LÁSZLÓ MOHOLY-NAGY

 

moholy-nagy
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.

bauhaus lamp
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.

MARGARET BULLEY: ‘HAVE YOU GOOD TASTE?’

After writing about the Gorell Committee, which reported to government in 1932 on the production and exhibition of articles of good design, I became curious about one of its members, the art writer Margaret Bulley (1882 – 1960). The Gorell Committee was one of the many official and unofficial initiatives in the 1920s and 1930s created to improve the standard of design in industry and the result of its deliberations was the setting up of the Council for Art and Industry (CAI), a precursor of the Design Council.

Margaret Bulley was born into a prosperous but socially progressive family in Cheshire. Her early work was in teaching children in galleries and museums. She was involved in war relief work in France where she met Margery Fry and it may have been through her that she made the acquaintance of her brother Roger Fry. Fry introduced her to Marion Richardson, the influential and innovative art teacher, and Bulley arranged an exhibition of children’s art at the Whitworth Gallery, Manchester. Bulley herself became interested in children’s art and she arranged for children’s designs to be manufactured by her husband’s textile firm Armitage and Rigby. She carried out extensive research into children’s responses to art, seeking universals in art appreciation that were unconditioned by culture, publishing her findings in The Burlington Magazine in the 1920s. She espoused the common idea that children have an innate and well-developed aesthetic sense that adults suppress.

Bulley was invited to join the Gorell committee probably because of her acquaintanceship with Fry (also a member of the committee), her researches into art appreciation and her prior involvement in the British Institute of Industrial Art (BIIA), predecessor of the Council for Art and Industry, to which she had contributed a large collection of contemporary consumer goods, and which on the closure of the BIIA, she donated to the Victoria and Albert Museum. The V&A describe her as a friend of Vanessa Bell and she had been an associate of Fry’s since the days of the Omega Workshops, of which she was a generous patron. Bulley was thus on the fringe of the Bloomsbury Group and her ideas of art and taste are close to theirs in many ways.

The Gorell committee, comprising public officials, artists, writers and industrialists, entangled questions of design with questions of taste and how it might be improved, as did nearly all contemporary discussions about the advancement of design and taste, which was vaguely defined if defined at all. Such discussions inevitably fell back on the taste of those who staffed committees like Gorell. Shortly after Gorell, Bulley wrote Have You Good Taste?, which filled out her ideas in more detail, and throughout her career she wrote several books in a similar vein, like Art and Counterfeit, Art and Understanding and Art and Everyman.

Have You Good Taste? was an investigation of the taste of the public based on an experiment in which their preferences were compared with the judgement of “six well-known art critics or experts”: Roger Fry, W. Constable (Director of the Courtauld Institute), Charles Holmes (late Director of the National Gallery), Percy Jowett (Director of the Central School of Arts and Crafts), Eric Maclagan (Director of the V&A) and R. R. Tatlock (Editor of the Burlington Magazine). Her use of these individuals as a touchstone immediately arouses the suspicion that good taste as understood by Miss Bulley might simply be the taste of the English cultural elite.

Bulley’s view of art, design and taste was barely different from that of Ruskin and Morris. In her gushing theory of aesthetics, beauty is a spiritual quality that resides in objects, is universal and does not change over time. It is not merely personal choice or preference and Bulley notes that many of the things that people prefer are actually ugly. In order to distinguish artistic beauty from beauty in manufactured goods (which, as a rule she thinks, are inferior to art and handmade things), she adds that artistic beauty is the product of passion, so it appears that even though beauty is a quality of objects, process is essential too. She acknowledges beauty in nature, which is not the product of artistic creation, but the difference between the beauty of nature, everyday objects and art is not explained or thought through and she falls back on beauty being a spiritual value that cannot be described in words.

Bulley appears to have absorbed some formalist ideas from Fry and also to have been influenced by Bergson’s Creative Evolution. From the formalists she takes the idea of beauty expressing harmony and from Bergson the idea of creative energy – “the vitality that comes from free creative force” – and a deprecation of science, materialism and “over-intellectualisation”.

