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.
With the caveat that Central Saint Martins (above) haven’t spoken publicly about their reason for refusing to allow Claudia Clare to speak at the university, which I’ve written about earlier, their reason, as I understand it, looks rather thin on examination.
Apparently their reason for the ban is that, because of her gender-critical views, Claudia’s speaking would breach their equal opportunities guidelines. (Gender-critical, for those unfamiliar with this world, means the assertion that sex – being a man or a woman – is based on biology and isn’t altered by one’s gender identity.) I’ve said that, since Claudia wasn’t billed to talk about her gender-critical views, but about her work of art, And the Door Opened, this means she’s being banned not for what she’s saying but for what she thinks.
If that is the case, Central Saint Martins may be skating on thin ice. Claudia and her supporters have drawn my attention to the Forstater case, in which the courts decided that a person couldn’t be sacked for gender-critical views and overturned the ruling of an Employment Tribunal that they could. The court ruled that if those views were cogent and sincerely held they were a philosophical belief akin to a religion and were a “protected characteristic” under equality law. In other words, dismissing someone from their job because of their gender-critical beliefs, would be contrary to equal-opportunities law.
Allowing or not allowing someone to talk on one’s premises is another matter, and as I’m not a lawyer I can’t say whether or not Central Saint Martins is breaking the law by banning Claudia because of the views she holds. But the government has become concerned about the increasing tendency of students in higher education to bully speakers they don’t like and the tendency of university authorities to give in to them and to ban those speakers, as it seems has happened to Claudia, and a Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill is going through Parliament to extend the Forstater principle and to stop it from happening in the future.
William Rothenstein knew everyone in the art world of the early 20th century, so his memoirs – Men and Memories and After Fifty – are informative as well as entertaining. Since I’ve been writing about W. R. Lethaby, I thought I should go and see what Rothenstein had to say about him. Not surprisingly they knew one another well. They visited Paris and Chartres together. Rothenstein respected Lethaby’s scholarship, judgement and integrity and his contribution to the crafts. I’ve copied the relevant passage below.
Rothenstein became principal of the Royal College of Art shortly after Lethaby had retired as professor of design and while his infliuence was still strongly felt. In a confidential memorandum Rothenstein expressed reservations about the air of medievalism that he’d left behind him and the poor work being done in some of the subjects in the design school.
In 1911 the government produced a damning report on the Royal College of Art (RCA). It focused on the shortcomings of the school of design, headed by W. R. Lethaby, saying he encouraged petty handicrafts of little economic significance, failed to acquaint students with the requirements of industry and left them unsuited to practical employment. Not surprisingly it was highly controversial and triggered a vigorous public debate.
The driving force behind the report was Sir Robert Morant, permanent secretary at the Board of Education. On his initiative the committee of inquiry was set up and members were recruited who could be expected to come to the conclusions the Board wanted – that is to say, the conclusions he wanted. It’s not entirely clear what his motivation was but it’s reasonable to suppose that he responded to industry criticisms and disliked what he saw as drift and muddle at the RCA.
Morant was a clearsighted and forceful civil servant with long experience of education and a commitment to improving it. In the late 1890s he had been instrumental in creating the Board of Education, which brought into one place the administration of elementary, secondary, technical and university teaching. His great achievement was the 1902 Education Act, which extended secondary education and put it under the control of local authorities instead of the mass of little boards that had existed previously. Later, after leaving education, he set up the national insurance scheme.
Before the report was initiated the Board arranged for Lewis Foreman Day to replace Walter Crane as an RCA Visitor (that is to say, a College inspector) so as to have in place someone who would speak frankly about Lethaby’s shortcomings. Day warned Morant that if he was appointed, he would have to speak his mind. Morant accepted that and told his minister, Sir Walter Runciman, that they had been thinking of getting rid of Lethaby anyway. (As it was, he remained until his retirement in 1918.) Day’s highly critical internal report then prepared the ground for the public report.
Day had recently helped to form The Design Club, which brought together designers, manufacturers and retailers, and he believed that high quality products were made when artists and industrialists worked together. This approach was bound to have recommended itself to the Board.
