SEASIDE MORRIS DANCING

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I’m working on a series of drawings of Morris dancers in English seaside resorts. I’ve been fascinated by this tradition for years, particularly Border Morris because of the way its dress updates a tradition with punk elements and random collections of ornamentation. (The dancer below had sausages in her hat.) And I connect the dancers with the seaside because that’s where I’ve come across them, like modern end-of- the-pier shows.

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Border Morris goes in for weird dress and violent dancing, which involve shouting  and striking sticks together, and some dancers introduce modern instruments like saxophones and electric guitars. Like all traditions, this one is curated, continually re-invented, altered and embellished.

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But Border Morris (unlike the bells-and-hankies type of Morris dancing from the Cotswolds) has become embroiled in controversy because its traditional dance requires black face, which, with the dancers’ penchant for sunglasses, makes their performance look even more malevolent. A Border Morris side in black face was recently stopped from performing in Birmingham, the first time they have been challenged. The bemused response of the dancers is to say that black face has nothing to do with racism and originated in the need of dancers to disguise themselves. But others have said that this story is repeated from an assertion by Cecil Sharpe without evidence, and that there is evidence to the contrary of the co-incidence of black face Morris with black face minstrel shows, and of 19th century dancers talking of “going niggering”. Compared with Cotswold Morris, Border Morris has a sinister back story which its supporters are unaware of. I expect that in a rapidly changing climate it will have to re-invent itself again.

The English seaside resort also has an uncomfortable history. It has been in decline for fifty years and seaside towns are among the most socially deprived in the country, but there is also a steep social gradient on the coast – between, say, chic Deal and squalid Margate.

 

DAVID PYE

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It will be obvious from my comments about Ruskin that I’m an admirer of David Pye, (above) who was the first person to talk sense about the crafts. Here’s a quotation from The Independent‘s obituary:

In The Nature of Design (1964), Pye exposed functionalism as fantasy. ‘Things simply are not ‘fit for their purpose’. At one time a flake of flint was fit for the purpose of surgery; and stainless steel is not fit for the purpose now. Everything we design and make is an improvisation, a lash-up, something inept and provisional. We live like castaways. But, even at that, we can be debonair and make the best of it. If we cannot have our way in performance, we will have it in appearance.’

WINCHESTER CATHEDRAL

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In Winchester I looked in at the Cathedral, which, in the bicentenary of Ruskin’s birth, made me think of The Nature of Gothic.

Ruskin said that Gothic ornament was made by uneducated men who were allowed to do the best they could without direction, and because it was the expression of free labour it was bound to be rough and imperfect. The 19th century demanded perfection and accuracy and made workmen into slaves because that could only be achieved if they were told exactly what to do and weren’t allowed to be inventive.

I couldn’t see how this applied to Winchester. The stone carving is accurate and regular and the workmen were not free to work as they pleased and to invent as they worked.

Ruskin’s dislike of factories was understandable in the conditions of the mid-19th century, but he mythologised pre-industrial work and created false antinomies between supposedly rough pre-industrial workmanship and smooth modern workmanship

A S HANDOVER

I was demonstrating my painting of tin-glazed ceramics and noticed that one of my visitors was watching me keenly. Customers who are that interested are often evening-class potters.

“Hello. Do you make pottery yourself?”

“No, I make brushes.”

“Really? Who do you work for?”

“A S Handover.”

“What a coincidence. I always use your brushes.”

“I thought so. That’s a 2115, isn’t it?”

“Yes.”

“Blimey, I came out on my day off, and I can’t get away from work.”

IMITATING CRAFT

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Since my visit to Top Drawer, where I saw how artisanal goods are so on trend that manufacturers of consumer products are striving to make their things look hand-made, I’ve been on the lookout for other ceramic tableware like that and I went straight to Denby, who have been aware of the craft niche since the 1960s. Denby “Halo” (above) uses a complex streaked glaze similar to that used by studio potters.

The idea of making things that look like craft products raises the question, “What does a craft product look like?” I keep going back to David Pye, who is one of the few people to talk sense about making, and who said, “Workmanship of the better sort is called, in an honorific way, craftsmanship. Nobody, however, is prepared to say where craftsmanship ends and ordinary manufacture begins.” (The Nature and Art of Workmanship) He didn’t think the term “craft” was particularly useful and preferred to distinguish between two kinds of workmanship, the workmanship of risk and the workmanship of certainty. The use of machinery helped to produce the regular, finished and repeatable products of the latter kind, but he further questioned the distinction between hand work and machine work, since – as everyone has known for a long time – a machine is a tool driven by some motive force, and the difference between hand power, water, steam or electricity is not important. He concluded that it was impossible to tell by looking at something whether it is the work of a “craftsman” or not.

Since it is difficult to tell from an object’s appearance whether it was made by a “craftsman” or was “manufactured”, the craftsman look can be easily produced under factory conditions.  In case there’s any doubt, the mugs below, by potter Chris Keenan, are handmade and look similar to the pottery made in Denby’s factory.

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TOWARDS A STANDARD

The art and industry movement of the thirties wanted to integrate artists into industry, improve the standard of consumer goods, democratise art and improve public taste. There was a strong interest in education, and Frank Pick, who was one of the leading figures of the Council for Art and Industry, used his influence to nudge the Royal College of Arts towards the teaching of industrial design and hastened the resignation of William Rothenstein as principal.

I said earlier that this movement for design reform and education reform was able to push forward on all fronts like this – on the industrial front, persuading manufacturers that their products needed to be better designed, and on the consumer front, dissuading shoppers from buying badly-designed objects – because of its belief in objective standards of beauty and the spiritual potential of good design.

This commitment to objective artistic standards answered a question that had puzzled me: Why, if poor design was supposed to be a brake on sales was it necessary to educate the consumer in good design?

Another puzzle had been an influential essay written at the end of the 1930s by Bernard Leach, Towards a Standard. Towards a Standard is the opening chapter of Leach’s A Potter’s Book, which has been in print since 1940 and which has shaped the thinking of generations of potters. It expresses an anti-industrial philosophy as severe as anything in Ruskin and I read it as a restatement of the Arts and Crafts philosophy. Leach was active in the rearguard of the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society, utterly opposing its engagement with industry, and he resigned over its acceptance of items designed for manufacturing in its 1938 exhibition.

Leach took an anti-intellectual line in his essay, in fact an irrationalist line, in which I read the ideas of Bergson, although I don’t have any direct evidence that Leach had read Bergson. But Bergson’s influence was great in the interwar years and the frequency of terms like “vitality” in art criticism and in Leach’s writing, come from him indirectly if not directly.

Leach thought pottery could help to regenerate a civilisation marred by industry and ravaged by war and political conflict. The standard that potters were supposed to follow was absolute and unchanging, was not personal taste and was most certainly not a matter of consumer preference.

Thus in the modernist culture of the Council for Art and Industry and the anti-modernist aesthetic of A Potter’s Book, there is the same crusade to establish an absolute standard for artists and a mission among a benighted public who don’t appreciate “good design” or what they ought to have in their homes.