Her terms for things that don’t meet her standards of beauty have the echo of Bloomsbury about them – “sham”, “bloated”, “mean”, “anaemic” – but, unlike Bloomsbury, her taste appears to be a Quakerish simplicity and a preference for interiors that are plain and workmanlike, pleasant and unselfconscious and that don’t try too hard to be artistic.

From the Arts and Crafts movement Bulley inherited an anti-industrialism, a dislike of trade and a belief that hand-made things are better than mass-produced things. Her belief in spirit lead her to reject the functionalism of the modern movement, which she says is not enough to produce a work of art.

The book contains 19 pairs of photos that readers of The Listener had been invited to appraise as good or bad and their verdicts are compared with the verdicts of the experts. About three-quarters of the public agreed with the experts, but, in an interesting anticipation of Bourdieu, upper-class, highly-educated respondents were more likely to agree with the experts than labourers, servants and those with an elementary education.

Bulley’s Arts and Crafts philosophy remained widespread in England until the Second World War. Michael Saler saw Ruskin’s philosophy inspiring Frank Pick, despite his association with the modernisation of the London Underground. It pervaded the Gorell report. Bernard Leach’s philosophy, expressed in the best-selling A Potter’s Book, which he wrote in the late 1930s, is similar to Bulley’s and they both dislike modern journalism, cinema and contemporary culture. The appointment of a person like Bulley to advise on the improvement of industrial design raises questions about how suited to the task Britain’s Board of Trade was in the 1930s.

Biographical details from Alan Powers, “Margaret Bulley”, Crafts , No.192, January – February 2005, p.24

THE WILLIAM MORRIS SUSSEX CHAIR

sussex chairs a

Woolley and Wallis are offering a set of four Morris & Co. Sussex chairs from the house of Emery Walker in their sale on 6 October (above) with an estimated price of £400 to £600. 

The Sussex range, based on traditional country furniture, was intended to be cheap and simple, very much in line with Morris’s principles. The V&A say that Morris used Sussex chairs himself in Red House and Kelmscott House. Burne-Jones had Sussex chairs in his studio and so did the sculptor Alfred Gilbert. Sussex chairs were bought for students’ rooms in Newnham College, which was decorated in Arts and Crafts style, and for galleries in the Fitzwilliam Museum. Other firms, notably Liberty & Co. and Heals, produced their own versions of the Sussex chair. Sussex chairs in various versions were made in very large numbers but they’re collectible and the sale estimate is reasonable.

In 1912 Morris & Co. were selling a Sussex chair for nine shillings and ninepence, which a skilled worker could buy after 13 hours work. Today a skilled worker – say a car auto worker – would have to work 10 hours to buy a chair in the Woolley and Wallis sale if the set sells for £600. 

William Morris’s struggles over pricing are well known, with his famous complaint about being forced to cater for the swinish luxury of the rich. I’ve written before about the difference in price between goods designed with a view to simplicity and cheapness (where form followed function), like the Isokon Donkey, and the price of modern reproductions (where meaning follows form). There’s also a reproduction of the Sussex chair by Nafisi Studio, who make a beautiful modern version in coloured lacquers (below), retailing at £1,375 – about 11 days’ work for a car auto worker. Far from the swinish luxury of the rich but not quite Ikea.

WILLIAM DE MORGAN IN MERTON

Given the popularity of de Morgan’s pottery for the last two generations, it’s surprising that the first modern biography wasn’t published until 1997, Mark Hamilton’s Rare Spirit.

Hamilton, a literary agent, is unusually interested in de Morgan’s novels and takes them seriously. (In a review of the book, Fiona MacCarthy declared herself unconvinced.)

There is a delightful account of de Morgan moving his workshop from Chelsea to Merton, written by one of his decorators Mr Bale:

When Mr. De Morgan was clearing out to go to Merton, it was a strange sight. He was always slapdash in those days, and couldn’t stand the thought of packing. He just sat on a chair and put a hammer through dishes worth £2.10s and £3.00, at the same time saying, ‘Go on boys help yourselves!’ which you may be quite sure we did.

