SCHOOL OF CHARLES VYSE

This charming little ceramic figure came into my possession today. It’s about 15cm tall, signed MW and dated 1924 but otherwise unidentifiable. Enquiries have failed to come up with any ceramic modeller with those initials and I shall probably never find out who made it – though surely the artist was a woman? The 1920s were the heyday of this sort of studio-made figurine and there were many good makers who came and went without leaving any permanent trace.

It’s worth mentioning the mysterious MW because this is, technically and artistically speaking, quite a good piece and was made by someone who clearly knew what they were doing. The marks on the base, if we can rely on them, suggest an experienced and fluent artist if not a professional one, because there are several reference numbers suggesting that this was one of a series.

I head the post School of Charles Vyse because the style and method are very much his. It’s cast from a mould, hand painted in underglaze colours with a transparent glaze over it, an informal, everyday subject, and a pattern on the dress like many of Vyse’s figures. If not for the initials I’d say it was by Vyse’s pupils Jessamine Bray and Sylvia Williams of the Dulwich Pottery. Vyse taught at Camberwell and so it may well be by someone who was in his class.

MASS OBSERVATION: ‘MANTLEPIECES’

Osbert Lancaster, ‘Modernistic’, from Homes Sweet Homes (1939)

Curious as to how ceramic figures were displayed in their heyday in the 1920s and 1930s (I’ve written about them here and here), I popped down to the University of Sussex archive to read the Mass Observation report on Mantlepieces yesterday. Ceramic figures were produced in large quantities by factories, especially Doulton and Royal Worcester, and by studio potters. In fact, they were so common that, for most people, ‘studio pottery’ meant ceramic figures and not the plain stoneware vessels that it came to mean after the war, something that it’s hard for us to appreciate today. But we really know very little about their place in the home.

Osbert Lancaster included in his sardonic cartoons of Homes Sweet Homes the Modernistic home (above), with its comfortable-looking Art Deco furnishings and its comfortable-looking owner, her nicely curated mantlepiece with a square clock in the centre and figurines on either side. Was that how they were displayed?

Mass Observation was a famously muddled attempt by poet Charles Madge, anthropologist Tom Harrison and filmmaker Humphrey Jennings to make anthropological studies of the British people. There were intriguing results, like the chapter on the Lambeth Walk, the ‘thirties dance fad, in the Penguin book Britain by Mass Observation. But in other studies (MO called them ‘Directives’) the bias and capriciousness of the selections are obvious. In the Mantlepiece Directive, for example, it’s noticeable how many of the subjects are reported to be left-wing in their views and to have books by writers like Dostoevsky on the mantlepiece.

But what about the figurines? In fact there were very few on the mantlepieces observed and the overwhelming impression given in the reports was of chaos. Sociologists reading through the observations today and hoping to find pattern or significance in them have recorded their despair, irritation and ennui. There were 158 MO observers and they listed getting on for three thousand items. Unlike Osbert Lancaster’s Moderne lady, these mantlepiece-owners had little interest in display. There were a few china dogs and crinoline ladies, but on the whole there were random deposits of clocks, pipes, matches, postcards, brass ornaments, photos, vases, ashtrays, pencils, pens, bottles of ink, bowls with collar-studs and paper clips in them, and generally the detritus of everyday life whose classification would be like Luis Borges’ Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge.

DECORATIVE ARTS IN THE 20s AND 30s

The 1926 Yearbook of Decorative Art published by The Studio magazine was frank about British design conservatism: ‘On the Continent and in the United States the enterprise was greater than in this country and the results more hectic. We Britons have always been somewhat slow in the uptake in the matter of design; but our conservatism in the long run has done us little harm.’ Remember that the 1925 Paris Exhibition is seen as the launch pad of Art Deco and then see that many if not most of the designs featured by The Studio are still in Arts-and-Crafts mode.

Architectural examples were predominently vernacular in inspiration, with a trace of neo-Georgian in the examples from Welwyn Garden City. But although interiors were  traditional, they were stripped down and free from clutter, as in work by the Deutsche Werkstätten. Gordon Russell’s simple and useful furniture was made by the best cabinet makers available. Heal’s furniture anticipated Utility, with which Russell, of course was associated.