The differences between Day and Crane – which may be summarised as the difference between the industry outlook and the handicraft outlook – were well-known and Lethaby’s views at this time were closer to Crane’s than to Day’s. Day’s differences with Crane had been set out in their book Moot Points, where they discussed how far the artist should accommodate himself to industry and how far he should stand aloof from it. Crane said how much he disliked the way that artists were forced to make work that would sell and the fact that they were likely to starve if they did not. He looked forward to a society where there was no profit motive and no pressure to sell, where the artist would be free to follow his imagination and where he would be rewarded for doing so by an appreciative community. Day thought Crane took himself too seriously as an artist and that his demand to do whatever he liked was self-indulgent. Both the quality of the art and the character of the artist would be improved in his opinion by the artist learning to design within constraints.
In reality, Day’s, Crane’s and Lethaby’s ideas may have differed in emphasis rather than essence and Day and Crane may have exaggerated their differences in Moot Points for rhetorical effect. A few years later, Lethaby was one of a group of dissidents in the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society who formed the Design and Industries Association. Crane was a practical designer of wallpapers, fabrics and pottery and a prolific illustrator of children’s books and knew full well how to adapt his ideas for manufacturing. His eminence derived in large measure from his achievements as a designer and he was a member of Day’s Design Club. At the RCA Lethaby set his students design exercises intended to give them skills they could apply to a wide range of work. Lethaby’s biographer, Godfrey Rubens – who naturally takes Lethaby’s side against Day and the Board of Education – makes the interesting suggestion that these exercises anticipated the sort of studies that came into the art schools as Basic Design forty years later.
Those like me who have only known the RCA’s Darwin building in Kensington Gore may be interested to know how long it took to build – fifty years if you count from when the decision was made. The College was previously tucked into corners of the Victoria & Albert Museum, where it had been since 1863, and from the turn of the century it was obvious that the premises were too small and badly laid out, incluing sheds and annexes a long distance from the main building in Cromwell Road.
In 1911 a government committee said that some of the RCA’s teachers were producing students with a bent towards handicrafts and little to offer industry but at the same time the inadequacies of the building were frankly acknowledged.
The Board of Education readily accepted the need for better accommodation. (Reading the files, it’s evident that Sir Humphrey – actually Sir Robert Morant – had decided what the committee should say long before the minister set it up.) They rejected the suggestion that the existing building might be upgraded and decided a new one was needed. In 1912 plans (below) were drawn up by Beresford Pite, professor of architecture at the RCA.
Two world wars intervened and it was only after the second, under the rectorship of Robin Darwin, that serious plans got underway. Looking at Pite’s plan, a new building may have been needed in the ‘sixties anyway if it had been implemented.
I posted earlier about this little ceramic sculpture I picked up in an auction, speculating that it was made by a follower of Charles Vyse. After a couple of days looking in the archives of Camberwell School of Art I was pleased to find that I was right. Vyse taught modelling at Camberwell in the 1920s and in The Cambian, the college magazine, I saw a similar piece by J.West, a student. West never seems to have practiced professionally, like a lot of art students, and I’ve found no other pieces by him. Him or her? My first thought was that a tender piece depicting a girl with a baby must have been made by a woman, but the convention of the time would have been to describe a woman student as “Miss J. West,” so J.West was probably a man.
The Museum of Applied Arts in Vienna (MAK) has a large exhibition devoted to the women artists of the Wiener Werkstätte (WW), the company of artists, designers and craft workers who defined Viennese modernism in the first decades of the 20th century. Women played a prominent role, increasingly after the First World War. The work shown is varied, innovative, clever and faultlessly executed.
The Wiener Werkstätte started as a metal workshop founded by Joseph Hoffmann and Koloman Moser, professors at the Vienna School of Arts and Crafts, and Fritz Waerndorfer, their business manager. It expanded to include textiles, fashion, pottery, graphics, architecture, furniture and toys, selling to the Viennese bourgeoisie though their upmarket stores in the Neustiftgasse and Kärntner Strasse, particularly to the cultured and assimilated Jewish bourgeoisie of the kind recently depicted in Tom Stoppard’s Leopoldstadt. (I wrote about their New York store here.)