This is a staggering thought, bearing in mind that the best de Morgan pots now fetch around £10,000.

WILLIAM DE MORGAN’S NOVELS (7)

vance london mainly about people
A puff from London Mainly About People

I have been looking at contemporary reviews of de Morgan’s first novel Joseph Vance.

The Sunday Times spoke of “The extraordinary unconventionality and charm of Mr William de Morgan’s ‘ill-written autobiography’ (an absurd description) Joseph Vance. It is a very long and very detailed story of mid-Victorian life and manners, and its very lengthiness and detail contribute to make it fascinating.”

The American press was very enthusiastic. The New York Times wrote: “Mr. de Morgan possesses a subtle humor in characterisation and dialogue rather than in situation, and a deep and touching tenderness underlies the entire work. He writes as a man might who has successfully searched life for joy, and then has lost what he has found. It is all written from the heart — a man who has a sad story to relate, and tells it because he must, not because he would. In Its way it is as sincere as Newman’s Apologia. It is epic in its conception, magnificent in its presentment — this autobiography of a great-hearted man could only be told as it is by another great-hearted man, for it is a sound dictum that there cannot be in the creation what in the creator is not.”

The Baltimore Times said: “The book is of a high order. It is more than a novel: it is a piece of literature. … Joseph Vance is either a survival of the age of sanity or a return to it, the times of Dickens and Thackeray. What is all the more wonderful, there is nothing of imitation about it. The writer remains independently himself and conducts us so easily through this house of memories that one would say the book wins rather than compels interest There is humor here spontaneous and vigorous; yet the book contains romance as improbable as life itself.”

Olivia Howard Dunbar in The North American Review was more thoughtful and saw that the novel’s comparability to Thackeray and Dickens meant it was old-fashioned. “That a contemporary of Mr. Meredith and Mr. James should have been so far able to resist the influences of his time as to produce a novel that is mid-Victorian to the least syllable may seem at first sight a startling case of artistic obduracy. Yet it is possible that the elaborate simplicity of Joseph Vance is the disguise of a shrewd artfulness, and that it was Mr. de Morgan’s sophisticated intention to imply a comment on literary fashions with which he may not happen to be in sympathy. Or the novel’s period of incubation may have been unnaturally prolonged, and it may literally be a lonely survival of the age of Dickens and Thackeray, discipleship to both of which masters it frankly displays.”

WILLIAM DE MORGAN’S NOVELS (6)

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One of the delights of William de Morgan’s novels is his sideswipes at followers of Causes, whom he knew well through his association with Suffragists and Spiritualists and his friendship with William Morris.

In Joseph Vance he satirises Aunt Isabella, who has “gone to a Congress of an Association for the Promotion or Suppression of some Virtue or Vice, I’m not sure which!” She is a believer in Homeopathy and collects weird, ineffectual remedies:

“‘It’s that nice prescription of Dr. Hillyer’s. It’s only a little Ammonia and Chlorodyne and Gentian and Bark, and nothing that can possibly hurt. And of course you won’t mind me, dear, no one does! But I’m sure you ought either to take something or let Dr. Hillyer see you.’”

She enquires about symptoms that only homeopaths know about:

“‘Itching in the nostrils. Titillation in the membranes of the nasal canal. Sensation as of centipedes on the occiput, or of a large heavy object in the glottis, accompanied with wheezing, snoring, or choking. Incessant sneezing. Metempsychosis and Asphyxia. Tendency to jump, start and use bad language. Sensation of a swarm of bees in the larynx. Caryatids.’ That’s just exactly what she read very loud to me and a policeman’s back, standing at our gate.”

And she insists that you swallow something she has prepared:

“When I came back from posting my letter found two tumblers of the Weakest possible grog with paper over them — one teaspoonful every four hours of each, alternately. She makes some concession to my feelings on the subject of High Dilutions, and (at great risk to myself, she says) allows me to have Mother-Tinctures. Hence the Alcohol, which has the same relation to real Grog that a glass of water too often has to beer, owing to previous associations and ineffectual dry rubs.

