I went yesterday to see this Dora Billington jug in the Manchester Art Gallery. I saw it there about twenty years ago but it has not been on display for several years and I had to go down into the store to look at it. It made an impression on me when I first saw it and it was the starting point of my interest in Billington because it showed her mastery of maiolica, a technique not widely practiced by British potters and not held in high esteem by collectors of British studio pottery. From this interest came a determination to bring her work to to wider notice and this jug will be shown in an exhibition of her work that I am organising at the Crafts Study Centre, Farnham, next year.
The jug, about 30cm high, was made in 1942. Billington said that she turned to art to escape the anxieties of war. Much of the Central School of Arts and Crafts, where she had taught for over twenty years, had been evacuated and the building in Southampton Row was damaged by bombardment. In those conditions she made this beautiful and life-affirming piece of pottery – one of her best. The calligraphic brush work is absolutely characteristic. She had trained in calligraphy with Edward Johnston at the Royal College of Art and had worked part-time as a decorator for Bernard Moore when she was a student, so this sort of loose, free decoration became second nature to he. It was a great pleasure to see it again.
It will be obvious from my comments about Ruskin that I’m an admirer of David Pye, (above) who was the first person to talk sense about the crafts. Here’s a quotation from The Independent‘s obituary:
In The Nature of Design (1964), Pye exposed functionalism as fantasy. ‘Things simply are not ‘fit for their purpose’. At one time a flake of flint was fit for the purpose of surgery; and stainless steel is not fit for the purpose now. Everything we design and make is an improvisation, a lash-up, something inept and provisional. We live like castaways. But, even at that, we can be debonair and make the best of it. If we cannot have our way in performance, we will have it in appearance.’
We made the two-hour drive to Compton Verney to see the exhibition of automata, prompted by memories of the little museum of mechanical toys that there used to be in Covent Garden in the 1990s, and stayed to see the folk art from the collections of Andras Kalman and Enid Marx and Margaret Lambert.
Marx started collecting in the 1930s, though her interest began earlier. She said she was influenced by what she learned from her father’s paper-making business, and at the RCA she failed to get her diploma from the painting school because her work was thought to be too vulgar. Kalman, a Hungarian emigré, began after the war, collecting mainly untutored paintings of the late 18th and early 19th century, usually rural, often of favourite animals, sometimes unintentionally funny. The Marx-Lambert collection includes print ephemera, scrapbooks, valentine’s cards, paper peepshows, children’s books, ceramics, corn dollies and toys and, from the period after the war, vanishing crafts. Deeply unfashionable at the time, these items could be picked up for pennies in junk shops.
Marx’s, Lambert’s and Kalman’s collecting coincided with the relaxing of the severe modernist contempt for anything traditional, un-functional or Victorian. Marx and Lambert’s When Victoria Began to Reign was published in 1937 and English Popular Art in 1951. 1951 was a significant date for folk art and Victoriana. Barbara Jones’s exhibition Black Eyes and Lemonade, a Festival of Britain event about English popular and traditional art, was put on at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1951, and her book, The Unsophisticated Arts – about fairground decoration, tattoos, seaside architecture and funeral ornaments – came out in 1952. (For long hard to find, there is a new edition.)
This interest in the vernacular and the curious mitigated the modernism of the Festival of Britain, which stimulated interest in the period of the Great Exhibition a hundred years earlier. The Festival Funfair at Battersea featured Rowland Emett’s whimsical and nostalgic “Far Tottering and Oyster Creek Railway“. And so, full circle – Emett’s railways were a feature of the automata exhibition at Compton Verney.
Gordon Forsyth, who I wrote about yesterday, was well-known to Dora Billington, who taught at the Central School of Arts and Crafts for thirty-five years and who is also famous for her sympathies with factory pottery; but she had an ambivalent attitude towards her home town of Stoke-on-Trent and I don’t believe she ever worked there after leaving Hanley art school in 1912. Nevertheless, after the second world war she made a term in The Potteries a compulsory part of the course at the Central.
The history of studio potters offering their talents to industry is not happy. Michael Cardew, who we think of as one of the most anti-industry potters, was inspired by a temporary interest in Marxism to work in one of the Stoke-on-Trent potteries, but they considered his work too “Art and Crafty”. Lucie Rie had a better relationship with Wedgwood, but her prototypes were not put into production. David Queensberry started on the Central course in the early ‘fifties but found that no-one there knew anything about designing for industry and transferred to Robert Baker’s course at the RCA.
Gordon Baldwin told me about his experience as one of Billington’s students. “We all had a sort of down on what had gone on in Stoke-on-Trent,” he said. “We were breaking free of Leach, we were breaking free of Stoke-on-Trent, doing all manner of things.” But he enjoyed his term at Burslem art school, visiting potteries, finding out about industrial techniques, sitting in in with paintresses, learning rosebud painting and how to put on transfers, all of which he used in a different way.