Cheryl Buckley’s Designing Modern Britain advances the persuasive idea, now well established in design history, that there were several modernisms and not merely the modernism of the International Style and the Bauhaus. Among these modernisms were the Georgian revival and the modern labour-saving home with its Tudorbethan exterior. But Buckley, I think, overstates the degree to which the different strands of design moved in parallel and in the same direction, especially in the art schools.
She describes the Stoke-on-Trent schools, which were led in the 1930s by the successful designer Gordon Forsyth, as one of the strands of this diverse modernism, and also Alfred and Louise Powell’s designs for Wedgwood. But unless you apply the term “modernism” to every contemporary happening, and minimise differences of style and appearance, these trends were far from modernist.
The Powells were in the long tail of the Arts and Crafts movement, which continued until 1945, and they were connected to it both through their designs and their social philosophy. Describing their work for Wedgwood as “mass-produced”, as Buckley does, is wide of the mark. Their designs were traditional, they revived the dying craft techniques of hand-decoration and they shunned the mass-produced method of transfer printing that was used by the makers of cheap pottery like A & G Meakin.
Forsyth is more difficult to classify. His designs for pottery were similar to the Powells, even down to the successful use of lustre (above), and they were very much in the Arts and Crafts tradition. But he was sympathetic to modern production methods. In his review of 20th Century Ceramics (1936) he asserted, “A wholly artificial gulf has been created between the studio potter and the large-scale manufacturer. Sometimes studio pottery is dismissed as being ineffective ‘Art and Crafty’ productions, technically defective. This is in the main wholly erroneous and unjust criticism of studio potters, but it is equally erroneous for studio potters to think that all manufacturers are Philistines and only concerned with commercial and technical success.” Nevertheless his survey is heavy on art pottery and and light on mass production.
Buckley says that there were art schools in Britain in the 1920s that were modernist in approach if not in name. This is an interesting assertion, but if there were such schools I haven’t come across them yet. The Arts and Crafts influence came to bear on the art schools from the 1880s and it wasn’t fully felt until the early 1900s. Charles Holmes’s illustrated review of art schools in 1916 showed them to be totally Arts and Crafts in their approach – the title of his book is actually Arts and Crafts. In the 1920s William Rothenstein at the RCA hired E. W. Tristram, a deep-dyed medievalist, to replace the Arts and Crafts practitioner Anning Bell as head of design. Admittedly he also hired William Staite Murray as pottery instructor, and Staite Murray’s ceramics were praised by arch-modernist Herbert Read; but Staite Murray was wedded to craft techniques and opposed the admission to the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society of designers for industry. The Stoke-on-Trent art schools were certainly, as Buckley says, keen to cement their links with modern manufacturers, but they were not modernist in outlook, and in 1919 government inspectors had judged their efforts to provide technical instruction to be “feeble and inadequate”.
In the 1920s and 1930s design was still broadly conceived as surface decoration, and the main focus of design reformers was improving the appearance and tastefulness of consumer goods. The design profession was in its infancy and it didn’t grow up until the 1950s. The recognition of “other modernisms” is a useful corrective to the self-serving narrative of modernists, but the art schools before the war were not modernist in any meaningful sense