WALTER CRANE IN HUNGARY

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Walter Crane, A Transylvanian bride and a Hungarian peasant farmer, Bánffyhunyad (now Hudein), 1900,

I’ve been reading Walter Crane’s Ideals in Art (1905), in which I found these drawings of Hungarian peasant costumes (above), and was curious about his connection with Hungary and how he came to make them. 

While British design reformers were looking to the middle ages, the Hungarians were studying peasant art in pursuit of national independence. Artists under the influence of Ruskin, Morris and Crane created a community at Gödöllő, near Budapest, built vernacular-style houses and affected peasant dress. Others discovered the peasant art of Kalotaszeg , the traditional Transylvanian village that became a focus of Hungarian arts and crafts. 

Cranes’s reputation in Hungary was high enough for Jenő Radisics, the director of the Budapest Museum of Applied Arts, to organise a retrospective of his work there in 1900. Crane visited the city in the autumn, was feted, gave lectures and visited Transylvania. He went to Kolozsvár (now Cluj-Napoca), Bánffyhunyad (now Hudein), and Kalotaszeg (now Calata) in search of Hungarian traditional art.

One of his guides was Janos Kovács, for whom he made this book plate inscribed “Éljen Kolosvár” – Long Live Kolozsvár! (below). Is the man lifting his hat Walter Crane and the man in traditional dress Prof. Kovács? There are certainly cranes flying around the former, but what is the other bird?

Some of the drawings he made on this trip , which were in his family’s possession for many years, have recently come up for sale. 

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A supporter of dress reform, Crane thought the peasant style might suggest an antidote to the constrained, vulgar and commercial clothing of his age. He sought “utility, simplicity, picturesqueness”. “The peasantry in all European countries alone have preserved anywhere national and local picturesqueness and character in their dress,” he said, “Often, too where it still lingers unspoiled, as in Greece and in Hungary and Bohemia, adorned with beautiful embroidery worked by the women themselves.”

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R.H.BEST AND ROBERT CATTERSON-SMITH (2)

Robert Catterson-Smith’s method of memory drawing became widespread and was used in teaching for the School Certificate. Many of his young students at Birmingham Art School, who were being trained for local trades, produced good work (below).

Drawings by a young student at Birmingham School of Art, 1916

The differences between R.H.Best and Catterson-Smith (which I wrote about in my last post) are alluded to in Charles Holmes’s Arts and Crafts, a 1916 review of art schools, though it’s not possible to understand exactly what the problems described there are without reading Best’s biography. Courses for printers, house painters and bookbinders were set up at the school of art in consultation with employers, but agreeing a syllabus for brassworkers proved more problematic, as Arts and Crafts recorded:

“In the case of the brassworkers’ classes, there were difficulties in the way of complete success which the [School of Art] committee hopes yet to overcome. It is not easy in such trade classes to fix a standard of excellence that shall obtain the joint approval of the art teachers and the employers. Pure technical training is not the province of School of Art and is, moreover, amply provided elsewhere. Nor can a demand to teach a certain style – and possibly a bad one at that – which may be in vogue in the trade, be always met in a satisfactory manner, especially at a moment’s notice without regard to the proper training in general principles of art and design.

The voice of Best, who was a member of the committee, resonates throughout this passage. He wanted students who could design for the market and who understood “styles”. The art school wanted to impart general principles, and there was the unspoken influence of Catterson-Smith, a Morrisonian socialist who hated trade, commerce and profit-making. “I ask Catterson-Smith for Louis Quinze and he gives me a rabbit,” said Best. This difference of outlook between art school and the employer is found repeatedly in the period and may go some way to explaining the hand-wring about “bad design” and the failure of British manufacturers to compete in international markets.

R.H.BEST AND ROBERT CATTERSON-SMITH


After reading Robert D. Best’s memoir, which I wrote about earlier, I found Brass Chandelier, the biography of his father, R.H.Best, the public-spirited proprietor of Best & Lloyd, a Victorian art brass founder which is still trading in Birmingham today. It gives an insight into the relationship between craft and industry, which I think was distorted in arts and crafts texts suggesting they were incompatible, and into contemporary ideas about design education.

Brass Chandelier describes an old firm that grew haphazardly a into Dickensian assemblage of workshops, laboratories and foundries over which Best paternalistically presided. He was on good terms with W.J.Davis of the brassfounders union, at one moment negotiating hard over wages with him, at another carrying out joint social investigations. Best insisted on the highest standard of craftsmanship, recalling Wedgwood in his demonstrative throwing of substandard work from an upper storey.

