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.
After reading Robert D. Best’s memoir, which I wrote about earlier, I found Brass Chandelier, the biography of his father, R.H.Best, the public-spirited proprietor of Best & Lloyd, a Victorian art brass founder which is still trading in Birmingham today. It gives an insight into the relationship between craft and industry, which I think was distorted in arts and crafts texts suggesting they were incompatible, and into contemporary ideas about design education.
Brass Chandelier describes an old firm that grew haphazardly a into Dickensian assemblage of workshops, laboratories and foundries over which Best paternalistically presided. He was on good terms with W.J.Davis of the brassfounders union, at one moment negotiating hard over wages with him, at another carrying out joint social investigations. Best insisted on the highest standard of craftsmanship, recalling Wedgwood in his demonstrative throwing of substandard work from an upper storey.
The firm was successful because of Best’s standards, because he listened to customers and because of his tight control of money. He would not move to a well laid-out, modern factory because he refused to borrow. But control was difficult in his rabbit warren. The system of group piecework that prevailed, a sort of internal subcontracting in which an artisan would agree to make something for a certain price and then employ his own assistants, was not easy to supervise. And there were pockets of inefficiency, for example, the horse that was kept for rare deliveries, with an expensive groom and a groom’s boy, no-one really knowing quite why, until it was discovered that somebody’s roses depended on it.
Best kept an eye on new educational methods, interested in securing a skilled workforce with a sense of civic duty. His connections in Germany put him in touch Dr Georg Kerschensteiner, Munich’s director of education, who was introducing a system based on practical learning, vocational training and training for citizenship. Every subject – mathematics, geography, history, civics – was to be related to practical work. Best was keen to to apply the system to Birmingham.
As a member of the management committee of the Birmingham School of Art, Best came into conflict with its head, Robert Catterson-Smith. Best was an enlightened capitalist and a follower of Joseph Chamberlain. Catterson-Smith was an artist and a socialist. Catterson-Smith was a member of the Art Workers Guild and an associate of William Morris. He had worked with Morris on the Kelmscott Chaucer, copying Burne-Jones’s drawing and transferring them to woodcuts. The extent of his involvement was not appreciated at the time and was never publicly acknowledged by Morris, but it is now thought to have been considerable.
Birmingham had been the first city to set up an art school following arts and crafts precepts, favouring working in materials over regimented drawing. The Catterson-Smith system was observation and drawing from memory, to which end he kept animals in the school. Best did not have a high opinion of the school and Brass Chandelier records their differences. Best wanted designers who knew about styles. “I ask Catterson-Smith for Louis Quinze,” he wrote, “and he hands me a rabbit.”
Catterson-Smith’s dislike of machinery and business was bound to be a source of disagreement with Best. He deprecated copying, but Best could not see why a beautiful picture should not be reproduced. Catterson-Smith replied, “Because it is done for profit and would destroy original effort.” Best teased him with the observation that Morris did not like his assistants adding original touches, and he could not see why taking profit was any worse than taking a salary. Best was hopeful that within a generation there would be significant improvements in education. Catterson-Smith was more pessimistic, lamenting that parents, youths and employers have all been polluted by profit-mongering.
Robert Best’s From Bedales to the Boche, edited by Stephen Games, is an intimate account of Robert’s Edwardian youth and that of his brother Frank. The Best brothers were heirs to Best & Lloyd, the leading Birmingham brass-founder and manufacturer of lighting equipment, which embraced modernism and survives into the 21st century.
It’s a fascinating narrative of a prosperous, progressive-minded, busy and outgoing family. Robert (above) conveys the ethos of Bedales, his progressive public school, with its high-mindedness, inspiring teachers, sports and crafts. The Bests embraced everything new – motor cars, aeroplanes, motorbikes, the cinema and ragtime. In the war, Robert and Frank jumped at the opportunity to join the Royal Flying Corps, which officers were asking to be transferred to because, we learn, they disliked commanding conscripts. Frank’s plane crashed in 1917 and his body was never recovered. The book, based on copious letters and diaries, is Robert’s tribute to his brother.
