THE BIRMINGHAM GUILD

SELFRIGES LIFT

Selfridge’s lift, 1928, designed and made by the Birmingham Guild. Now in the Museum of London.

The latest edition of the Journal of the Decorative Arts Society has an article by Tony Peart about the Birmingham Guild, which I knew nothing about. The Guild were successful architectural metalworkers, founded in 1890 and modeled on C. R. Ashbee’s Guild of Handicraft, but unlike Ashbee’s company they prospered. Ashbee’s firm was wound up in 1907 after a trade recession which also did for William de Morgan in the same year, but the Birmingham Guild survived.

Ashbee complained of unfair competition between the factory and the craftsman and thought the crafts should be subsidised because of the benefits they brought to society. (Similar pleas were made in the 1940s by the furniture-maker Harry Norris and the potter Bernard Leach.) Graham Wallas (one of the founders of the LSE) calculated, à propos Morris & Co., that if society were to be run on arts-and-crafts principles, the cost of labour would exceed the value of outputs. The Birmingham Guild, however, found a way of combining art and business, as indeed, did Morris & Co. Employing skilled artisans from the Birmingham metal industries, they show that, even at the end of the 19th century, quality hand-production had been far from obliterated by the advancement of mass production, as the arts-and-crafts narrative asserted.

The company’s success was built on a good product, strong artistic input, originality, active marketing – and presumably sound accounting. During the First World War they turned to aircraft production, forming a relationship with De Havilland that they were able to revive during the Second World War. Their business was stable enough to be unaffected by the 1929 crash. They managed to combine profitability with idealism: one of their founders, Arthur Dix, said in 1895 that, “The Guild does not minimise the importance of this commercial aspect of its industry, but seeks only to make as much profit as is necessary to cover the expenses of its work, and to provide its designers and craftsmen with a sufficient remuneration.” They steadily innovated, introducing enameled inlays to lettering, which gave them a profitable new line. Enameling was one of their specialisms and they recruited the Japanese master enameler Shozo Kato in the 1920s, who somehow managed to keep his technique secret from everyone else in the company.

The Birmingham Guild successfully combined art and industry but stood slightly apart from others seeking to raise design standards, such as The Design and Industries Association, a proto-modernist breakaway from the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society that tended to disapprove of ornamentation. It was only after the Second World War that the company’s decorative style lost favour with architects, despite a partnership with the Crittall window company and a history of corporate contracts. Problems finding skilled labour in Birmingham after the war and the greater appeal of the motor industry exacerbated their problems and contributed to the company’s decline

ROGER FRY AND STUDIO POTTERY

peruvian pottery

Cheryl Buckley’s Designing Modern Britain throws, what is to me, new light on Roger Fry’s contribution to the development of studio pottery in Britain.

I knew that Fry had personally tried his hand at pottery (not very successfully), and that his formalist art theories helped to shape the studio pottery aesthetic. Fry’s importance to studio pottery is increasingly recognised: Jeffrey Jones mentions him in Studio Pottery (2005) and Julian Stair devotes several pages to him in Things of Beauty Growing (2017). But Buckley has very interesting information about the way that Fry’s coverage of ceramics in The Burlington Magazine, which he edited from 1910 -1919, foreshadowed the new ceramics.

Fry published articles on Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Peruvian and African pottery. He wrote that the art of the East “presents the hope of discovering a more spiritual, more expressive idea of design.” The image above is from “Ancient Peruvian Pottery”, an article by C.H.Read of the British Museum (April 1910). Other significant contributors were George Eumorphopolos, whose exhibition of T’ang and Sung pottery in 1910 increased interest in oriental ceramics in Britain, and Bernard Rackham, keeper of ceramics at the V&A, an early connoisseur of studio pottery. Buckley reports that, during Fry’s tenure, early Chinese ceramics were often written about and that the journal had covered them from as early as 1903.

JAPONISME IN GRAPHIC ART

To reinforce the point about the similarity of Kós’s graphic style to the Beggarstaffs (James Pryde and William Nicholson), here (above) is one of their best designs, a highly original theatre poster for A Chapter from Don Quixote by W. G. Wills, performed at the Lyceum Theatre in 1895 and starring Henry Irving. Irving didn’t like and it wasn’t used but it was often reproduced, so it has become familiar. The common elements of asymmetry, strong outline, flat colour and empty space are even more evident in Nicholson’s Queen Victoria print (below). (The originals of both designs are in the V&A.)

There is the same in Lautrec’s posters (above) and Gauguin’s painting, but the immediate source for ­Kós must have been the graphics of the Secession (below). The ultimate source, of course, was Japonisme, and in particular Japanese woodblock prints. So Kós’s renderings of his country’s rural folk art also had metropolitan and international sources.

Kolomon Moser, Woglinde, 1901

HAMADA AND LEACH AT THE JAPANESE EMBASSY

The Japanese embassy has an exhibition of ceramics by Shoji Hamada, Bernard Leach and some of their early pupils, put on to celebrate the friendship between Mashiko, where Hamada had his studio, and St Ives, where they came in 1920 to start the Leach Pottery, Mashiko: Imagined in the UKThe relationship between the towns remains strong, Mashiko town contributing two million yen to the restoration of the Leach Pottery a few years ago.

We went to the exhibition launch on Wednesday, where the main speakers were Tomoo Hamada, Shoji’s grandson, and Rupert Faulkner, senior curator, Japan, in the Asian department of the V&A.

Leach, as we know, had a mission to bring together East and West, combining the best of both cultures, and the Eastern influence on his pottery is familiar, but the speakers made it clear that there was traffic the other way as well. Leach’s Japanese milieu in the second decade of the 20th century was infused with ideas from Ruskin and  Morris and there has been appropriation in Japan of English craft objects and methods, such as rush-bottomed chairs and the English method of making handles on pots, with a loop if clay at the side rather than a loop of bamboo on the top.