THE ARTS AND CRAFTS EXHIBITION SOCIETY

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I have been looking at the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society catalogue for their 1935 exhibition, which shows the Society (which gave its name to the Arts and Crafts movement and had doubts about the propriety of machine-made goods) flirting with design for mass production.

It was a small step but a significant one. William Morris’s ambivalence about machinery had hardened into outright opposition and in the 20th century the craftsman evolved from a generalist with a wide range of abilities (usually based on architecture), who sometimes contracted the execution of his work to a tradesman, into a specialist, frequently working alone and controlling every stage of production.

Pevsner argued that the lead in design in the 20th century passed from the Arts and Crafts to pioneer modernists like Adolf Loos, Peter Behrens, Josef Hoffman, the Deutsche Werkbund and the Bauhaus, and by the 1930s, some design thinkers doubted that there was much room for the crafts. Gropius, in a lecture he gave in England in 1934, argued that their future lay not in production but in “research work for industrial production and in speculative developments in laboratory workshops where the preparatory work of evolving and perfecting new type-forms will be done.” Herbert Read took a similar view in Art and Industry.

These ideas became so widespread that craftspeople were either persuaded by them or understood the need to engage with them. Among potters, even two of the most craft-based were briefly enchanted by them, Bernard Leach toying with the idea setting up a small factory and Michael Cardew trying to design for Stoke-on-Trent. John Farleigh, who was on the modernising wing of the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society, responded to this current of thought by declaring to members that “We are in a machine age, and to ignore it is to ignore life as it is lived today,” but he contended that craft objects that could be reproduced by machine would be better if craftsmen supervised their manufacture, proposing a larger role for the craftsman in industry than that indicated by Gropius and Read.

farleigh black girl

In 1935 the Society included in its exhibition a section devoted to design for Mass Production, stating that the artist-craftsman “is admirably fitted to design for ‘batch-production’, ‘quantity-production’ or ‘mass-production’ in industry”. It led with Farleigh’s wood engravings for Bernard Shaw’s Adventures of the Black Girl in Search of God (above) and the exhibit was dominated by design for print, with lettering by Edward Johnston, Noel Rooke, Grailey Hewett and Alfred Firbank. There was some furniture by Romney Green and Gordon Russell, some printed fabrics by Heals, and some pottery designed for Doulton by Reco Capey. This was a hardly a major departure from hand-work. Ambrose Heal was a staunch supporter of the crafts and a member of the Society, and Doulton’s was an art pottery rather than a manufacturer of tableware. There was no evidence of any serious engagement by the Society with industry or any real interest in industrial design. Nevertheless, it was too much for some members. Leach was in the opposing faction and resigned. Staite Murray agreed with him that the Society’s policy of encouraging design for industry would “subvert the object of the Society to preserve the Crafts.”

The exhibition of British Art in Industry in 1935 talked of a “struggle for supremacy” between machine methods that made possible cheap goods and hand craftsmanship that could give goods individuality and character. The “art and industry debate” that persisted throughout the 1930s was never resolved and was brought to an end by the war, when craft production became an impermissible luxury. By 1944, two-thirds of Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society members were said to be designing for industry.

COUNTY COUNCIL BAUHAUS

charles aslin
Charles Aslin (1893-1959)

I saw the RIBA’s exhibition Beyond Bauhaus on Saturday, which charts the influence of Walter Gropius, László Moholy-Nagy and Walter Breuer during and after the years when they lived in England.

As I live in Hertfordshire, I was intrigued to discover that the rapid school-building programme in the county after the Second World War was implemented by by a team of architects under Charles Aslin (above), whose debt to Gropius was explicit. The population was growing fast and there was great demand for schools. The county architects, backed by the director of education, John Newsom, who was reputed to be good at sourcing materials in a time of scarcity, devised a standard prefabricated model, mainly used for single-storey buildings and making great use of natural light, colour and art.

