THE GORELL REPORT

GORELL

 

I’ve been reading Art & Industry, the Gorell report, a milestone in the design debate in the decade before the war. The Board of Trade set up the Gorell committee to consider “the production and exhibition of articles of good design and everyday use”. Its result was the Council for Art and Industry, a precursor of the Design Council. Fiona MacCarthy perceived the long arm of the Arts and Crafts Movement reaching as far as the Festival of Britain and Terence Conran. It certainly influenced public discussions about design in the 1930s and its ideas pervade the Gorell report.

Of the committee’s nineteen members, three were artists or designers, five were industrialists and the largest cohort were politicians and public officials. Lord Gorell was a Liberal politician, an author and journalist. The industrialists were: A. E. Gray, the Staffordshire pottery manufacturer, who employed Susie Cooper and Gordon Forsyth; C.H. St John Hornby, the successful head of W. H. Smith, who also had an interest in fine printing and ran the Ashendene Press; Charles Richter, director of Bath Cabinet Makers and a member of the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society; Howard Robertson, a leading architect and later President of the RIBA; and H. Trethowan, president of the china and glass retailers association. It’s clear that the business representatives were chosen for their arts-and-crafts bent and that they were untypical of businessmen in Britain.

 

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The arts representatives were Roger Fry, E. W. Tristram, professor of design at the RCA, Clough William-Ellis, now known mainly for his whimsical creation at Portmeirion, and the art writer Margaret Bulley, author of Have You Good Taste?

The committee looked at the problem of design from an arts-and-crafts perspective and saw it essentially as the “divorce of design from execution” that had taken place during the industrial revolution. It sought “a reunion of Art and Industry”. It focused wholly on consumer goods and it considered design as good appearance rather than product engineering.

A pressing matter for industry while the committee was sitting was world recession and the lack of competitiveness of British goods. There was a long-standing view that our exports suffered because of poor design compared to continental goods, particularly French and German goods. There may have been some truth in that. The superiority of French goods was arguably the overhang of the royal monopolies of the Grand Siècle and Colbert’s forcing up of standards. Germany had developed the arts and crafts into modernism, while Britain compromised with what Michael Saler has called “medieval modernism”, modernism mitigated by the ideas of Ruskin and spiritual uplift. But tariffs may have been more salient than design in Britain’s balance of trade.

 

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C. H. St John Hornby, director of W. H. Smith, at his Ashendene Press

 

Gorell urged training in principles of design for everyone – manufacturers, craftsmen, buyers and sellers – so that they could appreciate good design when they saw it. Its ideas about improving design were confused with the idea of improving taste, which was a long-standing feature of the art-and-industry debate. Fry in his memorandum to the committee said that many manufacturers had lost contact with educated taste. There was always something  patronising about “good design”, from the Chamber of Horrors in South Kensington in the 1850s, which showed up the ghastly against the good, to Anthony Bertram’s Penguin book Design (1938), which preached about white walls and tut-tutted about patterned rugs. Gorell insisted that that the new central design body it recommended should be staffed by “persons of taste and cultural standards” – by which it had in mind persons such as themselves.

The report lacks recommendations for improving art education at secondary and tertiary level. The presence of Tristram on the committee may have made its members reluctant to criticise the RCA. Rothenstein had shaken up the RCA, but his main improvement was in the teaching of fine art and his ability to change the design school may have been compromised by his association with the Cotswolds arts-and-crafts colony. When he toured continental art schools in the 1920s, the Bauhaus was not on his itinerary. Tristram himself was a medievalist and was probably not the best representative of design education for deliberations of this sort.

Herbert Read was critical of the Gorell Report at the time, and a modern writer, Tanya Harrod, has described it as muddled. But Nikolaus Pevsner described it as “the first official document to emphasize the vital importance of improvements in British industrial art and to confirm the urgent necessity of immediate action.”

THE ARTS AND CRAFTS EXHIBITION SOCIETY

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I have been looking at the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society catalogue for their 1935 exhibition, which shows the Society (which gave its name to the Arts and Crafts movement and had doubts about the propriety of machine-made goods) flirting with design for mass production.