Maude and R.H.Best, 1913

The firm was successful because of Best’s standards, because he listened to customers and because of his tight control of money. He would not move to a well laid-out, modern factory because he refused to borrow. But control was difficult in his rabbit warren. The system of group piecework that prevailed, a sort of internal subcontracting in which an artisan would agree to make something for a certain price and then employ his own assistants, was not easy to supervise. And there were pockets of inefficiency, for example, the horse that was kept for rare deliveries, with an expensive groom and a groom’s boy, no-one really knowing quite why, until it was discovered that somebody’s roses depended on it.

Best kept an eye on new educational methods, interested in securing a skilled workforce with a sense of civic duty. His connections in Germany put him in touch Dr Georg Kerschensteiner, Munich’s director of education, who was introducing a system based on practical learning, vocational training and training for citizenship. Every subject – mathematics, geography, history, civics – was to be related to practical work. Best was keen to to apply the system to Birmingham.

Dr. Georg Kerschensteiner

As a member of the management committee of the Birmingham School of Art, Best came into conflict with its head, Robert Catterson-Smith. Best was an enlightened capitalist and a follower of Joseph Chamberlain. Catterson-Smith was an artist and a socialist. Catterson-Smith was a member of the Art Workers Guild and an associate of William Morris. He had worked with Morris on the Kelmscott Chaucer, copying Burne-Jones’s drawing and transferring them to woodcuts. The extent of his involvement was not appreciated at the time and was never publicly acknowledged by Morris, but it is now thought to have been considerable.

Birmingham had been the first city to set up an art school following arts and crafts precepts, favouring working in materials over regimented drawing. The Catterson-Smith system was observation and drawing from memory, to which end he kept animals in the school. Best did not have a high opinion of the school and Brass Chandelier records their differences. Best wanted designers who knew about styles. “I ask Catterson-Smith for Louis Quinze,” he wrote, “and he hands me a rabbit.”

Robert Catherson-Smith (far left in pale suit) with the Hammersmith Socialist League, c. 1890.

Catterson-Smith’s dislike of machinery and business was bound to be a source of disagreement with Best. He deprecated copying, but Best could not see why a beautiful picture should not be reproduced. Catterson-Smith replied, “Because it is done for profit and would destroy original effort.” Best teased him with the observation that Morris did not like his assistants adding original touches, and he could not see why taking profit was any worse than taking a salary. Best was hopeful that within a generation there would be significant improvements in education. Catterson-Smith was more pessimistic, lamenting that parents, youths and employers have all been polluted by profit-mongering.

CRAFT WORDS

I was talking to Kati about the way our parents furnished their homes in the 1960s, when mine moved to to a new house in the London suburbs and hers to an apartment in the Budapest suburbs. Both used the move to dispose of their old-fashioned furnishings and to buy modern pieces. Kati admired the armchairs her father bought, I liked my parents’ Grundig radiogram.


Her father bought his chairs in an iparművészeti bolt, a small shop selling interior design and decorative items like jewellery. I asked Kati what iparművészeti meant, recognising the word from the Iparművészeti Muzeum, the Budapest equivalent of the V&A. Its literal meaning is “industry art”, but it doesn’t mean that exactly, it means hand-made objects manufactured in small quantities – so it’s close to our “arts and crafts” but it has extra connotations of design and originality.

The Italian equivalent is artigianato, but that has different connotations still, suggesting, as far as I can understand, any product of a small workshop – there’s plenty of gelati artigianale and “craft ice cream” doesn’t sound quite right. Italy has managed to retain far more small artigianale workshops alongside its advanced industries than Britain, despite Britain and Italy having a similar GDP per capita, and they’re more mainstream than any arts-and-crafts producer in the UK. Now, however, the English “craft” is acquiring something of the Italian meaning, with craft beers and craft coffees. In Italy, artigianato became current later than than “arts and crafts”, during the fascist era, not surprisingly, compared to the early 20th century in Britain, and it peaked later, in 1960, compared to 1940 – in other words, in the era of rapid post-war growth.

THE ADORATION OF THE LAMB

In my A-level art class I studied Netherlandish painting and was pleased to be able to visit and visit again The Arnolfini Portait in the National Gallery, and I hoped one day to go to Ghent to see the Van Eycks’ polyptych The Adoration of The Lamb. As luck had it, in my school holidays I was given a lift by someone who had a friend in Ghent, an Englishman married to a Belgian woman, and we stopped with them for lunch. I looked forward to seeing the Van Eyck altarpiece.

We were given a splendid meal and a lot to drink – an aperitif before and plenty of wine throughout the meal. Then I said I’d like to go to the cathedral to see the altarpiece. “Not before you have a brandy,” my host insisted, and I accepted out of politeness. I wasn’t used to drinking.

By the time he drove me to the cathedral I was drunk. After I’d spent ten minutes squinting at The Adoration and trying to focus on it he became impatient and said, “Let’s go for a drink.”

