BERNARD LEACH: LIFE & WORK

Covid and Christmas gave me the chance to catch up on reading and after Fiona MacCarthy’s life of William Morris, I’ve finally got round to Emmanuel Cooper’s biography, Bernard Leach: Life and Work.

As a man with no doubts about his own importance, Leach (1887-1979) left a large archive, which makes the work of the biographer easy, though Cooper may have been blessed with too much material and remains too close to the sources. In contrast to Leach, Dora Billington, another major studio potter of the period, left nothing. As Leach dominated the pottery studio world, so she dominated pottery in the art schools. She was in a better position to leave an archive than he was. He was peripatetic, had an emotionally turbulent life and was always in search of funds; she remained at the Central School of Arts and Crafts and lived in the same house with one companion for thirty years. The absence of a Billington archive suggests that her papers were destroyed, probably on her instructions.

Leach’s first wife, Muriel, said that no man was ever more in need of a religion than he was. Pottery was a religion for him. He thought that Beauty was to be found in the Absolute. Industry had no soul and bad pottery was “dead”. He could never accept that his work was simply a style that he preferred: he had to believe that it reflected a universal, unvariable and absolute standard that all pottery should measure up to, and damn it if it didn’t. He was brought up a Catholic and was educated by Jesuits. When doubts crept in, he became a follower of a charlatan called Alfred Westharp, who combined polygamy with the Montessori method of education. Westharp conveniently persuaded Leach that his discontent with monogamy was spiritually significant and that he would never develop as an artist if he didn’t follow his sexual urges.

Later, under the influence of Mark Tobey, Leach adopted the Baha’i faith. His employees at the pottery had to attend daily prayer meetings. He stood on a soap box in St Ives harbour to preach on the evils of modern life, which, by the 1950s, included not only industry but also cinema, chewing gum and Music While You Work.

Leach’s mission was to bring together East and West. In Japan he sold pottery based on the English vernacular tradition and he introduced Japanese potters to the clay handle instead of the traditional bamboo handle. He and his colleagues, Soetsu Yanagi and Shoji Hamada, encouraged a Japanese reading of Ruskin and Morris. But as he was so opposed to the values of the West it’s hard to see what he brought to the East – unlike, for example, Charlotte Perriand, whose design was inspired by Japan but who remained a significant Western designer.

Leach made successful tours of the United States, which challenged him because he couldn’t understand a country with diverse traditions and a love of innovation. Cooper is frank about his aloofness and dogmatism in America, but for all that he was often open to new experiences in the arts, society and nature. Most remarkable was his warm response to the designers Charles and Ray Eames, who, despite their collection of folk art, represented the antithesis of Leach’s values. He wanted to produce a small number of things for a discerning élite: their objective, in their memorable phrase, was getting the best to the greatest number of people for the least.

There’s nothing surprising about a man developing odd ideas but it is suprising that Leach’s odd ideas gained so much traction. He and Hamada irrupted from Japan into England in 1920 and worked in disregard of other art potters. There were broadly speaking three groups: Leach and his small band; the late followers of the Arts and Crafts movement, like Alfred and Louise Powell; and the figurative potters like Charles Vyse and Gwendolen Parnell, who were untouched by Orientalism, had little interest in the vernacular and didn’t share Leach’s aesthetic of simplicity, modesty and utility.

Leach’s style was slow to catch on. Some, like the Marxist Henry Bergen and William Slater, the managing director of the Dartington Trust, were unafraid to interrogate his vague ideas, but after the war there was an avalanche of interest. That is partly explained by Leach’s unshakable self-confidence, his talent for publicity and A Potter’s Book, but there have been many confident self-publicists without a following. Murray Fieldhouse, an enthusiastic follower, I think explained it. He told me that after the war a lot of people were looking for a new way of life and that the crafts seemed to offer it. He and several others who went for this way of life were pacifists like Leach. The Leach idea of a small pottery in the country, in the shadow of the atom bomb, away from the rat race, seemed to fit the bill. If oriental religion could be added to the mix, so much the better.

