THE CRAFTS STUDY CENTRE

Dora Billington with students at the Central School of Arts and Crafts, 1950s.

The Crafts Study Centre in Farnham, part of the University of the Creative Arts, houses a valuable collection and archive of British crafts from the early 20th century, including a very full Bernard Leach archive. For several years I’ve been planning an exhibition there about the potter Dora Billington, who was a leading ceramic educator until the 1960s. I’ve been greatly helped by the Centre’s chairperson, Alison Britton, its director, Simon Olding and curator Greta Bertram, and after delays due to Covid the exhibition was scheduled for autumn this year.

Unfortunately the University has become a victim of Long Covid. After its activities were curtailed in 2020 and 2021, it’s returning to normal but in a weakened state and with several compromised organs. One of them is the Crafts Study Centre, which has ben forced to cancel the Dora Billington exhibition.

Here in its place are pictures of some Billington pottery.

BERNARD LEACH: 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 Art 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: If poor design was supposed to be a brake on sales, because customers wanted good design, why was it necessary to educate public taste? The answer is that design reformers thought they knew better than everyone.

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 Henri Bergson. There is no evidence that Leach had read Bergson and Emmanuel Cooper’s biography, based on Leach’s diaries and correspondence finds no mention of him. Creative Evolution is exactly the sort of book one would have expected Leach to read and to have talked about if he had read it, but he does not. Bergson’s influence was great in the interwar years and terms like “vitality” in Leach’s writing and criticism were absorbed from his cultural environment.

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.