Owing to the Bests’ business and family connections, they were Germanophiles, or at least Best père was: his mother became “exhausted by Father’s uncritical insistence on the excellence of all things German.” Robert’s reflections in hindsight may have been coloured by two intervening wars. He records that their German neighbour “was generous and benevolent towards friends and relatives but that his treatment of children tended to be dictatorial. Frank and I felt intuitively and with distaste something domineering in his relationship with his family and this emphasised our prejudices against Germany and Germans.” Looking back on his time in Germany in 1911, he says that he was “more or less conscious of a feeling akin to fear … something to do with the inherent animal coarseness which you can’t help noticing in a lot of the people.”
Their father, R.H.Best, chose not to send his sons to the Birmingham School of Art, which was steeped in the arts and crafts outlook and whose students’ work he considered to be merely “ethereal smudges”. Instead they went to the Düsseldorf Kunstgewerbeschule, which had strong links with the Deutscher Werkbund. Peter Behrens, its director from 1903 to 1907 and the current director, Wilhelm Kreis, were co-founders of the Werkbund and several other teachers were also members. The Werkbund’s mission, “the refinement of industrial work”, set them apart from English designers, many of whom were still wedded to handicrafts. Best’s later acquaintance with Nikolaus Pevsner is significant in this context because Pevsner relates in Pioneers of the Modern Movement (1936) how the baton of design had passed from England to bodies like the Werkbund and designers like Behrens.
At Düsseldorf, Robert’s artistic intentions were practical and he complained that the drawing he was being taught was “more Art than Trade”. He wrote that he was drawing poppy heads that he planned to turn into lamps and lanterns. He wanted to model acanthus leaves in different styles but was discouraged from doing so because the school was averse to styles, which were thought to discourage originality. Originality was greatly valued. “That they give scope to originality much more than we in their buildings, etc, there is no doubt,” Robert said. “Whether they have much sense of the beautiful is another matter. I was at the judging of the Kunstgewerbe Competition when Kreis gave a speech over the merits of each prize-winning work. It didn’t matter if a man had not the ghost of an idea of anatomy: so long as it was original it was booked for a prize.”
He took classes with Max Benirschke, a Behrens appointee and another Werkbund member. Robert found Benirschke to be a hard taskmaster but respected his values: “Simplicity, Harmony of all parts – and if possible Originality.” He reported, “I am doing a ripping lamp with Benirschke of the refined, constructional, vornehm [elegant] type.” Benirschke was later commissioned by Best & Lloyd.
Back in Birmingham business was booming and the company was expanding. R.H.Best approached it less as a businessman than as an enthusiast, liking nothing better than to absorb himself in technical and artistic problems. His “Surprise” gas pendant (above) had been hugely profitable and allowed investment in innovation. But, like the Birmingham Guild, Best & Lloyd were cautious about modernisation. “There was considerable hesitation about selling machine-made technical products on the grounds of aesthetic inconsistency,” wrote one director. “We won our reputation on beauty and design and ornament and to come into the open market with mass-produced and utilitarian small parts seemed incongruous to Mr Best.” Robert and Frank, however, were able to persuade them to move into the manufacture of motor-cycle parts.
Robert judged Düsseldorf’s training in product design to be years ahead of Birmingham’s, despite Düsseldorf’s lack of workshop facilities and Birmingham’s emphasis on direct working in materials. Students at Düsseldorf were using geometrical forms in their designs, although they were still influenced by Jugendstil, and the German emphasis on originality contrasts with the quasi-medieval style that British art schools had settled into. Their concentration on craft was arguably detrimental to innovative design. It was something that Lewis Foreman Day had warned about, and the government inquiry into the Royal College of Art had found that its training in handicrafts had rendered students unable to apply themselves to the problems of production, and that fewer than one in ten went on to be designers.
