HERBERT READ’S ‘ART AND INDUSTRY’

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Herbert Read’s book Art and lndustry, which I’ve been reading, was a major influence in the interwar debate that constructed the notion of “good design”. Read had worked at the Victoria and Albert Museum in the 1920s and was professor of fine art at Edinburgh university and editor of The Burlington Magazine in the early 1930s. It was during that decade that he published his best-known books, Art Now (1933), Art and Society (1937) and Art and Industry (1934).

His ideas about design are underpinned by an aesthetic theory similar to Roger Fry’s and Clive Bell’s formalism. In Art and Industry he divides art into humanist art, by which he means European pictorial art and ornamentation from the Renaissance onward, and formal art, which is pure shape and colour without content or reference. He fiercely deprecates ornament in similar terms to Adolf Loos, says little about humanist art and is strongly biased in favour of abstract art.

According to Read, formal beauty in art, nature or everyday objects, is either rational or intuitive. Rational beauty consists in conformity to rules of harmony and proportion, which were understood in the Renaissance but which have deeper and more ancient roots and which are to be found in nature. Read does not explain why proportions found in nature should be beautiful and others not. Intuitive beauty is that which deviates in some way from strict rules of harmony but which is recognised in an unconscious process that is not fully understood and cannot easily be explained. Apart from a few comments, Read does not explain it.

Objects that possess intuitive formal beauty can be illustrated, and Read has many such illustrations in his book, but this quality cannot be “rationalised” (to use his term). It can, however, be identified by noting what persons of taste recognise as beautiful. For example, he shows an ancient Greek drinking bowl and a Sung dynasty vase, and says that, although the former conforms to rules of proportion and the latter deviates from it, those who know about this kind of thing have no doubt that the Sung vase is better. Read implies that there is an aesthetic elite who possess the ability to intuitively recognise formal beauty, and although he says that the average man is capable of it, one suspects that Read thinks the average man must submit to the guidance of the elite. Read does not explain in what way the discerning person differs from the undiscerning, except in the objects he chooses. Read thus follows the same circular route as Fry and Bell: formal beauty is that which produces a response in people whose discernment can be identified by the objects they they choose. This kind of elitism may have been formed in his career as a curator at the V&A. Today it is clear that his argument is a way of defining cultural capital.

Like other writers of the period, Read appeared to believe that beauty is a quality of objects, like colour, that can be perceived, and that is not just a matter of personal preference. That implies that aesthetic appreciation is a cognitive ability and that those that lack it have a defect like colour-blindness. Read thinks that, by and large, the British manufacturing class lack it, and he expresses disdain for their supposed philistinism.

British manufacturers produce inferior goods, says Read, not only because they cannot tell the good from the bad, but also because they are motivated by purely commercial considerations. Because their goods are inferior, they have to demand tariffs to protect them from better-designed Continental goods, but Read does not really explain why the Continental capitalist produces better goods than his British counterpart, or why, if well-designed goods sell better than badly-designed goods, the profit motive does not generate better design. Because of this perceived incapacity in the British manufacturing elite, Read is compelled to advocate a cultural elite who have the ability to intuit formal beauty and, if who if they were given half a chance, could reform industry.

Like so many writers on art with a programme or manifesto, Read is immensely irritating. Although he was interested in mass production and took a left-wing position in politics, his ideas are snobbish and elitist. He talks about the “average man”, but is uninterested in what he likes (in contrast to pioneering curators of popular art, Barbara Jones and Enid Marx). He has a psychological theory of aesthetics and leans on a sketchy Freudianism, but cites no psychological research. Had any been done at that date? The new discipline of neuro-aesthetics is now making it possible to understand what is happening in the brain when people respond to art works and it may even be able to help designers and manufacturers.

ROBIN WELCH

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I was sad to hear of the death of Robin Welch, one of the finest studio potters in Britain. In recent years he exhibited at Art in Clay, Hatfield, and I looked forward to chatting to him in his regular place at the show and buying some of his pots.

