Charleston Farmhouse have an exhibition about Omega Workshops with a small collection of rarely seen items. The painted box above (maker unknown) illustrates the way they brilliantly expressed Post-impressionism in their output.
Without context it’s hard to appreciate how radical their designs were. The Arts and Craft style was dominant. All the art schools in Britain were teaching it in their design departments. Roger Fry was understandably frosty. The leaders of the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society were getting old and he found them to be precious and moralistic. Nevertheless, for commercial reasons, he negotiated a stand for Omega in their 1916 exhibition.
Omega had an impressive unity of design. They embraced colour, abstraction and a narrow range of motifs that makes everything hang together. Charleston itself developed a coherent palette of grey, black, slate blue, dusty pink and mustard yellow, which you can see in embryo in this rug designed by Duncan Grant and executed by Vanessa Bell in 1913.
Omega differed from the Arts and Crafts not only in design but also in their indifference to execution, which was cheerfully amateurish. The Workshops were set up to provide employment to artists, not to advance industrial design or to elevate craftsmanship. They bought furniture to decorate and did not make it. Their surface decoration was startling but their products were shoddy. The best are their textiles, designed by them but manufactured in France. Omega was not part of the design movement emerging from the Arts and Crafts. They had no connection with the Design and Industries Association in Britain or the Werkbund in Germany. They led nowhere. They carried out impressive house design contracts for friends of Bloomsbury but they had no followers or influence and, artistically, Omega, Bloomsbury and Charleston were out of the current of 20th century design and were uninterested in it.
A picture of this 1910 women’s suffrage banner, juxtaposing Arts and Crafts irises and the hammers and horseshoes that the Suffragettes used to break shop windows with, was tweeted by @womensart1.
My first thought was, “Did it have anything to do with May Morris?” considering that she was an important Arts and Crafts embroiderer and had been an active socialist since she joined the Hammersmith Socialist League, which was run by her father William Morris. She was largely responsible for the revival of free hand embroidery and taught it at the Central School of Arts and Crafts.
I found Elizabeth Crawford’s blog about a Suffrage Procession organised by the Womens’ Union of Suffrage Societies in 1908, featuring banners designed by the Artists’ League for Women’s Suffrage, including some made by May Morris. Anna Mason writes of Morris’s political engagement that she was not militant and that during her father’s period of political activity in the 1880s she did not like the idea that he might be arrested. So it may be that she was not associated with the window-breaking Suffragettes; and in 1910 she had long departed from Hammersmith and was living in Oxfordshire.
It’s part of Imre Madách Square, a Budapest city led development designed by Gyula Wälder and commenced in 1937. The Square leads to a grand arch and on either side are matching apartment blocks. Kovac’s reliefs are cut into travertine facings on the south block (shown with a marker in the picture).
Wälder is said to have adapted Baroque forms to modern developments, though I can’t see that in the Madách Square development. Early in his career he designed sections of the Wekerle Estate, an Arts-and-Crafts style development influenced by the English garden city movement. His historicism drew criticism from his contemporaries and from architects of the socialist period, but Madách Square is now a protected development and is pleasantly pedestrianised.
Most of the Museum of Applied Arts in Budapest is closed for a long-overdue refurbishment, so I was deprived of one of my regular pleasures on a trip to the city last week. Instead I visited the home of the founding director, György Ráth, (above) which contains his personal collection and some museum exhibits. The museum is noted for its Art Nouveau collection – the second director, János Radisics, made extensive acquisitions at the 1900 Paris World Exhibition – and Art Nouveau objects are well represented in the Ráth villa. They were also displaying contemporary Art Nouveau-inspired glass by Agnés Smetana, (below) whose work was new to me.
Ráth collected studio pottery from England, France and Denmark by brilliant experimenters in stoneware and lustre glazes, some of whom were unfamiliar to me – Harry Nixon of Royal Doulton, William Howson Taylor of the Ruskin Pottery, Valdemar Englehardt of the Royal Danish Porcelain Company, Albert Heinecke of the Königliche Porzellan-Munufaktur, Pierre Clément Massier, Alexandre Bigot and Max Leuger – as well as several dazzling pieces by Vilmos Zsolnay and by Jenő Farkaházy-Fischer of Herend.
The grand feu potters made great technical and artistic innovations in a short time – all the pieces illustrated here were made between 1895 and 1906 – but much of their technique was lost in the 20th century. Alan Caiger-Smith gives a uniquely good though short account of this period in Lustre Pottery.
These houses are next to one another in a street I visited in Letchworth Garden City today. They were built in the inter-war years in the vernacular, Arts and Crafts tradition established by Raymond Parker and Richard Unwin, and although they’re unique they appear familiar because the Letchworth style dominated suburban England between the wars. Jonathan Meades, in a scathing opinion piece on Letchworth (below), described this kind of architecture as a trip down false-memory lane.
I think it was Colin Ward who pointed out that the design of Letchworth seemed to realise the world invented by Kate Greenaway (below). Its characteristics are whitewashed roughcast walls, gables, dormer windows, hanging tiles, timber boarding, low-slung roofs, casements and mullions.
I tweeted about the Ruskin exhibition at 2 Temple Place, mentioning that Ruskin’s great influence on English thinking came about partly because his books were given as school prizes right up to the 1920s. Michael Rosen commented that he read Ruskin’s tale The King of the Golden River many times over as a boy and loved it. I had never read it, in fact I’d never heard of it, but I read it last night.
