MICHAEL POWOLNY

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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the continental modellers were more original, more responsive to currents in contemporary art and more ironic in their historical references than the British modellers, for example the playful rococo in the work of Austrian ceramicists Vally Weiselthier  and Susi Singer-Schinnerl (below).

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Vally Wieselthier, Vanity (1925)

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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.

GWENDOLEN PARNELL (2)

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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.

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FABER POTTERY MONOGRAPHS

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 casing 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.

THE BEGGAR’S OPERA

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.”

GWENDOLEN PARNELL

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

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.

ART NOUVEAU CERAMICS

Emile Decoeur, 1905

In every British account of studio pottery there’s a condescending nod to French Art Nouveau ceramics, with their new glaze effects, stunning colours and iridescent surfaces. These ceramics were strikingly different from the refined porcelain current in Europe at the time. The main names were Clément Massier, Ernest Chaplet, Theodore Deck and Emile Decoeur.

Every large museum has examples, rarely featured prominently, and anyone interested soon finds that there were chemist potters other than these four masters. In France there were Paul Jeanneney, Clément Massier, Raoul Lachenal, Jean Carriès and the architectural ceramist Alexandre Bigot. In the USA there were Hugh C. Robertson and Taxile Doat. In Britain there were W. Howson Taylor at the Ruskin Pottery, Harry Nixon at Royal Doulton and Bernard Moore. In Hungary, Zsolnay and Herend both employed ceramic artists who worked in this medium, so did the Royal Danish Porcelain Company, Bing and Grøndalhl and, in Germany, Köningsliche Porzellan Manufaktur.

With so many fine Art Nouveau potters it’s surprising that there have been so few exhibitions and that so little has been written about them. Paul Arthur’s French Art Nouveau Ceramics was published in 2015 and in 2016 the Kunstmuseum den Haag had an exhibition French Ceramics 1875 – 1945 (noting that the last exhibition had been in 1913), accompanied by M. Lambrechts’ L’Objet sublime: Franse ceramiek 1875-1945.

At auction these ceramics fetch high prices. This small vase by Emile Decoeur, for example, reached $4,063 at Rago. Second hand copies of Arthur’s and Lambrechts’ books also fetch high prices, so there is considerable interest.

TAKING THE KNEE

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Following the booing by Millwall supporters last Saturday of players who took the knee, Sanjay Bhandari, Chair of Kick It Out, negotiated with club managers and came to an agreement that in the Millwall v QPR game today the players should link arms in a gesture of solidarity. Bhandari said that it wasn’t taking the knee, but that it was an anti-racist gesture and he supported it.

Bhandari thought the objections to taking the knee on Saturday were mischievous (a mild description) and said that taking the knee isn’t a recent thing: it didn’t originate in the protests against the killing of George Floyd and it could be traced back to Josiah Wedgwood’s anti-slavery medallion (above), made in 1787.

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In his biography of Wedgwood (above) Robin Reilly recounts that in the case of a runaway slave, James Somerset, Lord Mansfield ruled in 1772 that English law had never recognised the right to property in slaves and as Somerset did not belong to the claimant he should remain free. His judgement led to the release of 14,000 slaves in Britain. But the slave trade continued.

Wedgwood was familiar with the trade through business with the port of Liverpool and was active in the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. He made the Society’s seal in black jasper on white ground, showing a slave on one knee with chained hands raised and the words “Am I Not a Man and a Brother?” lettered round the rim.

Wedgwood distributed the cameo free and it became fashionable. Men had them inlaid on the lids of their snuff boxes. Ladies wore them in bracelets and in their hair.

In 1788, Wedgwood sent a quantity to Benjamin Franklin, President of the Pennsylvanian Society for the Abolition of Slavery. He wrote to Franklin, “I embrace the opportunity to inclose for the use of your Excellency and friends, a few Cameos on a subject which I am happy to acquaint you is daily more and more taking possession of men’s minds on this side of the Atlantic as well as with you.”

“PRACTICAL POTTERY AND CERAMICS” by KENNETH CLARK

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Student drawings by Eileen Nesbit.

Kenneth Clark’s Practical Pottery and Ceramics, published in 1964, was one of the first  modern manuals for pottery students. It was based on the ceramics course at the Central School of Arts and Crafts, in Southampton Row, where Clark had taught for several years, and it was one of a trio of books available in the decades after the war, along with Bernard Leach’s A Potter’s Book (1940) and Dora Billington’s The Technique of Pottery (1962). Billington led the course at the Central and taught there for over thirty years, and her book was also based on its syllabus.

