WHAT IF GROPIUS HAD BEEN DIRECTOR OF THE RCA?

I’ve been reading Hilary Cunliffe-Charlesworth’s thesis on the Royal College of Art and was intrigued to discover the British response to Bauhaus teaching and to Gropius, who came to England in 1934.

The RCA under Rothenstein had undergone radical change since 1920, when it was primarily a teacher training college. Rothenstein had brought in professional artists who were to have studios in the college and he encouraged the professional art teachers to leave. In 1924 he visited art schools in Prague, Berlin and Paris and saw that the work being done there surpassed anything to be found in England. His visit persuaded him that the College should neither be a teacher training institution nor offer vocational training for specific industries but that it ought to be delivering a high standard of general education to intending designers and artists. Weimar was not on his itinerary so he didn’t see the Bauhaus. Although he took pains to get more government money for the design department, his main achievement was in the fine arts – Paul Nash, Edward Burra, Henry Moore, Eric Ravilous and Edward Bawden were products of Rothenstein’s RCA.

There had been nagging discontent with the college’s failure to produce enough industrial designers more or less since it was founded in 1896, and these criticisms surfaced again during Rothenstein’s tenure. But the methods of the Bauhaus were never seen as as an alternative. It was thought by some in the Board of Education to be a fine art school and its socialist phase under Hannes Meyer frightened them.

When he came to England, Gropius was consulted on design education and his lectures were well attended, but on Rothenstein’s resignation he wasn’t considered as a successor. It’s fascinating to speculate what might had have happened if he had been. The revolution that occurred under Robin Darwin would have taken place ten years earlier. As it was, the Bauhaus system wasn’t fully applied in British art schools until the Coldstream Report in 1960. What if there had been a Gropius Report in 1935?

 

 

CENTRAL ST MARTINS ARCHIVE

I’m looking at photos in the Central St Martins archive showing the ceramics class and students’ work in the mid 20th century, to find images to borrow for the exhibition about Dora Billington that I’m curating at the Crafts Study Centre.

The archive has artefacts as well as documents and I was amazed to find that they have a collection of the pigments Billington used. They are in paper packets and they’re dated, some with dates from the 1920s when she started teaching at the Central. They are remarkable because Billington, who had no children, has left no archive and no personal effects and nothing if her survives apart from her own pottery, which will form the core of the exhibition.

The pigments might not have survived. The archivist told me that Billington left some of her effects to Ian Auld, whom she’d taught and who had worked as her technician. Auld married Gillian Lowndes, of a later generation of Central students (and the most original ceramist of that period.) Auld and Lowndes died several years ago, but their daughter thoughtfully donated this interesting item.

MAY MORRIS

may morris

A picture of this 1910 women’s suffrage banner, juxtaposing Arts and Crafts irises and the hammers and horseshoes that the Suffragettes used to break shop windows with, was tweeted by @womensart1

My first thought was, “Did it have anything to do with May Morris?” considering that she was an important Arts and Crafts embroiderer and had been an active socialist since she joined the Hammersmith Socialist League, which was run by her father William Morris. She was largely responsible for the revival of free hand embroidery and taught it at the Central School of Arts and Crafts. 

I found Elizabeth Crawford’s blog about a Suffrage Procession organised by the Womens’ Union of Suffrage Societies in 1908, featuring banners designed by the Artists’ League for Women’s Suffrage, including some made by May Morris. Anna Mason writes of Morris’s political engagement that she was not militant and that during her father’s period of political activity in the 1880s she did not like the idea that he might be arrested. So it may be that she was not associated with the window-breaking Suffragettes; and in 1910 she had long departed from Hammersmith and was living in Oxfordshire.

BILLINGTON MAIOLICA JUG

1942 maiolica jug manchester small.jpg

I went yesterday to see this Dora Billington jug in the Manchester Art Gallery. I saw it there about twenty years ago but it has not been on display for several years and I had to go down into the store to look at it. It made an impression on me when I first saw it and it was the starting point of my interest in Billington because it showed her mastery of maiolica, a technique not widely practiced by British  potters and not held in high esteem by collectors of British studio pottery. From this interest came a determination to bring her work to to wider notice and this jug will be shown in an exhibition of her work that I am organising at the Crafts Study Centre, Farnham, next year.

The jug, about 30cm high, was made in 1942. Billington said that she turned to art to escape the anxieties of war. Much of the Central School of Arts and Crafts, where she had taught for over twenty years, had been evacuated and the building in Southampton Row was damaged by bombardment. In those conditions she made this beautiful and life-affirming piece of pottery – one of her best. The calligraphic brush work is absolutely characteristic. She had trained in calligraphy with Edward Johnston at the Royal College of Art and had worked part-time as a decorator for Bernard Moore when she was a student, so this sort of loose, free decoration became second nature to he. It was a great pleasure to see it again.

