MODERNISM IN ART SCHOOLS

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I have been trying to find out more about British art schools between the wars to see to what extent they were permeated by modernist ideas and to what extent they remained in thrall to the Arts and Crafts, which I talked about in my last post.

Stuart MacDonald, in The History and Philosophy of Art Education, says little about the art schools in the 1920s and 1930s, turning in those decades to theories of child art, but he does comment that the Arts and Crafts approach persisted until the Second World War.

The plate above, from Charles Holmes’s Arts & Crafts: A Review of the Work Executed by Students in the Leading Art Schools in Great Britain and Ireland, is typical of the work that was being done in 1916. The tiles were made by Reco Capey at Burslem Art School. This talented pupil did similar work for Doulton’s at the same time as he was a student there. Capey, who is perhaps best known for his designs for Yardley, was appointed chief instructor in design at the RCA in 1925, where he worked under the traditionalist E. W. Tristram for ten years.

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These items by Capey (above), sold at Christie’s in 2014 , show how decidedly he had left behind the Arts and Crafts in his professional life and how enthusiastically he embraced Art Deco. In an article “Design in Everyday Life”, which he wrote for the Journal of the Royal Society of Arts (23 February 1940), he expressed a firm commitment to modernist design (below). He was undoubtedly a modernist influence at the RCA, where he worked with Paul Nash. Capey’s and Nash’s appointments look very much like an attempt by Rothenstein to counterbalance Tristram’s medievalism.

capey rsa 2

William Johnstone, a key figure in the modernisation of British art schools, says in his memoir, Points in Time, that, when he took over the Central School of Arts and Crafts after the war, the crafts were in his opinion too geared towards the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society “and not enough towards present day living”. He decided that John Farleigh, head of book production, was blocking change, got rid of him and appointed Jesse Collins in his place. Collins had taught book production part-time at the Central in the 1930s, where he was one of the few teachers aware of the Bauhaus. He helped Johnstone to introduce Bauhaus methods at Camberwell and also did so at the Central after the war.

Between the wars, pottery at the Central had been taught by Maggie Hindshaw and her strong-minded assistant Dora Billington, who was actually the driving force behind the course. Hindshaw had worked in Alfred and Louise Powell’s London studio and her work never strayed far from their their orbit. Billington had worked in a similar style, but when she encountered the pottery of William Staite Murray and Bernard Leach in the 1920s, she appears to have undergone a Damascene conversion and by the early 1930s decorated earthenware at the Central had been replaced by bold, simple forms whose appeal derived from glazes and kiln accidents rather than brush work. Studio pottery’s relationship to modernism is complex and ambivalent and although its formal properties are easily described in modernist terms – plain, simple, functional, uncluttered, honest, direct – its ideology, largely the creation of Bernard Leach, was anti-modern, anti-industrial and anti-intellectual.

The complexities of the period are illustrated by the fact that many of the figures in this narrative were at once modernist and associated with the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society. Capey, Farleigh and Billington were all its presidents in their time, and Johnstone, despite his disparagement of the Society, collaborated with it and was made an honorary member. Ideologists of modernism, of the stripe of Adolf Loos, Wells Coates and Herbert Read, might be inclined to declare modernism to be not a style but a principle (to adapt a phrase of Pugin’s), but for most artists the opposite was the case. Change in style comes from the accumulation of innumerable influences, adaptations, imitations and alliances. It is unsurprising that artists and teachers in the 1920s and 1930s changed their styles and their way of working, but the change in art schools was slow and gradual.

DEBORAH SUGG RYAN’S SUBURBAN MODERNISM

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

lancaster suburban

lancaster modernist

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.

LUTON TOWN HALL

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I’ve been reading my diary for 1993 when I worked for Luton Borough Council, where I moved from the London Borough of Camden.

Luton was the worst example of callous post-war town planning in England. It was cut in half by the massive Arndale Centre (now called The Mall), where ghosts of old vanished streets lingered in the names of corridors. In the deserted side roads, old trades survived – a grocer with a bacon slicer, a bag and case shop with a window full of jumble, a stove enameller – and an exceptionally large number of nonconformist chapels. I liked Luton, which was untidy, varied, comic and glum. Although it was in the south, it felt like a northern city, largely because of Vauxhall Motors.

