I found a picture of a figure by Jessamine Bray and Sybil Williams of the Dulwich Pottery, one of those lost works of art recorded in old newspapers that whet the appetite, an interesting example of the kind of portrait pieces that the figurative potters often made between the wars. The accompanying article answers my question about Bray’s and Williams’ relationship with Charles Vyse, whose work theirs so closely resembles, reporting that they trained with him. There’s little documentation about these potteries and Terry Cartlidge’s detailed study of Charles Vyse depended very much on the memories of surviving associates when he carried out his researches twenty-five years ago; but although he was able to identify some of Vyse’s workshop associates, nobody mentioned Bray and Williams to him.
One of the best of the potteries making figures in the 1920s and 1930s was the Dulwich Pottery, which was run by two young women, Jessamine Bray and Sybil V. Williams, but like so many of the modellers of this period almost nothing is known about them. They practiced together for about ten years, then marriage, the war and changing fashions in ceramics condemned them to obscurity.
Their work is quite similar to that of Charles Vyse, the only one of the so-called Chelsea Potters with a lasting reputation. There may have been a connection, yet to be discovered, because both Vyse and Jessamine Bray taught at Camberwell School of Art in the late 1920s. Jessamine was only in her twenties at the time, yet there is a self-assurance in her work and she clearly impressed the appointments panel of the school.
One of the most notable of the figurative potters of the inter-war years was Charles Vyse, whether you judge him by the quality of his work, his lasting popularity or his longevity: he took a studio in Chelsea in 1915 and only finally vacated it in 1959.
The studio potters have little interest in this sort of ceramic sculpture, despite the fact that plenty of sculptors show in pottery fairs nowadays, and despite the fact that Bernard Leach thought that Gwendolen Parnell should be included in accounts of the craft. Yet the demand for Vyse’s ceramics outstrips demand for the stoneware vessels of the period, and even Lucie Rie’s post-war bowls, usually the most expensive studio pottery in auctions.
That is, of course, partly due to rarity. Vyse made about fifty figures from each mould and destroyed the moulds when he retired. A Balloon Woman, the iconic Vyse figure, was sold at Bohnam’s for £1,560 in 2006 and could well fetch ten times that amount now. Elizabeth Fry, a design for Doulton, is offered for $18,000, though considerably less for the uncoloured version, $2,200. The Return of Persephone (pictured above) (a rare classical reference), also made for Doulton and said to have been cast few times, was offered recently for $26,000.
This ceramic sculpture was sold by Bonham’s in 2004. It’s a rare piece by Phyllis Simpson, one of the so-called Chelsea Potters, the modellers whose studios were in and around Chelsea between the two world wars.
Simpson was one of the most talented modellers of the period but almost nothing is known about her. She went into partnership with Ethel Sleigh in the 1920s and they’re best known – it’s not an exaggeration to say they’re only known – for their remarkable model Phyllis and Strephon in the V&A. Sleigh died in 1928 and after her marriage Simpson stopped working.
Who were they? Where did they train? What has happened to the products of their studio? Until another piece like this comes up for sale we may never know.
I’ve been discovering the hidden history of the British studio potters who made figurative ceramics in the 1920s and 1930s, the most notable of whom were Charles and Nell Vyse, Gwendolen Parnell and Stella Crofts. In the small world of studio pottery then, no distinction was made between the modellers and the vessel-makers, who joined in the Guild of Potters and regularly exhibited together. I say “discovering” because the modellers have been excluded from the studio pottery canon and little is written about them. The culprit was Muriel Rose, who created the canon in her book Artist Potters in England (1955), an accomplished work of exclusion that omitted nearly every artist potter in England.
Gordon Forsyth’s broader review of 20th Century Ceramics (c.1935) covered both vessel makers and modellers, but nearly all his figurative artists were continental and the only British makers he mentioned were Alfred G. Hopkins and William Ruscoe (a modeller for the pottery industry). Among the continental ceramicists were Michael Powolny, whose strongly-modelled animals (above) may have seemed more relevant to Forsyth than the modellers in England who looked backed nostalgically to old Chelsea and North Staffordshire. Forsyth had expressed similar preferences in his review of ceramics at the Paris International Exhibition, 1925, singling out the Danish exhibitors.
