DECORATIVE ARTS IN THE 20s AND 30s

The 1926 Yearbook of Decorative Art published by The Studio magazine was frank about British design conservatism: ‘On the Continent and in the United States the enterprise was greater than in this country and the results more hectic. We Britons have always been somewhat slow in the uptake in the matter of design; but our conservatism in the long run has done us little harm.’ Remember that the 1925 Paris Exhibition is seen as the launch pad of Art Deco and then see that many if not most of the designs featured by The Studio are still in Arts-and-Crafts mode.

Architectural examples were predominently vernacular in inspiration, with a trace of neo-Georgian in the examples from Welwyn Garden City. But although interiors were  traditional, they were stripped down and free from clutter, as in work by the Deutsche Werkstätten. Gordon Russell’s simple and useful furniture was made by the best cabinet makers available. Heal’s furniture anticipated Utility, with which Russell, of course was associated.

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British ceramics emphasised craft methods: hand-painted pottery from Pilkington, Wedgwood and Poole, work by the up-and-coming studio potters, William Staite Murray and Bernard Leach, figures by Stanley Thorogood, Wilfrid Norton, Harold Stabler and Stella Crofts.  Handicraft was also emphasised in Continental ceramics but the Deco element was evident in pieces designed by Claude Lévy and Madeleine Sougez for Atelier Primavera (top), who had exhibited at the 1925 Paris Expo.

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Figurative ceramics were more evident in the illustrations from the Continent, despite the fact they were at the height of their popularity in Britain.

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By 1933, there had been a major change. The rchitecture and interiors featured in the Yearbook were now mainly modernist, including British examples by A.V.Pilchowski and Stanley Hall and Eastern & Robertson. Fewer ceramics were shown but they included mass-produced factory wares like those designed by M. Friedlaender.

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WALTER CRANE IN HUNGARY (2)

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János Kovács, Crane’s guide in Kolozsvár/Cluj Napoca

I found a good account of Walter Crane’s 1900 visit to Hungary by Jenő Murádin published in Ars Hungarica. It seems the visit came out of a visit to Crane in London by the Hungarian folklorist Kálmán Rozsnyay, who also arranged for Vilmos Zsolnay to visit him. Out of these meetings and discussions with Görgy Ráth and Jenő Radisics of the Museum of Applied Arts emerged the invitation to exhibit in Budapest. The exhibition was a significant retrospective with 600 objects and strengthened Hungarian admiration of Crane’s work. Was it actually the largest-ever exhibition of Crane’s work?

The artistic community of in Kolozsvár very much wanted Crane to visit their city as well and it was made possible for some of the Budapest exhibits to be transferred there for exhibition. There were adulatory articles in the Kolozsvár press, which also found room for an article by Crane on art and socialism. The programme there was more crowded than in Budapest, with visits, receptions, dinners, theatrical performances and demonstrations of folk art. On his last day he was taken into the countryside to Kalotaszeg, where, the press reported, “The Master made eight pencil sketches of the Hunyad bachelors, girls and bridesmaids,” who had been arrayed in traditional dress and brought out to meet him.

The bookplate in my last post was made from a drawing given by Crane to his host and guide in Kolszvár, János Kovács (above), a teacher who had lived and worked in England, and it does, as I thought depict Crane and Kovács. The sympathy between the two men turned into friendship (both had spent time in Manchester), but although Crane hoped to visit Hungary again his busy schedule prevented it.

Murádin goes on to record Crane’s influence on the Transylvanian architect Károly Kos. Kós often recalled Crane in his writing, referring to his influence on Hungarian Art Nouveau in general and on him in particular. In 1924 Kos recalled the profound effect of Crane’s visit a quarter of a century earlier, when he was too young to have met him, and his first encounter with Crane’s illustrations and book design as a student at the Budapest Technical University, which he loved and which shaped his own graphic work.

THE DUDOK STYLE

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.

PINNER PARK SCHOOL

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.

“THE THINGS WE SEE”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

ARTS AND CRAFTS REFORM OF ART SCHOOLS

Royal College of Art staff and students, 1919

The hazards of separating design from execution – for the product, the maker and society – was a persistent theme in Arts and Crafts discourse on manufacture, but the practicality of designers never delegating the execution of their designs to artisans and the desirability of executants making only what they had designed themselves was debatable. Ruskin’s injunction to “never encourage the manufacture of any article in which invention has no share” was certainly not applied to every item made by Morris & Co’s employees, and its implications were the subject of fierce debate between Walter Crane (who insisted on it) and Lewis Foreman Day (who thought it led to bad workmanship).