Robin was born in in 1936 and studied at Nuneaton and Penzance schools of art, receiving his NDD in sculpture and ceramics in 1953. He spent time at the Leach pottery in St Ives and he told me that, when he began exhibiting, Leach didn’t like his work (which some might take as a commendation). From 1956 he did his national service with the 2nd Battalion Parachute Regiment, taking the opportunity in the Middle East to visit peasant potteries. He then went on to do a postgraduate course in ceramics at the Central School of Arts and Crafts.

The Central was led in the post-war years by William Johnstone, who had moved it away from the arts and crafts (it later changed its name to the Central School of Art and Design) and introduced a design training based on the Bauhaus system and a collegiate style of teaching which exposed students to a variety of disciplines. Ceramics students were aware of the new American painting and in Cornwall Robin himself had already been inspired  by Terry Frost, John Tunnard and Barbara Tribe. They were taught by William Turnbull, Alan Davie and Eduardo Paolozzi (who, typically, was based in the textile department). Ceramics was led by Gilbert Harding Green, a man of wide culture who encouraged innovation, assisted by William Newland, Nicholas Vergette, Ian Auld, Dan Arbeid, Kenneth Clark and Gillian Lowndes.

After leaving the Central, Robin set up in London and got his first break from Henry Rothschild, who gave him £100 and carte blanche to make pots to be sold at the Primavera gallery. He spent three years in Australia, establishing a pottery with Ian Sprague, and returned to England in 1965 to set up the pottery at Stradbroke, Suffolk, where he worked until his death. At Stradbroke he launched high-volume production with half a dozen assistants, using industrial machinery which he’d been taught to use in Stoke-on-Trent. He spent twenty years in this sort of work, selling kitchen ware in interior design stores, but from the 1980s he made large, individual pieces like the one shown in the picture, for which he’s now better known.

A nice pamphlet about him, full of photos, Robin Welch – A Life, was produced by his granddaughter for a school project, but Robin told me he was sorry that no-one had wanted to write a full biography. Perhaps someone will now.

JAMES TOWER

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I caught up with the centenary exhibition of James Tower’s work at the Victoria Gallery, Bath, by chance after seeing a tweet and went to see it at the weekend. There’s a good collection of his ceramics, which I knew about, and his paintings, drawings and sculpture, which I didn’t.

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His shapes and marks show the influence of his childhood by the sea on the Isle of Sheppey. “This is a landscape of long silent marshes,” he said, “Where the sky seems to dominate the grey-green distance. There are few trees or hills. The forms that engage the eye are the small ones of the beach and the tidal wave. Shells, particularly the bivalves, oyster, mussel and razor shell. The flattened fish of the estuary, plaice, flounder and ray.”

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He studied at the Royal Academy and the Slade, then, training to be a teacher at the Institute of Education in 1949, he came under the influence of the potter William Newland and decided that ceramics offered a better means of artistic expression. He attended the Central School of Arts and Crafts part-time under Dora Billington, which gave him excellent technical instruction, though it was, in his view, aesthetically conservative.

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The Central encouraged a wide range of ceramic expression at the time. The artist-potters, Margaret Hine and Maggie Angus Berkowitz, were Tower’s contemporaries, while more traditional tableware was being made by John Solly, Innes Reich and Doreen Lambert. Tower regarded clay as a medium of exploration and was never a potter, though he later ran the pottery department at Corsham.

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His worked derived from vernacular European pottery and Picasso’s ceramics, which were so startling when they were first shown in Britain, but he quickly went beyond both, creating intriguing conversations between monochrome surface and organic form.

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OMEGA WORKSHOPS, CHARLESTON

Charleston Farmhouse have an exhibition about Omega Workshops with a small collection of rarely seen items. The painted box above (maker unknown) illustrates the way they brilliantly expressed Post-impressionism in their output.