He drove to an anonymous grey building with closed doors. He rang the bell and someone let us in and led us up a dark staircase to a smart, brightly-lit bar on the first floor. Glamorous and expensively dressed women sat around on sofas. My host seemed to know them and kissed them all. He ordered a brandy and offered me one. This time I refused. He wasn’t in a hurry and he had another. Then another. I couldn’t follow the conversation. My head was spinning and I just wanted the jaunt to end. After about forty minutes he kissed all the women again, lurched down to the street and fumbled for his car keys.

At last I asserted myself.

“You’ve had too much, you’re in no condition to drive,” I said, and tried to take the keys away from him.

“Don’t be such a prissy little ass. Give me my fucking keys!”

A taxi came into view and I hailed it.

“We’re getting a taxi,” I said.

“Don’t be so fucking wet. I can drive perfectly well; I’ve done it a thousand times.”

The taxi pulled over.

“What’s your address?” I said.

“I don’t need a taxi.”

I turned to the taxi driver. “I’m trying to find out his address.”

“It’s OK,” he said quietly, “I know him, I know where he lives.”

So we fell in and went home by taxi.

This year the restored altarpiece was put on display and I thought I should see it sober. But then came COVID-19, so I guess I’ll have to wait a few more years.

ROBERT BEST, ‘FROM BEDALES TO THE BOCHE’

Robert Best’s From Bedales to the Boche, edited by Stephen Games, is an intimate account of Robert’s Edwardian youth and that of his brother Frank. The Best brothers were heirs to Best & Lloyd, the leading Birmingham brass-founder and manufacturer of lighting equipment, which embraced modernism and survives into the 21st century.

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It’s a fascinating narrative of a prosperous, progressive-minded, busy and outgoing family. Robert (above) conveys the ethos of Bedales, his progressive public school, with its high-mindedness, inspiring teachers, sports and crafts. The Bests embraced everything new – motor cars, aeroplanes, motorbikes, the cinema and ragtime. In the war, Robert and Frank jumped at the opportunity to join the Royal Flying Corps, which officers were asking to be transferred to because, we learn, they disliked commanding conscripts. Frank’s plane crashed in 1917 and his body was never recovered. The book, based on copious letters and diaries, is Robert’s tribute to his brother.

Owing to the Bests’ business and family connections, they were Germanophiles, or at least Best père was: his mother became “exhausted by Father’s uncritical insistence on the excellence of all things German.” Robert’s reflections in hindsight may have been coloured by two intervening wars. He records that their German neighbour “was generous and benevolent towards friends and relatives but that his treatment of children tended to be dictatorial. Frank and I felt intuitively and with distaste something domineering in his relationship with his family and this emphasised our prejudices against Germany and Germans.” Looking back on his time in Germany in 1911, he says that he was “more or less conscious of a feeling akin to fear … something to do with the inherent animal coarseness which you can’t help noticing in a lot of the people.” 

Their father, R.H.Best, chose not to send his sons to the Birmingham School of Art, which was steeped in the arts and crafts outlook and whose students’ work he considered to be merely “ethereal smudges”. Instead they went to the Düsseldorf  Kunstgewerbeschule, which had strong links with the Deutscher WerkbundPeter Behrens, its director from 1903 to 1907 and the current director, Wilhelm Kreis, were co-founders of the Werkbund and several other teachers were also members. The Werkbund’s mission, “the refinement of industrial work”, set them apart from English designers, many of whom were still wedded to handicrafts. Best’s later acquaintance with Nikolaus Pevsner is significant in this context because Pevsner relates in Pioneers of the Modern Movement (1936) how the baton of design had passed from England to bodies like the Werkbund and designers like Behrens. 

At Düsseldorf, Robert’s artistic intentions were practical and he complained that the drawing he was being taught was “more Art than Trade”. He  wrote that he was drawing poppy heads that he planned to turn into lamps and lanterns. He wanted to model acanthus leaves in different styles but was discouraged from doing so because the school was averse to styles, which were thought to discourage originality. Originality was greatly valued. “That they give scope to originality much more than we in their buildings, etc, there is no doubt,” Robert said. “Whether they have much sense of the beautiful is another matter. I was at the judging of the Kunstgewerbe Competition when Kreis gave a speech over the merits of each prize-winning work. It didn’t matter if a man had not the ghost of an idea of anatomy: so long as it was original it was booked for a prize.”

He took classes with Max Benirschke, a Behrens appointee and another Werkbund member. Robert found Benirschke to be a hard taskmaster but respected his values: “Simplicity, Harmony of all parts – and if possible Originality.” He reported, “I am doing a ripping lamp with Benirschke of the refined, constructional, vornehm [elegant] type.” Benirschke was later commissioned by Best & Lloyd.

surpise lamp

Back in Birmingham business was booming and the company was expanding. R.H.Best approached it less as a businessman than as an enthusiast, liking nothing better than to absorb himself in technical and artistic problems. His “Surprise” gas pendant (above) had been hugely profitable and allowed investment in innovation. But, like the Birmingham Guild, Best & Lloyd were cautious about modernisation. “There was considerable hesitation about selling machine-made technical products on the grounds of aesthetic inconsistency,” wrote one director. “We won our reputation on beauty and design and ornament and to come into the open market with mass-produced and utilitarian small parts seemed incongruous to Mr Best.” Robert and Frank, however, were able to persuade them to move into the manufacture of motor-cycle parts.