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Designs for interior colour schemes for the entrance hall at Carpenders Park School, Oxhey by Oliver Cox, HCC Architects.
Image from RIBApix

I’d noticed the criss-cross ceiling girders in nearly every Hertfordshire school I visited (below)- round the corner from me is Margaret Wix Primary School built on such a model. My daughter went to St Albans Girls School, also built like that, with a Barbara Hepworth sculpture in the foyer. The Hertfordshire achievement was quickly recognised and it influenced school building elsewhere – by 1970 about 40 per cent of British schools had used it.

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Green Lanes School, Croxley Green, 1949

The exhibition made me curious about the primary school I’d attended, Pinner Park, then part of Middlesex County Council. When we’re children we accept the world as it presents itself and have little sense of context or history, but looking back I remember a modernist building with flat roofs and metal-framed windows. I discovered it was of the many modernist buildings constructed before the war by Middlesex County architects  William Thomas Curtis and his assistant Howard William Burchett. They created dozens of public buildings in Metroland , including the now-listed Kenton Public Library (below), recognisable from their brick construction, strong horizontal emphasis, flat roofs and prominent staircase tower. They used innovative methods and materials such as the concrete slab floors supported by pillars at Pinner Park School.

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Historic England’s description of Kenton Public Library gives an idea of Curtis and Burchett’s style and influences:

The square tower has two small, latter projections on the south-east corner, one of brick and one glazed. Both wings lit by tall metal windows. Entrance hall lit by east wall of glass bricks. Interior: original staircase, issuing desk and screen, and original bookcases. The main reading room is both side-lit and top-lit by means of circular perforated openings. Included as a good example of the Middlesex County Architect’s Department’s style adopted after 1933, owing much to the work of Wittem Dudok in Hilversum, yet giving a distinctive architectural form of calibre and panache to the London suburbs. This example is especially notable for its boldly geometric composition and the survival of internal fittings.

PUGLIESE BAROQUE 5: MONOPOLI

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After our ill-fated attempt to reach Ostuni by bus, we saw it, white and high, from the train that took us from Brindisi to Monopoli. Perhaps it was just as well that we didn’t reach it because the heavy rain the other night made rivers in the streets of Ostuni and came half way up the cars in the car parks.

Monopoli got its name as the “one city” of refuge from the Ostrogoths. It has been ruled by Byzantines, Normans, Angevins, Aragonese, Venetians and Hohenstaufens. Now its small historic centre has smart tourist shops and restaurants with a breezy, seaside air. Towering over it is the magnificent Cathedral of Maria Santissima della Madia (above). It’s an 11th-century foundation but the present structure, said by some with good reason to be the most beautiful baroque church in Puglia, was built between 1742 and 1772 to the design of Michele Colangiuli and Pietro Magarelli. Slap bang next to it is another Baroque church, Santa Maria del Suffragio, separated only by a narrow passage (below), S. Maria on the left, the Cathedral on the right.

s maria monopoli

St Anthony of Padua (below) , on the edge of the old city, is a discordant but fascinating building with shades of Piranesi’s imaginary prisons. It comprises a single vast order, a two-storey entrance arch pierced by a disproportionately small door and windows in a facade of much earlier date, with pilasters on huge pedestals leading up to a broken pediment. Who designed this strange church? The parish website concentrates on the inside and doesn’t tell you.

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PUGLIESE BAROQUE 4: BRINDISI


I had to visit the little town of Grottaglie, which has fifty traditional pottery workshops making a mixture of ornamental ceramics and tableware. It amazes me that these artisan businesses survive in Italy’s prosperous modern economy and that so much tableware is still made by hand, thrown on the wheel.

From Grottaglie we intended to travel by bus to Ostuni. It took two hours to find out where the bus departed from (the hotel receptionist apologised that “Everything is complicated in Italy”) and when we found the place, the bus didn’t come after a two-hour wait. So we opted for the easier trip by train to Brindisi, air conditioned as well – my British readers need to be informed that in late September it is 30 degrees in Puglia.