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British ceramics emphasised craft methods: hand-painted pottery from Pilkington, Wedgwood and Poole, work by the up-and-coming studio potters, William Staite Murray and Bernard Leach, figures by Stanley Thorogood, Wilfrid Norton, Harold Stabler and Stella Crofts.  Handicraft was also emphasised in Continental ceramics but the Deco element was evident in pieces designed by Claude Lévy and Madeleine Sougez for Atelier Primavera (top), who had exhibited at the 1925 Paris Expo.

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Figurative ceramics were more evident in the illustrations from the Continent, despite the fact they were at the height of their popularity in Britain.

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By 1933, there had been a major change. The rchitecture and interiors featured in the Yearbook were now mainly modernist, including British examples by A.V.Pilchowski and Stanley Hall and Eastern & Robertson. Fewer ceramics were shown but they included mass-produced factory wares like those designed by M. Friedlaender.

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SLAVERY AND CERAMICS

Gwendolen Parnell, The Planter’s Daughter

Readers will know that I’ve been finding out about English figurative pottery in the 1920s and 1930s. Most has to come from looking at it because it’s almost completely undocumented, but from doing so one can uncover some of its influences and sources. Charles Vyse, for example, shared the contemporary idealised view of Romany life with Augustus John, Laura Knight and Alfred Munnings, and both he and Munnings drew Romanies at Epson Races.

Gwendolen Parnell designed one of her rare figure groups for Royal Worcester Porcelain in the 1930s, The Planter’s Daughter, which depicts a lady in 18th-century dress (Parnell’s stock in trade) attended by a Black servant. It directly parallels Continental European figures by Valley Wieselthier and Paul Scheurich for Meissen.

Vally Wieselthier, Vanity, 1925
Paul Scheurich, Figure Group

That was not a common theme in ceramics but it has a long pedigree in painting, dating at least to the 16th century.

Titian, Portrait of Laura dei Dianti, c. 1523

There’s now a debate about these servants, who were acquired as status symbols and paraded in public: were they free labourers or were they actually slaves? The Planter’s Daughter suggests a setting in the USA unique in Parnell’s work, which case the servant would be a slave, though the title is unexplained. Parnell, distantly related to Charles Stewart Parnell, may be referring to the Irish poem of that name, but then why the Black servant?

ROCOCO REVIVAL (2)

Gwendolen Parnell, The Pompadour (National Museums Scotland)

As well as the revival of figurative ceramics by manufacturers like Doulton and Meissen in the early 20th-century, there was a revival among the studio potters. In England the most high-profile of these was Gwendolen Parnell, who was also the most invested in Rococo. Of her figures in Georgian dress, the most famous was her series based on The Beggar’s Opera, which had a phenomenally successful three-year run in London in the 1920s. The show inspired other modellers too. This Georgianism in ceramics was an interesting pendant to the wider Georgian revival that found in the architecture and furniture of the period an anticipation of modernist values of simplicity and reserve. But of course, its aesthetics were very different.


Some of Parnell’s figures were a pastiche of 18th-century Chelsea porcelain, replete with bocage and scrolled bases. The most outstanding, in my judgement, was the figure group called The Pompadour, which is in National Museums Scotland.

François Boucher, Madame de Pompadour (National Gallery Scotland)

It has two ladies and a gentleman on a rustic seat with a lamb at their feet. The young man is in attractive déshabillé; one lady holds a fan, the other a tambour frame. Its affinity to Rococo shepherdesses is obvious. The title refers to the period and the pinks and purples, but it’s also bound to recall Boucher’s portraits. Parnell’s ladies, however, aren’t shown to have the serious intellectual interests that Boucher depicted – his Pompadour often has a book in her hands.

ROCOCO REVIVAL

Vally Weiselthier, Vanity

Figurative ceramics underwent a revival in the first part of the 20th century, with Doulton beginning a series of modelled figures in Britain just before the First World War, Meissen advancing its tradition of figure-making with the recruitment of new modellers in Germany, and parallel developments in Austria, Hungary, Denmark and Italy. Within modelling there was a strong counter-current to modernism, a revival of Rococo, an inevitable dialogue with 18th-century porcelain, whether Chelsea or Dresden.


