DEBORAH SUGG RYAN’S SUBURBAN MODERNISM

I’ve been reading Deborah Sugg Ryan’s delightful book The Ideal Home 1918-1939.

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She is a consultant in A House Through Time, where she appears from time to time in her 1950s-style retro dresses. The Ideal Home is part of the new wave of design history that pays attention to everybody’s design preferences rather than writing the selective, progressive narrative typical of the older writers like Pevsner.

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For The Ideal Home she has drawn on contemporary photos of houses and house interiors, home decorating magazines, estate agents’ brochures and the Daily Mail Ideal Home Exhibition, which illustrate what she calls “suburban modernism”, which is popular, eclectic and unconcerned with rules. It combines “moderne” or “modernistic” motifs (which came to be called Art Deco only in the 1960s) with labour-saving devices like carpet sweepers and gas cookers. Suburban modernism thrived in the semi-detached houses that were built in their millions in the 1930s during the period of falling house prices and easy mortgages that enabled many working-class families to become home owners for the first time.

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Moderne and mock-Tudor elements were mixed to create homes that were up-to-date yet comfortable and nostalgic at the same time. “Tudorbethan”, says Sugg Ryan, was an invented past expressing modern pride in the British Empire.

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Needless to say, this sort of modernism was treated with contempt by design reformers. Tudorbethan was dismissed as “sham”, which implied that suburban houses expressed moral failings.

Osbert Lancaster (above) satirised both ascetic modernism and this comfy version of it. The journalist Anthony Bertram, whose Penguin book Design went through several editions, was also scathing about the Tudor semi. George Orwell famously poured scorn on the supposed mediocrity of suburban life in Coming Up For Air. D.H.Lawrence consigned it to the weak and effeminate. From the Arts and Crafts movement design reformers inherited a distaste for popular, cheap goods that they judged to be “commercial”. Intellectuals were dismissive of the preferences of the millions of people who lived in the suburbs.

Ideal Homes is a welcome corrective to the prescriptive design writing of the interwar period that found its strongest expression in Herbert Read’s Art and Industry, which I wrote about earlier.

W.T.CURTIS AND WILLIAM BURCHETT

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Kenton Public Library (1939)

I wrote earlier about W.T.Curtis and William Burchett, architects to Middlesex County Council, who were responsible for many schools and public buildings in north-west London, including the iconic Kenton Public Library, recognisable by their brick construction, strong horizontal emphasis, flat roofs and prominent staircase tower. I was pleased to find that they’d designed my primary school, Pinner Park, in 1934, which used innovative construction methods. (No usable pictures, alas.)

My secondary school, Harrow Weald Grammar, a Neo-Georgian brick construction, opened in 1933, was very different. As the building is now being converted to housing, I became curious about its designer. I was amazed to find that it was also W. T. Curtis. Curtis’s change from traditional to modern was very sudden.

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Harrow Weald County School (1933)

In their page on Curtis and Burchett, Modernism in Metroland explain how it came about:

The Wall Street crash and world financial crisis of 1931, one year into W.T. Curtis’ reign, forced a change in the departments’ designs in order to cut costs. Aiming to reduce spending by 30%, Curtis and Burchett adopted a more modernist utilitarian approach to school building. Their first innovations were using steel framing at Uxendon Manor School, Wembley (1934), and then concrete slab floors supported by pillars at Pinner Park School (1934). These techniques allowed flexibility in internal planning, whilst also keeping the traditional Victorian school courtyard layout.

 

THE GORELL REPORT

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I’ve been reading Art & Industry, the Gorell report, a milestone in the design debate in the decade before the war. The Board of Trade set up the Gorell committee to consider “the production and exhibition of articles of good design and everyday use”. Its result was the Council for Art and Industry, a precursor of the Design Council. Fiona MacCarthy perceived the long arm of the Arts and Crafts Movement reaching as far as the Festival of Britain and Terence Conran. It certainly influenced public discussions about design in the 1930s and its ideas pervade the Gorell report.

Of the committee’s nineteen members, three were artists or designers, five were industrialists and the largest cohort were politicians and public officials. Lord Gorell was a Liberal politician, an author and journalist. The industrialists were: A. E. Gray, the Staffordshire pottery manufacturer, who employed Susie Cooper and Gordon Forsyth; C.H. St John Hornby, the successful head of W. H. Smith, who also had an interest in fine printing and ran the Ashendene Press; Charles Richter, director of Bath Cabinet Makers and a member of the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society; Howard Robertson, a leading architect and later President of the RIBA; and H. Trethowan, president of the china and glass retailers association. It’s clear that the business representatives were chosen for their arts-and-crafts bent and that they were untypical of businessmen in Britain.

