GORDON FORSYTH: "20th CENTURY CERAMICS"

László Hradszki posted a picture on Facebook of a tile by István Gádor with a leaping horse that he’d bought recently. As it happens, I’d been looking at another picture of this tile (above) (or, more likely, another cast from the same mould) in Gordon Forsyth’s book 20th Century Ceramics, published by The Studio in 1936.

20th Century Ceramics is a good account, one of the best ever written, because it’s an even-handed survey of both factory and studio pottery and it covers studio pottery from around the world in an impartial manner. Forsyth was principal of the Stoke-on-Trent schools of art and a fine designer, known particularly for his decorations in lustre for Pilkington, rather in the style of William de Morgan.

The book covers pottery from Britain, the USA, Austria, China, Denmark, France, Germany, Holland, Hungary, Italy, Japan, Poland, Sweden and Switzerland. It’s good on Hungarian and Italian potters. The Hungarians are Gádor, Géza Gorka, Margit Kovács and Lili Márkus. I was interested to see some of Kovács’s vessels (above), as she is known mainly for her sculpture, but these vessels are decorative pieces rather than tableware. Forsyth shows a bias towards studio pottery in his coverage of the continent, unlike his excellent coverage of the best British factory pottery, and there is nothing from the well-known factories of Herendt or Zsolnay. The Italian potters are Guido Andlovitz and others of the Società Ceramica Italiana, Dante Baldelli, the Cantagalli pottery, Industria Ceramica Salernitana, Giuseppe Mazzetti, Ugo Zaccagnini and others of the Monteolivito pottery, Mario Morelli, Gio Ponti, Ricardo Ginori, and Luigi Zortea. From Austria, there is pottery made by Lucie Rie (below) before she left for London.

Forsyth occupied that thought-provoking position between factory and studio pottery and he expressed views that were common in the 1930s:

“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. 

“We feel very strongly that progress in industry has been considerably retarded by unbalanced enthusiasts on both sides, and the time has now arrived for co-operation between the individual experimenter and his collaboration with large-scale producers. The position at the moment is that all such stupid prejudice that has hitherto kept artists and manufacturers apart should be immediately dropped, and that industrialists must find a solution of the problem of incorporating the best artists that can be found and bring them into industry. 

“Many of our first-class studio potters who at present are having a struggle as individual manufacturers could be well employed within mass production concerns without loss of their own individuality or lowering their own ideals, and with far larger scope and far greater security than they at present enjoy. We look forward to the time when there will be no gulf between the studio potters and the manufacturers.”

STIG LINDBERG’S CERAMICS AND BIOMORPHIC DESIGN

Faience vases by Stig Lindberg (1950s)

In ceramics, joie de vivre is usually associated with the Mediterranean – the tin-glazed pottery of Spain or Vallauris.  But there’s something about tin-glaze itself that brings it out, even in the north.  One of its great exponents was Stig Lindberg (1916-1982), the prolific Swedish designer who spent most of his career at the Gustavsberg pottery factory.

Lindberg studied at the Swedish State School of Arts, Crafts and Design in Stockholm, with the intention of becoming a painter. He started at Gustavsberg in 1937 and became their art director in 1949. He remained with the company until 1980, when he retired to Italy to set up his own studio. Much of his work was in faience, painted tin-glaze, in which he made a modernist re-interpretation of an old method of decoration, like these vases  from the 1950s (above). His faience designs were painted directly in-glaze, an expensive method of decoration also used, in a similar medium, by the Poole Pottery in Dorset.

In the 1950s, many of Lindberg’s forms were derived from biomorphism, a movement in painting and sculpture that evoked living forms but was generally non-representational. The most consistent exponent of biomorphism was Hans Arp (below). Many of Miró’s forms were biomorphic too.

Hans Arp, Human Concretion (1933)

Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth produced biomorphic sculptures – Moore’s representational, Hepworth’s (below) abstract. In the post-war period biomorphism heavily influenced the applied arts.

Barbara Hepworth, Corinthos (1954)

Because of the diffusion of biomorphism into interior design it became emblematic of modernism. There were cartoons of puzzled museum visitors looking through holes in biomorphic sculptures – Anatol Kovarsky’s classic (below) was published in The New Yorker in 1947.

Anatol Kovarsky, The New Yorker (1947)
But the puzzled visitor went home and used biomorphic glassware, biomorphic ceramics like Lindberg’s, textiles with biomorphic motifs and even biomorphic furniture (below)

Murano glass (1950s)
Textile by Robert Stewart (1950s) 
T.H.Robsjohn Gibbings cocktail table (1950s)

EDWARD BAWDEN, A WITTY ILLUSTRATOR WITH A MASTERY OF LINE AND COLOUR

Edward Bawden (1903-1989) was a witty observer of contemporary life and his designs are a charming record of mid-twentieth century England. He was successful and arguably one of the greatest British graphic artists of the 20th century. He was also a war artist and did some serious graphic work in France and the Middle East.

Bawden’s work appeals to me for two reasons. First, because decorating ceramic surfaces requires a similar use of line and colour. Second, I was trained to do graphic work like his. At school, our Slade-trained teacher showed us how to do poster design using bold outline, flat colour, simple shapes, counterchange and hand-drawn lettering. We may well have been shown specimens of Bawden’s work. Every graphic designer had to be able to do hand-drawn lettering then and we spent hours learning the dimensions of the Gill Sans font.

Bawden was a CBE, a Royal Academician, a trustee of the Tate Gallery and received many other honours. He achieved success and recognition through the quality of his work, and presumably because of his dedication, but he did not push himself. He was famously shy. It is hard to imagine a shy artist achieving such success today.

He was prolific and it is not hard to find books, magazines, posters and ephemera with his designs. His work remains popular and he is held in great affection. Some of his images are available on the internet. He bequeathed his work to the Cecil Higgins Gallery in Bedford, who occasionally put on exhibtions.

Bawden was a master of technique. In her obituary in The Independent, Frances Spalding said, “He recognised no distinction between the artist and the designer. His interest in craftsmanship placed him in a tradition that looks back to the Arts and Crafts Movement.” Digital design has made nearly all of Bawden’s methods antique. There are still good illustrators but it’s possible to get by as a graphic designer now without being able to draw at all; a graphic designer recently admitted to me that she couldn’t make original images and relied on what she could download from online libraries.

Bawden had a small circle of friends and didn’t relish public engagements. Frances Spalding relates that, late in life, when he was quite deaf, Bawden was persuaded to go to a dinner held by Tarmac, whom he had done some work for. One of the directors talked to him at length about Tarmac’s charitable work while Bawden doggedly ate his dinner. His interlocutor spoke louder and louder and finally asked Bawden what charities he thought Tarmac should be supporting. “Road accidents?” said Bawden.

Peyton Skipworth, who promoted his work, recalls that Bawden had a curious love of money coupled with a strong disdain for it. When Skipworth put some of Bawden’s drawings on sale, Bawden pretended to be horrified at the price asked, but became content when Skipworth suggested he cross the road and look at the price of shoes. “With typical perversity, from then on he insisted that I always checked the price of shoes before pricing his own work.”

Bawden was educated at the Cambridge School of Art and the Royal College of Art, where went on a scholarship in lettering and calligraphy. One of his teachers was Paul Nash, from whom he learned the use of the starved brush, dipped in dryish paint and dragged across the paper to leave streaks of white showing under the colour. This technique was used to even better effect by Bawden’s friend and contemporary at the RCA, Eric Ravilious.

Bawden’s great strength was his ability to design for print. He made many lithographs and linocuts, typically printed in four or five flat colours, which transferred well to the commercial press. While still a student, he was taken up by Harold Curwen of the Curwen Press and asked to design a booklet for Carter Stabler and Adams of the Poole Pottery. Bawden spent a year working at the Curwen Press and acquired a knowledge of reproduction methods. Curwen changed his stolid family firm into one of the artistically most important and technically most advanced presses of the 20th century. Bawden’s work was part of the artistic transformation.

Bawden was not well known until 1928, when he was asked to do the drawings for a series of press adverts for Shell-Mex and BP (above). These now famous ads had witty captions and witty drawings. Bawden said that in the 1920s, “amusing” was a widespread term of approval. Press illustration until that time tended to be either literal or comic and Bawden’s approach to the Shell ads drawing was considered “modern”.

He went on to work for Midland Bank, Twinings, Fortnum and Mason, London Transport, the Folio Society and the Saffron Walden Labour Party. His pictures for Midland Bank were amusing. The little picture at the head of this post, done for Midland Bank, recalls Alfred Wallis, the naïve Cornish painter.

His illustrations to the Folio Gulliver’s Travels (1965) were lithographs printed in flat red, blue, grey, black and yellow inks, not in half-tone. By changing the dominant colour in each picture (as in the two below) and the way in which one colour is printed over another, which yields another colour, Bawden achieves greater richness and variety than you would think possible with five inks. This method now more expensive than full colour printing.

“He appeared as tall as an ordinary church steeple.”
“I desired to see Alexander the Great at
the Head of his army …”

(All the Gulliver pictures are reproduced here .)

Mr Fortnum meets Mr Mason. (1939)

His design for Fortnum and Mason (above) uses black, grey and red. The line drawing has the quality of woodcut and the tones are varied by Bawden’s use of solid washes, sponging and shading with parallel lines.

His monochrome drawing of the penguin pool at London Zoo done in the1930s (below) is treated sparely, with little black, and captures the brilliant white of Lubetkin’s design. Bawden’s work may not have developed much, but he had a wide repertoire of styles and methods.


He illustrated several cookery books by Ambrose Heath (who is now a very old-fashioned cookery writer). The title page of Good Soups (below) demonstrates Bawden’s skill at varying line weight and depth of black, his ability to suggest colour through the counterchange in the roundels in the margin (black-on-white on the left, white-on-black on the right) and his educated hand lettering. The bird stealing the pea is typical.

The page illustrations to Heath’s Good Food were line drawings, including these vignettes for the cook’s calendar.

“May” was a picture of a garden party in Brick House, Great Bardfield, which was shared by Bawden and Ravilious. It shows Tom Hennel and Ravilious on the left, Bawden and Tirzah Ravilious on the right.

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