From Keith Flett’s blog. ‘Museum of the Home in Hackney re-opens. Statue of slaver Geffrye remains in place.’

Museum of the Home in Hackney re-opens. Statue of slaver Geffrye remains in place The Museum of the Home (@MuseumoftheHome) in Hackney re-opens on Saturday after a lengthy closure for refurbishment. Some important and interesting changes have been made. One change that hasn’t been made is to remove the statue of slave trader Robert Geffrye […]

Museum of the Home in Hackney re-opens. Statue of slaver Geffrye remains in place

THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Although it’s of little importance to the economy or the health of the nation, research has been on hold for a year because of lockdown. One of the last things I did before the first lockdown was to visit the National Art Library. That’s closed until further notice, but yesterday I went to the British Library.

It felt pretty desolate. It’s open to readers, who sit a long way away from each other in masks, but there are no students in the public areas with their Mac Airs, no cafés, and almost no visitors other than researchers.

The one-way system is complicated by the building works under way. There’s a notice saying, ‘Please be patient. This is strange for us too.’

LOCKDOWN READING

lockdown-reading

One group that benefitted from the pandemic was the booksellers. My last outing before the first lockdown was to the National Art Library, and since it’s been closed I’ve had to look for second-hand copies of the books I wanted to read there. Now we’re not sure when it’s going to open, while they work on their unwelcome restructuring plans. In the meantime, in no particular order, here’s some of my lockdown reading.

I was curious about William de Morgan’s novels, which brought him more money and fame than his pottery ever did, and I read a couple. Joseph Vance, the first and best-known, is pretty good, fizzing and bubbling with wit and joie d’écrire and with a fine Dickensian character in the person of Vance senior, a jolly, sympathetic builder who becomes unexpectedly rich, drinks too much and comes to a sad end. Mark Hamilton’s De Morgan biography, Rare Spirit, is unusual in that he takes him seriously as a writer, which few do nowadays. His main problem is that he wrote for a more leisurely age – Joseph Vance is 500 pages, about 200 too many.

But we’ve had leisure this year and I went back to a favourite, Little Dorrit, re-read it and borrowed the DVD of Christine Edzard’s wonderful film again, which at six hours is not too long. It has a starry cast with Derek Jacobi, Alec Guinness, Joan Greenwood, Max Wall, Patricia Hayes, Miriam Margolyes, Roshan Seth – the list goes on – and Sarah Pickering as a perfect Little Dorrit in her first and last film role. Its depiction of nineteenth-century street life is gorgeous.

It was fun to read Cold Comfort Farm again, a wicked little book of which I don’t tire.

Ian Dunlop’s Louis XIV is based on contemporary documents but it’s a compelling biography of the man who both made modern France and was a cause of the French Revolution. Ines Murat’s Colbert (one of the few biographies available in English) follows a similar pattern. I was interested in Colbert’s economic policy and the advantages it gave to French manufacturing – not least to Sèvres – by grants of royal patronage and monopoly. Voltaire’s The Age of Louis XIV is good on religion and explaints how Louis’ persecution of Protestants undid his protection of industry by forcing the best tradesmen in the country to emigrate (tens of thousands of whom, to our gain, settled in England).

Stephen Games of Envelope Books introduced me to Robert Best, the Birmingham brass founder with an interest in design and links to Pevsner and Gropius, and I read From Bedales to the Bosch. Best’s businessman father was a governor of Birmingham art school, the first school to follow Arts and Crafts principles, but he had doubts about its principal, Robert Catterson-Smith, an associate of William Morris and a principled socialist. So he sent Robert to Düsseldorf art school, which was associated with the more progressive Deutsche Werkbund.

As I’m interested in the studio-pottery modellers of the early 20th century, I got The Cheyne Book of Chelsea Pottery, a well-illustrated account of a 1924 exhibition at Chelsea Town Hall that showed old Chelsea porcelain alongside work by contemporary potters, including De Morgan, Charles Vyse and Gwendolen Parnell. The Chelsea potters were neglected after the war and this old volume is the main source of information about them. It was intriguing to discover that a big patron of Parnell, the doyenne of the Chelsea potters, was Sir Basil Zaharoff, a hugely rich arms dealer of obscure origin, a Bond-type villain known at the time as the Wickedest Man in the World.

Deborah Sugg Ryan’s Ideal Homes 1918 – 39 describes the suburban houses whose owner might have bought pottery figurines. Sugg Ryan introduced me to the idea of “other modernisms” that’s now well-developed in design history – the modernisms that combined Tudorbethan exteriors with labour-saving interiors. She has a wonderful collection of printed ephemera showing happy homeowners mowing lawns, the jumble of styles in the 1930s lounge, moderne kitchens and period motifs like galleons and elephants.

Cheryl Buckley’s Designing Modern Britain also recognises the “other modernisms” in a comprehensive history of design from late Victorian to the 1980s. It’s a good introduction with excellent illustrations, though Buckley tries, needlessly in my opinion, to force her narrative into a quasi-Marxist framework.

These studies of design as anthropology rather than morality started with the Festival of Britain, when Barbara Jones organised the Black Eyes and Lemonade Exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery. In 1951 she  wrote The Unsophisticated Arts and Margaret Lambert and Enid Marx published English Popular Art. I had Jones’s book and I got a reprint of Lambert and Marx. It’s more systematic than Jones’s book and is organised by materials and methods.

THE NATIONAL ART LIBRARY (2)

I received this message today from the V&A which I’m passing on.

Hi Marshall, we wanted to get in touch as saw you’d posted the petition against the proposed changes to the National Art Library at the V&A.

We have just shared an update on our website which might be of interest here https://t.co/ftqasrNcN9

To give an overview, The NAL service review will now be fast tracked to 6m, rather than a year meaning the closure period will reduced to the absolute minimum. A core library service will be maintained during the review ensuring those who need access to collections will be supported, and thanks to the extension of the govt furlough scheme, the 33 roles are no longer at risk. A new plan for the NAL will be shared by the end of the year.

Thanks for your interest

BERNARD LEACH AND GWENDOLEN PARNELL

I said in my last post that the inspiration of the ceramic modellers – Gwendolen Parnell (above), Charles Vyse, Stella Crofts and others – was very different from that of the Eastern and country pottery influence on the studio pottery of Bernard Leach, State Murray and their followers, and that their philosophy was very different as well. That’s true, but they had friendly relations in the early days of studio pottery and they exhibited and organised together.

For a while they joined together in The Guild of Potters and organised joint exhibitions. For us, who see them as very different, it’s not easy to understand what they had in common. Jeffrey Jones in his book on 20th-century studio pottery records some dismissive comments by Leach about the modellers. And so it appears that the modellers dropped out of the picture and had had their day by the Second World War.

I just came across a 1951 review by Bernard Leach of Reginald Haggar’s book on Country Pottery, which was in fact about more than that, and was surprised to find that one of Leach’s reservations was that it said nothing about Gwendolen Parnell. Leach knew Parnell from twenty-five years previously when he attended meetings of the Guild of Potters in her Chelsea studio, and it’s clear that he had more respect for her than Jones suggests and that you might expect from the vast difference in their work.

PUBLIC STATUES

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 H. POWELL

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.