DAMASCUS TILES

I looked at Arthur Milner’s gorgeous large-format book Damascus Tiles yesterday, which is a history, a gazetteer and a large collection of high-quality photos.

It explained why there was such confusion in Britain until the 20th century about the precise origin of these tiles, because there was not only influence and export but also movement of the potters from place to place. The story isn’t just of Damascus but also of Jerusalem, Istanbul and Cairo and the rise and fall of empires over a thousand years.

Milner calls the enthusiasm for Damascus tiles in Britain at the end of the 19th century “a craze”, and the focus of the craze has to be the Arab Hall in Frederic Leighton’s house (which he describes as the largest one-bedroomed house in London), mainly tiled with panels from the Near East but also with fill-in sections by William de Morgan. It’s closed till the spring, but I’ll look at it again then with fresh eyes.

TURKISH CERAMICS AND CULTURAL APPROPRIATION

Ceramics has alway been a field of cultural appropriation and there may have been little ceramic art without it. One of the most obvious cases is the appropriation of material culture both by and from Turkish potters. Istanbul’s great glory is its Iznik tiled mosques, so I was disappointed to find that, athough the walls of the Topkapı Palace are gorgeously tiled, the Palace’s collection of ceramics is from China, not from Iznik. If you want to see Iznik pottery, go to London, where the British Museum has the best collection in the world.

Topkapı Palace, wall with Iznik tiles.

The development of Iznik pottery was motivated by the desire to imitate Chinese porcelain, which was done in a roundabout way, covering the local greyish clay with fine white slip then painting it in brilliant colours under a clear glaze. There are Chinese motifs on Iznik vessels, with their characteristically Turkish decorations of tulips, carnations and saz leaves, in the form of the cloud patterns round the margins of plates. The Chinese returned the compliment by taking Iznik motifs and painting them in blue and white on porcelain dishes for export.

Border decoration on Iznik plate derived from Chinese cloud motifs

This Turkish pottery was naturally admired everywhere. In Britain in the 19th century it was copied and adapted without understanding. Its origins weren’t known because the Iznik manufactories were long gone. As every visitor to Turkey discovers, Iznik designs are sold everywhere, but the pottery comes from Kütahya now.

A 19th-century Cantagalli vessel using Iznik motifs.

A large cache of this pottery had been brought to England from Syria, so it was called Damascus ware. Some was found in Greece too, so it was also called Rhodian. The British thought that Ottoman Turks were incapable of creating such lovely work but that Persians were, so these wares were called Persian as well.

A “Persian” vessel by the Crown Derby Porcelain Company, mid 1880s. (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.)

Under these confused names, Iznik patterns were put on tiles, which were all the rage at the time. Some were made by hand by William de Morgan for Sir Frederic Leighton’s Arab Hall, many more were produced in industrial quantities by Minton Hollis. The “Persian” style was freely adapted and elaborated by Crown Derby, with raised gilt patterns, to make amazing bling for export to the USA. Homage was also paid to the Iznik potters by the Cantagalli company in Italy, who made much closer copies.

Sir Frederic Leighton’s Arab Hall in Kensington, a mixture of antique tiles from Turkey and new ones from London.

JONATHAN CHISWELL-JONES

I went to see Jonathan Chiswell-Jones’ pottery at the Artworkers Guild (AWG) yesterday at their beautiful home in Queen Square, the perfect setting for ceramics with allusions to William de Morgan. The building has changed little since the AWG acquired it about a hundred years ago. The name of every member past and present is carefully lettered on the walls and there are portraits of all the guild’s masters. This may give the impression that the AWG is old-fashioned but it’s not and its members produce very up-to-date craft work as you can see here.

Reduced lustre pottery is extraordinarily difficult to make and very few people try it. It requires three firings at different temperatures and precise control of kiln atmosphere to change the decoration (which looks like mud when it’s put on) to gold and silver in a magical alchemical transformation. The method was revived by De Morgan and copied by a few large potteries like Maw & Co. and Pilkington, who did it cheaper and put him out of business. Alan Caiger-Smith rediscovered it by accident in the 1950s trying to produce a red glaze and it took him twenty-six unsuccessful firings to get it.

