ROBERT BEST, ‘FROM BEDALES TO THE BOCHE’

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.

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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 WerkbundPeter 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.

surpise lamp

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.

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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).

 

RICHARD LUNN (3)

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Richard Lunn

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.”

THE BIRMINGHAM GUILD

SELFRIGES LIFT

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

“THE THINGS WE SEE”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

WILLIAM STAITE MURRAY

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I have been reading Julian Stair’s thesis on critical writing about English studio pottery, 1910 – 1940, which foregrounds Roger Fry’s formative influence in the first three decades of the 20th century, something that was not mentioned in 20th-century accounts of studio pottery and which is only now being realised, largely due to Stair’s research. In the early years of the studio pottery movement there was a wary rivalry between William Staite Murray, who was the star of studio pottery in the 1920s, and Bernard Leach, who until 1920 worked in Japan. What I didn’t realise, and what Stair explains, is there was a change of gear in the 1930s when Leach’s reputation rose and studio pottery turned from exhibition pieces towards utility, inspired by a late resurgence of the Arts and Crafts philosophy that Leach followed.  In the 1930s, Stair discovered, reviews of Staite Murry’s exhibitions became more critical and eventually petered out completely.

Although Staite Murray is still recognised as a major pioneer, auction values of his pots (above) are not as high as might be thought. In MAAK’s latest online sale, expected prices range between £250 and £800, while recent work by living potters is expected to raise much more, for example, Daniel Reynolds: £800 – £1200, Sarah Scampton: £1,200 – £1,500, Tanya Gomez: £800 – £1,100, Sarah Flynn: £1,200 – £1,800, and Edmund de Waal: £2,500 – £3,500

ARTS AND CRAFTS REFORM OF ART SCHOOLS

Royal College of Art staff and students, 1919

The hazards of separating design from execution – for the product, the maker and society – was a persistent theme in Arts and Crafts discourse on manufacture, but the practicality of designers never delegating the execution of their designs to artisans and the desirability of executants making only what they had designed themselves was debatable. Ruskin’s injunction to “never encourage the manufacture of any article in which invention has no share” was certainly not applied to every item made by Morris & Co’s employees, and its implications were the subject of fierce debate between Walter Crane (who insisted on it) and Lewis Foreman Day (who thought it led to bad workmanship).

Although William Morris was a judge of the annual National Competition of Schools of Art, he did not have a detailed knowledge of art education and did not have a high opinion of art schools in general. He believed that everyone should learn to draw and thought it essential that the craftsman should be able to draw well enough for his trade, but he was opposed to the rigid and slavish system of drawing taught in the art schools of the time. He did not believe that design could be detached from making, and insisted that that the designer should have knowledge of his medium and that he should be able to work in it himself. Ideally, designer and craftsman should be one, and failing that, the small workshop was preferable to the large factory.

The government arts schools worked on the opposite principle. But their aversion to students working directly in materials did not only concern Morris and doubts emerged in in official circles as well. The Royal Commission on Technical Instruction (1884), to which Morris submitted evidence, agreed that art education should enable students to judge the suitability of their designs to the material in which it was to be executed.

This idea filtered through into art education and, by the end of the 19th century, men of the Art Workers Guild (AWG) were taking up posts in art schools (at first the municipal art schools that were not under government control) and were driving the reforms of art education. The first municipal school was Birmingham Art School (1885), which introduced training in executed design and which Crane praised for its achievements

Among AWG members, Crane became Master of Design of the Manchester School of Art and subsequently head of the Royal College of Art, Robert Catterson-Smith became the headmaster of the Birmingham Art School, W. R. Lethaby and George Frampton were inspectors and advisors to the London County Council’s education board and the first principals of the London County Council (LCC) Central School of Arts and Crafts (1896), and the potter W.B.Dalton became the first principal of the LCC’s Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts 1899, although he did not become a member of the AWG until 1908.

