DESIGN EDUCATION IN 1916

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In my last post about the radicalism of Omega designs at around the time of the First World War, I mentioned that the context in which they were produced was the dominance of Arts and Crafts design. Art history focuses on innovation and the history of this period tends to be the history of Post-Impressionism, Cubism, Futurism and Expressionism, so, even if we understand that Omega were designing for a minority with avant-garde tastes, we can easily overlook the fact that the taste of most design-aware people was based on styles developed in the 1880s.

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In 1916, Charles Holme, editor of The Studio, published Arts & Crafts – A Review of the Work  Executed by Students in the Leading Art Schools, from which the illustrations here are taken – a fascinating record of what students were being taught at that time. Since the 1880s, many art school principals and lecturers had been drawn from members of the Art Workers Guild, and by the turn of the century the Arts and Crafts influence was firmly established. Both style and teaching methods changed, with a new emphasis on “designing in materials” rather than on paper. And as Holme’s illustrations demonstrate, art students were producing nothing like the Post-Impressionist and quasi-abstract designs of the Omega Workshops.

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CENTRAL ST MARTINS ARCHIVE

I’m looking at photos in the Central St Martins archive showing the ceramics class and students’ work in the mid 20th century, to find images to borrow for the exhibition about Dora Billington that I’m curating at the Crafts Study Centre.

The archive has artefacts as well as documents and I was amazed to find that they have a collection of the pigments Billington used. They are in paper packets and they’re dated, some with dates from the 1920s when she started teaching at the Central. They are remarkable because Billington, who had no children, has left no archive and no personal effects and nothing if her survives apart from her own pottery, which will form the core of the exhibition.

The pigments might not have survived. The archivist told me that Billington left some of her effects to Ian Auld, whom she’d taught and who had worked as her technician. Auld married Gillian Lowndes, of a later generation of Central students (and the most original ceramist of that period.) Auld and Lowndes died several years ago, but their daughter thoughtfully donated this interesting item.

COUNTY COUNCIL BAUHAUS

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Charles Aslin (1893-1959)

I saw the RIBA’s exhibition Beyond Bauhaus on Saturday, which charts the influence of Walter Gropius, László Moholy-Nagy and Walter Breuer during and after the years when they lived in England.

As I live in Hertfordshire, I was intrigued to discover that the rapid school-building programme in the county after the Second World War was implemented by by a team of architects under Charles Aslin (above), whose debt to Gropius was explicit. The population was growing fast and there was great demand for schools. The county architects, backed by the director of education, John Newsom, who was reputed to be good at sourcing materials in a time of scarcity, devised a standard prefabricated model, mainly used for single-storey buildings and making great use of natural light, colour and art.

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Designs for interior colour schemes for the entrance hall at Carpenders Park School, Oxhey by Oliver Cox, HCC Architects.
Image from RIBApix

I’d noticed the criss-cross ceiling girders in nearly every Hertfordshire school I visited (below)- round the corner from me is Margaret Wix Primary School built on such a model. My daughter went to St Albans Girls School, also built like that, with a Barbara Hepworth sculpture in the foyer. The Hertfordshire achievement was quickly recognised and it influenced school building elsewhere – by 1970 about 40 per cent of British schools had used it.

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Green Lanes School, Croxley Green, 1949

The exhibition made me curious about the primary school I’d attended, Pinner Park, then part of Middlesex County Council. When we’re children we accept the world as it presents itself and have little sense of context or history, but looking back I remember a modernist building with flat roofs and metal-framed windows. I discovered it was of the many modernist buildings constructed before the war by Middlesex County architects  William Thomas Curtis and his assistant Howard William Burchett. They created dozens of public buildings in Metroland , including the now-listed Kenton Public Library (below), recognisable from their brick construction, strong horizontal emphasis, flat roofs and prominent staircase tower. They used innovative methods and materials such as the concrete slab floors supported by pillars at Pinner Park School.

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Historic England’s description of Kenton Public Library gives an idea of Curtis and Burchett’s style and influences:

The square tower has two small, latter projections on the south-east corner, one of brick and one glazed. Both wings lit by tall metal windows. Entrance hall lit by east wall of glass bricks. Interior: original staircase, issuing desk and screen, and original bookcases. The main reading room is both side-lit and top-lit by means of circular perforated openings. Included as a good example of the Middlesex County Architect’s Department’s style adopted after 1933, owing much to the work of Wittem Dudok in Hilversum, yet giving a distinctive architectural form of calibre and panache to the London suburbs. This example is especially notable for its boldly geometric composition and the survival of internal fittings.