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Student exercises by Gillian Lowndes.

For some reason, Clark’s book has been overlooked and is not mentioned in books on studio pottery, including two recent scholarly studies, Jeffrey Jones’s Studio Pottery in Britain 1900 – 2005 and Things of Beauty Growing: British Studio Pottery, edited by Glenn Adamson, Martina Droth and Simon Olding.

Practical Pottery and Ceramics was written when the Anglo-Oriental orthodoxy of Bernard Leach was at its height and it represented the opposite pole of studio pottery, centred on Southampton Row. It gives a valuable insight into the very different approach being followed there by the head of department, Gilbert Harding Green, and his team – Clark, Gordon Baldwin, William Newland, Ian Auld, Ruth Duckworth and Richard Bateson.

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Student work from the Central School of Art and Crafts.

Clark acknowledged the “sound tradition” that had been established by Leach and his followers, for whom truth to materials was of prime importance, but he looked forward to that tradition being extended to meet the needs and conditions of the present. He welcomed the influence of Picasso (whose foray into pottery Leach had dismissed out of hand):

During this period of change Picasso with his daring, invention, colour-sense and imagination, shattered and shocked the traditional potters with his experiments in ceramics. While his approach was obviously more that of the painter, he added fresh life and a new direction to ceramics, and from his activities stemmed many schools of thought and expression which flowed in the ‘fifties. Ceramists found that their values needed drastic revision, while at the same time they endeavoured to retain an openness of mind an integrity in the use of their materials.

As well as recording the techniques, methods and exercises being taught at the Central in the sxities, the book is invaluable for its illustrations of work by contemporary students, graduates and teachers – Eileen Nesbit (“a student”), Alan Caiger-Smith, Ann Wynn Reeves, Gillian Lowndes, Robin Welch, Ruth Duckworth, Gordon Baldwin, William Newland, James Tower, Nicholas Vergette, Kenneth Clark himself and several less well-known students who are, nevertheless, fully credited.

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Ceramic sculpture by Ruth Duckworth and Gordon Baldwin, teachers at the Central.

A personal footnote. My A-level art teacher, Connie Passfield, bought the book when it came out and lent it to me. It was my first practical introduction to pottery. I left school that year and forgot to give it back. That’s the copy these illustrations are from.

RICHARD LUNN (3)

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Richard Lunn

William Morris’s rules for potters anticipated the practice of 20th century studio potters: “No vessel should be fashioned by being pressed into a mould that can be made by throwing on the wheel, or otherwise by hand,” he said.  “All vessels should be finished on the wheel, not turned in a lathe, as is now the custom.”

Richard Lunn, who taught the first studio pottery course in a British art school, was not only indifferent to these principles but considered wheel-throwing to be old fashioned and undemocratic. “The machinery of today turns out hundreds of shapes where the old mode of throwing could only produce dozens. The potter’s wheel is a thing of the past so far as large quantities are concerned, and it is the large quantities that demand the designer’s attention now. To-day the art potter works or the millions instead of the comparatively few.”

A major concern in the Arts and Crafts movement was the proper relationship between designer and executant. When it was distant, it was thought to be damaging both to art and the welfare of the worker. Ruskin insisted that the workman should originate his own design, but for practical reasons arts-and-craft designers like Morris were bound to employ workmen to execute their designs and did not always acknowledge them. (Several William Morris wallpapers designs were printed by Jeffrey & Co.) The issues were well set out in a discussion between Lewis Foreman Day and Walter Crane. Day took the more pragmatic position, arguing that design and craftsmanship were specialised activities and that both would suffer if all craftsmen were compelled to originate their own designs and all designers were compelled to execute them. Crane, a socialist and a colleague of Morris, was more idealistic and seemed to envisage the possibility of a society based on handicrafts.

Lunn’s views were closer to Day’s than to Crane’s: “There is a great deal of nonsense talked about craftsmanship,” he said, “and I am afraid that if craftsmanship is not kept in its proper place it will usurp that of design in our schools; that is to say, it will take up that time that ought to be devoted to the principles of ornament and design. And I fear students of design will be tempted to neglect the serious studies by which a thorough mastery of their art is to be obtained. Get the knowledge of design first, for when a man sees clearly what he wants he will soon find a way to do it.”