ADAM KOSSOWSKI

The Adam Kossowski mural on the old North Peckham Civic Centre will be removed when the building is demolished and is to be put up on the new building, but there it will be above the first floor windows and it will be less visible.

The Everlasting Ministries Church that used to occupy the building has closed and you can see the state of the mural in the picture above. Amazingly, it’s almost completely free of graffiti – the graffiti you see is on the shutters over the windows.

This is a wonderful mural. It works from a distance as a general view of The History of the Old Kent Road, it works from six feet away where you can see the characters in the story – the picture below is Kossowski’s portrayal of a sneering King Charles – and it works close to, where you can see the details and textures the artist has added. Yesterday I noticed for the first time the little Camberwell Beauty butterflies in the corners.

None of that effect will be perceptible when the mural is ten feet above the ground.

I walked to the Old Kent Road from South Bermondsey and asked the way from a young man. He was studying digital media and was intrigued by the camera tripod sticking out of my rucsac. I told him about the mural and the Civic Centre and Kossowski’s time in a second world war concentration camp. “I live in the Old Kent Road. I’ve never noticed it,” he said, and came with me to look.

SCHOOL OF CHARLES VYSE (2)

I posted earlier about this little ceramic sculpture I picked up in an auction, speculating that it was made by a follower of Charles Vyse. After a couple of days looking in the archives of Camberwell School of Art I was pleased to find that I was right. Vyse taught modelling at Camberwell in the 1920s and in The Cambian, the college magazine, I saw a similar piece by J.West, a student. West never seems to have practiced professionally, like a lot of art students, and I’ve found no other pieces by him. Him or her? My first thought was that a tender piece depicting a girl with a baby must have been made by a woman, but the convention of the time would have been to describe a woman student as “Miss J. West,” so J.West was probably a man.

WOMEN OF THE WIENER WERKSTÄTTE

Charlotte Billwiller, Mathilde Flögl, Susi Singer, Marianne Leisching
and Maria Likarz, artists of the Weiner Werkstätte.

The Museum of Applied Arts in Vienna (MAK) has a large exhibition devoted to the women artists of the Wiener Werkstätte (WW), the company of artists, designers and craft workers who defined Viennese modernism in the first decades of the 20th century. Women played a prominent role, increasingly after the First World War. The work shown is varied, innovative, clever and faultlessly executed.

Mathilde Flögl, Invitation to the artists’ costume party, 1924.

The Wiener Werkstätte started as a metal workshop founded by Joseph Hoffmann and Koloman Moser, professors at the Vienna School of Arts and Crafts, and Fritz Waerndorfer, their business manager. It expanded to include textiles, fashion, pottery, graphics, architecture, furniture and toys, selling to the Viennese bourgeoisie though their upmarket stores in the Neustiftgasse and Kärntner Strasse, particularly to the cultured and assimilated Jewish bourgeoisie of the kind recently depicted in Tom Stoppard’s Leopoldstadt. (I wrote about their New York store here.)

Dress made from WW fabric designed by Hilda Jesser, 1921/2.
Hilda Jesser, Poster for the WW, 1919.
The WW store in Kärntner Strasse.

The artists of the Werkstätte were influenced by the British Arts and Crafts movement but rapidly went beyond it and were less doctrinaire than Morris & Co. They valued art but they were unfazed by machinery. They esteemed handwork but they didn’t think it was essential for designers to make everything themselves. And they didn’t share the social concerns of the Arts and Crafts movement. Unlike Morris, who wanted to create a democratic art and hated pandering to what he called “the swinish luxury of the rich,” the Gesamptkunstwerk to which the WW aspired – designing a project from house to teaspoons to the highest specification – presupposed a wealthy clientele.

The Austrian pavilion at the 1925 Paris Expo, designed by Josef Hoffmann.
Women of the Wiener Werkstätte setting up the Austrian Pavilion in Paris, 1925.

The curators have found 178 women who designed for the WW. They made a major contribution to exhibits in the Austrian pavilion in the 1925 Paris Expo and are pictured above setting it up. Hoffmann’s design is well-known but most of the women have been overlooked. In their day the Werkstätte was mocked because it employed so many of them and dismissed as “Weiner Wieberkunstgewerbe“, Viennese Feminine Crafts.

