The 999 Cenotaph project, to put up a monument to health service workers, is part of the current of democratic statue-building that I’ve written about here and here that runs alongside campaigns to remove statues of slave owners.
Most of the statues in our cities were put up before universal suffrage and remain because of inertia and the fact that they’re invisible. The idea that they tell us about our history is laughable: no-one knows who they are in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred.
Covid is changing Britain in many ways: more online shopping and online everything; more space on commuter trains; more outdoor exercise; less hugging and kissing; and more statues to ordinary people and public-service workers.
I went to see Jonathan Chiswell-Jones’ pottery at the Artworkers Guild (AWG) yesterday at their beautiful home in Queen Square, the perfect setting for ceramics with allusions to William de Morgan. The building has changed little since the AWG acquired it about a hundred years ago. The name of every member past and present is carefully lettered on the walls and there are portraits of all the guild’s masters. This may give the impression that the AWG is old-fashioned but it’s not and its members produce very up-to-date craft work as you can see here.
Reduced lustre pottery is extraordinarily difficult to make and very few people try it. It requires three firings at different temperatures and precise control of kiln atmosphere to change the decoration (which looks like mud when it’s put on) to gold and silver in a magical alchemical transformation. The method was revived by De Morgan and copied by a few large potteries like Maw & Co. and Pilkington, who did it cheaper and put him out of business. Alan Caiger-Smith rediscovered it by accident in the 1950s trying to produce a red glaze and it took him twenty-six unsuccessful firings to get it.
The Museum of Applied Arts in Vienna in its galleries ‘Vienna 1900’, which charts the emergence of the Vienna Style of the Secession and the Weiner Werkstätte, has these bowls made by Lucie Rie in about 1930 (listed under her single name Lucie Gomperz). They show the fine throwing and simplicity of form and surface for which she became known in England but the strong, dark colours are less familiar.
I look through auction catalogues for interesting ceramics and sometimes stop to look at other things as well. The other day something unusual caught my eye, described simply as a manuscript on vellum but evidently a Torah scroll. The auctioneer said it came without provenance. Torah scrolls, for those unfamiliar with them, are handwritten versions of the first five books of the Bible used in Jewish religious services. They are treated with extreme veneration and handled with care.
This one was incomplete and in a dirty and neglected state. I consulted an expert who said it probably originated in Poland or Czechoslovakia. Synagogues are not permitted to re-sell Torah scrolls and these details suggest strongly that it had been stolen by the Nazis in eastern Europe and somehow ended up with someone who had no idea what it was. Scribes are conservative and scrolls don’t differ much, so we will probably never know which community it came from, but it shouldn’t be traded in this way and I’m talking to the auction house to try and get it returned to the Jewish community.
The latest Transactions of the English Ceramic Circle has an article by Robin Emmerson on the origins of Art Pottery which looks at its emergence from the design reform movement, which was familiar, and fashions and trends in home decoration, which was not. The art school at South Kensington was important and was linked with Minton and the Lambeth art school was similarly linked with Doulton.
But ceramics displayed in the home signified that the owner was on the side of the Aesthetes rather than the Barbarians (the contrast introduced by Matthew Arnold). Emmerson points out that Art Pottery was almost all meant for display, one of those obvious things that you could overlook. Charlotte Gere and Lesley Hoskins touched on ceramics and put them into the wider context of the Aesthetic interior in The House Beautiful twenty years ago.
It’s an outstanding example of post-war civic architecture and the mural of the History of the Old Kent Road is representative of the elevating, slightly didactic public art of the period. Kossowski, a Catholic artist, most of whose work was religious, was an interesting and surprising choice for the commission, and I hope one day to discover how he came to be selected. His artistry is effective, his technique superlative and the story told is perfectly appropriate to the location. A similar mural today, however, would say much less about the past and much more about the present.
After writing about W.T.Curtis and William Burchett, the Middlesex County architects of the 1930s who were responsible for many public buildings that define the style of the north west London suburbs, I was pleased to be contacted by Sam Smith, who had found an article about Oakwood Manor School (above), Curtis’s first foray into modernism, in The Architect and Building News. There was pressure for new school places in Middlesex, due to the rapid development of Metroland, and they had to be provided quickly and at reasonable cost. It was this need for economy and speed that made Curtis turn to functionalism.
‘Readers who have been familiar with the pleasantly “domestic” schools hitherto designed by the Middlesex County Architect,’ wrote The Architect, ‘will experience something of a mild shock at discovering that Mr. Curtis has “gone modern”. This result has arisen from the financial crisis. … From the financial point of view, the experiment seems to be juistified, since this school has been built for an inclusive cost of £28 per head, which is a low figure for a two-storied building of fire-resisting construction.’
In the building internal levels are stepped to follow the slope of the site; Crittal windows are used to make light, bright classrooms; internal walls are left unplastered because the cavity wall construction produced a fair-face brick surface inside; but there are aesthetic choices too in the horizontal stress of the elevation and the insertion of a prominent contrasting staircase tower, following the style of Willem Dudok’s Hilversum town hall.
The Decorative Arts Society have started their guided visits again and the other day I joined them at the William Morris Gallery for a talk by Roisin Inglesby on the the Century Guild exhibition that she has curated. The Guild was a short-lived Arts and Crafts body, started by Arthur Heygate Mackmurdo and Henry Horne and soon joined by Selwyn Image, lasting only from 1882 until 1893, when each member went his own way to follow his particular interests.
I knew little about the Century Guild other than that Pevsner had pointed out that their sinuous designs (above) anticipated Art Nouveau and that fifty years later Mackmurdo was one of the founders of the William Morris Gallery. From the Mackmurdo donation the Gallery has come to have the largest holding of Century Guild artifacts anywhere, which has enabled them to put on this event with little borrowing.
The Guild lacked some of the common prejudices of the Arts and Crafts movement, notably Morris’s dislike of everything Italian, and Horne went on to make a study of Boticelli. They were also less enamoured of Gothic. Their furniture is more classical than anything produced by Morris and Co., as are Mackmurdo’s and Horne’s architectural designs.
The exhibition has textiles, wallpaper and designs on paper that illustrate their use of plant forms and their departure from the symmetry of Morris’s designs. The name of the group refers to their 19th century and indicates a forward-looking attitude. They were designers and were not wedded to the idea of a craft-based economy.