Brindisi had been almost written off by our guide book, which warned us that parts of it were “seedy”, and I expected little from a major seaport. But it has considerable interest and history in its pleasant waterfront, with the naval base and warships that you can watch through the security barrier, the fine Duomo, the little ancient basilica of St John, and the two ancient columns that marked the end of the Appian way (only one remains in the city, the other was donated to Lecce). It was also reputedly the place of Virgil’s death (below).


The inside of the Duomo has a refreshing simplicity after the extreme richness of the churches of Lecce, but the outside was beautifully lit at night (top). And we liked the frontage of Santa Teresa, glimpsed through olive trees as the cloud bubbled up before a thunderstorm (below).

PUGLIESE BAROQUE 3: GALLIPOLI

Not the Gallipoili in the Dardanelles, but Gallipoli in Puglia, though both were in Magna Grecia and both names are of Greek origin.

The centre of the small, cramped old town on a promontory is like the Southend-on-Sea of Puglia, nothing but tourist shops, tourist restaurants and a tourist information bureau that doesn’t want to give you any information. In most cities, the smart districts are in the centre and the periphery is either tatty or commercial, but in Gallipoli, it’s the historic centre that’s tatty and the smarter streets are around the marina and the sparkling sea and the Corso Roma, which was deserted when we arrived during the siesta on Saturday afternoon and packed during the passiagata, which continued till well after midnight.

But plonk in the middle of the fritto misto shops and souvenir joints is the grand duomo in the Baroque style of Lecce. Typical of Pugliese cities, the street is too narrow for you to see the facade, which extends over the roof line of the church in a high, ostentatious parapet, and I’ve had to use the image from Wikipedia because I couldn’t get into position for a decent photo. It’s also hard to find out much about the history of the cathedral, but the architect is said to be Giovan Bernardino Genuino, known as Vaspasiano.

PUGLIESE BAROQUE 2: LECCE

We came to Lecce, the major town in the heel of Italy, on a slow train from Martina Franca and found a room in the Palazzo Bernadini, presided over by Isabella Oztasciyan Bernardini d’Arnesano, professor of Greek studies at the university.

Lecce developed so rapidly in the late 17th century that it has a unity of design and its streets of honey-coloured churches and palazzi would make it a good film location. But that’s not surprising because the streets and squares of Lecce were conceived as a location for performance and display.

The large Duomo square, almost completely enclosed, had a defensive function but it is also a stage, with an elaborate set finished by Guiseppe Zimbalo, architect of many Lecce churches, and is made for ecclesiastical and civic performance. Each high Baroque church in the city competes with the next to make the best impression with its extravagance, splendour and the degree of elaboration of its façades and altars.

In art, whatever can be done will be done. If the artist has the soft Lecce limestone to work in, he can carve it any way so that it writhes, boils and bubbles. Columns are twisted and the twists are decorated with animal and plant forms and putti and the decorations gilded. The intention of this art, to surprise and overawe, is still achieved as the visitors gasp and Wow! before snapping the preposterous façades of Zimbalo’s Santa Croce and Duomo.

HATFIELD HOUSE

 

parterre east garden

I last visited the gardens of Hatfield House when the late Dowager Marchioness, Mollie Wyndham-Quin, presided over them. She was an inspired gardener and a significant garden historian until her death, aged 94, in 2016. The West Garden, which looks good in spring, was past its best the other day, not just because of the late season but also, I thought, because of the loss of that guiding hand. The East Garden, which is not always open to the public, still has reminiscences (above) of the Stuart garden of Robert Cecil, though a photo of the garden taken in 1895 (below) shows that the modern parterre is softer, greener and less labour-intensive than it was a hundred years ago. I also liked the Dutch garden with its peaceful pond (bottom, right).

old parterre