 

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The arts representatives were Roger Fry, E. W. Tristram, professor of design at the RCA, Clough William-Ellis, now known mainly for his whimsical creation at Portmeirion, and the art writer Margaret Bulley, author of Have You Good Taste?

The committee looked at the problem of design from an arts-and-crafts perspective and saw it essentially as the “divorce of design from execution” that had taken place during the industrial revolution. It sought “a reunion of Art and Industry”. It focused wholly on consumer goods and it considered design as good appearance rather than product engineering.

A pressing matter for industry while the committee was sitting was world recession and the lack of competitiveness of British goods. There was a long-standing view that our exports suffered because of poor design compared to continental goods, particularly French and German goods. There may have been some truth in that. The superiority of French goods was arguably the overhang of the royal monopolies of the Grand Siècle and Colbert’s forcing up of standards. Germany had developed the arts and crafts into modernism, while Britain compromised with what Michael Saler has called “medieval modernism”, modernism mitigated by the ideas of Ruskin and spiritual uplift. But tariffs may have been more salient than design in Britain’s balance of trade.

 

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C. H. St John Hornby, director of W. H. Smith, at his Ashendene Press

 

Gorell urged training in principles of design for everyone – manufacturers, craftsmen, buyers and sellers – so that they could appreciate good design when they saw it. Its ideas about improving design were confused with the idea of improving taste, which was a long-standing feature of the art-and-industry debate. Fry in his memorandum to the committee said that many manufacturers had lost contact with educated taste. There was always something  patronising about “good design”, from the Chamber of Horrors in South Kensington in the 1850s, which showed up the ghastly against the good, to Anthony Bertram’s Penguin book Design (1938), which preached about white walls and tut-tutted about patterned rugs. Gorell insisted that that the new central design body it recommended should be staffed by “persons of taste and cultural standards” – by which it had in mind persons such as themselves.

The report lacks recommendations for improving art education at secondary and tertiary level. The presence of Tristram on the committee may have made its members reluctant to criticise the RCA. Rothenstein had shaken up the RCA, but his main improvement was in the teaching of fine art and his ability to change the design school may have been compromised by his association with the Cotswolds arts-and-crafts colony. When he toured continental art schools in the 1920s, the Bauhaus was not on his itinerary. Tristram himself was a medievalist and was probably not the best representative of design education for deliberations of this sort.

Herbert Read was critical of the Gorell Report at the time, and a modern writer, Tanya Harrod, has described it as muddled. But Nikolaus Pevsner described it as “the first official document to emphasize the vital importance of improvements in British industrial art and to confirm the urgent necessity of immediate action.”

THE ARTS AND CRAFTS EXHIBITION SOCIETY

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I have been looking at the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society catalogue for their 1935 exhibition, which shows the Society (which gave its name to the Arts and Crafts movement and had doubts about the propriety of machine-made goods) flirting with design for mass production.

It was a small step but a significant one. William Morris’s ambivalence about machinery had hardened into outright opposition and in the 20th century the craftsman evolved from a generalist with a wide range of abilities (usually based on architecture), who sometimes contracted the execution of his work to a tradesman, into a specialist, frequently working alone and controlling every stage of production.

Pevsner argued that the lead in design in the 20th century passed from the Arts and Crafts to pioneer modernists like Adolf Loos, Peter Behrens, Josef Hoffman, the Deutsche Werkbund and the Bauhaus, and by the 1930s, some design thinkers doubted that there was much room for the crafts. Gropius, in a lecture he gave in England in 1934, argued that their future lay not in production but in “research work for industrial production and in speculative developments in laboratory workshops where the preparatory work of evolving and perfecting new type-forms will be done.” Herbert Read took a similar view in Art and Industry.

These ideas became so widespread that craftspeople were either persuaded by them or understood the need to engage with them. Among potters, even two of the most craft-based were briefly enchanted by them, Bernard Leach toying with the idea setting up a small factory and Michael Cardew trying to design for Stoke-on-Trent. John Farleigh, who was on the modernising wing of the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society, responded to this current of thought by declaring to members that “We are in a machine age, and to ignore it is to ignore life as it is lived today,” but he contended that craft objects that could be reproduced by machine would be better if craftsmen supervised their manufacture, proposing a larger role for the craftsman in industry than that indicated by Gropius and Read.