Ruskin wrote the story for the young Effie Gray and it became very popular. Ruskin is one of the great prose stylists of the 19th century and this is a beautiful moral tale, beautifully written, but it is the only children’s story he ever wrote.
The illustration above is by Arthur Rackham, from an edition made in the 1920s. Rackham was good at myths and fables and had done good illustrations for Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelungen ten years earlier. All Rackham’s illustrations are now hugely collectible.
It will be obvious from my comments about Ruskin that I’m an admirer of David Pye, (above) who was the first person to talk sense about the crafts. Here’s a quotation from The Independent‘s obituary:
In The Nature of Design (1964), Pye exposed functionalism as fantasy. ‘Things simply are not ‘fit for their purpose’. At one time a flake of flint was fit for the purpose of surgery; and stainless steel is not fit for the purpose now. Everything we design and make is an improvisation, a lash-up, something inept and provisional. We live like castaways. But, even at that, we can be debonair and make the best of it. If we cannot have our way in performance, we will have it in appearance.’
I’m reading Michael T. Saler’s The Avant-Garde in Interwar England, about the English version of modernism that carried forward the social ideals of the Arts and Crafts Movement. The book focuses on Frank Pick (above), the boss of London Underground, who commissioned the modernist stations of the Piccadilly, Northern and Metropolitan Lines and the posters that advertised the underground.
Pick played a leading role in the Design and Industries Association (DIA) and the Council for Art and Industry (CAI) putting him at the centre of design reform.
The CAI , which stood in a line that linked the Chamber of Horrors in the South Kensington Museum to the Design Council, was central to the art and industry debate of the 1930s, which sought to raise the standard of consumer products, ostensibly because better design would improve sales and exports. What I’ve never been able to understand about this movement is that it saw the need to raise the sights of industrialists and to improve the taste of consumers. But why, if poor design was a brake on sales, was it necessary to improve consumer taste?
Saler makes it clear that the idea of fitness for purpose that drove the modernism of the DIA, the CAI and Pick’s underground was more than the physical usefulness of objects and entailed moral ans spiritual fitness as well. As Pick put it, “Fitness for purpose must transcend the merely practical and serve a moral and spiritual order as well. There is moral and spiritual fitness to be satisfied. We know it sure enough when we see it.” Good design was not a matter of taste, understood as consumer preference, but objective standards with moral and spiritual significance. The ideas of good design that ran from the 1850s to the 1960s are hard to understand from our viewpoint, in which we see no aesthetic absolutes and see one design is as good as another. Design was associated with planning and and state direction and was not to be left to the vagaries of the market and personal preference.
A walk from Deal to St Margaret’s Bay, via Kingsdown and St Margaret’s-at-Cliffe, took in a variety of building styles, vernacular and polite.
Flint and brick is characteristic.
I liked the fretted fascia on this house.
Oldestairs House in Oldstairs Road, Kingsdown. Red-brick, roughcast and tile hanging. Large, Edwardian and intrusive.
Kingsdown Cottage, one of a pair of Arts-and-Crafts houses on the outskirts of St-Margaret’s-at-Cliffe, with its roughcast walls, high chimneys and steep-pitched roof, recalls Voysey’s High Gaut in the same village (which we didn’t get to see), but I couldn’t find out anything about it.
Tin shacks pop up everywhere for chapels and clubs. I thought the St Margaret’s Bowls Club looked homely.
Portal House, a Kent County Council special school, is well described by its architects, KSS: “The double pitched roof concept for the new building draws on the local Kent vernacular, and the use of humble traditional materials with simple modern detailing gives the building a quiet but distinct contemporary identity.”
The star of our walk was Ness Point, a bold, orginal design by Tonkin Liu, with curving white walls that echo the White Cliffs. There are plans and more photos, including interior photos, at Design Curial.
Leighton House Museum, the house Frederic Leighton built for himself in Holland Park, which I visited yesterday, will start a big improvement programme soon, due for completion in 2021.
Leighton House is famous for its Orientalist decoration, furnished from Leighton’s travels in the near East, and notable for walls covered in Iznik and Persian tiles set in glazed turquoise panels by William de Morgan. (No photos allowed, but good illustrations in the guidebook ISBN 0902242237.) Its lavish and exotic public spaces contrast with Leighton’s monastic bedroom. He fiercely guarded his privacy and left almost no personal documents, but the design of the house suggests that he never intended to marry and it is now generally supposed that he was gay, which influences the way we look at paintings like Daphnephoria, (above), where the youths are painted with more conviction than the girls.
The peculiar design of the house, with a large studio, one bedroom and public rooms unsuitable for family living, made it unsaleable on his death in 1896. The sale of the contents, however, raised enough to keep it as a museum. But it was really only eighty years after Leighton’s death that it began to be run as a proper monument to him. Disagreements between his sisters and Mrs Emilie Barrington, his adoring neighbour and biographer, blocked development for years. On their death the property was sold to the local council, then managed in a half-hearted way, a victim of indifference to Victorian art, and by the 1950s it had fluorescent lighting and cream-painted walls and was being used for exhibitions of modern art. John Betjeman spearheaded its revival, which began in the early 1980s, since when it has been carefully restored and appropriately furnished, original contents recovered wherever possible.
The final phase of the restoration will remove some late additions, restore the Perrin Wing, make a new entrance, improve disabled access and create stronger links with the local community.