MURRAY FIELDHOUSE

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Bowls by Murray Fieldhouse (V&A Museum)

I learned today of the death of Murray Fieldhouse, an important figure in post-war studio pottery who edited the magazine Pottery Quarterly, the first periodical on the subject, which came out irregularly from the mid-1950s to the early 1980s. He was also one of the founder members of the Craft Potters Association.

Murray was born in 1925, and after an unconventional wartime national service, when he became a pacifist, he alighted on the crafts as a way of living out his Utopian and anti-establishment ideals. The choice of pottery came later. He served an apprenticeship with Harry Davis in Cornwall, who was also an anti-establishment Utopian, but more austere in his habits than Murray, who was well-known for his enjoyment of life.

In the 1950s, Murray ran Pendley Manor, an education centre in Hertfordshire to which he invited most of the top names in studio pottery to demonstrate. When I was researching the life of Dora Billington, he gave me some photos of her demonstrating there.

Pottery Quarterly in its early days contained reviews of everything that was happening in British pottery and it is an important record of the period, but Murray was a fierce advocate of the Leach style of pottery and his reviews of exhibitions by potters who didn’t follow it became harsher over the years. Nevertheless, he was a close friend of William Newland, who was not in the Leach circle and didn’t like his artistic dominance.

Another of Murray’s initiatives was the Dacorum and Chiltern Potters Guild, of which he remained honorary president until 2009, when he retired and the job passed to Mervyn Fitzwilliam.

BENJAMIN HAYDON

Punch or May Day 1829 by Benjamin Robert Haydon 1786-1846

After delivering my work to Chelsea College of Art yesterday, for the Society of Designer Craftsmen’s summer exhibition Hand of the Maker, I went across the road to Tate Britain to take a quick look at the 19th century galleries. Victorian painting, with the exception of the Pre-Raphaelites, is unfashionable, but there were several serious visitors there.

I was attracted to Benjamin Haydon’s Punch or May Day (above), which is well labelled. It was a derogation from his preferred historical subjects, in which he didn’t achieve the success he thought he deserved, but to the modern eye it’s lively and interesting, and Tate point out the clever contrasts it contains, notably the hearse almost colliding with the wedding coach, the church on the horizon and the pagan May Day celebration at the bottom, and the black servant on the coach and the blacked-up sweep in the foreground.

Haydon (1786-1846) is the most famous failure in art history. His admirable confidence in his own ability was not shared by everyone. Dickens, who as an art critic could be as acerbic as Brian Sewell, said of him, “No amount of sympathy with him and sorrow for him in his manly pursuit of a wrong idea for so many years — until, by dint of his perseverance and courage it almost began to seem a right one — ought to prevent one from saying that he most unquestionably was a very bad painter, and that his pictures could not be expected to sell or to succeed.” He had constant money troubles, spent time in a debtor’s prison and was reduced to painting pictures of Napoleon at five guineas apiece. He was argumentative, tactless and rude to his clients. He conducted a long war against the Royal Academy, who refused his application for ARA, and is portrayed in Mike Leigh’s wonderful film Mr Turner ranting at a Royal Academy hanging. The main cause of his bitterness, unless it was something in his personality, was his failure as a history painter. He finally shot himself in the head, failed to kill himself and then cut his throat.

Haydon was a man of strong ideas, not entirely foolish. He was smitten by the Elgin Marbles and became a staunch advocate of Greek art as he conceived it and of drawing from life. He advocated public funding for art education for all classes, to be based on life drawing, which did not become standard until it was instituted at the Slade at the end of the century. He was a tireless petitioner of powerful individuals, including prime minister Melbourne, who was interested and whom he told that French superiority in manufactures derived from state support of art education. He advocated free public museums of art and public patronage for paintings in public buildings. As Stuart MacDonald says, “It would be foolish to pretend that all these means were realized because of Haydon, but they were realized, and Haydon was their chief protagonist and suffered ridicule for his opinions.”

GLASGOW ART SCHOOL (2)

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We face the prospect of Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s masterpiece being demolished because the fire damage was so great, and of it existing only in drawings and memory. Perhaps it can be rebuilt to Mackintosh’s plan, but the value of reproducing everything exactly as designed in 1897 is doubtful, and it seemed to me that some of the spaces inside, however interesting, beautiful or historically important, might be unsuitable for a 21st century art school.

I went back to Pevsner’s decription of GSoA in Pioneers of Modern Design. As it can’t be bettered, I thought I’d reproduce it here.

“... For in Glasgow there worked during these very years a group of artists as original and as imaginative as any in Europe. In painting, the Glasgow Boys, Guthrie, E. A. Walton, Lavery, Henry, Hornel, and so on are well enough known. Their first exhibition abroad impressed Europe considerably. But in design and decoration the first appearance of the Glasgow school at an exhibition in Vienna in 1900 was a revelation.