The artists of the Werkstätte were influenced by the British Arts and Crafts movement but rapidly went beyond it and were less doctrinaire than Morris & Co. They valued art but they were unfazed by machinery. They esteemed handwork but they didn’t think it was essential for designers to make everything themselves. And they didn’t share the social concerns of the Arts and Crafts movement. Unlike Morris, who wanted to create a democratic art and hated pandering to what he called “the swinish luxury of the rich,” the Gesamptkunstwerk to which the WW aspired – designing a project from house to teaspoons to the highest specification – presupposed a wealthy clientele.
The curators have found 178 women who designed for the WW. They made a major contribution to exhibits in the Austrian pavilion in the 1925 Paris Expo and are pictured above setting it up. Hoffmann’s design is well-known but most of the women have been overlooked. In their day the Werkstätte was mocked because it employed so many of them and dismissed as “Weiner Wieberkunstgewerbe“, Viennese Feminine Crafts.
Their diverse talents are illustrated by the graphics, textiles and ceramics designed by Hilda Jesser that I’ve shown. She also designed lace, embroidery, wallpaper, jewellery and leather goods.
This is a just small selection from this superb exhibition. There is a publication with illustrations and biographies of the artists.
I am looking for information about the figurative ceramics exhibited at the Paris Expo in 1925, the Exposition Internationale des arts décoratifs et industriels modernes, knowing that they were the height of fashion in the mid 1920s and being particularly interested in the Austrian exhibits. In Vienna, innovative ceramics were being made at the school of applied arts and the Weiner Werkstätte under the tutelage of Josef Hoffmann and Michael Powolny. Ceramics classes at the art school had a large female presence (as, incidentally, did the classes in London at the time at the Central School of Arts and Crafts) and extraordinary talents were emerging, inlcuding the figurative ceramists Susi Singer and Vally Wieselthier. Another of Powolny’s students was Lucie Rie (née Gomperz). It was surprising to find her collaborating in the making of a figure by Grete Salzer (above) that was entered in the Paris exhibition, so unlike any of Rie’s pottery made in either Vienna or London.
One of the best of the potteries making figures in the 1920s and 1930s was the Dulwich Pottery, which was run by two young women, Jessamine Bray and Sybil V. Williams, but like so many of the modellers of this period almost nothing is known about them. They practiced together for about ten years, then marriage, the war and changing fashions in ceramics condemned them to obscurity.
Their work is quite similar to that of Charles Vyse, the only one of the so-called Chelsea Potters with a lasting reputation. There may have been a connection, yet to be discovered, because both Vyse and Jessamine Bray taught at Camberwell School of Art in the late 1920s. Jessamine was only in her twenties at the time, yet there is a self-assurance in her work and she clearly impressed the appointments panel of the school.
Robert Catterson-Smith’s method of memory drawing became widespread and was used in teaching for the School Certificate. Many of his young students at Birmingham Art School, who were being trained for local trades, produced good work (below).
The differences between R.H.Best and Catterson-Smith (which I wrote about in my last post) are alluded to in Charles Holmes’s Arts and Crafts, a 1916 review of art schools, though it’s not possible to understand exactly what the problems described there are without reading Best’s biography. Courses for printers, house painters and bookbinders were set up at the school of art in consultation with employers, but agreeing a syllabus for brassworkers proved more problematic, as Arts and Crafts recorded:
“In the case of the brassworkers’ classes, there were difficulties in the way of complete success which the [School of Art] committee hopes yet to overcome. It is not easy in such trade classes to fix a standard of excellence that shall obtain the joint approval of the art teachers and the employers. Pure technical training is not the province of School of Art and is, moreover, amply provided elsewhere. Nor can a demand to teach a certain style – and possibly a bad one at that – which may be in vogue in the trade, be always met in a satisfactory manner, especially at a moment’s notice without regard to the proper training in general principles of art and design.“
The voice of Best, who was a member of the committee, resonates throughout this passage. He wanted students who could design for the market and who understood “styles”. The art school wanted to impart general principles, and there was the unspoken influence of Catterson-Smith, a Morrisonian socialist who hated trade, commerce and profit-making. “I ask Catterson-Smith for Louis Quinze and he gives me a rabbit,” said Best. This difference of outlook between art school and the employer is found repeatedly in the period and may go some way to explaining the hand-wring about “bad design” and the failure of British manufacturers to compete in international markets.