Sotheby’s London have on show the Sassoon Codex, the oldest complete Hebrew Bible, prior to its sale in New York in May. It will travel to Tel Aviv before being shown in the USA, where it’s expected to fetch about $40m. I went to see it on Friday in a room where there is also on display, appropriately enough, a collection of paintings by Marc Chagall. The codex is named after a previous owner, David Solomon Sassoon, a bibliophile and conoisseur of Hebrew manuscripts who had, by his death in 1942, accumulated a large and precious collection. Sotheby’s are selling it on behalf of its current owner Jacqui Safra, a Swiss-Lebanese investor associated with the film industry.
David Solomon Sassoon, a previous owner of the codex.
The Sassoon Codex dates from the late 9th or early 10th century and is complete but for 12 leaves. It predates the final, authoritative Masoretic text and has tiny marginal notes by Masoretic scribes. It’s written with vowels and cantillation marks to indicate the correct way of pronouncing and chanting the text.
The Codex open at Chronicles, Chapter 20
Apart from the intrinsic fascination of being able to see this extremely rare book, hand-written Bibles of this sort are beautiful on account of their lovely handwriting. The flowing calligraphy is characteristic of manuscripts from the near east.
BBC Four broadcast Emma Dante’s beautiful, eccentric, poignant film last night, a deserved winner of the 2020 Italian Golden Globes award. I particularly liked this scene with Franco Battiato’s song Inverno.
Edward Bawden (1903-1989) was a witty observer of contemporary life and his designs are a good record of mid-20th century England. He was arguably one of the greatest British graphic artists of the period. His work appeals to me partly because I was trained to do graphic work like his: at school, our Slade-trained teacher showed us how to design posters and book jackets designs using bold outline, flat colour, simple shapes, counterchange and hand-drawn lettering, and she showed us us Bawden’s work to inspire us. Every graphic designer had to be able to do hand-drawn lettering then and we spent hours learning the dimensions of the Gill Sans font.
Bawden was a CBE, a Royal Academician, a trustee of the Tate Gallery and received many other honours. He achieved success and recognition through the quality of his work and presumably because of his dedication, but he was shy and didn’t push himself. It’s hard to imagine an artist without push achieving such success today. He was prolific and there are scores of books, magazines, posters and ephemera to be found with his designs. His work remains popular and he’s held in great affection. He bequeathed his work to the Cecil Higgins Gallery in Bedford, who occasionally put on exhibitions. He was a war artist and did serious graphic work in France and the Middle East.
Cairo, the Citadel: On the Roof of the Officers’ Mess, c.1941. Tate Gallery
In her obituary in The Independent, Frances Spalding said, “He recognised no distinction between the artist and the designer. His interest in craftsmanship placed him in a tradition that looks back to the Arts and Crafts Movement.” Digital design has made nearly all of Bawden’s methods antique. There are still good illustrators around but it’s now possible to get by as a graphic designer without being able to draw at all: a designer recently admitted to me that she couldn’t make original images and relied on what she could download from online libraries.
Bawden had a small circle of friends and didn’t relish public engagements. Spalding relates that, late in life, when he was deaf, he was persuaded to go to a dinner held by Tarmac, whom he’d done some designs for. One of the directors talked to him at length about Tarmac’s charitable work while Bawden doggedly ate his dinner. His interlocutor spoke louder and louder and finally asked him what charities he thought Tarmac should be supporting. “Road accidents?” he suggested.
Peyton Skipwith, who promoted his work, recalls that Bawden had a curious love of money coupled with a strong disdain for it. When Skipwith put some of Bawden’s drawings on sale, Bawden pretended to be horrified at the price asked, but became content when Skipwith suggested he cross the road and look at the price of shoes. “With typical perversity, from then on he insisted that I always checked the price of shoes before pricing his own work.”
Bawden was educated at the Cambridge School of Art and the Royal College of Art (RCA), where went on a scholarship in lettering and calligraphy. One of his teachers at the RCA was Paul Nash, from whom he learned the use of the starved brush dipped in dry paint and dragged across the paper to leave streaks of white showing under the colour. The technique was used to even better effect by Bawden’s friend and contemporary at the RCA, Eric Ravilious.
