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.

ART ECONOMY WORTH £84 BILLIONS

Three things caught my attention recently.

The first was that the creative industries contribute £84bn to the UK economy every year – almost twice as much as manufacturing.
The third was that making art has positive health benefits.
Despite the proven value of the arts, some people still think they’re useless. Once, when I recommended support for artists’ co-operatives to a London council, councillors said they preferred to aid “real” industries. I pointed out that after making their decision they’d be watching something on TV written and acted by artists, making tea in a pot designed by an artist, drawing curtains decorated by an artist and collapsing into a sofa designed by an artist. You can’t move without encountering the work of artists. Unfortunately, there also are some artists who think that the arts are useless, and object to the idea that they might have economic value or to the concept of creative industries. That attitude doesn’t help the arts.
As the arts have health benefits, they’re actually worth more than £84bn when you add on the health savings and increased productivity. (The Parliamentary Group on Arts, Health and Wellbeing is investigating the contribution of the arts to health and social care.) And the value of other industries – say, financial services – has to be corrected by subtracting the cost of stress and illness.
Since the arts contribute to the economy and wellbeing, it’s crazy for the government to downgrade them in education. But if so few artists make a living, are we educating too many of them? If you want to guarantee a job in your degree subject, study dentistry or nursing. Perhaps we are educating too many artists, but perhaps there’s also something wrong with the content of arts degrees.

GILBERT HARDING GREEN

Gilbert Harding Green (above) was head of ceramics at the Central School of Arts and Crafts between 1955 and 1971. After the war, Dora Billington had built the ceramics department, with Harding Green’s assistance, into the most innovative and liberal in the country at a time that the Royal College of Art was teaching design for the pottery industry, Farnham was traditional and Camberwell was undistinguished. At the Central there was cross fertilization between disciplines and students studying pottery worked with Eduardo Paolozzi, William Turnbull and Alan Davie. The Central was one of the first art schools to teach Basic Design in the late 1940s, the generic and analytic approach to both painting and design, derived from the Bauhaus course that shaped foundation courses in British art schools.

Harding Green took over the department on Billington’s retirement and developed it “beyond recognition” in her approving verdict.  He expanded into the school’s new building in Red Lion Square, and, post-Coldstream, steered the course into the Diploma in Art and Design. His students included Ruth Duckworth, John Colbeck, Robin Welch, Eileen Nisbet, Richard Slee, Alison Britton and Andrew Lord.

Billington and Harding Green  both subsumed their artistic careers in teaching, Harding Green the moreso. His origins were exotic.  Born in 1906, he was the illegitimate offspring of  aristocratic parents, his mother English and his father either Dutch or Russian according to differing accounts. Most of his childhood and youth were spent abroad, much of it in Italy.  He told one of his students, Kenneth Clark, that, while living in the Vatican, he wandered into a room and looked idly into a chest of drawers, which he discovered to be full of marble penises. In his twenties he traveled in Brazil and learned Portuguese.

He studied sculpture under John Skeaping and Frank Dobson at the Central School in the 1930s and later turned to pottery.  Of the little work by him that still exists, most is totally original and does not derive from any obvious ceramic tradition.  In 1938 he became Billington’s assistant, beating off competition from Henry Hammond, who went on to head the pottery department at Farnham, and Moira Forsyth, who is now better known for her stained glass.

I recently saw this sculpted head in clay by Harding Green (above), which he exhibited with the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society in 1938.

A reviewer said: –

“It held me by its stark truth and brute ugliness – the hard smileless mouth, the hollow cheeks and buried eyes, the repaired nose, the punched ears, and the imbecilic slope of the forehead, and these inelegant features were mercilessly gripped with economy of effort and absolute certainty.”

The subject was far removed from the artist’s life.  Harding Green was a man of wide culture and elegant taste who would attend the ceramics classes in the Central School in a suit, tie and cuff-links, always ready to advise students on a good restaurant or to give away complimentary theatre tickets that he had managed to get hold of.

HARROW CERAMICS COURSE TO CLOSE

Yesterday I went to a party to say farewell to Kyra Kane, (above centre) head of ceramics at Harrow, the University of Westminster. She is leaving following the University’s decision to close the Harrow course in 2013. The Harrow course is one of the leading ceramics courses in Britain and is respected throughout the world. The accountants have decided it costs too much. Of course, it always cost too much, but in past decades it was worth paying for; closing it means the University does not value it.

Kyra was one of my teachers on the BA Ceramics course. We also said farewell to Richard Phethean, Carina Ciscato and Daphne Carnegy, who taught on the first year of the course. There will be no more first year intake. Kyra, Richard, Carina and Daphne were important in my ceramics education, especially as they are all throwers and I am a thrower.

The Harrow closure is the latest in a series of closures of ceramics courses. There is no ceramics BA anywhere in Scotland now. The extraordinary thing is that the market for ceramics seems to be bigger than ever. The best data on this is in the Crafts Council’s survey of crafts activity in England and Wales, which found about 6,700 people working in craft ceramics in England and Wales. (Making It in the 21st Century, London, Crafts Council, 2004) From their data, I estimate that the annual sales of studio ceramics is about £114m. They say that, “During the 1980s there was an overall growth in the domestic market for crafts and an associated increase in the number of craft fairs and specialist shops,” and that the output of the crafts sector has more doubled since in 1994.

So why is a leading course training ceramic artists closing down? There is no national planning of vocational education and the universities can make their own decisions. There was a huge outcry from major figures in the crafts and education and I understand that there is concern at a senior level about the future of education for the crafts. Education in all crafts is expensive, because of capital costs and space requirements. If this is not squarely faced and adequately funded, training for this important industry will continue to decline.

Fortunately there is an imaginative initiative to provide another training route, complementary to university education. Lisa Hammond of Maze Hill Pottery is putting tremendous energy into a campaign to re-introduce pottery apprenticeships. Her Adopt-a-Potter scheme has a lot of support among ceramists and it deserves even more.