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In 1935 the Society included in its exhibition a section devoted to design for Mass Production, stating that the artist-craftsman “is admirably fitted to design for ‘batch-production’, ‘quantity-production’ or ‘mass-production’ in industry”. It led with Farleigh’s wood engravings for Bernard Shaw’s Adventures of the Black Girl in Search of God (above) and the exhibit was dominated by design for print, with lettering by Edward Johnston, Noel Rooke, Grailey Hewett and Alfred Firbank. There was some furniture by Romney Green and Gordon Russell, some printed fabrics by Heals, and some pottery designed for Doulton by Reco Capey. This was a hardly a major departure from hand-work. Ambrose Heal was a staunch supporter of the crafts and a member of the Society, and Doulton’s was an art pottery rather than a manufacturer of tableware. There was no evidence of any serious engagement by the Society with industry or any real interest in industrial design. Nevertheless, it was too much for some members. Leach was in the opposing faction and resigned. Staite Murray agreed with him that the Society’s policy of encouraging design for industry would “subvert the object of the Society to preserve the Crafts.”

The exhibition of British Art in Industry in 1935 talked of a “struggle for supremacy” between machine methods that made possible cheap goods and hand craftsmanship that could give goods individuality and character. The “art and industry debate” that persisted throughout the 1930s was never resolved and was brought to an end by the war, when craft production became an impermissible luxury. By 1944, two-thirds of Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society members were said to be designing for industry.

ROBIN WELCH

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I was sad to hear of the death of Robin Welch, one of the finest studio potters in Britain. In recent years he exhibited at Art in Clay, Hatfield, and I looked forward to chatting to him in his regular place at the show and buying some of his pots.

Robin was born in in 1936 and studied at Nuneaton and Penzance schools of art, receiving his NDD in sculpture and ceramics in 1953. He spent time at the Leach pottery in St Ives and he told me that, when he began exhibiting, Leach didn’t like his work (which some might take as a commendation). From 1956 he did his national service with the 2nd Battalion Parachute Regiment, taking the opportunity in the Middle East to visit peasant potteries. He then went on to do a postgraduate course in ceramics at the Central School of Arts and Crafts.

The Central was led in the post-war years by William Johnstone, who had moved it away from the arts and crafts (it later changed its name to the Central School of Art and Design) and introduced a design training based on the Bauhaus system and a collegiate style of teaching which exposed students to a variety of disciplines. Ceramics students were aware of the new American painting and in Cornwall Robin himself had already been inspired  by Terry Frost, John Tunnard and Barbara Tribe. They were taught by William Turnbull, Alan Davie and Eduardo Paolozzi (who, typically, was based in the textile department). Ceramics was led by Gilbert Harding Green, a man of wide culture who encouraged innovation, assisted by William Newland, Nicholas Vergette, Ian Auld, Dan Arbeid, Kenneth Clark and Gillian Lowndes.

After leaving the Central, Robin set up in London and got his first break from Henry Rothschild, who gave him £100 and carte blanche to make pots to be sold at the Primavera gallery. He spent three years in Australia, establishing a pottery with Ian Sprague, and returned to England in 1965 to set up the pottery at Stradbroke, Suffolk, where he worked until his death. At Stradbroke he launched high-volume production with half a dozen assistants, using industrial machinery which he’d been taught to use in Stoke-on-Trent. He spent twenty years in this sort of work, selling kitchen ware in interior design stores, but from the 1980s he made large, individual pieces like the one shown in the picture, for which he’s now better known.

A nice pamphlet about him, full of photos, Robin Welch – A Life, was produced by his granddaughter for a school project, but Robin told me he was sorry that no-one had wanted to write a full biography. Perhaps someone will now.

WHAT IF GROPIUS HAD BEEN DIRECTOR OF THE RCA?

I’ve been reading Hilary Cunliffe-Charlesworth’s thesis on the Royal College of Art and was intrigued to discover the British response to Bauhaus teaching and to Gropius, who came to England in 1934.

The RCA under Rothenstein had undergone radical change since 1920, when it was primarily a teacher training college. Rothenstein had brought in professional artists who were to have studios in the college and he encouraged the professional art teachers to leave. In 1924 he visited art schools in Prague, Berlin and Paris and saw that the work being done there surpassed anything to be found in England. His visit persuaded him that the College should neither be a teacher training institution nor offer vocational training for specific industries but that it ought to be delivering a high standard of general education to intending designers and artists. Weimar was not on his itinerary so he didn’t see the Bauhaus. Although he took pains to get more government money for the design department, his main achievement was in the fine arts – Paul Nash, Edward Burra, Henry Moore, Eric Ravilous and Edward Bawden were products of Rothenstein’s RCA.