The philosophy of town planning was very different in the 1990s from what it had been in the 1960s and the Council was trying to atone for its sins. The district surveyor, who was on the point of retiring when I arrived, told me that the greatest regret of his professional life was acquiring the land for the Arndale. In the town planning guidance of the period, modernism was bad and Victorianism good.

I was reminded how much I liked the town hall. It was built in 1935 to replace the old town hall burned down in the infamous Peace Day riots of 1919, when disgruntled ex-servicemen revolted against their mistreatment and their exclusion from the official celebrations. Although the mayor was lucky to escape with his life, the riots had a funny side when a music shop was looted and a piano pushed out into the street to accompany a rendering of Keep the Home Fires Burning.

The listed building by Bradshaw, Gass and Hope is a mixture of civic classical and art deco, with a Doric entrance and a neon clock. The council chamber is walnut-panelled and lit by cubist pendants and retains original fittings and finishes in timber, plaster and metal designed by the architects.

luton council chamber

When I worked there, the office doors had PRIVATE in gold letters on frosted glass panels but no name of the officer who worked inside. The building was beautifully preserved and smelled of furniture polish, a welcome change from working in Camden town hall, whose walls were smothered in unofficial placards and whose stairways smelled of piss.

IMPROVING PUBLIC TASTE: THE 1935 EXHIBITION OF BRITISH ART IN INDUSTRY

Designed by Keith Murray, made by Thomas Webb and Corbett

There is a long history of attempts to improve design standards and to bring together artists and manufacturers. As early as the 1830s fears that continental design was outstripping British design led to the creation of government schools of design and The Great Exhibition was the occasion for further hand-wringing. By the end of the century, the design schools had sunk into an arid syllabus of laboured drawing and they were reformed to offer students  some craft-based training. But even after these reforms the Royal College of Art was seen to be failing industry by producing craftsmen who could only make luxury goods in ateliers.

 

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By the 1930s the terms of debate had changed. Now the tasks at hand were the modernisation of industry, the need for standardisation, international competitiveness and the problems of mass unemployment. Herbert Read and Walter Gropius doubted the relevance of the crafts, but many hoped the crafts might contribute to mass production.

Designed by A. E. Harvey, made by Hukin and Heath.

One of the key exhibitions in the series was the 1935 Exhibition of British Art in Industry, put on by the Royal Academy and the Royal Society of Arts. It was sponsored by the King and Queen, had a vast infrastructure of the great and the good, a committee of titled individuals, a general committee of notables, an executive committee and numerous trade advisory committees. I have been looking through the attractive souvenir publication, which gives an idea of the contemporary consensus on good design and shows some interesting products, which I’ve illustrated here.

Calf handbag with raised work on chromium frame (left) –
designer and maker: Anglo-French Handbag Co.
Beige suede bag with heavy wooden top lined in suede (right) –
designer and maker: Beatrice Dawson

The preface says: “The machine has opened up a new world of production unknown in the days of handicraft. Hand craftsmanship, of course, has its advantages. It can give individuality, character and charm which the machine by its very nature could not attempt to produce. For over half a century there has been a struggle for supremacy between the rival schools of thought thus created. Experience has proved both to be right and both to be wrong. Many attempts have been made, abroad, to exhibit the ideal combination of both methods … .”

Designed by Professor R. Y. Gleadowe, made by Wakely & Wheeler with
G. T. Friend (engraver) for the Goldsmiths and Silversmiths Co. Ltd.

The items selected give the impression of cautious modernism, streamlined forms and simple, elegant ornamentation.

A running theme in these debates was public taste, which was thought to be in need of improvement. Design reformers thought that manufacturers’ taste should also be educated. The uncomfortable thought behind these ideas, lightly disguised as the notion of fitness for purpose, was that the public didn’t know what was good for them and needed a design elite to tell them. But fitness for purpose was eventually debunked by David Pye, who demonstrated that the final form of an object is shaped by aesthetic as much as by practical decisions and sometimes even more so. Many still admire the kind of things in the Exhibition of British Art in Industry, but most would accept that taste is a personal matter, and there are now fewer patronising lectures about good design.