In my last post about the radicalism of Omega designs at around the time of the First World War, I mentioned that the context in which they were produced was the dominance of Arts and Crafts design. Art history focuses on innovation and the history of this period tends to be the history of Post-Impressionism, Cubism, Futurism and Expressionism, so, even if we understand that Omega were designing for a minority with avant-garde tastes, we can easily overlook the fact that the taste of most design-aware people was based on styles developed in the 1880s.
In 1916, Charles Holme, editor of The Studio, published Arts & Crafts – A Review of the Work Executed by Students in the Leading Art Schools, from which the illustrations here are taken –a fascinating record of what students were being taught at that time. Since the 1880s, many art school principals and lecturers had been drawn from members of the Art Workers Guild, and by the turn of the century the Arts and Crafts influence was firmly established. Both style and teaching methods changed, with a new emphasis on “designing in materials” rather than on paper. And as Holme’s illustrations demonstrate, art students were producing nothing like the Post-Impressionist and quasi-abstract designs of the Omega Workshops.
Charleston Farmhouse have an exhibition about Omega Workshops with a small collection of rarely seen items. The painted box above (maker unknown) illustrates the way they brilliantly expressed Post-impressionism in their output.
Without context it’s hard to appreciate how radical their designs were. The Arts and Craft style was dominant. All the art schools in Britain were teaching it in their design departments. Roger Fry was understandably frosty. The leaders of the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society were getting old and he found them to be precious and moralistic. Nevertheless, for commercial reasons, he negotiated a stand for Omega in their 1916 exhibition.
Omega had an impressive unity of design. They embraced colour, abstraction and a narrow range of motifs that makes everything hang together. Charleston itself developed a coherent palette of grey, black, slate blue, dusty pink and mustard yellow, which you can see in embryo in this rug designed by Duncan Grant and executed by Vanessa Bell in 1913.
Omega differed from the Arts and Crafts not only in design but also in their indifference to execution, which was cheerfully amateurish. The Workshops were set up to provide employment to artists, not to advance industrial design or to elevate craftsmanship. They bought furniture to decorate and did not make it. Their surface decoration was startling but their products were shoddy. The best are their textiles, designed by them but manufactured in France. Omega was not part of the design movement emerging from the Arts and Crafts. They had no connection with the Design and Industries Association in Britain or the Werkbund in Germany. They led nowhere. They carried out impressive house design contracts for friends of Bloomsbury but they had no followers or influence and, artistically, Omega, Bloomsbury and Charleston were out of the current of 20th century design and were uninterested in it.
I’m looking at photos in the Central St Martins archive showing the ceramics class and students’ work in the mid 20th century, to find images to borrow for the exhibition about Dora Billington that I’m curating at the Crafts Study Centre.
The archive has artefacts as well as documents and I was amazed to find that they have a collection of the pigments Billington used. They are in paper packets and they’re dated, some with dates from the 1920s when she started teaching at the Central. They are remarkable because Billington, who had no children, has left no archive and no personal effects and nothing if her survives apart from her own pottery, which will form the core of the exhibition.
The pigments might not have survived. The archivist told me that Billington left some of her effects to Ian Auld, whom she’d taught and who had worked as her technician. Auld married Gillian Lowndes, of a later generation of Central students (and the most original ceramist of that period.) Auld and Lowndes died several years ago, but their daughter thoughtfully donated this interesting item.
We were in Sheffield a couple of weeks ago and went into the Blue Moon Cafe in the city centre to meet Bill Clark, its avuncular owner (above righ) to catch up on old times. Bill has been talking about retiring for a few years but doesn’t seem to have any real intention to do so and can be seen in the cafe most days.
The Blue Moon has strong links with the community – there’s a community noticeboard and the day of our visit they were preparing a fundraising evening for refugee migrants. And in a thoughtful act of public service, they let you know the time in cities around South Yorkshire.
I saw the RIBA’s exhibition Beyond Bauhauson Saturday, which charts the influence of Walter Gropius, László Moholy-Nagy and Walter Breuer during and after the years when they lived in England.
As I live in Hertfordshire, I was intrigued to discover that the rapid school-building programme in the county after the Second World War was implemented by by a team of architects under Charles Aslin (above), whose debt to Gropius was explicit. The population was growing fast and there was great demand for schools. The county architects, backed by the director of education, John Newsom, who was reputed to be good at sourcing materials in a time of scarcity, devised a standard prefabricated model, mainly used for single-storey buildings and making great use of natural light, colour and art.
I’d noticed the criss-cross ceiling girders in nearly every Hertfordshire school I visited (below)- round the corner from me is Margaret Wix Primary School built on such a model. My daughter went to St Albans Girls School, also built like that, with a Barbara Hepworth sculpture in the foyer. The Hertfordshire achievement was quickly recognised and it influenced school building elsewhere – by 1970 about 40 per cent of British schools had used it.
The exhibition made me curious about the primary school I’d attended, Pinner Park, then part of Middlesex County Council. When we’re children we accept the world as it presents itself and have little sense of context or history, but looking back I remember a modernist building with flat roofs and metal-framed windows. I discovered it was of the many modernist buildings constructed before the war by Middlesex County architects William Thomas Curtis and his assistant Howard William Burchett. They created dozens of public buildings in Metroland , including the now-listed Kenton Public Library (below), recognisable from their brick construction, strong horizontal emphasis, flat roofs and prominent staircase tower. They used innovative methods and materials such as the concrete slab floors supported by pillars at Pinner Park School.
Historic England’s description of Kenton Public Library gives an idea of Curtis and Burchett’s style and influences:
The square tower has two small, latter projections on the south-east corner, one of brick and one glazed. Both wings lit by tall metal windows. Entrance hall lit by east wall of glass bricks. Interior: original staircase, issuing desk and screen, and original bookcases. The main reading room is both side-lit and top-lit by means of circular perforated openings. Included as a good example of the Middlesex County Architect’s Department’s style adopted after 1933, owing much to the work of Wittem Dudok in Hilversum, yet giving a distinctive architectural form of calibre and panache to the London suburbs. This example is especially notable for its boldly geometric composition and the survival of internal fittings.
A picture of this 1910 women’s suffrage banner, juxtaposing Arts and Crafts irises and the hammers and horseshoes that the Suffragettes used to break shop windows with, was tweeted by @womensart1.
My first thought was, “Did it have anything to do with May Morris?” considering that she was an important Arts and Crafts embroiderer and had been an active socialist since she joined the Hammersmith Socialist League, which was run by her father William Morris. She was largely responsible for the revival of free hand embroidery and taught it at the Central School of Arts and Crafts.
I found Elizabeth Crawford’s blog about a Suffrage Procession organised by the Womens’ Union of Suffrage Societies in 1908, featuring banners designed by the Artists’ League for Women’s Suffrage, including some made by May Morris. Anna Mason writes of Morris’s political engagement that she was not militant and that during her father’s period of political activity in the 1880s she did not like the idea that he might be arrested. So it may be that she was not associated with the window-breaking Suffragettes; and in 1910 she had long departed from Hammersmith and was living in Oxfordshire.