It can certainly be argued that the continental modellers were more original, more responsive to currents in contemporary art and more ironic in their historical references than the British modellers, for example the playful rococo in the work of Austrian ceramicists Vally Weiselthier and Susi Singer-Schinnerl (below).
Vally Wieselthier, Vanity (1925)
Susi Singer-Schinnerl, Bust of Woman with Hat (c.1925)
Powolny was one of Lucie Rie’s teachers and it’s interesting to see what Rie’s biographer Tony Birks has to say about him. “In the absence of other significant potters, the well-intentioned Powolny had a negative influence on ceramics. He was out of his depth. … It is hard to believe that, clever technician though he may have been, Powonly had any clear idea of what ceramics were about in the twentieth century. Even when working with his partner, the more dynamic and austere Löffler, their work never rose about the kleinkunst, and to many the personal work of this bewildered man is dire.”
In this bizarre passage Birks revealed the narrowness the Leach followers could fall into and not a little British arrogance as well. It’s lazy writing that can’t be bothered to think about Powolny’s motivation and artistic environment.
The same arrogance comes out in the popular idea that Leach was “the father of studio pottery”. But Leach’s followers disinherited most studio potters and narrowed the definition of “studio pottery” to refer only to their own work. Until then, the term meant any ceramics produced in a studio and it was first used in the USA (1910) to refer to The Potters Craft, by Charles F. Binns, though it could also be applied to Ernest Chaplet, Hugh C. Robertson, Bernard Moore and Vilmos Zsolnay. Leach, it has to be said, took a more educated and catholic view than his followers, having worked with Gwendolen Parnell, and he thought she should be included in the story as well.
An important source of information about the now-neglected studio pottery modellers of the 1920s is The Cheyne Book of Chelsea Pottery and Porcelain, the catalogue of a 1924 exhibition in which the work of the studio potters was exhibited alongside products of the Chelsea Porcelain Manufactory. That indicates the frame of reference of the modellers, and if course it is a very different frame of reference from that of the arts-and-crafts potters and the emerging studio pottery led by Bernard Leach, William Staite Murray and Michael Cardew. The latter were influenced by the ideas of Ruskin and Morris, which entailed simplicity, directness, modesty and honesty. Quite different, then, from the Rococo of Chelsea ceramics – anathema to Ruskin and Morris because of its association with frivolity, luxury, wealth and power.
The plate shows some of the works of Gwendolen Parnell displayed in the 1924 show, typically in Georgian costume and unmistakably related to Chelsea figures. But in the small print I read that they were nearly all donated by Sir Basil Zaharoff (below). Who he? I knew that Parnell was good at cultivating a society clientele, but Zaharoff was something else: a dubious arms dealer and financier, supposedly stupendously rich and described by some as the wickedest man in the world.
As I can’t get to libraries I’ve been buying more books online. Some are very reasonably priced, unfortunately due to the fact that so many libraries have reduced their stock. On my last visit to the local library I counted only a hundred books in the section on art, craft and architecture. I talked to a friend about this and he said that when his further education college filleted their library, everything was thrown into a skip. Readers treat books as holy and find something shocking about this that we wouldn’t find shocking if it were old shoes or saucepans. So there are bargains to be had – I got Rosemary Hill’s excellent biography of Pugin (ex-library) for 1p plus postage. It’s hardly worth the bus fare to town.
A series I really like is the Faber monographs on pottery. They were written by scholars like Arthur Lane and W.B.Honey who not only knew their stuff but wrote beautifully as well. And I like the way they look. Faber were using a proper cloth binding quite late (this one below is 1961) and the typography is perfectly elegant, set in the not-often-used Walbaum type, which happens to be suited to books on 18th-century topics, and printed on a matt, off-white paper that is easy on the eye. I looked on the Monotype website and saw that Walbaum’s been redesigned for modern use, much of which will be on screen now, and the extreme contrast between dark and light strokes has been reduced.
Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera had a phenomenally successful revival at The Lyric Hammersmith in 1920 – 21, with one of the longest runs in English theatre. The lively tale of lowlife, in Claud Lovat Fraser’s clever adaptation of Georgian dress (above), was, like the Festival of Britain in the wake of another war, “a tonic to the nation”. With tactful excisions of references to whores and whorehouses, it created a fantasy for London theatregoers. I came to it after looking at the many ceramic figures made at that time, of Polly Peachum, MacHeath, Mrs Traipse and Lucy Lockit, and wondering why they were so popular. In a way, it set the direction of ceramic figures for decades, first for the studio modellers like Gwendolen Parnell (below) and Agatha Walker, and in the longer term for the Doulton factory, who were still modelling ladies in diluted Georgian frocks right up to the 1990s.
I came across this delicious memoir by James Holland of student life in the 1920s and 1930s, which refers to his outings to The Beggar’s Opera:
“In a quite different tradition, Nigel Playfair’s stylized version of the Beggars’ Opera at the Hammersmith Lyric repaid many visits. Sets and costumes had been designed by Claud Lovat Fraser, and the ballad score arranged for a small group of period instruments, mostly played by several elderly ladies and related members of the same family, who were alleged to knit assiduously between numbers and during the very long run could have completed many garments. This version was a charming charade, artificial and entertaining as a pantomime. The stylized pannier dresses had their influence on contemporary fashion, Polly Peachum and Lucy Locket becoming popular pottery figures, and many a telephone was coyly concealed under the ladies ample pannier skirts.“
Incidentally, he has some fascinating gossip about life at the RCA in that period, which is also worth quoting:
“In converting the Royal College into what was essentially a School of Painting, or certainly Fine Art, Rothenstein was diverting it from the original intention that it should be primarily a centre of design education, though he was perhaps not the first nor the only master to exert such pressure. I have frequently quoted his warning to recalcitrant fine art students – “If you can’t do better than this, you will find yourself in the Design School” – and indeed a few students did from time to time find themselves so transferred, though whether this was to their eventual disadvantage was far from certain. “Illustration” was his damning indictment of much painting, “Magazine illustration” the ultimate and unforgivable condemnation. It was not done for the painting student to be concerned about his post-College future. Something would turn up, a patron, a part-time teaching job, a successful exhibition.”
One of the most successful of the pottery modellers of the 1920s and 1930s was Gwendolen Parnell, one of the so-called Chelsea Potters, whose studio was in Paradise Walk, near the Royal Hospital. She had a good eye for the market and her series of characters from The Beggar’s Opera, made while it was enjoying a long run at the Lyric, Hammersmith, gained her much publicity and put her right in the public eye.
Her upper-class connections served her art well. She sold a piece to Queen Mary while still a student at Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts and, when her career was established, modelled society figures including Lady Diana Cooper and Gladys, Baroness Swaythling.
This figure of Marlene Deitrich was featured on the front page of The Sketch in 1933.
Studio pottery figurines were popular in Britain in the 1920s and were exhibited in galleries alongside the new abstract pottery of William Staite Murray and Bernard Leach, but they fell out of favour and their absence from histories of studio pottery was total, as if they had been airbrushed out.
Now that the scope of pottery is broader, however, they are coming back into view. A few years ago Paul Hughes wrote a detailed biography of Stella Crofts, with catalogue raisonée. And, looking for more information, I came cross the website of Robert Prescott-Walker’s Polka Dot Antiques, who show figurines by Molly Mitchell-Smith, Marion Morris, Gwendolen Parnell, Jessamine Bray, Sybil V. Wiliams, Anne Potts, William Ruscoe, J. Palin Thorley and Charles Vyse. The picture shows a very nice figurine by Bray and Williams from their Dulwich Pottery.