William Rothenstein (left) was principal of he Royal College of Art from 1920 to 1935. It’s hard to believe it now, but when he took over, the RCA was a pretty poor art school and its reputation was low. Rothenstein revolutionized it. He thought it was stuck in an Arts-and-Crafts time warp, and although he had little time for the modern movement (he called Cézanne’s followers “ces ânes”, these asses) he wanted to bring the college up to date by hiring top artists who would have studios there and teach part time.

The the Arts and Crafts movement was the gateway to modernism and in sculpture it influenced the move away from modelling towards direct carving, as illustrated in Tate Britain’s exhibition “Barbara Hepworth: Sculpture for a Modern World“. (Hepworth and Henry Moore were RCA students under Rothenstein.) But in design it was overtaken by more forward looking movements. Rothenstein said,”It is important we should not fall behind the Continental industries, and the freshness of design, execution and subject matter which is characteristic of the best French, German and Austrian work has not been sufficiently encouraged and sought for at the College.” The book accompanying the Hepworth exhibition has something about pottery at the RCA that I hadn’t seen before. In 1920 Rothenstein was happy to go along withe the painted pottery taught there by Billington, and he wanted to help her by bringing in Alfred and Louise Powell as instructors; by 1924 he had discovered William Staite Murray, who was making big, sculptural vessels in a totally new way. One of Rothenstein’s ideas for reform, as shown by a letter quoted in the book, was to bring together the woodwork and pottery studios. It didn’t happen, but it was a good idea. When the Bauhaus-inspired Basic Design course was developed at the Central School of Arts and Crafts after the Second World War, that sort of cross fertilization really took off. Billington’s pottery students there worked with sculptors William Turnbull  and Eduardo Paolozzi and the painter Alan Davie. Paolozzi, who had quite an influence in the pottery studio, was himself based in in the textile department.

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