WILLIAM ROTHENSTEIN AND E.W.TRISTRAM

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Festival Titling typeface by Phillip Boydell

I misrepresented William Rothenstein’s views on design teaching in my last post, commenting on his association with the arts-and-crafts colony in the Cotswolds and his appointing E.W.Tristram, a medievalist, to the post of professor of design at the RCA. Rothenstein wanted to modernise design education at the College and was well aware of new developments on the continent.

After having been in post at the RCA for a while, Rothenstein recorded his impressions. In a memorandum to the Board of Education, he wrote in 1921:

I hope I have your support in looking on the College as a centre which serves, not so much to give a vocational training, as to give each student, whether he intends to be a simple designer of cotton fabrics or an ambitious painter or sculptor, the best general education through the arts. Some commercial men hold that an industrial designer does not require so complete an education as a more ambitious artist. But I feel sure that Board considers this to be a short sighted view, and that well educated designers will finally prove of greater service to British industry than less well educated men.

Much of the work in the Schools of Pottery, of Painting and Decorating and of Metalwork is too unexperimental and derivative. No consistent attempt has been made to deal with the interpretation of the contemporary world in design and execution. A wrong understanding of the spirit which made mediaeval art so vital persists at Kensington, and the research work towards the discovery of new subject matter and new treatment, so noticeable on the Continent, seems to have ben wanting. It is important that we do not fall behind the Continental industries, and the freshness of design, execution and subject matter which s characteristic of the best French, German and Austrian work has not been sufficiently encouraged and sought for at the college, in my opinion.

Rothenstein recommended E.W.Tristram, faute de mieux, for the post of professor of design on the resignation of Anning Bell.

For some time I thought it would be possible to find an artist as renowned as Professor Bell to undertake the direction of the most important school of the College. But the movement started by William Morris and his friends seems to have spent itself. I know of no younger men associated with the arts and crafts society endowed with the wide culture which was, and still is, characteristic of Morris’ immediate disciples. It is true that a new life Is stirring among the younger painters and craftsmen. But this movement, which had its origins in France, has not yet taken firm root in this country. Of the present men associated with traditional English craftmanship and design, I know of no-one more capable and scholarly than Mr Tristram. His patient and profound study of English wall painting – in fact of every kind of English painting – has at last won for him a unique position among his contemporaries.

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Ernest Dinkel poster for London Underground

Noting Tristram’s shyness, Rothenstein recommend the appointment of Paul Nash, Ernest Dinkel and Philip Boydell to work with him in the design department. Nash is well-known. Dinkel was a bold poster designer for the London Underground and Boydell designed the Festival Titling typeface used in Festival of Britain publications. Tristram’s main work was in medieval wall painting, and although Rothenstein referred to his work in modern textile design, it is still questionable whether he was the best representative of design education for the Gorell committee.

WILD BEASTS AND TAME


We rushed to watch Becoming Matisse on BBC TV the other day because of his association with Colliure, the seaside town in the southeast corner of France that we like so much.

The programme made much of Matisse’s 1905 portrait of his wife (above), which caused a stir because of its wild colours and introduced fauviste into the vocabulary. Matisse was irritated by the incomprehension he’d caused but sort of enjoyed it.

I said earlier that 1905 was the high tide of the Arts and Crafts Movement in England. The difference between London and Paris at that date was great. Arts and crafts in the continent were straining towards modernism but the followers of William Morris had become timid now he wasn’t there to shake them up. The Studio magazine was comfortable with the paintings of the New English Art Club but not with the new French art. Fry’s Fauvist exhibition revolutionised the style of his little Bloomsbury circle, but they too became stuck and didn’t change in forty years. The art schools were stuck in arts-and-crafts mode right up until 1945, when Britain finally woke up to the need for competent industrial designers.


It wasn’t until the Tate’s retrospective in 1960 that Picasso ceased to be regarded as a charlatan in Britain and began to be taken seriously as an artist. But Matisse, whom Picasso admired, was ahead of him: in 1905, when Matisse was sticking up two fingers with his Woman in a Hat, Picasso was still in his Rose Period.

ROBIN WELCH

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I was sad to hear of the death of Robin Welch, one of the finest studio potters in Britain. In recent years he exhibited at Art in Clay, Hatfield, and I looked forward to chatting to him in his regular place at the show and buying some of his pots.

Robin was born in in 1936 and studied at Nuneaton and Penzance schools of art, receiving his NDD in sculpture and ceramics in 1953. He spent time at the Leach pottery in St Ives and he told me that, when he began exhibiting, Leach didn’t like his work (which some might take as a commendation). From 1956 he did his national service with the 2nd Battalion Parachute Regiment, taking the opportunity in the Middle East to visit peasant potteries. He then went on to do a postgraduate course in ceramics at the Central School of Arts and Crafts.