Robert Best went on to be active in the Werkbund-inspired Design and Industries Association and he hosted the visit of Walter Gropius to the Midlands after Gropius’s exile from Germany in 1934. His Bestlite has become a design icon and is often reproduced (above).
Student drawings by Eileen Nesbit.
Kenneth Clark’s Practical Pottery and Ceramics, published in 1964, was one of the first modern manuals for pottery students. It was based on the ceramics course at the Central School of Arts and Crafts, in Southampton Row, where Clark had taught for several years, and it was one of a trio of books available in the decades after the war, along with Bernard Leach’s A Potter’s Book (1940) and Dora Billington’s The Technique of Pottery (1962). Billington led the course at the Central and taught there for over thirty years, and her book was also based on its syllabus.
Student exercises by Gillian Lowndes.
For some reason, Clark’s book has been overlooked and is not mentioned in books on studio pottery, including two recent scholarly studies, Jeffrey Jones’s Studio Pottery in Britain 1900 – 2005 and Things of Beauty Growing: British Studio Pottery, edited by Glenn Adamson, Martina Droth and Simon Olding.
Practical Pottery and Ceramics was written when the Anglo-Oriental orthodoxy of Bernard Leach was at its height and it represented the opposite pole of studio pottery, centred on Southampton Row. It gives a valuable insight into the very different approach being followed there by the head of department, Gilbert Harding Green, and his team – Clark, Gordon Baldwin, William Newland, Ian Auld, Ruth Duckworth and Richard Bateson.
Student work from the Central School of Art and Crafts.
Clark acknowledged the “sound tradition” that had been established by Leach and his followers, for whom truth to materials was of prime importance, but he looked forward to that tradition being extended to meet the needs and conditions of the present. He welcomed the influence of Picasso (whose foray into pottery Leach had dismissed out of hand):
During this period of change Picasso with his daring, invention, colour-sense and imagination, shattered and shocked the traditional potters with his experiments in ceramics. While his approach was obviously more that of the painter, he added fresh life and a new direction to ceramics, and from his activities stemmed many schools of thought and expression which flowed in the ‘fifties. Ceramists found that their values needed drastic revision, while at the same time they endeavoured to retain an openness of mind an integrity in the use of their materials.
As well as recording the techniques, methods and exercises being taught at the Central in the sxities, the book is invaluable for its illustrations of work by contemporary students, graduates and teachers – Eileen Nesbit (“a student”), Alan Caiger-Smith, Ann Wynn Reeves, Gillian Lowndes, Robin Welch, Ruth Duckworth, Gordon Baldwin, William Newland, James Tower, Nicholas Vergette, Kenneth Clark himself and several less well-known students who are, nevertheless, fully credited.
Ceramic sculpture by Ruth Duckworth and Gordon Baldwin, teachers at the Central.
A personal footnote. My A-level art teacher, Connie Passfield, bought the book when it came out and lent it to me. It was my first practical introduction to pottery. I left school that year and forgot to give it back. That’s the copy these illustrations are from.
William Morris’s rules for potters anticipated the practice of 20th century studio potters: “No vessel should be fashioned by being pressed into a mould that can be made by throwing on the wheel, or otherwise by hand,” he said. “All vessels should be finished on the wheel, not turned in a lathe, as is now the custom.”
Richard Lunn, who taught the first studio pottery course in a British art school, was not only indifferent to these principles but considered wheel-throwing to be old fashioned and undemocratic. “The machinery of today turns out hundreds of shapes where the old mode of throwing could only produce dozens. The potter’s wheel is a thing of the past so far as large quantities are concerned, and it is the large quantities that demand the designer’s attention now. To-day the art potter works or the millions instead of the comparatively few.”
A major concern in the Arts and Crafts movement was the proper relationship between designer and executant. When it was distant, it was thought to be damaging both to art and the welfare of the worker. Ruskin insisted that the workman should originate his own design, but for practical reasons arts-and-craft designers like Morris were bound to employ workmen to execute their designs and did not always acknowledge them. (Several William Morris wallpapers designs were printed by Jeffrey & Co.) The issues were well set out in a discussion between Lewis Foreman Day and Walter Crane. Day took the more pragmatic position, arguing that design and craftsmanship were specialised activities and that both would suffer if all craftsmen were compelled to originate their own designs and all designers were compelled to execute them. Crane, a socialist and a colleague of Morris, was more idealistic and seemed to envisage the possibility of a society based on handicrafts.
