HERBERT READ’S ‘ART AND INDUSTRY’

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Herbert Read’s book Art and lndustry, which I’ve been reading, was a major influence in the interwar debate that constructed the notion of “good design”. Read had worked at the Victoria and Albert Museum in the 1920s and was professor of fine art at Edinburgh university and editor of The Burlington Magazine in the early 1930s. It was during that decade that he published his best-known books, Art Now (1933), Art and Society (1937) and Art and Industry (1934).

His ideas about design are underpinned by an aesthetic theory similar to Roger Fry’s and Clive Bell’s formalism. In Art and Industry he divides art into humanist art, by which he means European pictorial art and ornamentation from the Renaissance onward, and formal art, which is pure shape and colour without content or reference. He fiercely deprecates ornament in similar terms to Adolf Loos, says little about humanist art and is strongly biased in favour of abstract art.

According to Read, formal beauty in art, nature or everyday objects, is either rational or intuitive. Rational beauty consists in conformity to rules of harmony and proportion, which were understood in the Renaissance but which have deeper and more ancient roots and which are to be found in nature. Read does not explain why proportions found in nature should be beautiful and others not. Intuitive beauty is that which deviates in some way from strict rules of harmony but which is recognised in an unconscious process that is not fully understood and cannot easily be explained. Apart from a few comments, Read does not explain it.

Objects that possess intuitive formal beauty can be illustrated, and Read has many such illustrations in his book, but this quality cannot be “rationalised” (to use his term). It can, however, be identified by noting what persons of taste recognise as beautiful. For example, he shows an ancient Greek drinking bowl and a Sung dynasty vase, and says that, although the former conforms to rules of proportion and the latter deviates from it, those who know about this kind of thing have no doubt that the Sung vase is better. Read implies that there is an aesthetic elite who possess the ability to intuitively recognise formal beauty, and although he says that the average man is capable of it, one suspects that Read thinks the average man must submit to the guidance of the elite. Read does not explain in what way the discerning person differs from the undiscerning, except in the objects he chooses. Read thus follows the same circular route as Fry and Bell: formal beauty is that which produces a response in people whose discernment can be identified by the objects they they choose. This kind of elitism may have been formed in his career as a curator at the V&A. Today it is clear that his argument is a way of defining cultural capital.

Like other writers of the period, Read appeared to believe that beauty is a quality of objects, like colour, that can be perceived, and that is not just a matter of personal preference. That implies that aesthetic appreciation is a cognitive ability and that those that lack it have a defect like colour-blindness. Read thinks that, by and large, the British manufacturing class lack it, and he expresses disdain for their supposed philistinism.

British manufacturers produce inferior goods, says Read, not only because they cannot tell the good from the bad, but also because they are motivated by purely commercial considerations. Because their goods are inferior, they have to demand tariffs to protect them from better-designed Continental goods, but Read does not really explain why the Continental capitalist produces better goods than his British counterpart, or why, if well-designed goods sell better than badly-designed goods, the profit motive does not generate better design. Because of this perceived incapacity in the British manufacturing elite, Read is compelled to advocate a cultural elite who have the ability to intuit formal beauty and, if who if they were given half a chance, could reform industry.

Like so many writers on art with a programme or manifesto, Read is immensely irritating. Although he was interested in mass production and took a left-wing position in politics, his ideas are snobbish and elitist. He talks about the “average man”, but is uninterested in what he likes (in contrast to pioneering curators of popular art, Barbara Jones and Enid Marx). He has a psychological theory of aesthetics and leans on a sketchy Freudianism, but cites no psychological research. Had any been done at that date? The new discipline of neuro-aesthetics is now making it possible to understand what is happening in the brain when people respond to art works and it may even be able to help designers and manufacturers.

THE GORELL REPORT

GORELL

I’ve been reading Art & Industry, the Gorell report, a milestone in the design debate in the decade before the war. The Board of Trade set up the Gorell committee to consider “the production and exhibition of articles of good design and everyday use”. Its result was the Council for Art and Industry, a precursor of the Design Council. Fiona MacCarthy perceived the long arm of the Arts and Crafts Movement reaching as far as the Festival of Britain and Terence Conran. It certainly influenced public discussions about design in the 1930s and its ideas pervade the Gorell report.

