As well as the revival of figurative ceramics by manufacturers like Doulton and Meissen in the early 20th-century, there was a revival among the studio potters. In England the most high-profile of these was Gwendolen Parnell, who was also the most invested in Rococo. Of her figures in Georgian dress, the most famous was her series based on The Beggar’s Opera, which had a phenomenally successful three-year run in London in the 1920s. The show inspired other modellers too. This Georgianism in ceramics was an interesting pendant to the wider Georgian revival that found in the architecture and furniture of the period an anticipation of modernist values of simplicity and reserve. But of course, its aesthetics were very different.
Some of Parnell’s figures were a pastiche of 18th-century Chelsea porcelain, replete with bocage and scrolled bases. The most outstanding, in my judgement, was the figure group called The Pompadour, which is in National Museums Scotland.
It has two ladies and a gentleman on a rustic seat with a lamb at their feet. The young man is in attractive déshabillé; one lady holds a fan, the other a tambour frame. Its affinity to Rococo shepherdesses is obvious. The title refers to the period and the pinks and purples, but it’s also bound to recall Boucher’s portraits. Parnell’s ladies, however, aren’t shown to have the serious intellectual interests that Boucher depicted – his Pompadour often has a book in her hands.
Figurative ceramics underwent a revival in the first part of the 20th century, with Doulton beginning a series of modelled figures in Britain just before the First World War, Meissen advancing its tradition of figure-making with the recruitment of new modellers in Germany, and parallel developments in Austria, Hungary, Denmark and Italy. Within modelling there was a strong counter-current to modernism, a revival of Rococo, an inevitable dialogue with 18th-century porcelain, whether Chelsea or Dresden.
Vally Wieselthier (1895 – 1945), lead ceramicist of the Weiner Werkstätte, won Gold at the Paris Expo in 1925 for her figure Vanity, a remarkable fantasy in porcelain reminiscent of Dresden but wholly modern, playful and mocking, showing a woman at her toilette with African and Chinese attendants. Vanity was not unique though, and a similar piece, Lady with a Moor, had been designed by Paul Scheurich, a brilliant sculptor employed by Meissen, in 1919. Scheurich’s clothed figure, however, is less ironic, more restrained.
The similarity of Wieselthier’s and Scheurichs’ work disguises different artists and very different intentions. Wieselthier was from a bourgeois Jewish Viennese family. Vanity was in many way an untypical work. Her other ceramics were more experimental and expressionistic. In 1928 she left Vienna for New York and established her career there before her premature death.
Sheurich (1883 – 1945) was a much more establishment figure, designing German banknotes in the 1920s and 1930s, continuing to work under the Nazis, for whom he designed a tapestry at the Reich Propaganda Ministry. As early as 1907 he had illustrated an anti-Semitic pamphlet in Berlin about the “Judaization” of the theatre.
Reading Gordon Forsyth’s review of the ceramics entries in the Paris Expo 1925 I came across a reference to Jean René Gaugin, a ceramic sculptor I’d never heard of before. He was indeed related to Paul Gaugin, one of his five children with Mette-Sophie Gad, though he barely knew his father and they could not communicate because Jean René was raised in Denmark and did not speak French and his father did not speak Danish.
Jean René was working for Bing and Grøndahl in 1925, with whom he achieved considerable success, and then went on to work for Sèvres. This fine Rape of Europa is dated 1925, though I don’t know if it was exhibited at Paris. Below the headline items like the Art Deco of Lalique and the Corbusier pavilion it’s actually quite difficult to find out what was exhibited there. More catalogues are available online now but they sometimes lack detail and they usually lack pictures. In fact, there are few pictures of the many thousands of exhibits at Paris.
Forsyth lavished praise on the Danish exhibitors, but it was surprising, given that Jean René Gaugin is now so little known, that he declared him to be ‘one of the greatest artists that have ever worked in pottery’.
Although it’s of little importance to the economy or the health of the nation, research has been on hold for a year because of lockdown. One of the last things I did before the first lockdown was to visit the National Art Library. That’s closed until further notice, but yesterday I went to the British Library.
It felt pretty desolate. It’s open to readers, who sit a long way away from each other in masks, but there are no students in the public areas with their Mac Airs, no cafés, and almost no visitors other than researchers.
The one-way system is complicated by the building works under way. There’s a notice saying, ‘Please be patient. This is strange for us too.’