“The centre of the group was Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868- 1928) with his wife Margaret Macdonald and her sister Mrs McNair. In dealing with him, we are able at last to link up the development in England with the main tendency of Continental architecture in the nineties, with Art Nouveau. Before he was twenty-eight, Mackintosh was chosen to design the new building for the Glasgow School of Art, a remarkably bold choice due largely to the principal Francis H. Newbery. The designs date from 1897; the first part of the building was completed in 1899. Not a single feature here is derived from period styles.

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“The facade is of a strongly personal character and, in many ways, leads on to the twentieth century, although the entrance bay with balcony and short turret is deliberately fantastical and not unlike Townsend’s contemporary work. But the rest of the front is extremely simple, almost austere in its bold uniform fenestration. In the horizontal windows to the offices on the ground floor and the high studio windows on the upper floor, no curves are admitted; unbroken upright lines prevail even in the railing in front of the building, counteracted only by a few lighter and more playful Art Nouveau ornaments at the top. The same contrast exists between the rigidity of the upper-floor windows and the strange metal stalks at their base, functionally justified for putting planks on to facilitate window cleaning. However, be that as it may, this row of metal lines reveals one of Mackintosh’s principal sources and at the same time one of his most characteristic qualities. The source, particularly telling in the strange balls at the top of the stalks, with their intertwined tentacles of iron, is clearly the Celtic and Viking art of Britain, as it became familiar beyond the circles of scholars just at this time. The quality equally eloquent in the balls and the stalks is Mackintosh’s intense feeling for spatial values. Our eyes have to pass through the first layer of space, indicated by the stalks and balls before arriving at the solid stone front of the building. The same transparency of pure space will be found in all Mackintosh’s principal works. The ground plan of the building is clear and lucid, showing in another light the architect’s interest in space, an interest rare among artists of Art Nouveau.

“One more instance may be given to prove that this is really the keynote of Mackintosh’s creation: the interior of the library of the Glasgow School of Art, which forms the centre room of the west wing, planned in 1907. The simple motif of a high room with aisles and galleries around three sides is so enriched that the resulting impression is an overwhelmingly full polyphony of abstract form. The galleries do not project far enough to reach the pillars which separate ‘nave’ from ‘aisles’. Horizontal beams are inserted to connect the walls with the pillars and to support the galleries. Airy balustrades, Art Nouveau in detail, run from the parapets of the gallery to the pillars. Their sole purpose is to offer interesting perspectives. Curves, rare and all the more expressive in Mackintosh’s earlier work, have now completely disappeared. Uprights and horizontals, squares and oblongs determine the effect.

“This and the number of fascinating vistas which the architect has achieved here and in another principal work of the same period, the Cranston Tearoom in Sauchiehall Street, 1904, show him as the European counterpart of Frank Lloyd Wright and one of the few true forerunners of the most ingenious juggler with space now alive: Le Corbusier. Le Corbusier once confessed that his desire in building is to create poetry. Mackintosh’s attitude is very similar. Building in his hands becomes an abstract art, both musical and mathematical.

“The facade of the west wing of the art school is an instance of this. Here the abstract artist is primarily concerned with the shaping of volume and not of space, of solids, not of voids. The aesthetic value of the straight, slender shafts into which the windows are inserted is entirely independent of their function. The contrasts between fretwork and solid ashlar, and between the menacing bareness on the left and the complex polyphony on the right, are also effects more comparable to abstract relief than to buildings of Voysey’s kind. A glance at the earlier and the later part of the art school reveals the development of Mackintosh’s taste between 1897 and 1907. Delicate metal ornament of linear appeal is no longer used. A squareness and robustness prevail which come as a surprise. They are, it seems certain, Mackintosh’s way of admitting national tradition. His links with the Scottish baronial past are perhaps more evident in his country houses than in a public building such as the School of Art.”

GLASGOW ART SCHOOL

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A doorplate I photographed at GSoA in 2006.

When we were in Glasgow last week, the scaffolding on the art school obscured most of the Mackintosh building but indicated that it would soon be re-opened, improved beyond its condition when fire struck in 2014. Now comes the shocking news that another fire has damaged the building, undoing most of the painstaking restoration of the last three years.

The cause of the fire in not known yet. The 2014 fire was caused by gases from a canister used in a student project. (The Harrow art school fire at the University of Westminster in 2007 was also said to be caused by the ignition of materials used in a student project.) Will there be funds for another restoration?  I hope so: the Mackintosh building is Grade A listed and an important part of Scottish heritage.

Glasgow was one of the first British government art schools to teach pottery. In 1893 the school opened its Technical Art Studios, teaching stained glass, needlework, bookbinding, painting on china, and metalwork. The chairman of governors was James Fleming, a pottery manufaturer.