MODERNISM IN ART SCHOOLS

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I have been trying to find out more about British art schools between the wars to see to what extent they were permeated by modernist ideas and to what extent they remained in thrall to the Arts and Crafts, which I talked about in my last post.

Stuart MacDonald, in The History and Philosophy of Art Education, says little about the art schools in the 1920s and 1930s, turning in those decades to theories of child art, but he does comment that the Arts and Crafts approach persisted until the Second World War.

The plate above, from Charles Holmes’s Arts & Crafts: A Review of the Work Executed by Students in the Leading Art Schools in Great Britain and Ireland, is typical of the work that was being done in 1916. The tiles were made by Reco Capey at Burslem Art School. This talented pupil did similar work for Doulton’s at the same time as he was a student there. Capey, who is perhaps best known for his designs for Yardley, was appointed chief instructor in design at the RCA in 1925, where he worked under the traditionalist E. W. Tristram for ten years.

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These items by Capey (above), sold at Christie’s in 2014 , show how decidedly he had left behind the Arts and Crafts in his professional life and how enthusiastically he embraced Art Deco. In an article “Design in Everyday Life”, which he wrote for the Journal of the Royal Society of Arts (23 February 1940), he expressed a firm commitment to modernist design (below). He was undoubtedly a modernist influence at the RCA, where he worked with Paul Nash. Capey’s and Nash’s appointments look very much like an attempt by Rothenstein to counterbalance Tristram’s medievalism.

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William Johnstone, a key figure in the modernisation of British art schools, says in his memoir, Points in Time, that, when he took over the Central School of Arts and Crafts after the war, the crafts were in his opinion too geared towards the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society “and not enough towards present day living”. He decided that John Farleigh, head of book production, was blocking change, got rid of him and appointed Jesse Collins in his place. Collins had taught book production part-time at the Central in the 1930s, where he was one of the few teachers aware of the Bauhaus. He helped Johnstone to introduce Bauhaus methods at Camberwell and also did so at the Central after the war.

Between the wars, pottery at the Central had been taught by Maggie Hindshaw and her strong-minded assistant Dora Billington, who was actually the driving force behind the course. Hindshaw had worked in Alfred and Louise Powell’s London studio and her work never strayed far from their their orbit. Billington had worked in a similar style, but when she encountered the pottery of William Staite Murray and Bernard Leach in the 1920s, she appears to have undergone a Damascene conversion and by the early 1930s decorated earthenware at the Central had been replaced by bold, simple forms whose appeal derived from glazes and kiln accidents rather than brush work. Studio pottery’s relationship to modernism is complex and ambivalent and although its formal properties are easily described in modernist terms – plain, simple, functional, uncluttered, honest, direct – its ideology, largely the creation of Bernard Leach, was anti-modern, anti-industrial and anti-intellectual.

The complexities of the period are illustrated by the fact that many of the figures in this narrative were at once modernist and associated with the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society. Capey, Farleigh and Billington were all its presidents in their time, and Johnstone, despite his disparagement of the Society, collaborated with it and was made an honorary member. Ideologists of modernism, of the stripe of Adolf Loos, Wells Coates and Herbert Read, might be inclined to declare modernism to be not a style but a principle (to adapt a phrase of Pugin’s), but for most artists the opposite was the case. Change in style comes from the accumulation of innumerable influences, adaptations, imitations and alliances. It is unsurprising that artists and teachers in the 1920s and 1930s changed their styles and their way of working, but the change in art schools was slow and gradual.

CHERYL BUCKLEY

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“Gloria Lustre” designed by Gordon Forsyth, c.1925.

Cheryl Buckley’s Designing Modern Britain advances the persuasive idea, now well established in design history, that there were several modernisms and not merely the modernism of the International Style and the Bauhaus. Among these modernisms were the Georgian revival and the modern labour-saving home with its Tudorbethan exterior. But Buckley, I think, overstates the degree to which the different strands of design moved in parallel and in the same direction, especially in the art schools.

She describes the Stoke-on-Trent schools, which were led in the 1930s by the successful designer Gordon Forsyth, as one of the strands of this diverse modernism, and also Alfred and Louise Powell’s designs for Wedgwood. But unless you apply the term “modernism” to every contemporary happening, and minimise differences of style and appearance, these trends were far from of modernist.

The Powells were in the long tail of the Arts and Crafts movement, which continued until 1945, and they were connected to it both through their designs and their social philosophy. Describing their work for Wedgwood as “mass-produced”, as Buckley does, is wide of the mark. Their designs were traditional, they revived the dying craft techniques of hand-decoration and they shunned the mass-produced method of transfer printing that was used by the makers of cheap pottery like A & G Meakin.