Although William Morris was a judge of the annual National Competition of Schools of Art, he did not have a detailed knowledge of art education and did not have a high opinion of art schools in general. He believed that everyone should learn to draw and thought it essential that the craftsman should be able to draw well enough for his trade, but he was opposed to the rigid and slavish system of drawing taught in the art schools of the time. He did not believe that design could be detached from making, and insisted that that the designer should have knowledge of his medium and that he should be able to work in it himself. Ideally, designer and craftsman should be one, and failing that, the small workshop was preferable to the large factory.

The government arts schools worked on the opposite principle. But their aversion to students working directly in materials did not only concern Morris and doubts emerged in in official circles as well. The Royal Commission on Technical Instruction (1884), to which Morris submitted evidence, agreed that art education should enable students to judge the suitability of their designs to the material in which it was to be executed.

This idea filtered through into art education and, by the end of the 19th century, men of the Art Workers Guild (AWG) were taking up posts in art schools (at first the municipal art schools that were not under government control) and were driving the reforms of art education. The first municipal school was Birmingham Art School (1885), which introduced training in executed design and which Crane praised for its achievements

Among AWG members, Crane became Master of Design of the Manchester School of Art and subsequently head of the Royal College of Art, Robert Catterson-Smith became the headmaster of the Birmingham Art School, W. R. Lethaby and George Frampton were inspectors and advisors to the London County Council’s education board and the first principals of the London County Council (LCC) Central School of Arts and Crafts (1896), and the potter W.B.Dalton became the first principal of the LCC’s Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts 1899, although he did not become a member of the AWG until 1908.

At the end of the 19th century the Royal College of Art was engaged principally in the training of art teachers, still using narrow and limited methods. It was said that “no system could be better calculated to produce untrained, narrow minded men.” John Sparkes, its principal from 1876 to 1898, fully recognised its deficiencies, but it was not until Walter Crane was put in charge in 1898 that reform really began in earnest. “As far as the existing constitution of the school and its relation to the Board of Education would allow,” Crane wrote, “I endeavoured to expand the range of studies, especially in the direction of Design and Handicraft; and in order to give the students some insight into the relation between design and material, I was fortunate enough to obtain the services of accomplished artists to give lectures, and demonstrations where possible, in their special crafts … . [T]he Royal College of Art has been entirely reorganised, and while its objects, the study of decorative art as well as the training of teachers, have been reasserted, the relation of all branches of decorative design to architecture has been emphasised in the establishment of an architectural school, directed by Professor Beresford Pite, through which all students pass in the five years’ course.”

The bureaucracy of the Department of Art and Science defeated Crane and he resigned after a year, but his reforms were implemented by his successor, Augustus Spencer. Spencer brought in W.R.Lethaby as professor of design, whose curriculum was intended to ensure that those who went on to be art teachers received a broad artistic education, experience of several crafts and competence in at least one.

LÁSZLÓ MOHOLY-NAGY

 

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I was interested to read that the Hungarian designer László Moholy-Nagy (above) was turned down for a teaching post at the Royal College of Art during his residence in England between 1934 and 1937. Walter Gropius, as I mentioned elsewhere, was considered for the post of director when William Rothenstein stepped down, but was thought to be unsuitable because the Bauhaus was mistakenly understood by the Board of Education to be a fine-art school and because of its association with the political left under Hannes Meyer.

The Bauhaus had not been on Rothenstein’s horizon when ten years earlier he made a tour of continental art schools to see how the RCA might be brought up to date, and although he made radical reforms in the teaching at the college and was aware that the arts-and-crafts ethos was holding it back, he was not an apostle of modernism. He wittily dismissed the followers of Cézanne as ces ânes (these donkeys) and he appointed to the post of professor of design E. W. Tristram, a specialist in medieval wall painting. Britain’s premier art school in the 1930s made little contribution to the development of modernism (although Reco Capey and Paul Nash were notable exceptions). 

Tristram was recruited to the government committee on Art and Industry in 1931, the Gorell Committee, which was tasked with advising on the best ways of exhibiting high standards of design in consumer goods, presumably because of his position, but his interests and experience did not fit him to advancing industrial design.  Many of the other members of the Committee were fully signed up to the arts-and-crafts philosophy and it is extraordinary to consider that its report was regarded by Pevsner as “the first official document to emphasize the vital importance of improvements in British industrial art” when it was suspicious of industry and mass production.

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The attitude of the Gorell Committee and other contemporary British initiatives on art and industry was the inverse of that of Moholy-Nagy. Gorell sought ways of applying an artistic appearance to industrial products while Moholy-Nagy was interested in applying industrial technology to art. During his direction of the metal workshop at the Bauhaus, his class developed industrial prototypes and he was associated with the transition from a craft school to a school designing type-forms. Although made by hand, typical products of the workshop, like its famous table lamps, looked machine made and eliminated the mark of the maker and there have been many industrial iterations of it since (above).