Bawden’s strength was his ability to design for print. He made many lithographs and linocuts, typically printed in four or five flat colours, which transferred well to the commercial press. While still a student, he was taken up by Harold Curwen of the Curwen Press and asked to design a booklet for Carter Stabler and Adams of the Poole Pottery. Bawden spent a year working at Curwen and acquired a thorough knowledge of reproduction methods. Harold Curwen changed his stolid family firm into one of the artistically most important and technically most advanced presses of the 20th century. Bawden’s work was part of its artistic transformation.
Bawden became better known in 1928 when he was asked to do the drawings for a series of press adverts for Shell-Mex and BP (above). These had amusing captions and amusing drawings – Bawden said that in the 1920s, “amusing” was a widespread term of approval. Press illustration until that time had tended to be either literal or comic and Bawden’s approach to the Shell ads drawing was considered “modern”. He then went on to work for Midland Bank, Twinings, Fortnum and Mason, London Transport, the Folio Society and the Saffron Walden Labour Party. His pictures for Midland Bank were amusing. The little picture below for Midland Bank recalls Alfred Wallis, the naïve Cornish painter.
His illustrations for the Folio Gulliver’s Travels (below) (1965) were lithographs printed in flat red, blue, grey, black and yellow inks, not in half-tone. By changing the dominant colour in each picture and the way in which one colour is printed over another, which yields another colour, Bawden achieved greater richness and variety than you would think possible with five inks. This method is now more expensive than full colour printing.
His design for Fortnum and Mason uses black, grey and red. The line drawing has the quality of woodcut and the tones are varied by Bawden’s use of solid washes, sponging and shading with parallel lines.
His monochrome drawing of the penguin pool at London Zoo done in the 1930s is treated sparely, with little black, and captures the brilliant white of Lubetkin’s design.
Bawden’s work may not have developed much but he had a wide repertoire of styles and methods. He illustrated cookery books by Ambrose Heath, now so old-fashioned that the books are only worth collecting for Bawden’s decorations. The title page of Good Soups demonstrates his skill at varying line weight and depth of black, his ability to suggest colour through the counterchange in the roundels in the margin (black-on-white on the left, white-on-black on the right) and his educated hand lettering. The bird stealing the pea is typical.
Our local florist’s had all the girls in today to deal with the rush for Valentine’s Day bouquets. I’ve never seen so many flowers in such a small space, with dozens of bunches ready for collection, the floor ankle-deep in leaves and trimmings and the shop crammed with big, tough men queuing up for their two dozen red roses.
As 14th February is the florists’ busiest day, you’d think that St Valentine would be their patron saint, but he’s not. He’s the patron of love and happy marriage of course, but also of beekeepers, the mentally ill, plague, and epilepsy.
The patron saint of florists is Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face (1873 – 1897), popularly known as the Little Flower of Jesus. She was sanctified only in 1925, so the poor, hard-working florists only got themselves a patron a hundred years ago.
Michael T. Saler’s The Avant-Garde in Interwar England is an account of the English version of modernism that carried forward the social ideals of the Arts and Crafts Movement, focussing on Frank Pick (above), the boss of London Underground, who commissioned the modernist stations of the Piccadilly, Northern and Metropolitan Lines and a raft of avant garde posters for the Underground.
Pick played a leading role in the Design and Industries Association (DIA) and the Council for Art and Industry (CAI) putting him at the centre of design reform.
The CAI , which stood in a line that linked the Chamber of Horrors in the South Kensington Museum to the Design Council, was central to the art and industry debate of the 1930s, which sought to raise the standard of consumer products, ostensibly because better design would improve sales and exports. It saw the need to raise the sights of industrialists and to improve the taste of consumers. But why, if poor design was a brake on sales, was it necessary to improve consumer taste? If the consumer had poor taste, he or she would not discriminate between well-designed goods and badly-designed goods and badly-designed goods would sell just as well as good.
