The RCA under Rothenstein had undergone radical change since 1920, when it was primarily a teacher training college. Rothenstein had brought in professional artists who were to have studios in the college and he encouraged the professional art teachers to leave. In 1924 he visited art schools in Prague, Berlin and Paris and saw that the work being done there surpassed anything to be found in England. His visit persuaded him that the College should neither be a teacher training institution nor offer vocational training for specific industries but that it ought to be delivering a high standard of general education to intending designers and artists. Weimar was not on his itinerary so he didn’t see the Bauhaus. Although he took pains to get more government money for the design department, his main achievement was in the fine arts – Paul Nash, Edward Burra, Henry Moore, Eric Ravilous and Edward Bawden were products of Rothenstein’s RCA.
There had been nagging discontent with the college’s failure to produce enough industrial designers more or less since it was founded in 1896, and these criticisms surfaced again during Rothenstein’s tenure. But the methods of the Bauhaus were never seen as as an alternative. It was thought by some in the Board of Education to be a fine art school and its socialist phase under Hannes Meyer frightened them.
When he came to England, Gropius was consulted on design education and his lectures were well attended, but on Rothenstein’s resignation he wasn’t considered as a successor. It’s fascinating to speculate what might had have happened if he had been. The revolution that occurred under Robin Darwin would have taken place ten years earlier. As it was, the Bauhaus system wasn’t fully applied in British art schools until the Coldstream Report in 1960. What if there had been a Gropius Report in 1935?
Charleston Farmhouse have an exhibition about Omega Workshops with a small collection of rarely seen items. The painted box above (maker unknown) illustrates the way they brilliantly expressed Post-impressionism in their output.
Without context it’s hard to appreciate how radical their designs were. The Arts and Craft style was dominant. All the art schools in Britain were teaching it in their design departments. Roger Fry was understandably frosty. The leaders of the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society were getting old and he found them to be precious and moralistic. Nevertheless, for commercial reasons, he negotiated a stand for Omega in their 1916 exhibition.
Omega had an impressive unity of design. They embraced colour, abstraction and a narrow range of motifs that makes everything hang together. Charleston itself developed a coherent palette of grey, black, slate blue, dusty pink and mustard yellow, which you can see in embryo in this rug designed by Duncan Grant and executed by Vanessa Bell in 1913.
Omega differed from the Arts and Crafts not only in design but also in their indifference to execution, which was cheerfully amateurish. The Workshops were set up to provide employment to artists, not to advance industrial design or to elevate craftsmanship. They bought furniture to decorate and did not make it. Their surface decoration was startling but their products were shoddy. The best are their textiles, designed by them but manufactured in France. Omega was not part of the design movement emerging from the Arts and Crafts. They had no connection with the Design and Industries Association in Britain or the Werkbund in Germany. They led nowhere. They carried out impressive house design contracts for friends of Bloomsbury but they had no followers or influence and, artistically, Omega, Bloomsbury and Charleston were out of the current of 20th century design and were uninterested in it.
Sir Barnett Stross was a medical adviser to the Potters’ Union, active in the prevention of silicosis, the potter’s lung disease, and was an MP from 1945 – 1966. He was serving the Hanley constituency while I was was a student at Keele University, which he’d helped to set up. At about that time he donated his art collection to the University.
Among the collection was Lowry’s The Mill Gates (1923) (above), which Stross must have picked up while Lowry was still cheap. In 1964, my first year at Keele, the university was lending paintings from the collection for students to put in their study bedrooms. I chose The Mill Gates.
At some point it became too precious to lend and it’s now kept securely locked away. I’m glad I had the opportunity to hang it above my bed and to study it at close quarters for a term before it became so valuable. I think I’ll ask to see it again next time I visit Keele.
I was pleased to be asked by the flower arrangers of St Albans Cathedral to make a bowl for the Lady Chapel in memory of one of their members, and today I went to see how they had used it. Cascades of white flowers under the statue of the Madonna almost obscure it (above), but you can just see it there.
I went through the Cathedral, took pictures of some familiar things, and saw some things I hadn’t noticed before.
The flowers are always wonderful.
The guide told me that the Shrine of St Alban (below) contained the saint’s shoulder blade, donated by Cologne Cathedral in 2002. The bones had been taken to Rome in 429, then went to Cologne at the time of the Great Schism.
The site of the original tomb, the holy grail of archaeologists, is unknown and sceptical historians think St Alban may have been invented to control English heretics, but my guide didn’t agree.
The carved figures and capitals are in good condition and I wondered how they escaped the Puritan iconoclasm. “They didn’t,” said my guide, “They are 19th century restorations.”
I knew the medieval wall paintings in the Norman arches, but there was a smaller painting in one of the chapels that I hadn’t seen before.
Leighton House Museum, the house Frederic Leighton built for himself in Holland Park, which I visited yesterday, will start a big improvement programme soon, due for completion in 2021.
Leighton House is famous for its Orientalist decoration, furnished from Leighton’s travels in the near East, and notable for walls covered in Iznik and Persian tiles set in glazed turquoise panels by William de Morgan. (No photos allowed, but good illustrations in the guidebook ISBN 0902242237.) Its lavish and exotic public spaces contrast with Leighton’s monastic bedroom. He fiercely guarded his privacy and left almost no personal documents, but the design of the house suggests that he never intended to marry and it is now generally supposed that he was gay, which influences the way we look at paintings like Daphnephoria, (above), where the youths are painted with more conviction than the girls.
The peculiar design of the house, with a large studio, one bedroom and public rooms unsuitable for family living, made it unsaleable on his death in 1896. The sale of the contents, however, raised enough to keep it as a museum. But it was really only eighty years after Leighton’s death that it began to be run as a proper monument to him. Disagreements between his sisters and Mrs Emilie Barrington, his adoring neighbour and biographer, blocked development for years. On their death the property was sold to the local council, then managed in a half-hearted way, a victim of indifference to Victorian art, and by the 1950s it had fluorescent lighting and cream-painted walls and was being used for exhibitions of modern art. John Betjeman spearheaded its revival, which began in the early 1980s, since when it has been carefully restored and appropriately furnished, original contents recovered wherever possible.
The final phase of the restoration will remove some late additions, restore the Perrin Wing, make a new entrance, improve disabled access and create stronger links with the local community.
I caught the postgraduate degree show just before it closed on Saturday and I’ve picked out a few artists that I liked. My selection doesn’t pretend to be representative and it’s influenced by the ideas I formed on the open day last year, where I saw more easel painters than I expected. There weren’t so many among this years’ graduates, and Rodrigo Arteaga‘s installation (below) is more typical of the graduating students of 2018.