CRAFT MENTORING

 

Eliot-Payne

 

I’m co-ordinating the mentoring programme of the Society of Designer Craftsmen, which we run to help our new young members develop their professional careers, and as I don’t believe in reinventing the wheel I’m talking to organisations that run similar programmes. I’ve always worked this way, believing that standards are raised by sharing good practice.

So I was surprised to find that a few publicly-funded bodies were unwilling to talk to me. Their curt replies mean I can only guess why they are so unco-operative and my conclusion is that, now that such bodies regard themselves as businesses, some treat what they do not as a public service but as a commodity, and they treat other organisations doing the same thing not as colleagues but as competitors.

GEORGE CLARKE AND CHRIS BRAMBLE

george-clarkeIn his current Channel 4 series, “Old House, New Home”, architect George Clarke asks potter Chris Bramble to make an umbrella stand for a couple featured in the programme and George has a go at throwing himself (above). (Series 3, Episode 1) George makes a pretty good fist of it, handling a large lump of clay, and, on his first go he does better than many beginners manage after a year of evening classes.

I’ve seen this kind of thing before. A mechanical engineer I knew with years of experience of lathe turning, asked me to show him how to throw and took to it at once.  The potter William Newland, who taught at Central School of Arts and Crafts (now Central Saint Martins), said, “I found that most students can be taught to throw. A small percentage are natural; some even though they are hooked on day one find throwing difficult if not impossible.”

I guess there are certain abilities, like the spatial awareness of the architect or the turning ability of the engineer, that can be transferred quickly to throwing on the wheel. Physical strength is essential, so is hand-eye co-ordination. Other qualities that make a good thrower are observation, discrimination and taking care. I have seen experienced amateurs who simply do not notice essential details of their making, such as the profile of a rim or a foot-ring. As in many occupations, like sport and music, good pottery-making depends on some innate qualities that cannot be learned.

CERAMICS CO-OP, BERMONDSEY

anna and tatiana

I visited Anna and Tatiana Baskakova (above) at the Ceramics Studio Co-op in Bermondsey on Wednesday to find out about their enterprise to support emerging potters. Although it’s their brainchild, the studio is a worker’s co-operative, owned and run by the artists who work in it, committed to the values of “self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equality, equity and solidarity.”

They provide studio space for amateur and professional ceramists, run classes and offer a kiln firing service. Since The Great Pottery Throwdown there’s been plenty of demand for pottery classes and workshops. The co-op has eight resident artists including Anna and Tatiana. They started with a loan in 2014 , which they paid off this year, and they’ve had an Arts Council grant for kilns, but otherwise the co-op is a business and its expenses are covered by users’ fees. And being in an industrial area they can scavenge bits of kit from local skips – their tubs and buckets (which potters can never have too many of) were all got that way.

ceramic co-op

The Ceramics Studio Co-op is the new face of pottery training, offering flexible learning and open access studios. I wrote earlier about Turning Earth Studios and there’s also Clay College Stoke, formed by potters who were concerned about the potential loss of skills. These well-equipped ventures are emerging as university courses close, local authority classes price themselves out of the market and schools discontinue pottery under the pressure of exams and the national curriculum. They represent the growing enthusiasm for artisanal products and making by hand and a reaction to the retreat from the haptic to the screen. There was a recent article about lack of dexterity in surgical students who had had too much screen time, and an art teacher told me that new students didn’t know how to hold a pencil, didn’t think they had to draw and thought that it was enough to download pictures from the internet.

The Co-op, Turning Earth and Clay College are making pottery more accessible and I expect their success to generate more initiatives elsewhere. When I looked for training forty years ago it was difficult to find and quite rigid. There were a few potters offering apprenticeships, but they didn’t pay enough for the apprentice to live on, and there were a few degree and diploma courses. As the Craftmen Potters Association wrote at the time:

Anyone wishing to develop pottery skills to a professional standard has two choices: to enter a workshop direct as a trainee assistant, or to follow an art school course with a strong bias towards craft pottery. Many potters and students favour a combination of the two – a preliminary art school training followed by a period of workshop practice.

It was a huge leap from a leisure class to this sort of training and required a big commitment of time and money. The new ceramics training is more adaptable and responsive to the trainee’s needs. At the Ceramics Studio Co-op you can do a leisure class for fun, a more specialized course, or take studio space and progress to professional practice.

Ceramics Studio Co-op
Unit 17C
Juno Enterprise Centre
Juno Way
New Cross
London
SE14 5RW

020 8691 6421