Robert judged Düsseldorf’s training in product design to be years ahead of Birmingham’s, despite Düsseldorf’s lack of workshop facilities and Birmingham’s emphasis on direct working in materials. Students at Düsseldorf were using geometrical forms in their designs, although they were still influenced by Jugendstil, and the German emphasis on originality contrasts with the quasi-medieval style that British art schools had settled into.  Their concentration on craft was arguably detrimental to innovative design. It was something that Lewis Foreman Day had warned about, and the government inquiry into the Royal College of Art had found that its training in handicrafts had rendered students unable to apply themselves to the problems of production, and that fewer than one in ten went on to be designers.

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Robert Best went on to be active in the Werkbund-inspired Design and Industries Association and he hosted the visit of Walter Gropius to the Midlands after Gropius’s exile from Germany in 1934. His Bestlite has become a design icon and is often reproduced (above).

 

TAKING THE KNEE

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Following the booing by Millwall supporters last Saturday of players who took the knee, Sanjay Bhandari, Chair of Kick It Out, negotiated with club managers and came to an agreement that in the Millwall v QPR game today the players should link arms in a gesture of solidarity. Bhandari said that it wasn’t taking the knee, but that it was an anti-racist gesture and he supported it.

Bhandari thought the objections to taking the knee on Saturday were mischievous (a mild description) and said that taking the knee isn’t a recent thing: it didn’t originate in the protests against the killing of George Floyd and it could be traced back to Josiah Wedgwood’s anti-slavery medallion (above), made in 1787.

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In his biography of Wedgwood (above) Robin Reilly recounts that in the case of a runaway slave, James Somerset, Lord Mansfield ruled in 1772 that English law had never recognised the right to property in slaves and as Somerset did not belong to the claimant he should remain free. His judgement led to the release of 14,000 slaves in Britain. But the slave trade continued.

Wedgwood was familiar with the trade through business with the port of Liverpool and was active in the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. He made the Society’s seal in black jasper on white ground, showing a slave on one knee with chained hands raised and the words “Am I Not a Man and a Brother?” lettered round the rim.

Wedgwood distributed the cameo free and it became fashionable. Men had them inlaid on the lids of their snuff boxes. Ladies wore them in bracelets and in their hair.

In 1788, Wedgwood sent a quantity to Benjamin Franklin, President of the Pennsylvanian Society for the Abolition of Slavery. He wrote to Franklin, “I embrace the opportunity to inclose for the use of your Excellency and friends, a few Cameos on a subject which I am happy to acquaint you is daily more and more taking possession of men’s minds on this side of the Atlantic as well as with you.”

THE DUDOK STYLE

In case anyone is wondering about the mention of in my last post of Hilversum Town Hall, the creation of Dutch architect Willem Dudok, and its influence on the Middlesex County Council (MCC) architects who copied its style, I’ve put a picture of it (left) with a picture of W.T.Curtis’s and William Burchett’s Kenton public library (1939), their iconic MCC building, now listed.

PINNER PARK SCHOOL

I wrote about Pinner Park School in my post about about W.T.Curtis and William Burchett, the Middlesex County architects who were responsible for its innovative design, and commented that there were no usable pictures of it. Now on the Twitter feed of Harrow Old Views there appears a picture of the school under construction in 1933 or 1934, with a group of children and adults. This was taken from the front of the building in Headstone Lane and shows the central staircase tower under construction.

There is another picture from Google, taken from the side in Melbourne Avenue.

Pinner Park School used concrete slab floors supported by pillars in a radical departure from the County architects’ traditional neo-Georgian buildings, which they had been designing up to about 1933. The new methods forced on them by the recession led to the adoption of a new building style modeled on Willem Dudok’s Hilversum Town Hall (1931).

The construction picture, although poor, shows the typical concrete floors and pillars, which were subsequently filled in with panels and facings of brick and large windows, which created well-lit classrooms. It is interesting that there is no scaffolding in place and it must have been put up later.

The presence of pupils at this early stage is also interesting, because, as far as I know, Pinner Park did not replace an earlier school and it provided for the new families in the new houses of Metroland. As it happens, I lived five-minutes’ walk away, and when I first attended the school there were fields between my home and Pinner Park School, where houses were built only in the late 1950s. So where did these children come from? Probably from the surrounding houses in Pinner and North Harrow, eagerly awaiting the opening of their new school, only the second in this new style after Uxendon Manor.