Lunn’s views were closer to Day’s than to Crane’s: “There is a great deal of nonsense talked about craftsmanship,” he said, “and I am afraid that if craftsmanship is not kept in its proper place it will usurp that of design in our schools; that is to say, it will take up that time that ought to be devoted to the principles of ornament and design. And I fear students of design will be tempted to neglect the serious studies by which a thorough mastery of their art is to be obtained. Get the knowledge of design first, for when a man sees clearly what he wants he will soon find a way to do it.”
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.
I have been looking at Prof Toshio Kasumitsu’s dissertation British Industrialisation and Design 1830-1851, which I found my way to from Charles Saumaurez Smith’s blog, in which he thanked Kasumitsu for his eloquent support for the Whitechapel Bell Foundry.
In this interesting thesis he shows that early ideas of “craft”, “skill”, “art” and “mystery” were associated with protective guilds and the apprenticeship system and that they indicated a deep understanding of a trade. Adam Smith, who believed that long apprenticeships protected the trades and the masters and disadvantaged the public, moved “skill” towards ideas of manual dexterity, whereas previously it had a much richer meaning. In Smith’s thinking, skill in this sense could be imparted in much shorter training programmes. It became closer to ideas of “competence”, which motivate modern vocational training .
I wondered whether the elevation of craft in the thinking of Ruskin, Morris and their followers was associated with an archaic and protectionist concept of arts and trades, and whether their resistance to new methods of organising work and production favoured the tradesman over the consumer? That was the effect of Morris’s business practice, which was incapable of producing products cheaply, and there was an irreconcilable contradiction in his philosophy between between the idea of a craft-based economy and the idea of a society where everyone could lead a life of modest prosperity.
By the mid-19th century it was already supposed that design had deteriorated because of the separation of the “fine” from the “decorative” arts, leading to the debasement of the latter. This view persisted for a hundred years and the cause of the separation was frequently attributed to the factory system and the division of labour. They may have reinforced it but they cannot be said to have caused it, because it began centuries before the industrial revolution and was associated with the Renaissance conception of the liberal arts as distinct from the crafts and with the attempt of fine artists to elevate their social status.
It is also questionable whether the separation of art into “fine” and “decorative” necessarily depresses design. By the end of the 19th century the Arts and Crafts style had thoroughly permeated manufacturing industry and it dominated domestic goods for 20 years after Morris’s death. Some of the designs made in this period were by fine artists but not all were. The furniture painted by Morris and Burne-Jones may be said to be fine art applied to manufacture, but what of the work of pioneering industrial designers like Christopher Dresser, W. A. S. Benson and Lewis Foreman Day? The design of manufactured goods is dependent on the adequate selection and training of designers rather than on the inclusion of fine artists in the manufacturing process or erasing the distinction between the two.
The low status of artisan designers the supposed deterioration of design were generally elided in critiques of “bad design” and the latter was supposed to be a consequence of the former. But was it, and to what extent did other things cause it: 1) Indifference of the buying public to “good” design and preference for “bad” design? 2) The inadequate training of designers? 3) The expense of getting good design? All those things – bad taste, lack of education and the commercial motive – were blamed, but there there is evidence against all of them. 1) There were prolonged and strenuous attempts to elevate taste, from the efforts of Henry Cole (above) and William Morris to the Design Centre, and they appear to have had little effect in the view of their promoters. 2) The Schools of Design and their successors spent seventy years getting designers to study the best models but critiques of bad design persisted. 3) The argument from commerce was confused from the start, between claims that the profit motive pushed out good design and claims that businesses would do much better if only they made better-designed products.
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.
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.