Vally Wieselthier (1895 – 1945), lead ceramicist of the Weiner Werkstätte, won Gold at the Paris Expo in 1925 for her figure Vanity, a remarkable fantasy in porcelain reminiscent of Dresden but wholly modern, playful and mocking, showing a woman at her toilette with African and Chinese attendants. Vanity was not unique though, and a similar piece, Lady with a Moor, had been designed by Paul Scheurich, a brilliant sculptor employed by Meissen, in 1919. Scheurich’s clothed figure, however, is less ironic, more restrained.


The similarity of Wieselthier’s and Scheurichs’ work disguises different artists and very different intentions. Wieselthier was from a bourgeois Jewish Viennese family. Vanity was in many way an untypical work. Her other ceramics were more experimental and expressionistic. In 1928 she left Vienna for New York and established her career there before her premature death.

Paul Scheurich, Lady With a Moor


Sheurich (1883 – 1945) was a much more establishment figure, designing German banknotes in the 1920s and 1930s, continuing to work under the Nazis, for whom he designed a tapestry at the Reich Propaganda Ministry. As early as 1907 he had illustrated an anti-Semitic pamphlet in Berlin about the “Judaization” of the theatre.

JEAN RENÉ GAUGIN

Reading Gordon Forsyth’s review of the ceramics entries in the Paris Expo 1925 I came across a reference to Jean René Gaugin, a ceramic sculptor I’d never heard of before. He was indeed related to Paul Gaugin, one of his five children with Mette-Sophie Gad, though he barely knew his father and they could not communicate because Jean René was raised in Denmark and did not speak French and his father did not speak Danish.

Jean René was working for Bing and Grøndahl in 1925, with whom he achieved considerable success, and then went on to work for Sèvres. This fine Rape of Europa is dated 1925, though I don’t know if it was exhibited at Paris. Below the headline items like the Art Deco of Lalique and the Corbusier pavilion it’s actually quite difficult to find out what was exhibited there. More catalogues are available online now but they sometimes lack detail and they usually lack pictures. In fact, there are few pictures of the many thousands of exhibits at Paris.

Forsyth lavished praise on the Danish exhibitors, but it was surprising, given that Jean René Gaugin is now so little known, that he declared him to be ‘one of the greatest artists that have ever worked in pottery’.

JESSAMINE BRAY

I have written before about Jessamine Bray, one of the two young women who ran the Dulwich Pottery in the 1920s and 1930s. The figurative potters have become so unfashionable that even relatives can tell you nothing. Thus, when I contacted a great-nephew of Gwendolen Parnell, the doyenne of the figurative potters, I found that he’d never even heard of her. Jessamine Bray fared a little better. Her great nephew told me that he knew that she was a potter but it wasn’t something she talked about. But when in her old age he took up pottery as a hobby, she dug out her old glaze materials and passed them on to him.

The picture is a portrait of Bray made by her partner in the Dulwich Pottery, Sybil V. Williams in 1935, sold by Woolley and Wallis a few years ago.

LUCIE RIE

I am looking for information about the figurative ceramics exhibited at the Paris Expo in 1925, the Exposition Internationale des arts décoratifs et industriels modernes, knowing that they were the height of fashion in the mid 1920s and being particularly interested in the Austrian exhibits. In Vienna, innovative ceramics were being made at the school of applied arts and the Weiner Werkstätte under the tutelage of Josef Hoffmann and Michael Powolny. Ceramics classes at the art school had a large female presence (as, incidentally, did the classes in London at the time at the Central School of Arts and Crafts) and extraordinary talents were emerging, inlcuding the figurative ceramists Susi Singer and Vally Wieselthier. Another of Powolny’s students was Lucie Rie (née Gomperz). It was surprising to find her collaborating in the making of a figure by Grete Salzer (above) that was entered in the Paris exhibition, so unlike any of Rie’s pottery made in either Vienna or London.

ADRIEN DALPAYRAT

When I wrote about Art Nouveau ceramics I said that there were few books about these potters, but recently a lavish volume about Adrien Dalpayrat by Etienne Tournier has been published. It’s large format and has wonderful detailed, full-page pictures showing Dalpayrat’s complex, irridescent glazes. Like the previous titles on this subject – Paul Arthur’s French Art Nouveau Ceramics (2015) and M. Lambrechts’ L’Objet sublime: Franse ceramiek 1875-1945 (2016) – Tournier’s book is not cheap. Phaidon’s RRP is £200.