There had been nagging discontent with the college’s failure to produce enough industrial designers more or less since it was founded in 1896, and these criticisms surfaced again during Rothenstein’s tenure. But the methods of the Bauhaus were never seen as as an alternative. It was thought by some in the Board of Education to be a fine art school and its socialist phase under Hannes Meyer frightened them.

When he came to England, Gropius was consulted on design education and his lectures were well attended, but on Rothenstein’s resignation he wasn’t considered as a successor. It’s fascinating to speculate what might had have happened if he had been. The revolution that occurred under Robin Darwin would have taken place ten years earlier. As it was, the Bauhaus system wasn’t fully applied in British art schools until the Coldstream Report in 1960. What if there had been a Gropius Report in 1935?

 

 

ANNI ALBERS

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Anni Albers in her weaving studio at Black Mountain College, 1937. (Photo: Helen M. Post, Western Regional Archives, State Archives of North Carolina)

I once shared a house with the weaver Jill Maguire, and as the house was small I had to share my bedroom with her loom; but although I watched her at work I never developed an interest in her art. So the Anni Albers exhibition at Tate Modern was an eye-opener to me.

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An Albers wallhanging designed in 1926 while she was at the Bauhaus

Albers (1899-1994) took up weaving rather reluctantly at the Bauhaus, where the weaving department was called the women’s workshop, but she discovered its artistic potential and even while still a student produced original and technically adept textiles that worked as abstract art. She seems to have become absorbed in the complex possibilities of weaving, which requires planning thread by thread, spatial reasoning and a grasp of permutation and combination.

She moved to the the USA in 1933 as the Nazis descended on the Bauhaus, and found work at Black Mountain College, where her practice was enlarged by the study and collection of the traditional weaving of South America. The equipment of these weavers was simple but their fabrics showed advanced mathematical thinking. Albers worked with twisted warps, double fabrics and floating wefts, pushing the boundaries of the craft. She was commissioned by forward looking industrialists who saw the commercial possibilities of her advanced methods. She demonstrated weaving to be a place where art, mathematics and manufacturing meet.

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Anni Albers, Tikal (1958), using twisted warps

Anni Albers Tate Britain
Until 27 January 2019

GILBERT HARDING GREEN

Gilbert Harding Green (above) was head of ceramics at the Central School of Arts and Crafts between 1955 and 1971. After the war, Dora Billington had built the ceramics department, with Harding Green’s assistance, into the most innovative and liberal in the country at a time that the Royal College of Art was teaching design for the pottery industry, Farnham was traditional and Camberwell was undistinguished. At the Central there was cross fertilization between disciplines and students studying pottery worked with Eduardo Paolozzi, William Turnbull and Alan Davie. The Central was one of the first art schools to teach Basic Design in the late 1940s, the generic and analytic approach to both painting and design, derived from the Bauhaus course that shaped foundation courses in British art schools.

Harding Green took over the department on Billington’s retirement and developed it “beyond recognition” in her approving verdict.  He expanded into the school’s new building in Red Lion Square, and, post-Coldstream, steered the course into the Diploma in Art and Design. His students included Ruth Duckworth, John Colbeck, Robin Welch, Eileen Nisbet, Richard Slee, Alison Britton and Andrew Lord.

Billington and Harding Green  both subsumed their artistic careers in teaching, Harding Green the moreso. His origins were exotic.  Born in 1906, he was the illegitimate offspring of  aristocratic parents, his mother English and his father either Dutch or Russian according to differing accounts. Most of his childhood and youth were spent abroad, much of it in Italy.  He told one of his students, Kenneth Clark, that, while living in the Vatican, he wandered into a room and looked idly into a chest of drawers, which he discovered to be full of marble penises. In his twenties he traveled in Brazil and learned Portuguese.

He studied sculpture under John Skeaping and Frank Dobson at the Central School in the 1930s and later turned to pottery.  Of the little work by him that still exists, most is totally original and does not derive from any obvious ceramic tradition.  In 1938 he became Billington’s assistant, beating off competition from Henry Hammond, who went on to head the pottery department at Farnham, and Moira Forsyth, who is now better known for her stained glass.

I recently saw this sculpted head in clay by Harding Green (above), which he exhibited with the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society in 1938.

A reviewer said: –

“It held me by its stark truth and brute ugliness – the hard smileless mouth, the hollow cheeks and buried eyes, the repaired nose, the punched ears, and the imbecilic slope of the forehead, and these inelegant features were mercilessly gripped with economy of effort and absolute certainty.”

The subject was far removed from the artist’s life.  Harding Green was a man of wide culture and elegant taste who would attend the ceramics classes in the Central School in a suit, tie and cuff-links, always ready to advise students on a good restaurant or to give away complimentary theatre tickets that he had managed to get hold of.