At the end of the 19th century the Royal College of Art was engaged principally in the training of art teachers, still using narrow and limited methods. It was said that “no system could be better calculated to produce untrained, narrow minded men.” John Sparkes, its principal from 1876 to 1898, fully recognised its deficiencies, but it was not until Walter Crane was put in charge in 1898 that reform really began in earnest. “As far as the existing constitution of the school and its relation to the Board of Education would allow,” Crane wrote, “I endeavoured to expand the range of studies, especially in the direction of Design and Handicraft; and in order to give the students some insight into the relation between design and material, I was fortunate enough to obtain the services of accomplished artists to give lectures, and demonstrations where possible, in their special crafts … . [T]he Royal College of Art has been entirely reorganised, and while its objects, the study of decorative art as well as the training of teachers, have been reasserted, the relation of all branches of decorative design to architecture has been emphasised in the establishment of an architectural school, directed by Professor Beresford Pite, through which all students pass in the five years’ course.”

The bureaucracy of the Department of Art and Science defeated Crane and he resigned after a year, but his reforms were implemented by his successor, Augustus Spencer. Spencer brought in W.R.Lethaby as professor of design, whose curriculum was intended to ensure that those who went on to be art teachers received a broad artistic education, experience of several crafts and competence in at least one.

CRAFT, SKILL, DESIGN

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I have been looking at Prof Toshio Kasumitsu’s dissertation British Industrialisation and Design 1830-1851, which I found my way to from Charles Saumaurez Smith’s blog, in which he thanked Kasumitsu for his eloquent support for the Whitechapel Bell Foundry.

In this interesting thesis he shows that early ideas of “craft”, “skill”, “art” and “mystery” were associated with protective guilds and the apprenticeship system and that they indicated a deep understanding of a trade. Adam Smith, who believed that long apprenticeships protected the trades and the masters and disadvantaged the public, moved “skill” towards ideas of manual dexterity, whereas previously it had a much richer meaning. In Smith’s thinking, skill in this sense could be imparted in much shorter training programmes. It became closer to ideas of “competence”, which motivate modern vocational training .

I wondered whether the elevation of craft in the thinking of Ruskin, Morris and their followers was associated with an archaic and protectionist concept of arts and trades, and whether their resistance to new methods of organising work and production favoured the tradesman over the consumer? That was the effect of Morris’s business practice, which was incapable of producing products cheaply, and there was an irreconcilable contradiction in his philosophy between between the idea of a craft-based economy and the idea of a society where everyone could lead a life of modest prosperity.

By the mid-19th century it was already supposed that design had deteriorated because of the separation of  the “fine” from the “decorative” arts, leading to the debasement of the latter. This view persisted for a hundred years and the cause of the separation was frequently attributed to the factory system and the division of labour. They may have reinforced it but they cannot be said to have caused it, because it began centuries before the industrial revolution and was associated with the Renaissance conception of the liberal arts as distinct from the crafts and with the attempt of fine artists to elevate their social status.

It is also questionable whether the separation of art into “fine” and “decorative” necessarily depresses design. By the end of the 19th century the Arts and Crafts style had thoroughly permeated manufacturing industry and it dominated domestic goods for 20 years after Morris’s death. Some of the designs made in this period were by fine artists but not all were. The furniture painted by Morris and Burne-Jones may be said to be fine art applied to manufacture, but what of the work of pioneering industrial designers like Christopher Dresser, W. A. S. Benson and Lewis Foreman Day? The design of manufactured goods is dependent on the adequate selection and training of designers rather than on the inclusion of fine artists in the manufacturing process or erasing the distinction between the two.

The low status of artisan designers the supposed deterioration of design were generally elided in critiques of “bad design” and the latter was supposed to be a consequence of the former. But was it, and to what extent did other things cause it: 1) Indifference of the buying public to “good” design and preference for “bad” design? 2) The inadequate training of designers? 3) The expense of getting good design? All those things –  bad taste, lack of education and the commercial motive – were blamed, but there there is evidence against all of them. 1) There were prolonged and strenuous attempts to elevate taste, from the efforts of Henry Cole (above) and William Morris to the Design Centre, and they appear to have had little effect in the view of their promoters. 2) The Schools of Design and their successors spent seventy years getting designers to study the best models but critiques of bad design persisted. 3) The argument from commerce was confused from the start, between claims that the profit motive pushed out good design and claims that businesses would do much better if only they made better-designed products.

LÁSZLÓ MOHOLY-NAGY

 

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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

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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.