YOUNG POLAND

Stanisław Wyspiański, ‘Self Portrait’

The William Morris Gallery, one of my favourite boutique museums (the other is the Estorick Gallery in Islington), did community outreach, as musems do, to connect with the large Polish community in Walthamstow. The upshot is their current exhibition, Young Poland: An Arts and Crafts Movement 1890 -1918, mounted in collaboration with the Polish Cultural Institute and the National Museum of Krákow. Young Poland is unknown to most in the west – I’d never heard of it before – and most of the exhibits in this show have never been seen outside Poland.

Vastomil Hofmann, ‘Confession

Young Poland is often regarded as a fine art movement with a record of patriotic, religious and pastoral painting, typified in Vastomil Hofmann’s Confession (above), but the Gallery decided to record the artists’ contribution to the crafts, often overlooked but very important.

In central and eastern Europe the Arts and Crafts were an assertion of national identity, one aspect of the struggle for independence, rejecting the forms and styles imposed by the imperial powers. While the British looked to the Middle Ages as they imagined it to be, the Poles looked to contemporary peasant life and art. Young Poland, which emerged in Kraków, focused on the Highlander people of the nearby Tatra mountains and adapted their architecture, interior decoration, textiles and dress in an attempt to create a national Polish style.

Stanisław Wyspiański (top), a key figure in the movement, might be called the Polish William Morris – a brilliant polymath, a painter, poet, playwright, textile designer, furniture maker and graphic artist – though the two men never met and there’s no record of any communication between them.

In one room of the exhibition there’s a large stained glass, a reproduction of a window designed by Wyspiański for the Kraków Medical Centre, in another a model of The House Under the Firs, a vernacular house by Stanisław Witkiewicz, another major figure, drawn from the Zakopane style of building. Witkiewicz is shown with the model on the left of the group above, the other men dressed in traditional Highlander costume.

In lighter mood there were reconstructions of toys from the Kraków Workshops, a co-operative of artists and craftsmen formed in 1913, who made use of folk patterns in their work. The picture (above) shows delightful original toys in the Ethnographic Museum of Kraków.

MASTER CRAFTSMEN AND COWBOY BUILDERS

The Wiener Werkstätte began in 1903 as a metal workshop, though that understates the elegance and refinement of their silver objects (above). Its founders, Josef Hoffmann and Koloman Moser, had to get apprenticed craftsmen to front the company because they couldn’t get a trade licence themselves, not being trained in the craft. That might surprise Britons, who are used the the idea that anyone can set up in any trade they like, apart from architecture, drug dispensing, chiropractic, medicine, opthalmology, social work, law and vetinerary surgery.

Perhaps it was that lack of regulation that led, in the first decade of the 20th century, to complaints that the Arts and Crafts movement was attracting incompetent amateurs. And it probably explains Nikolaus Pevsner’s Plea for Contemporary Craft (1939), quoted in Stephen Games’s account of his early life, in which he notes the poor standard of workmanship in England compared to Germany:

If you want your shoes soled and heeled, you still hand them self-confidently to Herr Muller who does the job conscientiously in his back-room where he works with one journeyman and one apprentice. There is no Branch 26 of a back-in-a-day shoe repairing service to lure you away from the craftsman. The same is true – at least outside Berlin – of the cabinet-maker, the plumber, the locksmith, etc. It is an extremely interesting consequence of this … that a cultured public also expects the very best article. … Hence the successful handweavers, silversmiths, potters all over Germany, and hence the many Kunstgewerbe (craft) shops in German towns, shops of a kinds which scarcely exists in Britain.

Immigrants from central European countries even today express astonishment that anyone can set up as a builder without any qualifications or evidence that they know what they’re doing.

THE CENTURY GUILD

The Decorative Arts Society have started their guided visits again and the other day I joined them at the William Morris Gallery for a talk by Roisin Inglesby on the the Century Guild exhibition that she has curated. The Guild was a short-lived Arts and Crafts body, started by Arthur Heygate Mackmurdo and Henry Horne and soon joined by Selwyn Image, lasting only from 1882 until 1893, when each member went his own way to follow his particular interests.

I knew little about the Century Guild other than that Pevsner had pointed out that their sinuous designs (above) anticipated Art Nouveau and that fifty years later Mackmurdo was one of the founders of the William Morris Gallery. From the Mackmurdo donation the Gallery has come to have the largest holding of Century Guild artifacts anywhere, which has enabled them to put on this event with little borrowing.

The Guild lacked some of the common prejudices of the Arts and Crafts movement, notably Morris’s dislike of everything Italian, and Horne went on to make a study of Boticelli. They were also less enamoured of Gothic. Their furniture is more classical than anything produced by Morris and Co., as are Mackmurdo’s and Horne’s architectural designs.

Century Guild emblem.

The exhibition has textiles, wallpaper and designs on paper that illustrate their use of plant forms and their departure from the symmetry of Morris’s designs. The name of the group refers to their 19th century and indicates a forward-looking attitude. They were designers and were not wedded to the idea of a craft-based economy.

Arts and Crafts Pioneers by Stuart Evans and Jean Liddiard accompanies the exhibition.