Forsyth is more difficult to classify. His designs for pottery were similar to the Powells, even down to the successful use of lustre (above), and they were very much in the Arts and Crafts tradition. But he was sympathetic to modern production methods. In his review of 20th Century Ceramics (1936) he asserted, “A wholly artificial gulf has been created between the studio potter and the large-scale manufacturer. Sometimes studio pottery is dismissed as being ineffective ‘Art and Crafty’ productions, technically defective. This is in the main wholly erroneous and unjust criticism of studio potters, but it is equally erroneous for studio potters to think that all manufacturers are Philistines and only concerned with commercial and technical success.” Nevertheless his survey is heavy on art pottery and and light on mass production.

Buckley says that there were art schools in Britain in the 1920s that were modernist in approach if not in name. This is an interesting assertion, but if there were such schools I haven’t come across them yet. The Arts and Crafts influence came to bear on the art schools from the 1880s and it wasn’t fully felt until the early 1900s. Charles Holmes’s illustrated review of art schools in 1916 showed them to be totally Arts and Crafts in their approach – the title of his book is actually Arts and Crafts. In the 1920s William Rothenstein at the RCA hired E. W. Tristram, a deep-dyed medievalist, to replace the Arts and Crafts practitioner Anning Bell as head of design. Admittedly he also hired William Staite Murray as pottery instructor, and Staite Murray’s ceramics were praised by arch-modernist Herbert Read; but Staite Murray was wedded to craft techniques and opposed the admission to the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society of designers for industry. The Stoke-on-Trent art schools were certainly, as Buckley says, keen to cement their links with modern manufacturers, but they were not modernist in outlook, and in 1919 government inspectors had judged their efforts to provide technical instruction to be “feeble and inadequate”.

In the 1920s and 1930s design was still broadly conceived as surface decoration, and the main focus of design reformers was improving the appearance and tastefulness of consumer goods. The design profession was in its infancy and it didn’t grow up until the 1950s. The recognition of “other modernisms” is a useful corrective to the self-serving narrative of modernists, but the art schools before the war were not modernist in any meaningful sense

PSEUDO-GEORGIAN LONDON

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After reading my post on Suburban Modernism, someone drew my attention to Pablo Bronstein’s 2017 RIBA exhibition on Pseudo-Georgian architecture. There was a book (above) to accompany it.

“The reality is,” said Bronstein, “that we have created much more pseudo-Georgian architecture over the last 30 years than any other kind of building. For most of us, it seems, a cheap yellow-brick facade evokes almost effortlessly a rosy everlasting British prosperity.”

Oliver Wainwright wrote a haughty review of Bronstein in The Guardian: “His pen and ink drawings, drafted in a quaint style reminiscent of postcards from National Trust gift shops, depict a world oozing with aspiration. There are humble homes gussied up with pediments and plastic porches, as well as banal commercial apartment blocks with facades arranged in vaguely Georgian proportions.”

Bronstein noticed a connection between pseudo-Georgian and the Conservative right-to-buy-policy, which encouraged council tenants to purchase their own flats. In their own homes they turned from modernism to nostalgia. The parallel with Tudorbethan is inescapable: between the wars, when home ownership was rapidly expanding, there was a similar turn to designs that evoked the past.

A few years ago I organised public consultations in Hatfield and met people who had been asked by officials about the design of the new town in the 1950s. They recalled that they were listened to and then ignored. They may not have wanted Tudorbethan or Pseudo-Georgian, but the leaders of good taste and good design had already decided what they should have.

DEBORAH SUGG RYAN’S SUBURBAN MODERNISM

I’ve been reading Deborah Sugg Ryan’s delightful book The Ideal Home 1918-1939.

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She is a consultant in A House Through Time, where she appears from time to time in her 1950s-style retro dresses. The Ideal Home is part of the new wave of design history that pays attention to everybody’s design preferences rather than writing the selective, progressive narrative typical of the older writers like Pevsner.

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For The Ideal Home she has drawn on contemporary photos of houses and house interiors, home decorating magazines, estate agents’ brochures and the Daily Mail Ideal Home Exhibition, which illustrate what she calls “suburban modernism”, which is popular, eclectic and unconcerned with rules. It combines “moderne” or “modernistic” motifs (which came to be called Art Deco only in the 1960s) with labour-saving devices like carpet sweepers and gas cookers. Suburban modernism thrived in the semi-detached houses that were built in their millions in the 1930s during the period of falling house prices and easy mortgages that enabled many working-class families to become home owners for the first time.

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Moderne and mock-Tudor elements were mixed to create homes that were up-to-date yet comfortable and nostalgic at the same time. “Tudorbethan”, says Sugg Ryan, was an invented past expressing modern pride in the British Empire.

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Needless to say, this sort of modernism was treated with contempt by design reformers. Tudorbethan was dismissed as “sham”, which implied that suburban houses expressed moral failings.

Osbert Lancaster (above) satirised both ascetic modernism and this comfy version of it. The journalist Anthony Bertram, whose Penguin book Design went through several editions, was also scathing about the Tudor semi. George Orwell famously poured scorn on the supposed mediocrity of suburban life in Coming Up For Air. D.H.Lawrence consigned it to the weak and effeminate. From the Arts and Crafts movement design reformers inherited a distaste for popular, cheap goods that they judged to be “commercial”. Intellectuals were dismissive of the preferences of the millions of people who lived in the suburbs.

