The Kingston Lacy guidebook notes that Rubens’ Marchesa Maria Grimaldi (above) is one of the most important works of art in the house, but the painting is not labelled and few of the other many important paintings, which include some by Titian, Jan Breughel the Younger and Sir Peter Lely are labelled either, far less described. There is no description whatever of furniture, ceramics and other items. The volunteer guides are as helpful as they can be but they are not art historians and they are not provided with a catalogue of the works they are looking after and cannot answer every question. In fact, the volunteer I spoke to had ferreted out information for herself, for which I was grateful. Nor is there a catalogue available to the public.
I was told today that information sheets were removed because the repeated handling was thought to be unhygienic. Museums and art galleries place labels on walls next to each object on display. I don’t understand why the National Trust don’t do it or won’t do it.
National Trust houses are museums with the care of important collections of art, but they are not presented properly. Kingston Lacy, one of the National Trust’s most visited properties, has been in its possession for almost forty years, during which time they’ve made extensive improvements, not least to Henrietta Bankes’s kitchen garden, which it was a pleasure to visit. That surely is enough time to attach descriptions to the works of art they hold.
The entrance fee is £18, roughly the entrance fee to a major temporary exhibition in a London museum, which is thoroughly curated and fully explained. Kingston Lacy only has to do that once, but they haven’t. The artworks are doubtless listed on the Art UK website, but, of course, you have to identify them first.
The Trust’s current strategy doesn’t encourage optimism. Its 10-Year Vision talks of the “loyal but dwindling audience” for their historic houses, and suggests that they distance themselves from major national cultural institutions such as the British Museum, the V&A and the Tate.
The Decorative Arts Society have started their guided visits again and the other day I joined them at the William Morris Gallery for a talk by Roisin Inglesby on the the Century Guild exhibition that she has curated. The Guild was a short-lived Arts and Crafts body, started by Arthur Heygate Mackmurdo and Henry Horne and soon joined by Selwyn Image, lasting only from 1882 until 1893, when each member went his own way to follow his particular interests.
I knew little about the Century Guild other than that Pevsner had pointed out that their sinuous designs (above) anticipated Art Nouveau and that fifty years later Mackmurdo was one of the founders of the William Morris Gallery. From the Mackmurdo donation the Gallery has come to have the largest holding of Century Guild artifacts anywhere, which has enabled them to put on this event with little borrowing.
The Guild lacked some of the common prejudices of the Arts and Crafts movement, notably Morris’s dislike of everything Italian, and Horne went on to make a study of Boticelli. They were also less enamoured of Gothic. Their furniture is more classical than anything produced by Morris and Co., as are Mackmurdo’s and Horne’s architectural designs.
The exhibition has textiles, wallpaper and designs on paper that illustrate their use of plant forms and their departure from the symmetry of Morris’s designs. The name of the group refers to their 19th century and indicates a forward-looking attitude. They were designers and were not wedded to the idea of a craft-based economy.
This charming little ceramic figure came into my possession today. It’s about 15cm tall, signed MW and dated 1924 but otherwise unidentifiable. Enquiries have failed to come up with any ceramic modeller with those initials and I shall probably never find out who made it – though surely the artist was a woman? The 1920s were the heyday of this sort of studio-made figurine and there were many good makers who came and went without leaving any permanent trace.
It’s worth mentioning the mysterious MW because this is, technically and artistically speaking, quite a good piece and was made by someone who clearly knew what they were doing. The marks on the base, if we can rely on them, suggest an experienced and fluent artist if not a professional one, because there are several reference numbers suggesting that this was one of a series.
I head the post School of Charles Vyse because the style and method are very much his. It’s cast from a mould, hand painted in underglaze colours with a transparent glaze over it, an informal, everyday subject, and a pattern on the dress like many of Vyse’s figures. If not for the initials I’d say it was by Vyse’s pupils Jessamine Bray and Sylvia Williams of the Dulwich Pottery. Vyse taught at Camberwell and so it may well be by someone who was in his class.
Curious as to how ceramic figures were displayed in their heyday in the 1920s and 1930s (I’ve written about them here and here), I popped down to the University of Sussex archive to read the Mass Observation report on Mantlepieces yesterday. Ceramic figures were produced in large quantities by factories, especially Doulton and Royal Worcester, and by studio potters. In fact, they were so common that, for most people, ‘studio pottery’ meant ceramic figures and not the plain stoneware vessels that it came to mean after the war, something that it’s hard for us to appreciate today. But we really know very little about their place in the home.
Osbert Lancaster included in his sardonic cartoons of Homes Sweet Homes the Modernistic home (above), with its comfortable-looking Art Deco furnishings and its comfortable-looking owner, her nicely curated mantlepiece with a square clock in the centre and figurines on either side. Was that how they were displayed?
Mass Observation was a famously muddled attempt by poet Charles Madge, anthropologist Tom Harrison and filmmaker Humphrey Jennings to make anthropological studies of the British people. There were intriguing results, like the chapter on the Lambeth Walk, the ‘thirties dance fad, in the Penguin book Britain by Mass Observation. But in other studies (MO called them ‘Directives’) the bias and capriciousness of the selections are obvious. In the Mantlepiece Directive, for example, it’s noticeable how many of the subjects are reported to be left-wing in their views and to have books by writers like Dostoevsky on the mantlepiece.
But what about the figurines? In fact there were very few on the mantlepieces observed and the overwhelming impression given in the reports was of chaos. Sociologists reading through the observations today and hoping to find pattern or significance in them have recorded their despair, irritation and ennui. There were 158 MO observers and they listed getting on for three thousand items. Unlike Osbert Lancaster’s Moderne lady, these mantlepiece-owners had little interest in display. There were a few china dogs and crinoline ladies, but on the whole there were random deposits of clocks, pipes, matches, postcards, brass ornaments, photos, vases, ashtrays, pencils, pens, bottles of ink, bowls with collar-studs and paper clips in them, and generally the detritus of everyday life whose classification would be like Luis Borges’ Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge.