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.

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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.

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.

DESIGN EDUCATION IN 1916

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In my last post about the radicalism of Omega designs at around the time of the First World War, I mentioned that the context in which they were produced was the dominance of Arts and Crafts design. Art history focuses on innovation and the history of this period tends to be the history of Post-Impressionism, Cubism, Futurism and Expressionism, so, even if we understand that Omega were designing for a minority with avant-garde tastes, we can easily overlook the fact that the taste of most design-aware people was based on styles developed in the 1880s.

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In 1916, Charles Holme, editor of The Studio, published Arts & Crafts – A Review of the Work  Executed by Students in the Leading Art Schools, from which the illustrations here are taken – a fascinating record of what students were being taught at that time. Since the 1880s, many art school principals and lecturers had been drawn from members of the Art Workers Guild, and by the turn of the century the Arts and Crafts influence was firmly established. Both style and teaching methods changed, with a new emphasis on “designing in materials” rather than on paper. And as Holme’s illustrations demonstrate, art students were producing nothing like the Post-Impressionist and quasi-abstract designs of the Omega Workshops.

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OMEGA WORKSHOPS, CHARLESTON

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.

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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.

SHEFFIELD


During our weekend in Sheffield we visited the Graves Gallery, who have recently added Grayson Perry’s Comfort Blanket (2014) to their collection.

He describes his tapestry as “A portrait of Britain to wrap yourself up in, a giant banknote of things we live, and love to hate.”

The makers of the tapestry are not acknowledged in the museum’s notes, an annoying habit of artists and galleries who depend so much on craftsmen.

CRAFT MENTORING

 

Eliot-Payne

 

I’m co-ordinating the mentoring programme of the Society of Designer Craftsmen, which we run to help our new young members develop their professional careers, and as I don’t believe in reinventing the wheel I’m talking to organisations that run similar programmes. I’ve always worked this way, believing that standards are raised by sharing good practice.

So I was surprised to find that a few publicly-funded bodies were unwilling to talk to me. Their curt replies mean I can only guess why they are so unco-operative and my conclusion is that, now that such bodies regard themselves as businesses, some treat what they do not as a public service but as a commodity, and they treat other organisations doing the same thing not as colleagues but as competitors.

ANNI ALBERS

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Anni Albers in her weaving studio at Black Mountain College, 1937. (Photo: Helen M. Post, Western Regional Archives, State Archives of North Carolina)

I once shared a house with the weaver Jill Maguire, and as the house was small I had to share my bedroom with her loom; but although I watched her at work I never developed an interest in her art. So the Anni Albers exhibition at Tate Modern was an eye-opener to me.

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An Albers wallhanging designed in 1926 while she was at the Bauhaus

Albers (1899-1994) took up weaving rather reluctantly at the Bauhaus, where the weaving department was called the women’s workshop, but she discovered its artistic potential and even while still a student produced original and technically adept textiles that worked as abstract art. She seems to have become absorbed in the complex possibilities of weaving, which requires planning thread by thread, spatial reasoning and a grasp of permutation and combination.

She moved to the the USA in 1933 as the Nazis descended on the Bauhaus, and found work at Black Mountain College, where her practice was enlarged by the study and collection of the traditional weaving of South America. The equipment of these weavers was simple but their fabrics showed advanced mathematical thinking. Albers worked with twisted warps, double fabrics and floating wefts, pushing the boundaries of the craft. She was commissioned by forward looking industrialists who saw the commercial possibilities of her advanced methods. She demonstrated weaving to be a place where art, mathematics and manufacturing meet.

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Anni Albers, Tikal (1958), using twisted warps

Anni Albers Tate Britain
Until 27 January 2019