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.
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.
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.
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.”
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).
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.”
Selfridge’s lift, 1928, designed and made by the Birmingham Guild. Now in the Museum of London.
The latest edition of the Journal of the Decorative Arts Society has an article by Tony Peart about the Birmingham Guild, which I knew nothing about. The Guild were successful architectural metalworkers, founded in 1890 and modeled on C. R. Ashbee’s Guild of Handicraft, but unlike Ashbee’s company they prospered. Ashbee’s firm was wound up in 1907 after a trade recession which also did for William de Morgan in the same year, but the Birmingham Guild survived.
Ashbee complained of unfair competition between the factory and the craftsman and thought the crafts should be subsidised because of the benefits they brought to society. (Similar pleas were made in the 1940s by the furniture-maker Harry Norris and the potter Bernard Leach.) Graham Wallas (one of the founders of the LSE) calculated, à propos Morris & Co., that if society were to be run on arts-and-crafts principles, the cost of labour would exceed the value of outputs. The Birmingham Guild, however, found a way of combining art and business, as indeed, did Morris & Co. Employing skilled artisans from the Birmingham metal industries, they show that, even at the end of the 19th century, quality hand-production had been far from obliterated by the advancement of mass production, as the arts-and-crafts narrative asserted.
The company’s success was built on a good product, strong artistic input, originality, active marketing – and presumably sound accounting. During the First World War they turned to aircraft production, forming a relationship with De Havilland that they were able to revive during the Second World War. Their business was stable enough to be unaffected by the 1929 crash. They managed to combine profitability with idealism: one of their founders, Arthur Dix, said in 1895 that, “The Guild does not minimise the importance of this commercial aspect of its industry, but seeks only to make as much profit as is necessary to cover the expenses of its work, and to provide its designers and craftsmen with a sufficient remuneration.” They steadily innovated, introducing enameled inlays to lettering, which gave them a profitable new line. Enameling was one of their specialisms and they recruited the Japanese master enameler Shozo Kato in the 1920s, who somehow managed to keep his technique secret from everyone else in the company.
The Birmingham Guild successfully combined art and industry but stood slightly apart from others seeking to raise design standards, such as The Design and Industries Association, a proto-modernist breakaway from the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society that tended to disapprove of ornamentation. It was only after the Second World War that the company’s decorative style lost favour with architects, despite a partnership with the Crittall window company and a history of corporate contracts. Problems finding skilled labour in Birmingham after the war and the greater appeal of the motor industry exacerbated their problems and contributed to the company’s decline
In the late 1940s and early 50s, during the era of post-war reconstruction, Penguin Books published an attractive, well-illustrated, large-format series called The Things We See, setting out the principles of good design in an attempt to raise visual literacy. There were volumes on Houses, Furniture, Pottery and Glass, Public Transport, Gardens and Ships. The introductory volume was called Indoors and Out, by Alan Jarvis, Director of Information at the Council of Industrial Design (CoID).
The Things we See was descended from the South Kensington museum’s Chamber of Horrors through the Arts and Crafts movement and the art-and-industry debates of the 1930s. Alan Jarvis’s volume, although illustrated with contemporary designs like a factory-built house and an Underground station on the Piccadilly line, expresses ideas about design, taste and industry familiar since Ruskin’s day. He said that the degradation and shabbiness of the built environment resulted from public indifference to the way things look and from liking the wrong things. This had a tinge of immorality about it. When someone said to Henry Cole that people’s tastes varied, he replied, “I think to act on the principle of ‘every one to his taste’ would be as mischievous as ‘every one to his morals’.” The sentiment persisted.
Jarvis said that modern housing is wrong because the Englishman has modelled it on the castle instead of designing at an appropriate scale. He disdained the suburb and the Tudorbethan house (as all design reformers did), but by the late 1940s anti-suburb snobbery had clothed itself in democratic ideals: “Just as manorial rights, feudal economics and a rigid system of social castes are inappropriate to a modern industrial democracy,” said Jarvis, “so are the architectural forms which we still copy.” It was a precept of the good-design movement that one material should not imitate another and that previous styles should never be copied, but the Georgian Revival had played into Jarvis’s thinking and he held up the Georgian house as a model of elegance and restraint.
He compared good and bad taste in design with good and bad taste in food and drew interesting parallels between, on one hand, a modern bedroom and a wholemeal loaf, and, on the other, a bad-taste bedroom and a plate of sticky iced cakes.
There are Arts-and-Crafts attitudes throughout. Industry bred a new type of man detached from the land and confined to the factory. Modern transport systems spoiled the town and the countryside. Mass production debased the quality of goods and suppressed individuality. There is only a grudging acceptance that mass production brought cheaper commodities and no recognition of the value of predictability and reliability.
Jarvis held out Frederic Gibberd’s modest and democratic factory-built steel house (above) as the hope for future design. It had harmonious proportions and no ornamentation other than the integral patterns of brick, roof tiles and fluted panels. It was simple and practical and did not refer to the past or have any connotations or extraneous meaning.
He viewed decoration and ornament with suspicion. He acknowledged the human urge to decorate and admitted that it had to be indulged if we were not to go down the route of “crude or second-hand satisfactions, with a synthetic taste in visual things, like a taste for soups and custard made of powder.” There was the predictable worry about vulgarity and a reminder of Adolf Loos in Jarvis’s horror of tattooing.
At the same time as this Penguin series came out, Barbara Jones, in The Unsophisticated Arts and the exhibition Black Eyes and Lemonade, was recording and celebrating vulgar and popular art including tattooing, fairground painting, confectionery and funerary art, at the start of an anti-design movement that accepted demotic taste and even democratic bad taste.