The Decorative Arts Society writes of an interesting and significant difference of views about public statues: “The argument over statues and monuments continues. The Andrew Mellon Foundation has announced the Monuments Project, ‘a five-year, quarter-billion-dollar commitment [to] support efforts to recalibrate the assumed centre of our national narratives to include those who have often been denied historical recognition. This work has taken on greater urgency at a moment of national reckoning with the power and influence of memorials and commemorative spaces.’ By contrast, the UK government has told museums and galleries, including the British Museum and Tate Gallery, not to remove statues or other objects of contested cultural heritage from display—or risk losing their public funding. Oliver Dowden, Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport set out bluntly the government’s position on contested heritage: ‘The Government does not support the removal of statues or other similar objects.’”
Alfred Hoare Powell interests me because he persuaded Wedgwood to revive the art of freehand painting and worked with them to produce beautiful decorated pottery that was made from 1903 right up to the 1940s. The partnership was one of the most successful between arts and manufacturing on Arts and Crafts lines. And I should not omit to mention Powell’s wife Louise – “Lalla” – whose training in embroidery and calligraphy was germaine to the enterprise and whom Alfred always insisted should be named alongside him. Powell is pictured at the back of the photo (above) with Louise in front of him.
Part of the Powells’ motivation was to make the task of the decorators at Wedgwood’s enjoyable for them, believing that the production methods developed in the 19th century had dehumanised them by reducing decorating to the mere placing of blobs of colour on printed outlines.
At the end of his life, Powell wrote an autobiographical note, which I saw yesterday in the British Library’s manuscript collection, and in which he recorded his satisfaction with his long association with Wedgwood.
I asked Frank Wedgwood if I might go and learn to paint pottery at Etruria. I had the warm & hearty welcome that was so characteristic of JW’s and for 30 or 40 years I was with LP painting and teaching girls how to draw correctly and to use a brush neatly and swiftly. I had the run of the works & every worker on the place seemed at my disposal & glad to help – to tell me things and show all the tricks of the trade. In all this I was backed up by long and interesting letters from Lethaby, who was delighted to hear of any efforts to bring JW’s to see better and do better and I did help them as they have often agreed since. In 1906 Lalla joined me at this work, taught me & encouraged me & kept me alive to the pottery and pottery painting. Of the brilliant beauty of her own work I need not write here.
Lethaby’s “long and interesting letters” have not survived, unfortunately.
Powell’s appreciation of the skill of working people, his interest in them and his willingness to learn from them, is absolutely characteristic. He wrote similarly, in the context of his architectural work, of his respect for building workers and his preference for being on site with them rather than sitting and writing letters in an office. And his acknowledgement of Louise Powell’s contribution to the pottery painting is also characteristic of the man and, I thought, rather touching.
As I’ve discovered the work of early studio potters in the USA, I’ve come to realise that our account of studio pottery in the UK is parochial and that we have not acknowledged the innovations of the Americans, who were well in advance of us. British accounts nod to French potters, such as Chaplet and Bigot, but they ignore Charles Binns and Taxile Doat.
So I’ve been pleased to spend some time at the Met in New York looking at the superb Robert A. Ellison collection of American Art Pottery.
My picture shows a case of vessels with crystalline glazes made at the University City Pottery, Missouri around 1912-13, an early course for art potters. In the foreground is a double gourd by Doat. The large vase and the tall bottle on the right were also made there at about the same time. Doat began his career at Sèvres and was one of the first American studio potters. The term “studio pottery” is actually American, already in use at the time these subtle and beautiful pots were made.
The picture below shows Doat (far right) and his colleagues in 1910 at the City University Pottery.
At that date in the UK there was no such glaze experimentation in British art schools, except for W. B. Dalton’s private investigations at Camberwell, which were not shared with the pottery students there.
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.
Driving from St Albans to Letchworth this morning, I was struck by the intense frost in open country.
In Winchester I looked in at the Cathedral, which, in the bicentenary of Ruskin’s birth, made me think of The Nature of Gothic.
Ruskin said that Gothic ornament was made by uneducated men who were allowed to do the best they could without direction, and because it was the expression of free labour it was bound to be rough and imperfect. The 19th century demanded perfection and accuracy and made workmen into slaves because that could only be achieved if they were told exactly what to do and weren’t allowed to be inventive.
I couldn’t see how this applied to Winchester. The stone carving is accurate and regular and the workmen were not free to work as they pleased and to invent as they worked.