Saler solves this conundrum. The idea of fitness for purpose that drove the modernism of the DIA, the CAI and Pick’s Underground was, he says, more than the physical usefulness of objects: it entailed moral and spiritual fitness as well. As Pick put it, “Fitness for purpose must transcend the merely practical and serve a moral and spiritual order as well. There is moral and spiritual fitness to be satisfied. We know it sure enough when we see it.” Good design was not merely a matter of taste, understood as consumer preference, but was an objective standard with moral and spiritual significance. The ideas of good design that ran from the 1830s to the 1960s are difficult to understand from a modern prespective in which there are no aesthetic absolutes or general agreement and in which one design is thought to be as good as another. Standards of good design were ascertainable by a cultural elite who posessed taste and discrimination, which they were obliged to impart to manufacturers and the public. Good design was associated with planning and state direction and was not to be left to the vagaries of the market.
Thoreau’s Walden is never out of print now and has gone through innumerable editions, but it was a long time getting started and it wasn’t a successful venture for the author, who produced it at his own expense and sold few copies of it. One of the nicest editions I’ve seen is this one by the Lakeside Press, Chicago, published in 1930 and designed by Rudolph Ruzika. It was printed in an edition of 1,000 copies and sold with a slip case (unfortunately absent in the copy I picked up at Camden Lock a few years ago).
It’s illustrated with Ruzika’s delicate and well-suited line drawings. They are numerous, most of them occupying a full page, with small illustrations over each chapter heading. It’s letterpress printed on a cream laid paper in Fournier type, with wide margins and perfect spacing, a really lovely book.
In a way the form is at odds with the content, because Walden is a very puritanical text. It’s remained popular because of Thoreau’s sharp barbs aimed at civilised society — where, as he says, a man cares more if he tears his trousers than if he breaks his leg — combined with his detailed observations of nature.
Thoreau’s advocacy of the simple life in the book is sometimes extreme: not only does he eschew alcohol and tobacco but he deprecates tea and coffee and says he prefers water; and not only does he eat a plain diet of vegetables with the addition of a few fish that he’s caught, but he finds the whole business of eating too gross and material and thinks it’s better that people shouldn’t work so hard because it makes them need food.
William Bower Dalton (above) (1868-1965) was one of the pioneer studio potters, making ground-breaking experiments in Chinese-style stoneware glazes and presiding over the Camberwell College of Arts and Crafts from 1899 to 1919 during a period of rapid expansion, including a pottery class run by Richard Lunn. By the time Dalton retired in 1919, Camberwell had become, in the opinion of many contemporaries, the best art school for pottery teaching in Britain.
I was pleased to be able to see an unusually fine collection of Dalton’s pottery yesterday, which gave an insight into his work and the way it developed. He was fortunate after retiring from Camberwell at the age of fifty-one to have sufficient means to make pottery as he wished and to experiment freely without the pressure of selling. What I hadn’t realised is that he spent the last twenty years of his very long life in the USA, where, when he was in his seventies and his eighties, he established a reputation as a potter in the 1940s and 1950s, exhibiting in New England and New York.
The collection covers Dalton’s whole career and shows the many influences that came to bear on it. He shared his interest in Chinese glazes with his students Reginald Wells and William Staite Murray, and though he knew Bernard Leach, Dalton’s trajectory appears to have been independent of his. In the 1920s, when figure modelling became fashionable, Dalton made some small ceramic sculptures. He knew Gwendolen Parnell but his work is far closer in teachnique and appearance to the ceramic figures that Wells made. There are also vessels similar in style, colour and surface texture to those of Staite Murray.
One of the outstanding qualities of Dalton’s ceramics is their surface decoration, which in modern studio pottery is variable, sometimes consisting merely of dabs and splashes, but Dalton could draw well and he had a good sense of balance and rhythm and made fine surface marks and sometimes added lettering to vessels otherwise Chinese in feeling.
His serious interest in high-fired glazes (above) developed in the 1920s. Before that date (he conveniently dated his pots) there are ceramics in the Turkish and Persian style (below) with polychrome decoration on a white ground. (The images are from Jane Bailey’s paper on Dalton in the Journal of the Decorative Arts Society.)
These add to the evidence of the prevalence in early studio pottery of an interest in the Middle East rather than the Far East, also preferred by Richard Lunn in his courses at Camberwell and the Royal College of Art, by William de Morgan, Alfred and Louise Powell and Gordon Forsyth, an important tendency that has been rather sidelined in the histories of studio pottery.