When I wrote about Art Nouveau ceramics I said that there were few books about these potters, but recently a lavish volume about Adrien Dalpayrat by Etienne Tournier has been published. It’s large format and has wonderful detailed, full-page pictures showing Dalpayrat’s complex, irridescent glazes. Like the previous titles on this subject – Paul Arthur’s French Art Nouveau Ceramics (2015) and M. Lambrechts’ L’Objet sublime: Franse ceramiek 1875-1945 (2016) – Tournier’s book is not cheap. Phaidon’s RRP is £200.
In every British account of studio pottery there’s a condescending nod to French Art Nouveau ceramics, with their new glaze effects, stunning colours and iridescent surfaces. These ceramics were strikingly different from the refined porcelain current in Europe at the time. The main names were Clément Massier, Ernest Chaplet, Theodore Deck and Emile Decoeur.
Every large museum has examples, rarely featured prominently, and anyone interested soon finds that there were chemist potters other than these four masters. In France there were Paul Jeanneney, Clément Massier, Raoul Lachenal, Jean Carriès and the architectural ceramist Alexandre Bigot. In the USA there were Hugh C. Robertson and Taxile Doat. In Britain there were W. Howson Taylor at the Ruskin Pottery, Harry Nixon at Royal Doulton and Bernard Moore. In Hungary, Zsolnay and Herend both employed ceramic artists who worked in this medium, so did the Royal Danish Porcelain Company, Bing and Grøndalhl and, in Germany, Köningsliche Porzellan Manufaktur.
With so many fine Art Nouveau potters it’s surprising that there have been so few exhibitions and that so little has been written about them. Paul Arthur’s French Art Nouveau Ceramics was published in 2015 and in 2016 the Kunstmuseum den Haag had an exhibition French Ceramics 1875 – 1945 (noting that the last exhibition had been in 1913), accompanied by M. Lambrechts’ L’Objet sublime: Franse ceramiek 1875-1945.
At auction these ceramics fetch high prices. This small vase by Emile Decoeur, for example, reached $4,063 at Rago. Second hand copies of Arthur’s and Lambrechts’ books also fetch high prices, so there is considerable interest.
Zsuzsa Gonda in her review of Crane’s visit to Hungary in 1900 says that it is one of the most extensively documented events in the artistic life of the country in that period. Despite Crane’s eminence in England, it does seem that he was more honoured abroad, which was flattering of course, and after being decorated by Victor Emmanuel III, he called himself Commendatore Crane at home.
The welcome extended to him in Hungary was not entirely personal, however: he was the representative of England, the bastion of liberty, the nation that sheltered Kossuth and took him to its heart. Crane the socialist could not fully understand why in Hungary the appreciation of traditional art marked one out as a nationalist.
Gonda’s article is principally about museum acquisitions of Crane’s work. The vase pictured above, with a design by Crane, was one of the items purchased by György Ráth, former director of the Museum Applied Art, from the 1900 exhibition. Crane very much appreciated the warmth of his reception and in his memoirs reproduced in full the address delivered to him by Gyula Wlasics, Hungarian minister of culture and religion; but he was disappointed by sales from the exhibition and was understandably annoyed that the magazine Új Idők did not pay a royalty for the reproduction of his Kalotaszeg drawings.
The Budapest Museum of Applied Arts included this sketch (above) by Walter Crane in Masters of the Secession, showing Crane, left, and the director of the museum, Jenő Radisics, right, riding hobby horses, with an unidentified Frenchman in the middle, as judges at the Turin Exhibition of Decorative Art in 1902. Radisics had been instrumental in mounting the large Crane exhibition in Budapest a couple of years earlier, and here they meet again.
Radisics made large acquisitions of contemporary art and is largely responsible for the museum’s having such a large collection of Art Nouveau. He toured Europe tirelessly, dressed in Hungarian ceremonial costume at public events (as he is in Crane’s sketch) and spent generously. He acquired the entire Alexandre Bigot pavilion at the Paris Exhibition of 1900, which remained in store until 2013, when much of it was put on display.
Crane’s visit to Hungary was more strenuous than I realised: as well as visting Budapest and Kolozsvár he saw the Zsolnay ceramics factory in Pécs. The Museum of Applied Arts has a Zsolnay lustre vase (below) decorated by Géza Nikelszky, who, it says, was probably inspired by Crane’s visit in October 1900.