Of the committee’s nineteen members, three were artists or designers, five were industrialists and the largest cohort were politicians and public officials. Lord Gorell was a Liberal politician, an author and journalist. The industrialists were: A. E. Gray, the Staffordshire pottery manufacturer, who employed Susie Cooper and Gordon Forsyth; C.H. St John Hornby, the successful head of W. H. Smith, who also had an interest in fine printing and ran the Ashendene Press; Charles Richter, director of Bath Cabinet Makers and a member of the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society; Howard Robertson, a leading architect and later President of the RIBA; and H. Trethowan, president of the china and glass retailers association. It’s clear that the business representatives were chosen for their arts-and-crafts bent and that they were untypical of businessmen in Britain.

gorell members

The arts representatives were Roger Fry, E. W. Tristram, professor of design at the RCA, Clough William-Ellis, now known mainly for his whimsical creation at Portmeirion, and the art writer Margaret Bulley, author of Have You Good Taste?

The committee looked at the problem of design from an arts-and-crafts perspective and saw it essentially as the “divorce of design from execution” that had taken place during the industrial revolution. It sought “a reunion of Art and Industry”. It focused wholly on consumer goods and it considered design as good appearance rather than product engineering.

A pressing matter for industry while the committee was sitting was world recession and the lack of competitiveness of British goods. There was a long-standing view that our exports suffered because of poor design compared to continental goods, particularly French and German goods. There may have been some truth in that. The superiority of French goods was arguably the overhang of the royal monopolies of the Grand Siècle and Colbert’s forcing up of standards. Germany had developed the arts and crafts into modernism, while Britain compromised with what Michael Saler has called “medieval modernism”, modernism mitigated by the ideas of Ruskin and spiritual uplift. But tariffs may have been more salient than design in Britain’s balance of trade.

c h st john hornby

C. H. St John Hornby, director of W. H. Smith, at his Ashendene Press

Gorell urged training in principles of design for everyone – manufacturers, craftsmen, buyers and sellers – so that they could appreciate good design when they saw it. Its ideas about improving design were confused with the idea of improving taste, which was a long-standing feature of the art-and-industry debate. Fry in his memorandum to the committee said that many manufacturers had lost contact with educated taste. There was always something  patronising about “good design”, from the Chamber of Horrors in South Kensington in the 1850s, which showed up the ghastly against the good, to Anthony Bertram’s Penguin book Design (1938), which preached about white walls and tut-tutted about patterned rugs. Gorell insisted that that the new central design body it recommended should be staffed by “persons of taste and cultural standards” – by which it had in mind persons such as themselves.

The report lacks recommendations for improving art education at secondary and tertiary level. The presence of Tristram on the committee may have made its members reluctant to criticise the RCA. Rothenstein had shaken up the RCA, but his main improvement was in the teaching of fine art and his ability to change the design school may have been compromised by his association with the Cotswolds arts-and-crafts colony. When he toured continental art schools in the 1920s, the Bauhaus was not on his itinerary. Tristram himself was a medievalist and was probably not the best representative of design education for deliberations of this sort.

Herbert Read was critical of the Gorell Report at the time, and a modern writer, Tanya Harrod, has described it as muddled. But Nikolaus Pevsner described it as “the first official document to emphasize the vital importance of improvements in British industrial art and to confirm the urgent necessity of immediate action.”

WEDGWOOD’S CREAMWARE

Wedgwood creamware 1773
Wedgwood creamware, “Frog Service”, 1773 (Victoria and Albert Museum)

Much of the history of European ceramics is the attempt to imitate Chinese porcelain. The Ottoman Turks covered buff clay with white slip and a clear glaze. The Moors brought opaque white tin glaze into Spain, from where it spread to Italy, the Netherlands, central Europe and England. Meanwhile, there were experiments in porcelain, adding products like crushed glass to clay. In 1693 a soft paste porcelain was invented at Rouen, and in 1708 a hard paste, closer to the Chinese original, at Meissen.

Wedgwood went in a different direction, aiming for a white earthenware, his experiments finally yielding a satisfactory cream-coloured body in the late 1760s.