“I wouldn’t nag on this way at poor Aunty, only she really did aggravate Papa.”

WILLIAM DE MORGAN’S NOVELS (5)

I’m reading William de Morgan’s first novel – and his most popular – Joseph Vance, cast as the autobiography of a poor boy who goes through many trials to achieve success in life. The narrative is comic, discursive and fizzes with the joy of writing. And there is a love interest too, so the comparison with Dickens was inevitable. 

I wondered how he was received in his own time and came across this contemporary account:

About four years ago the struggle to live became exceptionally severe, and it was about this time that Mr. de Morgan conceived the idea of ‘Joseph Vance’. He wrote the opening chapters, but was able to get no further, for there was a revival in the tile industry that kept the aged author and artist busy for three years. Twelve months ago, having some time on his hands, Mr. de Morgan decided to finish his first book.

A t this time Mr. de Morgan had no idea of selling the book. It was written for the pure pleasure of writing, and if any were destined to read it the privilege was to be confined to friends. Those who read this first novel of 200,000 words suggested that it should be sent to a publisher, so to a publisher it was promptly dispatched. It came back with the intimation that it was much too long. Several times it was refused, and then Mr. de Morgan conceived the idea of having it typed. It was sent to a well-known firm, and immediately put in hand. One day the proprietress was walking through, the office, when she noticed one of the girls in tears. An inquiry yielded the information that the girl was crying over some of the scenes in the novel she was typing. The proprietress glanced over the girl’s shoulder, and soon was crying also.

She told some friends of the extraordinary power of the novel, and by this circuitous route the story of the book reached Mr. Heinemann, the publisher, who thought a book that could make a typist cry must possess some extraordinary merit. The ’script was sent for, and Mr. Heinemann’s reader gave a glowing verdict on its merits. It was therefore published, and became the success of its year. Mr. de Morgan’s next book followed with equal success, and now he is engaged upon a third novel, which will be published early in the spring. He is a tall, fine-looking, bearded man, recalling Mr. George Bernard Shaw, and he is a very sound thinker.

London Mainly About People

WILLIAM DE MORGAN’S NOVELS (4)

How was de Morgan viewed by his contemporaries? I looked at Harmsworth’s Universal Encyclopedia, published in 1922, five years after he died. As you might expect, he was described as a “British novelist” and his pottery was treated as a detour.

“After studying at the Royal Academy, he devoted himself to working in pottery and glass. It was not until he reached his 66th year that his first novel, Joseph Vance, appeared.”

It concluded, “De Morgan is weak in plot construction, but his characterisation is good, and his depictions are true to life,” a fair summary.

harmsworth

WILLIAM DE MORGAN’S NOVELS (3)

DeMorgan+Evelyn+City+of+Light+1894

William de Morgan’s A Likely Story has long passages in which pictures talk.

The main subject, Reginald Aiken, ekes out a living as a painter by picture restoration. One of his jobs, a seicento portrait, talks to old Mr Pelly about its subject and her adventures in Italy. Mrs Euphemia Aiken later hears a photo of the portrait telling her that Reginald isn’t such a bad fellow after all.

These occult narratives are hedged about with scepticism and qualifications: were they dreams, or the voice of the unconscious, or perhaps just a sort of self-hypnotism? A young friend of Mr Pelly’s ponders on the meaning of his experiences.

“It was the action of his brain, my dear, not his own doing at all ! Let me see — what’s it called ? — something ending in ism.”

“Hypnotism?”

“No ! Oh dear, I shall remember directly …”

“Mesmerism?”

“No, no! — do be quiet and let me think. …”

“Vegetarianism?”

“You silly girl! I had just got it, and you put it out of my head . . . There ! . . . Stop ! . . . No ! . . . Yes — I’ve got it. Unconscious Cerebration!”

The Psychomorphic, a psychic investigation society, investigate Mrs Aiken’s narrative and sagely conclude that, “failing further evidence, we are justified in placing this story in section M 103, as a Pseudo-real Hyper-mnemonism.”