János Kovács, Crane’s guide in Kolozsvár/Cluj Napoca
I found a good account of Walter Crane’s 1900 visit to Hungary by Jenő Murádin published in Ars Hungarica. It seems the visit came out of a visit to Crane in London by the Hungarian folklorist Kálmán Rozsnyay, who also arranged for Vilmos Zsolnay to visit him. Out of these meetings and discussions with Görgy Ráth and Jenő Radisics of the Museum of Applied Arts emerged the invitation to exhibit in Budapest. The exhibition was a significant retrospective with 600 objects and strengthened Hungarian admiration of Crane’s work. Was it actually the largest-ever exhibition of Crane’s work?
The artistic community of in Kolozsvár very much wanted Crane to visit their city as well and it was made possible for some of the Budapest exhibits to be transferred there for exhibition. There were adulatory articles in the Kolozsvár press, which also found room for an article by Crane on art and socialism. The programme there was more crowded than in Budapest, with visits, receptions, dinners, theatrical performances and demonstrations of folk art. On his last day he was taken into the countryside to Kalotaszeg, where, the press reported, “The Master made eight pencil sketches of the Hunyad bachelors, girls and bridesmaids,” who had been arrayed in traditional dress and brought out to meet him.
The bookplate in my last post was made from a drawing given by Crane to his host and guide in Kolszvár, János Kovács (above), a teacher who had lived and worked in England, and it does, as I thought depict Crane and Kovács. The sympathy between the two men turned into friendship (both had spent time in Manchester), but although Crane hoped to visit Hungary again his busy schedule prevented it.
Murádin goes on to record Crane’s influence on the Transylvanian architect Károly Kos. Kós often recalled Crane in his writing, referring to his influence on Hungarian Art Nouveau in general and on him in particular. In 1924 Kos recalled the profound effect of Crane’s visit a quarter of a century earlier, when he was too young to have met him, and his first encounter with Crane’s illustrations and book design as a student at the Budapest Technical University, which he loved and which shaped his own graphic work.
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).
As a child I looked at the illustrations of books before I read them. I had a guilty feeling that this wasn’t the right thing to do and indicated laziness and a lack of seriousness, but I now realise that my imagination was visual, maybe even hyperphantasic. Talking to my brother recently about the books we read as children, I was surprised to find that these illustrations made little impression on him, but several impressed me greatly and I’ve remembered the artists ever since, even when I’ve stopped liking the books.
Maxwell Armfeld’s art nouveau-ish illustrations to Hans Anderson, in line and colour, published in 1910, perfectly matched the cruel and magical mind of the author. His depictions of the tortured Girl Who Trod on a Loaf and Mermaid were, to me, inseparable from the narratives.
Later I discovered Rex Whistler’s Anderson, far superior artistically, (below) but I still picture Anderson’s tales like Armfeld did. Apart from recognising Anderson’s sadism I now find his moralising intolerable, but some of his best stories, like The Steadfast Tin Soldier and The Snow Queen, still resonate.
R.S.Sherriffs’ strong graphic style jumped out at me from a now almost-forgotten book of short stories. His still-remembered picture calls to mind an episode in which a military officer rides through the street ogling the girls. Only through my memory of the picture do I remember that I’d never come across the word “ogling” till then and wasn’t sure what it was or how he did it.
Sherriffs was a perceptive caricaturist who did a few children’s books and was one of the artists who introduced me to the potential of illustration. My liking for him was reinforced by his vignettes in Punch (above), which I came across in the doctor’s waiting room. His style was perfectly suited to the Rubaiyat (top) and made a lovely edition.
As it happens, the mocked and maligned Ladybird books employed illustrators with a talent for literal representation, which, in the case of their natural history titles, like What to Look For in Spring/Summer/Autumn/Winter (below) was wholly appropriate, and brought in Royal Academician Charles Tunicliffe, a wildlife illustrator who specialised in birds. He did pictures for Brooke Bond tea cards and the RSPB magazine as well as the Ladybird books and introduced me to the wonderful potential of both natural history and illustration. The RA had an exhibition of his work in 2017.