The Central was led in the post-war years by William Johnstone, who had moved it away from the arts and crafts (it later changed its name to the Central School of Art and Design) and introduced a design training based on the Bauhaus system and a collegiate style of teaching which exposed students to a variety of disciplines. Ceramics students were aware of the new American painting and in Cornwall Robin himself had already been inspired  by Terry Frost, John Tunnard and Barbara Tribe. They were taught by William Turnbull, Alan Davie and Eduardo Paolozzi (who, typically, was based in the textile department). Ceramics was led by Gilbert Harding Green, a man of wide culture who encouraged innovation, assisted by William Newland, Nicholas Vergette, Ian Auld, Dan Arbeid, Kenneth Clark and Gillian Lowndes.

After leaving the Central, Robin set up in London and got his first break from Henry Rothschild, who gave him £100 and carte blanche to make pots to be sold at the Primavera gallery. He spent three years in Australia, establishing a pottery with Ian Sprague, and returned to England in 1965 to set up the pottery at Stradbroke, Suffolk, where he worked until his death. At Stradbroke he launched high-volume production with half a dozen assistants, using industrial machinery which he’d been taught to use in Stoke-on-Trent. He spent twenty years in this sort of work, selling kitchen ware in interior design stores, but from the 1980s he made large, individual pieces like the one shown in the picture, for which he’s now better known.

A nice pamphlet about him, full of photos, Robin Welch – A Life, was produced by his granddaughter for a school project, but Robin told me he was sorry that no-one had wanted to write a full biography. Perhaps someone will now.

FRANK PICK

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I’m reading Michael T. Saler’s The Avant-Garde in Interwar England, about the English version of modernism that carried forward the social ideals of the Arts and Crafts Movement. The book focuses on Frank Pick (above), the boss of London Underground, who commissioned the modernist stations of the Piccadilly, Northern and Metropolitan Lines and the posters that advertised the underground.

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Osterley Station, 1935

Pick played a leading role in the Design and Industries Association (DIA) and the Council for Art and Industry (CAI) putting him at the centre of design reform.

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E. McKnight Kauffer, 1924

The CAI , which stood in a line that linked the Chamber of Horrors in the South Kensington Museum to the Design Council, was central to the art and industry debate of the 1930s, which sought to raise the standard of consumer products, ostensibly because better design would improve sales and exports. What I’ve never been able to understand about this movement is that it saw the need to raise the sights of industrialists and to improve the taste of consumers. But why, if poor design was a brake on sales, was it necessary to improve consumer taste?

Saler makes it clear that the idea of fitness for purpose that drove the modernism of the DIA, the CAI and Pick’s underground was more than the physical usefulness of objects and entailed moral ans spiritual fitness as well. As Pick put it, “Fitness for purpose must transcend the merely practical and serve a moral and spiritual order as well. There is moral and spiritual fitness to be satisfied. We know it sure enough when we see it.” Good design was not a matter of taste, understood as consumer preference, but objective standards with moral and spiritual significance. The ideas of good design that ran from the 1850s to the 1960s are hard to understand from our viewpoint, in which we see no aesthetic absolutes and see one design is as good as another. Design was associated with planning and and state direction and was not to be left to the vagaries of the market and personal preference.

MY LIFE AS A MOD

My sociology professor, Stan Cohen, wrote a book Folk Devils and Moral Panics about the Mod on Rocker battles at Margate, Brighton and Bournemouth in the early 1960s and introduced the term “moral panic” into the language. Stan hung out with the Mods and Rockers for his PhD research.

Ringo Starr, asked if he was a Mod or a Rocker, said, “I’m a Mocker”. I never had a parka or a Lambretta, but I was a Mod, a proper Mod, a Mod before Mod. I was into Hard Bop, Italian fashion and the International Style. Hard Bop was the style of modern jazz that succeeded Bebop, exemplied by Art Blakey, Cannonball Adderley and Thelonious Monk. I despised the Trad Jazz Revival, with those repulsive phonies from the home counties, Chris Barber and Acker Bilk – the first rivalry, before Mods and Rockers, was Modernists vs. Trads.

Around 1960, as my parents’ finances improved, we left behind the holiday resorts of Margate and Bournemouth and went to Riccione and Viareggio. Riccione, “The Green Pearl of the Adriatic”, had been made popular by Mussolini in the 1930s and was expanding rapidly post-war, with cool modernist hotels and a spacious promenade. Italy led the world in fashion and interior design. Sharp, neat Italian clothing was pushing aside the baggy demob suits and short-back-and-sides of British men. We north London boys wore narrow trousers, narrow ties, short jackets and hair cut the same length all over.

1960 was the high tide of modernism. Town planners and architects swept away everything old, cramped and impractical. Building was functional, streamlined and airy. Ornament was crime and Victorian a four-letter word.

My taste in music was influenced by my friend Russell, whose father was the jazz drummer Tony Crombie. We followed Art Blakey and Thelonious Monk, who came over to play at the Gaumont State Cinema in Kilburn. I was wearing trousers and ties I’d bought in Italy and carrying books about Le Corbusier and Mies van de Rohe. We liked the way black jazz musicians dressed, but the most stylish dresser of all was Nat King Cole.  The Mods of Brighton and Margate, with razor blades sewn into their parkas, had some style, but they were johnny-come-latelies.

Dizzy Gillespie
Modern Jazz Quartet
Thelonious Monk
Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers
Nat King Cole, the sharpest dresser of all
Me in Viareggio, 1959