Moholy-Nagy and Gropius were for a short while neighbours in the Isokon building in Hampstead, along with another Bauhaus exile, Marcel Breuer. It’s interesting to think how industrial design in Britain would have advanced if Gropius and Moholy-Nagy had been allowed to join the staff of the RCA at that time.

WREST PARK

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We went to Wrest Park to break the monotony of lockdown, but I wanted to see it anyway because it has one of the few remaining baroque gardens in England.

The house was built in a thoroughgoing French style between 1834 and 1839 by Thomas, Earl de Grey, but the garden was laid out in the first decades of the 18th century by Henry Grey, Duke of Kent, and is a rare example of a formal woodland garden in the French style, though there are Dutch influences as well, reflecting the Duke’s loyalty to William III. Its principal features – the Long Water on the axis of the house, with woodland walks beyond and parterres near to the house – remain and much of it has survived alteration, Batty Langley, Thomas Wright and Capability Brown having respected it in their later improvements.

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This kind of formal garden is now deeply unfashionable, and even the mixed herbaceous border – the staple of garden design in houses of all sizes for a hundred and fifty years – is under pressure from wild and ecological gardening, but English Heritage are embarked on a twenty-year programme to restore it.

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HEINRICH WÖLFFLIN

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Photo: Johannes Rottmeyer

When we were in Puglia in September, I noticed that high baroque churches and palazzi were placed in narrow streets, making it impossible to get a proper view of them. The grand duomo in Gallipoli was a case in point, so were the houses in Martina Franca.

Now, reading Wölfflin’s Principles of Art History, I found that in his view this was not a mistake and was wholly characteristic of the baroque style. His concept of the “painterly style” in baroque denoted movement, indefiniteness and impermanence in the visual arts and applied to sculpture and buildings as well as painting.

The creation of views in architecture, in which buildings were designed to be seen in different ways and from different perspectives, was one aspect of the painterly style and explains why it was unimportant for a façade to be viewed square on or from the front:

Although the full front view will always claim for itself a certain exclusivity, we now find compositions which clearly set out to reduce the significance of this view. This is very clear, for instance, in the Carlo Borromeo church in Vienna [the Karlskirche, above], with its two columns placed in front of the façade, the true value of which is revealed in the non-frontal views, where the columns lose their equality  and the central dome is cut across.

For the same reason it was regarded as no misfortune if a baroque façade was so placed in a street that it was almost impossible to obtain a front view of it.

DEBORAH SUGG RYAN’S SUBURBAN MODERNISM

I’ve been reading Deborah Sugg Ryan’s delightful book The Ideal Home 1918-1939.

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She is a consultant in A House Through Time, where she appears from time to time in her 1950s-style retro dresses. The Ideal Home is part of the new wave of design history that pays attention to everybody’s design preferences rather than writing the selective, progressive narrative typical of the older writers like Pevsner.

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For The Ideal Home she has drawn on contemporary photos of houses and house interiors, home decorating magazines, estate agents’ brochures and the Daily Mail Ideal Home Exhibition, which illustrate what she calls “suburban modernism”, which is popular, eclectic and unconcerned with rules. It combines “moderne” or “modernistic” motifs (which came to be called Art Deco only in the 1960s) with labour-saving devices like carpet sweepers and gas cookers. Suburban modernism thrived in the semi-detached houses that were built in their millions in the 1930s during the period of falling house prices and easy mortgages that enabled many working-class families to become home owners for the first time.

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Moderne and mock-Tudor elements were mixed to create homes that were up-to-date yet comfortable and nostalgic at the same time. “Tudorbethan”, says Sugg Ryan, was an invented past expressing modern pride in the British Empire.

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Needless to say, this sort of modernism was treated with contempt by design reformers. Tudorbethan was dismissed as “sham”, which implied that suburban houses expressed moral failings.

Osbert Lancaster (above) satirised both ascetic modernism and this comfy version of it. The journalist Anthony Bertram, whose Penguin book Design went through several editions, was also scathing about the Tudor semi. George Orwell famously poured scorn on the supposed mediocrity of suburban life in Coming Up For Air. D.H.Lawrence consigned it to the weak and effeminate. From the Arts and Crafts movement design reformers inherited a distaste for popular, cheap goods that they judged to be “commercial”. Intellectuals were dismissive of the preferences of the millions of people who lived in the suburbs.

Ideal Homes is a welcome corrective to the prescriptive design writing of the interwar period that found its strongest expression in Herbert Read’s Art and Industry, which I wrote about earlier.