It was a small step but a significant one. William Morris’s ambivalence about machinery had hardened into outright opposition and in the 20th century the craftsman evolved from a generalist with a wide range of abilities (usually based on architecture), who sometimes contracted the execution of his work to a tradesman, into a specialist, frequently working alone and controlling every stage of production.

Pevsner argued that the lead in design in the 20th century passed from the Arts and Crafts to pioneer modernists like Adolf Loos, Peter Behrens, Josef Hoffman, the Deutsche Werkbund and the Bauhaus, and by the 1930s, some design thinkers doubted that there was much room for the crafts. Gropius, in a lecture he gave in England in 1934, argued that their future lay not in production but in “research work for industrial production and in speculative developments in laboratory workshops where the preparatory work of evolving and perfecting new type-forms will be done.” Herbert Read took a similar view in Art and Industry.

These ideas became so widespread that craftspeople were either persuaded by them or understood the need to engage with them. Among potters, even two of the most craft-based were briefly enchanted by them, Bernard Leach toying with the idea setting up a small factory and Michael Cardew trying to design for Stoke-on-Trent. John Farleigh, who was on the modernising wing of the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society, responded to this current of thought by declaring to members that “We are in a machine age, and to ignore it is to ignore life as it is lived today,” but he contended that craft objects that could be reproduced by machine would be better if craftsmen supervised their manufacture, proposing a larger role for the craftsman in industry than that indicated by Gropius and Read.

farleigh black girl

In 1935 the Society included in its exhibition a section devoted to design for Mass Production, stating that the artist-craftsman “is admirably fitted to design for ‘batch-production’, ‘quantity-production’ or ‘mass-production’ in industry”. It led with Farleigh’s wood engravings for Bernard Shaw’s Adventures of the Black Girl in Search of God (above) and the exhibit was dominated by design for print, with lettering by Edward Johnston, Noel Rooke, Grailey Hewett and Alfred Firbank. There was some furniture by Romney Green and Gordon Russell, some printed fabrics by Heals, and some pottery designed for Doulton by Reco Capey. This was a hardly a major departure from hand-work. Ambrose Heal was a staunch supporter of the crafts and a member of the Society, and Doulton’s was an art pottery rather than a manufacturer of tableware. There was no evidence of any serious engagement by the Society with industry or any real interest in industrial design. Nevertheless, it was too much for some members. Leach was in the opposing faction and resigned. Staite Murray agreed with him that the Society’s policy of encouraging design for industry would “subvert the object of the Society to preserve the Crafts.”

The exhibition of British Art in Industry in 1935 talked of a “struggle for supremacy” between machine methods that made possible cheap goods and hand craftsmanship that could give goods individuality and character. The “art and industry debate” that persisted throughout the 1930s was never resolved and was brought to an end by the war, when craft production became an impermissible luxury. By 1944, two-thirds of Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society members were said to be designing for industry.

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.”

PRESTON BUS STATION: IN DEFENCE OF MODERNISM

Britain was never at home with modernism. We are comfortable with the 1930s semi, the fag-end of the vernacular revival, made from builders’ pattern books. Hatfield, a new town, built during the 1950s, is now being extended in this style. It’s bad enough when town planners won’t allow any new buildings that jar with the Georgian or Victorian townscape, it’s worse when they allow Tudorbethan buildings in an essentially modernist town.

My own town, St Albans, has few modernist buildings. In The Buildings of England, Nikolaus Pevsner singled out the Express Dairy in Branch Road, a good sub-Bauhaus building. The college of further education had a modernist extension that attracted a Civic Society award. Both sites have been converted to housing, the Express Dairy butchered but the college building thankfully preserved.

Housing developments in continental Europe don’t defer to the past like ours and people live more happily in the present. The irony of the British desire to heritage everything, and to make every building look old, is that that it leaves no heritage of our own time.

So I was pleased to see the mounting campaign to save the Preston Bus Station (top), an outstanding Brutalist building, designed by Keith Ingham and completed in 1969. It is faced with demolition by Preston City Council. All parties on the council want it to go, although the people of Preston recently voted it their favourite building. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work as a bus station, but less versatile modern buildings have been preserved – for example, the Shredded Wheat factory in Welwyn Garden City with its monumental grain silos (above). The bus station could certainly find a suitable use for the 21st century.

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