I had known that creamware spelled the end of tin-glazed earthenware – Alan Caiger-Smith mentions it in Tin-glazed Earthenware – but I had not known exactly how Wedgwood displaced delftware until I read Robin Reilley’s Wedgwood biography.

Wedgwood could not export to France because the quality potteries were protected by the crown, but trade with the Netherlands was easier and creamware made rapid inroads there. His Dutch agent, Lamertus van Veldhuysen, introduced it to the upper class but had difficulty selling it to “the middle sort of people” because it was too expensive. The Delft potters recognised its superiority and tried to imitate it, some of them bankrupting themselves in the process. Wedgwood was unconcerned. When van Veldhuysen sent him a sample of creamware made by a potter called Zwenck, he said, “With regard to the quality of the body & glaze, they are so bad that we could not sell such pieces at 1 shilling a dozen.” Reilley comments that no Dutch manufacturer succeeded in copying creamware until the nineteenth century and that the Dutch have always been among Wedgwood’s best customers.

HAND MADE TABLEWARE: GETTING BETTER ALL THE TIME

The curator at the Nantgarw Pottery museum in Wales demonstrates the use of the jolleying machine, 2006. A craft technique retained in industry or an industrial technique applied to craft?  © Marshall Colman

There was a good piece in Ceramic Review a couple of years ago about tableware and studio pottery. It showed two pieces of pottery by David Leach, a little fluted bowl and the same shape with a handle and a saucer. The bowl cost four times as much as the cup and saucer. The cup is tableware, the bowl is art.

It’s often said that tableware is dead. Few graduating ceramicists make tableware and many skilled makers have turned to art instead because they got tired of repetition throwing or couldn’t make a living from it. But how dead is tableware exactly?

The market for functional studio pottery can be measured. In the mid 1970s, over half the members of the Craft Potters Association (CPA) were making tableware, in the mid 1990s just over a third, today under a quarter. But although the proportion of makers has gone down, the number has gone up. There are more potters and more makers of tableware than ever. Apart from the members of the CPA (which represents about ten per cent of the ceramicists in Britain), there are thousands of potters making tableware for local markets. Some of them are unimaginative and technically weak, and the worst are an argument for factory-made pottery. But the best are very good. They are supplying a growing market for hand-made tableware that is worth tens of millions of pounds a year.

Why, then, is the market for tableware said to be dead? Partly because there was a time when “ceramics” was pretty well equivalent to “tableware”, which is not the case today. Partly because demand fluctuates with the economic cycle. Partly because few potters can make a living from it even at the best of times.

Studio pottery and factory pottery have more in common than the Arts and Craftsy studio potter liked to admit. There has always been an exchange between studio ceramics and the pottery industry, and it shows that hand-made tableware and factory-made tableware are complementary, not opposed to one another. Completely automated production is possible but many factories use quasi-craft techniques, and studio potters use some industrial methods. What distinguishes studio pottery from industrial pottery is not its methods but the fact that some studio potters make a fetish of method. The commonality of studio and factory is such that it’s impossible to say whether jigger-and-jolly is a craft technique retained in industry or an industrial technique applied to craft.

One of the only people to talk any sense about craft was David Pye. He pointed out what should have been obvious, that nothing is made by hand and that everything is made with tools. The distinction is not between hand made and machine made but between the type of motive force that drives the tool and the in way in which it is guided. In the making, the difference is not between craft and manufacture, but between the workmanship of risk and the workmanship of certainty. Things made with hand tools in small runs cannot always be distinguished by appearance from things made with power tools in long runs.

With rising standards of interior design and higher consumer spending, the market for tableware has become more varied and complex. Design-led retailers sell elegant, factory made ceramics that are just as good as studio ceramics and often better. Rather than competing with handmade tableware, this sort of ceramics has lifted the standard of handmade tableware. The new ceramics galleries of the Victoria and Albert Museum have a representative sample of studio pottery from its heyday in the 1950s, demonstrating how bad it was.  Consumers today expect to have a wide choice of good products, both mass-produced and hand made. Marketing events like Origin have helped to bring hand made tableware to this discerning public, to raise its price and, by selecting exhibitors, to raise craft standards as well.