I loved Enid Blyton’s Adventure books between the ages of 10 and 12 and was quite indifferent to the weakness of her plots and characterisation, to say nothing of her casual racism. But even more than the stories I loved the illustrations by Stuart Tresilian (below) and studied them closely. Tresilian, the son of a clerk, studied at the RCA (as did Tunicliffe) and taught at the Regent Street Polytechnic. He was a member of the Art Workers Guild and the Society of Graphic Artists and became respectively Master and President. He is well known for his illustrations to Kipling and also did work for educational natural history publications. He is the least of the illustrators mentioned here, but I wasn’t so discriminating at the age of ten and liked his work a lot.
Most of the Museum of Applied Arts in Budapest is closed for a long-overdue refurbishment, so I was deprived of one of my regular pleasures on a trip to the city last week. Instead I visited the home of the founding director, György Ráth, (above) which contains his personal collection and some museum exhibits. The museum is noted for its Art Nouveau collection – the second director, János Radisics, made extensive acquisitions at the 1900 Paris World Exhibition – and Art Nouveau objects are well represented in the Ráth villa. They were also displaying contemporary Art Nouveau-inspired glass by Agnés Smetana, (below) whose work was new to me.
Ráth collected studio pottery from England, France and Denmark by brilliant experimenters in stoneware and lustre glazes, some of whom were unfamiliar to me – Harry Nixon of Royal Doulton, William Howson Taylor of the Ruskin Pottery, Valdemar Englehardt of the Royal Danish Porcelain Company, Albert Heinecke of the Königliche Porzellan-Munufaktur, Pierre Clément Massier, Alexandre Bigot and Max Leuger – as well as several dazzling pieces by Vilmos Zsolnay and by Jenő Farkaházy-Fischer of Herend.
The grand feu potters made great technical and artistic innovations in a short time – all the pieces illustrated here were made between 1895 and 1906 – but much of their technique was lost in the 20th century. Alan Caiger-Smith gives a uniquely good though short account of this period in Lustre Pottery.
Mackintosh’s innovative architecture and his link to continental design and modernism made me consider again why the English Arts and Crafts movement, after revolutionising design in the late 19th century, ran into a dead end in the 20th.
The movement created several initiatives that had more to do with social change than design, such as The Home Arts and Industries Association, Haselmere Peasant Arts Industries and the Clarion Guild of Handicraft. They tended to be backward-looking, utopian and to encourage the participation of the poor in the crafts, but they did not contribute to product design or the manufacture of of well-made goods at a reasonable price and they fostered amateurism. Lewis F. Day told a government inquiry into the Royal College of Art that, in his opinion, W. R. Lethaby, the professor of design, paid too little attention to the requirements of industry and that the Arts and Crafts Movement had drawn the College towards “the more or less amateurish pursuit of the Handicrafts.” After William Morris’s death, the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society, the principal arts and crafts body, lost its way and repeated what it had done before, and by the First World War its leaders were elderly. Roger Fry said they “represented to perfection the hideous muddle headed sentimentality of the English – wanting to mix moral feeling in with everything.” I think it’s that mixing in of moral feeling that was the reason it was overtaken by design in in Europe and America.
Although the Bauhaus was at first inspired by arts and crafts ideals, it gradually abandoned them and turned to industrial design. Lethaby, whom Day may have judged too harshly, co-founded the Design and Industries Association with others who were concerned that the growth of the arts and crafts had “been arrested for the last ten years in the country of its birth.” They believed that “The principles of the movement are now more consistently and logically studied in Germany and America”.
Mackintosh also absorbed arts and crafts ideas and went beyond them. The Hill House, for example, (top) has Scottish vernacular features and uses local materials, and some of the decoration was executed by Mackintosh and his wife Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh. But he never thought that every designer should execute his own designs, that everything should be made by hand or that art was a moral crusade, and however much The Hill House resonates with Scottish precedent, its form is radical and anticipates modernism in its bold, abstract shapes.
We face the prospect of Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s masterpiece being demolished because the fire damage was so great, and of it existing only in drawings and memory. Perhaps it can be rebuilt to Mackintosh’s plan, but the value of reproducing everything exactly as designed in 1897 is doubtful, and it seemed to me that some of the spaces inside, however interesting, beautiful or historically important, might be unsuitable for a 21st century art school.
I went back to Pevsner’s decription of GSoA in Pioneers of Modern Design. As it can’t be bettered, I thought I’d reproduce it here.