Ideal Homes is a welcome corrective to the prescriptive design writing of the interwar period that found its strongest expression in Herbert Read’s Art and Industry, which I wrote about earlier.

W.T.CURTIS AND WILLIAM BURCHETT

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Kenton Public Library (1939)

I wrote earlier about W.T.Curtis and William Burchett, architects to Middlesex County Council, who were responsible for many schools and public buildings in north-west London, including the iconic Kenton Public Library, recognisable by their brick construction, strong horizontal emphasis, flat roofs and prominent staircase tower. I was pleased to find that they’d designed my primary school, Pinner Park, in 1934, which used innovative construction methods. (No usable pictures, alas.)

My secondary school, Harrow Weald Grammar, a Neo-Georgian brick construction, opened in 1933, was very different. As the building is now being converted to housing, I became curious about its designer. I was amazed to find that it was also W. T. Curtis. Curtis’s change from traditional to modern was very sudden.

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Harrow Weald County School (1933)

In their page on Curtis and Burchett, Modernism in Metroland explain how it came about:

The Wall Street crash and world financial crisis of 1931, one year into W.T. Curtis’ reign, forced a change in the departments’ designs in order to cut costs. Aiming to reduce spending by 30%, Curtis and Burchett adopted a more modernist utilitarian approach to school building. Their first innovations were using steel framing at Uxendon Manor School, Wembley (1934), and then concrete slab floors supported by pillars at Pinner Park School (1934). These techniques allowed flexibility in internal planning, whilst also keeping the traditional Victorian school courtyard layout.

 

LUTON TOWN HALL

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I’ve been reading my diary for 1993 when I worked for Luton Borough Council, where I moved from the London Borough of Camden.

Luton was the worst example of callous post-war town planning in England. It was cut in half by the massive Arndale Centre (now called The Mall), where ghosts of old vanished streets lingered in the names of corridors. In the deserted side roads, old trades survived – a grocer with a bacon slicer, a bag and case shop with a window full of jumble, a stove enameller – and an exceptionally large number of nonconformist chapels. I liked Luton, which was untidy, varied, comic and glum. Although it was in the south, it felt like a northern city, largely because of Vauxhall Motors.

The philosophy of town planning was very different in the 1990s from what it had been in the 1960s and the Council was trying to atone for its sins. The district surveyor, who was on the point of retiring when I arrived, told me that the greatest regret of his professional life was acquiring the land for the Arndale. In the town planning guidance of the period, modernism was bad and Victorianism good.

I was reminded how much I liked the town hall. It was built in 1935 to replace the old town hall burned down in the infamous Peace Day riots of 1919, when disgruntled ex-servicemen revolted against their mistreatment and their exclusion from the official celebrations. Although the mayor was lucky to escape with his life, the riots had a funny side when a music shop was looted and a piano pushed out into the street to accompany a rendering of Keep the Home Fires Burning.

The listed building by Bradshaw, Gass and Hope is a mixture of civic classical and art deco, with a Doric entrance and a neon clock. The council chamber is walnut-panelled and lit by cubist pendants and retains original fittings and finishes in timber, plaster and metal designed by the architects.

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When I worked there, the office doors had PRIVATE in gold letters on frosted glass panels but no name of the officer who worked inside. The building was beautifully preserved and smelled of furniture polish, a welcome change from working in Camden town hall, whose walls were smothered in unofficial placards and whose stairways smelled of piss.

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.

JAMES TOWER

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I caught up with the centenary exhibition of James Tower’s work at the Victoria Gallery, Bath, by chance after seeing a tweet and went to see it at the weekend. There’s a good collection of his ceramics, which I knew about, and his paintings, drawings and sculpture, which I didn’t.

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His shapes and marks show the influence of his childhood by the sea on the Isle of Sheppey. “This is a landscape of long silent marshes,” he said, “Where the sky seems to dominate the grey-green distance. There are few trees or hills. The forms that engage the eye are the small ones of the beach and the tidal wave. Shells, particularly the bivalves, oyster, mussel and razor shell. The flattened fish of the estuary, plaice, flounder and ray.”

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He studied at the Royal Academy and the Slade, then, training to be a teacher at the Institute of Education in 1949, he came under the influence of the potter William Newland and decided that ceramics offered a better means of artistic expression. He attended the Central School of Arts and Crafts part-time under Dora Billington, which gave him excellent technical instruction, though it was, in his view, aesthetically conservative.

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The Central encouraged a wide range of ceramic expression at the time. The artist-potters, Margaret Hine and Maggie Angus Berkowitz, were Tower’s contemporaries, while more traditional tableware was being made by John Solly, Innes Reich and Doreen Lambert. Tower regarded clay as a medium of exploration and was never a potter, though he later ran the pottery department at Corsham.

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His worked derived from vernacular European pottery and Picasso’s ceramics, which were so startling when they were first shown in Britain, but he quickly went beyond both, creating intriguing conversations between monochrome surface and organic form.

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