile design date from the early fifties in London and unfortunately it’s only since her death that her importance has been fully recognised.

Shortly after her death, someone walking past their house saw some interesting things in a skip. As part of the house clearance, much of their artwork had been thrown away. It was rescued and formed the basis of the N15 Archive. Most of John’s meticulous teaching notes, which he’d kept over many years, are, sadly, lost.

POST-WAR MODERN

The exhibition Post-War Modern: New Art in Britain 1945-65 at the Barbican highlights the diversity of the period, including Lucien Freud’s, John Bratby’s and Jean Cooke’s figurative paintings, Lynn Chadwick’s and Eduardo Paolozzi’ s angular bronzes (above), John Latham’s, Victor Pasmore’s and Gillian Ayres’ total abstraction and the beginnings of psychedelic art.

Looking at the period from a distance the curators are bound to evaluate it differently from the way it was evaluated at the time. The art world always knew that John Bratby, despite his huge commercial success, was a pretty obnoxious character and controlled his wife, Jean Cooke, who was already suspected of being a better artist than he was. Post-War Modern thrusts their domestic relationship to the fore and Cooke’s 1966 self-portrait, Blast Boadicea, removes any doubts about her excellence. Abstraction reached its high-water mark in 1960. Herbert Read’s Concise History of Modern Painting (1959) narrated the progress of art from Impressionist beginnings to supposedly inevitable resolution in Pollock, Rothko and De Kooning. Now we see that art was always more diverse. In relation to the representational works on show, the notes are bound to discuss content and meaning but, following the decline of interest in the formal properties of art, they say surprisingly little about the appearance of non-representational paintings by Victor Pasmore, Mary Martin, Adrian Heath, Anthony Hill and Robert Adams.

The photos of Bert Hardy, Nigel Henderson and Roger Mayne show a ravaged urban environment with children playing in bombsites and rotting Victorian streets. We’re presented with artists dizzied by war and engaged in a search for meaning in a world without secure values. That was all true. But the post-war decades were also years of optimism and reconstruction. Hardy was good at showing people enjoying life at fairgrounds, dance-halls and the seaside. And against the photos of crumbling cities might be also be placed the Festival of Britain, the New Towns and the schools of the 1944 Education Act. There was full employment and wages were rising. People believed in Science. The best food, they thought, was made in factories and didn’t go stale. Britons were excited by the Space Age, Sputnik and planes like the Avro Vulcan. Those on the Left thought the Soviet Union was harnessing Science for Mankind and promised a prosperous and peaceful future – at least until 1956 when it invaded Hungary.

Today, however, we are pessimists. Science represents danger. The environment is going to kill us. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Left envisages not Utopia but only endless struggle. So we see in post-war art (and probably in all art) anxiety and anomie rather than celebration and hope.

What did create anxiety, of course, was the H-Bomb, which Britain adopted in 1957. Post-War Modern mentions Gustav Metzger, the inventor of auto-destructive art, who was active in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, but the way the Bomb overshadowed the Sixties wasn’t fully brought out. Jeff Nuttall called the art of the decade Bomb Culture.

A case of pottery by Hans Coper and Lucie Rie formed an interesting pendant to the exhibition. They weren’t included in earlier reviews of the period – not, for example, in the Barbican’s Transition: The London Arts Scene in the Fifties (2002) or the Tate’s Art & The Sixties: This Was Tomorrow (2004) These refined ceramics were part of the same movement as Victor Pasmore’s abstract paintings. Rie, a Jewish refugee from Vienna, was of an earlier generation of artists associated with the Weiner Werkstätte. In England she became an inspiring but very demanding teacher at Camberwell School of Art. It’s difficult to say much about her pottery because, in contrast with the other leading potter of the period, Bernard Leach, she not only made pots absolutely of her time but also refused to say anything about them.

NOW IT’S SOCIAL HISTORY

Leave anything for long enough and it becomes social history. For no discernable reason I collected matchbox labels in my youth and then I forgot about them. I rediscovered them recently and realised they said something about their time. SEITA, the French state tobacco company that made Gauloises, now part of Imperial Tobacco, issued several series of traditional regional costumes, which must have all disappeared by now. This series (above) was the earliest, the classic, nicely printed in three flat colours.

Matchboxes challenged graphic artists to design in a couple of square inches. These (above) advertised Lyons’ cheap, ubiquitous Corner Houses.

These (above) come from Sivakasi the centre of the Indian match industry. There are dozens of factories in Sivakasi, each producing dozens of brands, once made with these charming misaligned labels. Few have websites but those that do, like Bilal Safety Matches (below), are indifferent to their old products, sombre and practical with an emphasis on the scale of their operations.