DECORATIVE ARTS IN THE 20s AND 30s

The 1926 Yearbook of Decorative Art published by The Studio magazine was frank about British design conservatism: ‘On the Continent and in the United States the enterprise was greater than in this country and the results more hectic. We Britons have always been somewhat slow in the uptake in the matter of design; but our conservatism in the long run has done us little harm.’ Remember that the 1925 Paris Exhibition is seen as the launch pad of Art Deco and then see that many if not most of the designs featured by The Studio are still in Arts-and-Crafts mode.

Architectural examples were predominently vernacular in inspiration, with a trace of neo-Georgian in the examples from Welwyn Garden City. But although interiors were  traditional, they were stripped down and free from clutter, as in work by the Deutsche Werkstätten. Gordon Russell’s simple and useful furniture was made by the best cabinet makers available. Heal’s furniture anticipated Utility, with which Russell, of course was associated.

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British ceramics emphasised craft methods: hand-painted pottery from Pilkington, Wedgwood and Poole, work by the up-and-coming studio potters, William Staite Murray and Bernard Leach, figures by Stanley Thorogood, Wilfrid Norton, Harold Stabler and Stella Crofts.  Handicraft was also emphasised in Continental ceramics but the Deco element was evident in pieces designed by Claude Lévy and Madeleine Sougez for Atelier Primavera (top), who had exhibited at the 1925 Paris Expo.

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Figurative ceramics were more evident in the illustrations from the Continent, despite the fact they were at the height of their popularity in Britain.

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By 1933, there had been a major change. The rchitecture and interiors featured in the Yearbook were now mainly modernist, including British examples by A.V.Pilchowski and Stanley Hall and Eastern & Robertson. Fewer ceramics were shown but they included mass-produced factory wares like those designed by M. Friedlaender.

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WILLIAM MORRIS

I’ve been looking at the National Portrait Gallery’s large collection of William Morris portraits. This photo (above), taken in the 1880s when Morris was in his fifties is fairly representative. For a man concerned to make every aspect of life beautiful and harmonious, he was notably indifferent to his own appearance. His hair is so uncombed he makes Boris Johnson look neat, his beard is untrimmed and he wears everyday clothes. Was this one of the blue workman’s jackets he was famous for? Whether it was or not, he was an exemplar of rational dress. In several pictures he wears a soft tweed suit and always wears a soft attached shirt collar, which was unusual, I think, before the 20th century, and here he appears to be wearing no necktie. He contrasts with Walter Crane (below), an extravagant dandy, with a carefully trimmed beard, waxed moustaches and colourful clothes, despite being a supporter of dress reform, who seemed to pay more attention to his appearance the older her got.

WALTER CRANE IN HUNGARY (4)


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.

WALTER CRANE IN HUNGARY (3)

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.

Jenő Radisics, 1911

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.

Alexandre Bigot, architectural ceramics, acquired by Radisics in 1900 and seen on display here in 2015.

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.

WALTER CRANE IN HUNGARY (2)

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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.

WALTER CRANE IN HUNGARY

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Walter Crane, A Transylvanian bride and a Hungarian peasant farmer, Bánffyhunyad (now Hudein), 1900,

I’ve been reading Walter Crane’s Ideals in Art (1905), in which I found these drawings of Hungarian peasant costumes (above), and was curious about his connection with Hungary and how he came to make them. 

While British design reformers were looking to the middle ages, the Hungarians were studying peasant art in pursuit of national independence. Artists under the influence of Ruskin, Morris and Crane created a community at Gödöllő, near Budapest, built vernacular-style houses and affected peasant dress. Others discovered the peasant art of Kalotaszeg , the traditional Transylvanian village that became a focus of Hungarian arts and crafts. 

Cranes’s reputation in Hungary was high enough for Jenő Radisics, the director of the Budapest Museum of Applied Arts, to organise a retrospective of his work there in 1900. Crane visited the city in the autumn, was feted, gave lectures and visited Transylvania. He went to Kolozsvár (now Cluj-Napoca), Bánffyhunyad (now Hudein), and Kalotaszeg (now Calata) in search of Hungarian traditional art.

One of his guides was Janos Kovács, for whom he made this book plate inscribed “Éljen Kolosvár” – Long Live Kolozsvár! (below). Is the man lifting his hat Walter Crane and the man in traditional dress Prof. Kovács? There are certainly cranes flying around the former, but what is the other bird?

Some of the drawings he made on this trip , which were in his family’s possession for many years, have recently come up for sale. 

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A supporter of dress reform, Crane thought the peasant style might suggest an antidote to the constrained, vulgar and commercial clothing of his age. He sought “utility, simplicity, picturesqueness”. “The peasantry in all European countries alone have preserved anywhere national and local picturesqueness and character in their dress,” he said, “Often, too where it still lingers unspoiled, as in Greece and in Hungary and Bohemia, adorned with beautiful embroidery worked by the women themselves.”

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R.H.BEST AND ROBERT CATTERSON-SMITH


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.

Maude and R.H.Best, 1913

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.

Dr. Georg Kerschensteiner

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.”

Robert Catherson-Smith (far left in pale suit) with the Hammersmith Socialist League, c. 1890.

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.