Without context it’s hard to appreciate how radical their designs were. The Arts and Craft style was dominant. All the art schools in Britain were teaching it in their design departments. Roger Fry was understandably frosty. The leaders of the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society were getting old and he found them to be precious and moralistic. Nevertheless, for commercial reasons, he negotiated a stand for Omega in their 1916 exhibition.

Omega had an impressive unity of design. They embraced colour, abstraction and a narrow range of motifs that makes everything hang together. Charleston itself developed a coherent palette of grey, black, slate blue, dusty pink and mustard yellow, which you can see in embryo in this rug designed by Duncan Grant and executed by Vanessa Bell in 1913.

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Omega differed from the Arts and Crafts not only in design but also in their indifference to execution, which was cheerfully amateurish. The Workshops were set up to provide employment to artists, not to advance industrial design or to elevate craftsmanship. They bought furniture to decorate and did not make it. Their surface decoration was startling but their products were shoddy. The best are their textiles, designed by them but manufactured in France. Omega was not part of the design movement emerging from the Arts and Crafts. They had no connection with the Design and Industries Association in Britain or the Werkbund in Germany. They led nowhere. They carried out impressive house design contracts for friends of Bloomsbury but they had no followers or influence and, artistically, Omega, Bloomsbury and Charleston were out of the current of 20th century design and were uninterested in it.

ANNI ALBERS

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Anni Albers in her weaving studio at Black Mountain College, 1937. (Photo: Helen M. Post, Western Regional Archives, State Archives of North Carolina)

I once shared a house with the weaver Jill Maguire, and as the house was small I had to share my bedroom with her loom; but although I watched her at work I never developed an interest in her art. So the Anni Albers exhibition at Tate Modern was an eye-opener to me.

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An Albers wallhanging designed in 1926 while she was at the Bauhaus

Albers (1899-1994) took up weaving rather reluctantly at the Bauhaus, where the weaving department was called the women’s workshop, but she discovered its artistic potential and even while still a student produced original and technically adept textiles that worked as abstract art. She seems to have become absorbed in the complex possibilities of weaving, which requires planning thread by thread, spatial reasoning and a grasp of permutation and combination.

She moved to the the USA in 1933 as the Nazis descended on the Bauhaus, and found work at Black Mountain College, where her practice was enlarged by the study and collection of the traditional weaving of South America. The equipment of these weavers was simple but their fabrics showed advanced mathematical thinking. Albers worked with twisted warps, double fabrics and floating wefts, pushing the boundaries of the craft. She was commissioned by forward looking industrialists who saw the commercial possibilities of her advanced methods. She demonstrated weaving to be a place where art, mathematics and manufacturing meet.

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Anni Albers, Tikal (1958), using twisted warps

Anni Albers Tate Britain
Until 27 January 2019

ADAM KOSSOWSKI STAINED GLASS

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Relic Chapel, St Simon Stock

We went to the Aylesford Friars to see Adam Kossowski’s ceramic reliefs in the chapels, not expecting to find that he had also designed stained glass. The Carmelites returned to Aylesford in 1949 and his windows, made in the 1950s, are abstract, complementing his narrative ceramics and not distracting from their story with representation.

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St Anne Chapel
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Relic Chapel, St Simon Stock
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Relic Chapel, St Simon Stock
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Relic Chapel, St Simon Stock

 

ABSTRACT PAINTING IN THE STREETS OF EDINBURGH

 

A prosperous society renews everything quickly, so there are few old things left in public places, and old things are given the heritage treatment, which makes them brand old instead of brand new. Occasionally, in neglected corners, old things remain, like these weathered signs I saw in Edinburgh.

I was a graphic designer before I was a ceramic artist, which explains my interest in surface treatment. I like the form of letters, and these examples of the sign writer’s art were beautiful even before they decayed. After years of weathering and indifference, they have become like abstract paintings, the letters reduced to mere shapes and marks.

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