ART POTTERY (2)

Thinking about Robin Emmerson’s article which I mentioned in my last post, in which he said that Art Pottery emerged from the anti-utilitarian Aesthetic Movement, I realised that studio pottery in the 1920s was also anti-utilitarian. Bernard Leach exhibited a teapot at the Beaux Arts Gallery in 1933 (illustrated by Jeffrey Jones in his big survey of 20th-century studio pottery). Roger Fry made some amateurish cups and saucers for the Omega Workshops. Dora Lunn, another potter of the period, also tried tableware, but it didn’t sell. These were the exceptions. Studio pottery was not meant for use – and there’s a story that when someone complained to Leach that his teapots didn’t pour well, he said they weren’t meant for making tea in. The other big beast of studio pottery in the 1920s, William Staite Murray, made vases as fine art. Much of the studio pottery of the inter-war years was figurines.

After the Second World War studio pottery took a different turn, with an emphasis on useful wares. Winchcombe Pottery had a huge contract from Cranks, the vegetarian restaurant, much of it fulfilled by Sidney Tustin at considerable personal cost, and Tustin said a machine should have made the pots, not a man. Harry Davis, one of the fastest studio throwers (who were nowhere near as skilled as the Stoke-on-Trent throwers) was deeply committed to the idea of tableware made by hand. There was a proliferation of potteries of varying quality turning out cups and saucers and plates and bowls in large quantities. Why did studio pottery take that direction?

Jeffrey Jones doesn’t really answer the question, but he passes on Harry Davis’s interesting obervations. Davis was one of the few people to recognise the upper-class origins of studio pottery. Although they talked about the virtues of a craft economy, studio potters lacked the organisational ability to create it. Michael Cardew, a gentleman-potter who was only interested in making pots, delegated the loathsome business side to Sidney Tustin and Elijah Comfort. Studio pottery continued the upper-class dislike of trade that had driven the Arts and Crafts movement.

By the 1950s, when utilitarian pottery began to be made in quantity, the design critiques of William Morris and Henry Cole had become irrelevant. The design profession had come to maturity and the critiques had been taken to heart by manufacturers. The best pottery manufacturers, like Wedgwood, had for decades been making beautiful and practical pottery, such as that designed by Keith Murray or decorated by Eric Ravilious (illustrated), that was arguably superior to studio pottery. The training of every art student was shaped by the Bauhaus.

So what could account for a turn to utility when it was least needed? I got some idea when I spoke to the studio potter Murray Fieldhouse (1925-2018) a few years ago. Murray was a passionate advocate of the Leach style of pottery. He explained to me that after the war many potters like him became pacifists, even though they’d been in the armed forces. He wanted to create an alternative society and he looked for a craft he could create it through.  He served his apprenticeship with Harry Davis, who had similar utopian leanings. The idea was that society could be changed by getting out of the factory and into the workshop, preferably run democratically or by craftsmen working alone. The art was secondary, and it’s interesting to see from Murray’s Pottery Quarterly magazine, which he edited from the 1950s to the 1980s, that he had equal disdain for industry, the design profession and fine art.

ADRIAN FRUTIGER AND UNIVERS

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Adrian Frutiger (1928-2015), the Swiss typographer, designed the Univers  typeface, which you have seen everywhere but never noticed. Which is how a good typeface should be. The Univers family of 20 fonts, cleverly related by weight, slope and width, is rational, versatile and comprehensive. Frutiger abandoned the conventional desciptions of “bold”, “condensed” and “italic”, and numbered the typfaces on a grid sytem. Univers 55 was the standard font for text, 65 the bold version and 56 the italic. Frutiger designed it at the high tide of modernism when decoration was taboo. It was a typeface for every need. You didn’t need fancy fonts. There were superb books, brochures, posters and catalogues set entirely in Univers.

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City of Westminster street signs. A condensed Univers font with letter spacing in the name.


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It was produced by the Deberny and Peignot foundry in 1957 and licensed by the Monotype Corporation. It’s hard to imagine now that such a modern typeface was made to be cast, but it was the first to be designed for both hot metal and film production.

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It was a designer’s font. I’d be annoyed when I specified Univers and the printer did the job in Gill Sans. Gill was an eccentric typeface: it was really a Roman typeface without serifs rather than a true sans-serif (look at that lower case g like a pair of spectacles). But Gill is more suitable for post-modern typesetting and (apart from City of Westminster street signs) we don’t see Univers much now. Ariel, the standard, bland typeface for screens, has pretty well replaced it.

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MICHAEL POWOLNY

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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).

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Vally Wieselthier, Vanity (1925)

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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.