Vally Wieselthier, ‘Flora’, 1928, glazed ceramic.

Their diverse talents are illustrated by the graphics, textiles and ceramics designed by Hilda Jesser that I’ve shown. She also designed lace, embroidery, wallpaper, jewellery and leather goods.

Vally Wieselthier, Fireplace, c.1925, glazed ceramic.

This is a just small selection from this superb exhibition. There is a publication with illustrations and biographies of the artists.

Maria Likarz, Postcards of fashionable hats, 1912.
Hilda Jesser, Jardiniere, 1921, glazed ceramic.

LUCIE RIE IN VIENNA

Turning to Tony Birks’s life of Lucie Rie, I saw that the model she made with Grete Salzer, exhibited at the 1925 Paris Expo, about which I wrote earlier with a fuzzy image from L’Autriche à Paris 1925, is better illustrated in his book (above), which is based on conversations with Rie and makes use of photos from her archive.

I’ll be writing soon about the exhibition Women Artists of the Weiner Werkstätte at MAK (the Vienna Museum of Applied Art) which I saw a couple of days ago. In the meantime there’s a beautiful photo of Lucie in Vienna taken by Lotte Meiner-Graf.

WIENER WERKSTÄTTE IN NEW YORK

Valli Wieselthier’s hope (mentioned here) that people would get as much pleasure from one of her “silly little glazed pots” in a modest apartment as they would from a precious sculpture in a sumptuous drawing room gives a slightly misleading impression of the Wiener Werkstätte, with which she was associated for many years.

I’ve been looking at Christian Witt-Dörring and Janis Staggs’ well-illustrated account of the Weiner Werkstätte 1902-1932 and reading Janis Staggs’ description of their New York showroom. Many of their Viennese customers were the higher bourgeoisie and the New York branch sought a similar clientele.

It was backed and directed by Joseph Urban, an Austrian émigré architect who had had a successful career designing sets for Hollywood and the Metropolitan Opera. Ziegfeld hired him for set designs on his Follies. The New York store was a cross between a stage set and an art gallery. Customers had to wait until the end of the season to take away their purchases and Urban sometimes refused to sell items he particularly liked. At the centre of the window display on Fifth Avenue was Victor Lurje’s life-size gilt sculpture of a male nude, for which Urban was reputedly offered thousands of dollars, which he turned down.

The picture (above) shows the store’s reception room. The chairs were inlaid with mother-of-pearl. The flanking tables held silverware by Josef Hoffmann and Dagobert Peche. The large painting (top) was by Klimt (now in the Neue Galerie, NY).

The Palais Stoclet, the Werkstätte’s most famous work, was similarly sumptuous, every detail designed by Hoffman at horrendous cost, which almost bankrupted the company. Hoffmann however later became interested in modern, convenient working-class housing, and there are several rather anonymous blocks in Vienna that he designed – perhaps containing some of Wieselthier’s “silly little glazed pots.”

VALLI WIESELTHIER

The Museum of Applied Arts in Vienna has an exhibition about Women Artists of the Wiener Werkstätte that I’m looking forward to, and one whose work I’ll seek out is Valli Wieselthier, whose playful and innovative ceramics I wrote about earlier. The Werkstätte were strongly represented at the Munich Exhibition of German Crafts in 1922, and the catalogue, which I came across today, includes a well-illustrated article by Weiselthier about her ceramic work, including this figure (above), thrown vessels and a tiled stove. It also shows work in other media that I wasn’t aware she worked in, including elegant marquetry cabinets and boxes (below). I love her subversion of Rococo conventions in her vigorously modelled and coloured maiolica figures.

Writing in the catalogue, Valli said, “I’d like to add that I really enjoy my work, and to be making things in my workshop, which I set up six months ago, gives me more pleasure than anything else. I have only one wish, that those who own a piece of my work should get as much pleasure from a silly little glazed pot in a modest apartment as they would from a precious sculpture in a sumptuous drawing room.”