William and Evelyn de Morgan were both associated with Spiritualism. William’s mother Sophia was a medium his sister Mary claimed to communicate with the dead. Lois Drawmer has analysed the Spiritualist content of Evelyn’s paintings, which intensified as she got older (above).

Contemporary with the Arts and Crafts Movement, the Spiritualist craze was associated with progressive politics of the sort that the de Morgans supported, like women’s suffrage and pacifism.  Spiritualism was not thought to be inconsistent with science, not least with the theory of evolution, which was extended to the evolution of spirits after death and which explained the superiority of their knowledge to that of the living. Even the evolutionary biologist Alfred Russel Wallace was a Spiritualist. A Likely Story is dedicated to The Scientific Enquirer.

WILLIAM DE MORGAN’S NOVELS (1)

a likely story

A Likely Story, William de Morgan’s fifth novel, published in 1911 when he was seventy-two, reveals his wit, nice observation and capacity for satire. The theme is appropriately artistic.

The story opens in the studio of the unsuccessful painter Reginald Aiken and his discontented wife Euphemia. Following a misunderstanding with their servant Sairah, in which she is heard to tell Aiken to take his hands off her, Mrs Aiken flounces out and moves in with her aunt. There she falls in with people of advanced views who take her to a meeting whose purpose is not entirely clear. One of their company is Adolphus Groob, who is too shy to sit next to a woman.

He must needs go and stick himself four seats off Mrs. Aiken, in the two-shilling places, the intervening three seats being vacant.

Now, if only lean men, operating edgewise, had attempted to pass into these seats, things might have gone otherwise. Fate sent a lady over three feet thick all the way down, and apparently quite solid, to wedge her way into one or more of these seats. Mr. Adolphus shrank, for all he was worth, but it was a trying moment. The lady was just that sort the Inquisition once employed so successfully; one with spikes, that drew blood from anyone that got agglutinated with her costume. She might, however, have got through without accident – you never can tell! – if the trial had been carried out. It was suspended by a suggestion from Mrs. Aiken that Mr. Adolphus Groob should come a little farther along and make room; and when he complied, to the extent of going one seat nearer to her, a second suggestion that he should come nearer still, to which he assented with trepidation. Resistance was useless. A galaxy of daughters had already filled in the whole row behind the stout lady, and were forcing her on like the air-tight piece of potato in a quill popgun, only larger. So in the end Mr. Adolphus Groob found himself wedged securely between the stout lady and Mrs. Euphemia Aiken, quite unable to speak to the former, for though they had certainly met – with a vengeance – they had never been introduced.

“Do you know what the lecture is about?” said Mrs. Aiken.

“Couldn’t say,” was the reply. “Never know what lectures are about! I’m an Artist, don’t you know! My brother Bob could tell you. He’s a scientific chap — knows about Telephones and things that go round and burst.”

“Is there anything that goes round and bursts in the lecture, I wonder?”

“Shouldn’t be much surprised. Here’s the Syllabub – I mean Syllabus.” Mr. Adolphus handed his information to his neighbour. Caution made him uncommunicative. Naturally, he was of a more talkative disposition.

Mrs. Aiken studied the heads of the lecture. “What is meant, I wonder, by the Radio-Activity of Space?” said she. Now in asking this question she was deferring to the widespread idea that Man understands Science, and can tell Woman all about it. He doesn’t, and can’t.

He accepted the position of instructor his sex conferred on him.

“It’s got somethin’ to do with Four Dimensions,” he said. “Can’t say I’ve gone much into the subject myself, but I’ve talked to a very intelligent feller about it. Did you ever see any Radium?”

“Me? No. My husband saw some, though. He looked through a hole.”

“That’s it. It destroys your eyesight, I believe, and loses decimal point something of its volume in a hundred thousand years. There is no doubt we are on the brink of great discoveries.”

“How very interesting! I wish the lecturer would begin. Oh – here he is !”

The novel is 99p on Kindle, but I like books so I bought the copy illustrated above for £6.50.