Ruskin’s dislike of factories was understandable in the conditions of the mid-19th century, but he mythologised pre-industrial work and created false antinomies between supposedly rough pre-industrial workmanship and smooth modern workmanship
The art and industry movement of the thirties wanted to integrate artists into industry, improve the standard of consumer goods, democratise art and improve public taste. There was a strong interest in education, and Frank Pick, who was one of the leading figures of the Council for Art and Industry, used his influence to nudge the Royal College of Arts towards the teaching of industrial design and hastened the resignation of William Rothenstein as principal.
I said earlier that this movement for design reform and education reform was able to push forward on all fronts like this – on the industrial front, persuading manufacturers that their products needed to be better designed, and on the consumer front, dissuading shoppers from buying badly-designed objects – because of its belief in objective standards of beauty and the spiritual potential of good design.
This commitment to objective artistic standards answered a question that had puzzled me: Why, if poor design was supposed to be a brake on sales was it necessary to educate the consumer in good design?
Another puzzle had been an influential essay written at the end of the 1930s by Bernard Leach, Towards a Standard. Towards a Standard is the opening chapter of Leach’s A Potter’s Book, which has been in print since 1940 and which has shaped the thinking of generations of potters. It expresses an anti-industrial philosophy as severe as anything in Ruskin and I read it as a restatement of the Arts and Crafts philosophy. Leach was active in the rearguard of the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society, utterly opposing its engagement with industry, and he resigned over its acceptance of items designed for manufacturing in its 1938 exhibition.
Leach took an anti-intellectual line in his essay, in fact an irrationalist line, in which I read the ideas of Bergson, although I don’t have any direct evidence that Leach had read Bergson. But Bergson’s influence was great in the interwar years and the frequency of terms like “vitality” in art criticism and in Leach’s writing, come from him indirectly if not directly.
Leach thought pottery could help to regenerate a civilisation marred by industry and ravaged by war and political conflict. The standard that potters were supposed to follow was absolute and unchanging, was not personal taste and was most certainly not a matter of consumer preference.
Thus in the modernist culture of the Council for Art and Industry and the anti-modernist aesthetic of A Potter’s Book, there is the same crusade to establish an absolute standard for artists and a mission among a benighted public who don’t appreciate “good design” or what they ought to have in their homes.
I was at Top Drawer today. The trend in tableware is to artisan style, pottery. These bowls are by Nkuku, fairly typical of what’s on show there, though though the insides are rather brighter than the dominant earth colours.
These bowls are not thrown on the wheel but they’re made to look as if they are. There’s a strong desire among consumers for things that are handmade, or at least that look as if they’re handmade. Some of Nkuku’s ceramics are made in Vietnam and are much cheaper than anything an English artisan can produce.
The functionalist idea of fitness for purpose was an important part of Frank Pick’s view of design. (See my previous post.) Michael Saler says the phrase comes from Ruskin, but I haven’t been able to find it. If anyone has a reference, I’d be pleased if you could share it with me.
From Google ngram it seems that “fitness for purpose” had scant mentions until the 1920s, then a few until 2006, when usage shot up exponentially following its popularisation by British home secretary John Reid. Its main use isn’t in design at all and it appears a lot in consumer and contract law. And its first use may be in Pugin rather than Ruskin.
On page 1 of Contrasts he says, “It will be readily admitted that the great test of Architectural beauty is the fitness of the design to the purpose for which it is intended, and that the style of a building should so correspond with its use that the spectator may at once perceive the purpose for which it was erected.”
In a clear out over Christmas I threw away the sheets of Letraset that I accumulated when I was a graphic designer. Letraset was transfer lettering that revolutionised graphic design in the 1960s and it had a good run for thirty years. When I was at school we were taught what they called “book design”, which included hand-drawn lettering, but Letraset made that unnecessary. There had been some good lettering artists in the book trade – notably Edward Bawden and Berthold Wolpe – and their covers had a quality that you could say was lost when artists started using Letraset.
Letraset accompanied the offset revolution in printing, which replaced metal type with lithographic plates that were produced photographically. The process was quick and simple. You could originate a design, take it to the printer and have the final product in an hour.
You never used all the letters on a sheet of Letraset – perhaps they made their money like Colman’s mustard, from what was left behind – and you sometimes had to buy four sheets to produce a piece of short text.
When I worked in the publicity department of North East London Polytechnic, we combined text produced on an IBM golfball typewriter, Letraset headings and graphics, as in this poster (above). The artwork was put together with Cow Gum and a scalpel.