“... For in Glasgow there worked during these very years a group of artists as original and as imaginative as any in Europe. In painting, the Glasgow Boys, Guthrie, E. A. Walton, Lavery, Henry, Hornel, and so on are well enough known. Their ﬁrst exhibition abroad impressed Europe considerably. But in design and decoration the ﬁrst appearance of the Glasgow school at an exhibition in Vienna in 1900 was a revelation.
“The centre of the group was Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868- 1928) with his wife Margaret Macdonald and her sister Mrs McNair. In dealing with him, we are able at last to link up the development in England with the main tendency of Continental architecture in the nineties, with Art Nouveau. Before he was twenty-eight, Mackintosh was chosen to design the new building for the Glasgow School of Art, a remarkably bold choice due largely to the principal Francis H. Newbery. The designs date from 1897; the ﬁrst part of the building was completed in 1899. Not a single feature here is derived from period styles.
“The facade is of a strongly personal character and, in many ways, leads on to the twentieth century, although the entrance bay with balcony and short turret is deliberately fantastical and not unlike Townsend’s contemporary work. But the rest of the front is extremely simple, almost austere in its bold uniform fenestration. In the horizontal windows to the ofﬁces on the ground ﬂoor and the high studio windows on the upper ﬂoor, no curves are admitted; unbroken upright lines prevail even in the railing in front of the building, counteracted only by a few lighter and more playful Art Nouveau ornaments at the top. The same contrast exists between the rigidity of the upper-floor windows and the strange metal stalks at their base, functionally justiﬁed for putting planks on to facilitate window cleaning. However, be that as it may, this row of metal lines reveals one of Mackintosh’s principal sources and at the same time one of his most characteristic qualities. The source, particularly telling in the strange balls at the top of the stalks, with their intertwined tentacles of iron, is clearly the Celtic and Viking art of Britain, as it became familiar beyond the circles of scholars just at this time. The quality equally eloquent in the balls and the stalks is Mackintosh’s intense feeling for spatial values. Our eyes have to pass through the ﬁrst layer of space, indicated by the stalks and balls before arriving at the solid stone front of the building. The same transparency of pure space will be found in all Mackintosh’s principal works. The ground plan of the building is clear and lucid, showing in another light the architect’s interest in space, an interest rare among artists of Art Nouveau.
“One more instance may be given to prove that this is really the keynote of Mackintosh’s creation: the interior of the library of the Glasgow School of Art, which forms the centre room of the west wing, planned in 1907. The simple motif of a high room with aisles and galleries around three sides is so enriched that the resulting impression is an overwhelmingly full polyphony of abstract form. The galleries do not project far enough to reach the pillars which separate ‘nave’ from ‘aisles’. Horizontal beams are inserted to connect the walls with the pillars and to support the galleries. Airy balustrades, Art Nouveau in detail, run from the parapets of the gallery to the pillars. Their sole purpose is to offer interesting perspectives. Curves, rare and all the more expressive in Mackintosh’s earlier work, have now completely disappeared. Uprights and horizontals, squares and oblongs determine the effect.
“This and the number of fascinating vistas which the architect has achieved here and in another principal work of the same period, the Cranston Tearoom in Sauchiehall Street, 1904, show him as the European counterpart of Frank Lloyd Wright and one of the few true forerunners of the most ingenious juggler with space now alive: Le Corbusier. Le Corbusier once confessed that his desire in building is to create poetry. Mackintosh’s attitude is very similar. Building in his hands becomes an abstract art, both musical and mathematical.
“The facade of the west wing of the art school is an instance of this. Here the abstract artist is primarily concerned with the shaping of volume and not of space, of solids, not of voids. The aesthetic value of the straight, slender shafts into which the windows are inserted is entirely independent of their function. The contrasts between fretwork and solid ashlar, and between the menacing bareness on the left and the complex polyphony on the right, are also effects more comparable to abstract relief than to buildings of Voysey’s kind. A glance at the earlier and the later part of the art school reveals the development of Mackintosh’s taste between 1897 and 1907. Delicate metal ornament of linear appeal is no longer used. A squareness and robustness prevail which come as a surprise. They are, it seems certain, Mackintosh’s way of admitting national tradition. His links with the Scottish baronial past are perhaps more evident in his country houses than in a public building such as the School of Art.”