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.


The 20th Century Society report that the North Peckham Civic Centre is to be demolished and its Grade II listed Adam Kossowski ceramic mural (above) relocated.

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.

Century Guild emblem.

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.

Arts and Crafts Pioneers by Stuart Evans and Jean Liddiard accompanies the exhibition.

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


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.’



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.