I acquired this self-portrait, In The Slow Lane, by David Cheepen, who died last year, from his daughter, who bought it at auction. I was pleased to have it as a memento of him, but how it had come to auction? I found on David’s website that it had belonged to Peter and Alina Peretti, which led to an extraordinary story.

Alina Peretti was born in Poland before the Second World War and had been swept up in the horrors of the German occupation. Last year she published a memoir, Little Bird of Auschwitz, about what had happened to her. In the last few months of the War, following the Warsaw Uprising, in which her father fought, she and her mother and sister were among the thousands of non-Jewish Poles deported to Auschwitz. Her experiences there, which she hardly ever spoke of, cast a shadow over her entire life.

Then, in her nineties, after being diagnosed with dementia, Alina began, with the help of her son, Jaques Peretti, to recall her experiences, which included forced medical experiments and being put in front of a firing squad. She remembered everything perfectly and said that there had never been a day when she hadn’t thought about them.

This connection gives a deeper significance to the painting, for David’s ancestors were Polish Jews.


An interesting feature of all the notes you’ll read about Spanish pottery is that there’s no mention of tin glaze. That’s because virtually all pottery made in Spain is tin glazed, and drawing attention to the fact is like drawing attention to the fact that it’s made of clay. So take it as read that all the pots and tiles shown here are tin glazed.

Above is a large 19th century basin, about 60cm in diameter, from Seville. It’s typical of the basins (lebrillos) made in Triana at that time, the district in Seville where the potters have worked for centuries, vigorously painted on tin glaze in blue, green, yellow and black with a characteristic border and a motif in the centre, either a bird, an animal a portrait or an abstract pattern. They’re made from a pale buff clay, of which there were abundant deposits in Seville and which was the foundation of its ceramic industry.

This dish is from the collection of Laura Salcines, whose excellent shop, Populart, at 4 Passaje de Vila, near the cathedral in Seville, I visited when I was in the city. As Mrs Salcines doesn’t speak English and I don’t speak Spanish, I couldn’t be sure exactly what this superb piece of pottery was used for, but I gathered it had something to do with pork.

There’s a review of ceramics, the Collecion Carranza, in the Alcazar Real, covering the 15th to 19th centuries, with examples of Renaissance, Baroque and Rococo pottery and the azulejos made in Triana, including some fine religious tile paintings. The notes to the exhibition, in English as well as Spanish, are good. The Carranza collection call the age of Baroque tiles the Golden Age, which is moot because a common view outside Spain among artist potters is that the Hispano Moresque period from the 12th to the 15th centuries is the Golden Age and that there was a decline thereafter. Curators and historians, however, for example, Alice Wilson Frothingham, tend to take a broader view, but potters are interested in vessels and Spain has lavished much of its ceramic effort on tiles.

The motivation for the tile makers was often religious and artistic considerations were secondary, so the quality of the drawing is sometimes poor, but but the limitations of the medium – a few colours and the difficulty of correcting what’s been painted on the glaze – result in simplicity and directness. That, and the fact that the colours don’t fade or darken like paint, means that Spain has a wealth of street art, some of it outside churches and some in mundane places, on buildings now used as flats or corner shops.

The Collecion Carranza say –

“During the Baroque period, streets and squares were invaded by numerous examples of religious imagery. In Seville, the tiles reproducing images for devotion became a type of holy painting for exteriors with evident advantages for their preservation. The facades of churches, convents, houses and hospitals, in addition to the religious murals located at many different points throughout the city, fulfilled the task of extending religion to exterior spaces and served as a backdrop for rituals encouraged by the Catholic Church.”

They have documented hundreds of azulejos, mainly religious, in Spain’s churches and other public places, covering a period of over 500 years. They record an essentially conservative art, almost a folk art, except that the painters are specialists in tile painting.

In the Alcazar Real is chapel whose walls are covered in tiles painted with flowers, arabesques and grotesque figures. These paintings, from about 1600, are different from Hispano Moresque painting but they’re just as good in their own way. The colours are rich, dominated here by Naples yellow, and the drawing is fluent. Below are a few panels of fantastic, quasi-human figures.

Our Lady of Hope, the lachryomose Nuestra Señora de la Esperanza, is revered in Seville and is local to Triana, where she’s a constant in the bars alongside the pictures of footballers and bullfighters, all of whom appear to be venerated equally. Tile images of Mary are common, and this one (below), The Virgin of the People, who used to be in the Convento del Popolo and is now in the Museum of Fine Arts, dates from about 1670 and is a very good example of what can be done with a few pigments – in this case, only three – cobalt blue, antimony yellow and manganese purple.

Other saints can be found in very ordinary places, like this St Augustine tucked between the blaconies on the first floor of a house. There’s a larger image of him below.

There are still tile companies around Seville making religious images, like this realistic 1982 Christ (below) outside the Church of SS Francisco and Eulogio in Córdoba, by J. Soriano. Modern work has the advantage of a wider range of colours and is highly finished but it lacks the simple vigour of the older tiles.


Coll IMJ, photo (c) IMJ, By Nachum Slapak

On Facebook, Rabbi Jeremy Gordon drew my attention to this beautiful Hispano-Moresque dish now in the Israel Museum. It’s very large, 57 cm across, decorated in superb detail in gold lustre and blue and with a central inscription in Hebrew which makes it plain that it was designed for a Jewish client to be used in the Passover Seder meal. A timely post, as Passover begins today. It’s an important piece of Judaica because it’s the oldest surviving Seder plate and a record of Jewish life in Spain before the expulsion of 1492.

But the extraordinary thing about this ceramic tour de force is that the inscription is illiterate. It’s supposed to say Pesach Matzah Maror Seder, referring to elements of the ritual meal, but everything is mis-spelled. This is difficult to understand. Spain was a centre of high Jewish culture, with great philosophers like Maimonides and poets like Ibn Gabirol, and it’s hard to credit the rich client who commissioned this item with such illiteracy, for illiteracy is the only credible explanation.

The lustre technique was brought to Moorish Spain from the Middle East and North Africa and it was common for Muslim potters to make ceremonial items for Christians and, as this plate shows, for Jews as well. Asked to decorate a Seder plate, the potters could be expected to be given the wording for the Hebrew inscription. Is it possible that the potters made this item on spec to advertise their skills and had only rough idea of what to write on it? Given the size and complexity of the piece, that seems unlikely. Was the inscription mis-copied? That’s possible too but also unlikely, because the letters are correctly formed, and the potters wouldn’t have known how to write them without a guide. So it remains a mystery, an extraordinary achievement of the potter’s art, with well-formed Hebrew lettering but the product of ignorance.


John Farleigh, illustration to King John, 1958.

After giving a talk to the Society of Designer Craftsmen at the weekend about the debates in the 1930s and 1940s concerning the role of the craft designer in relation to industry, I started to look for more information about John Farleigh, the leader of the group that advocated collaboration and a president of the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society for several years. Farleigh was a key figure in the promotion of the crafts and drove forward the opening of the Crafts Centre in Mayfair after the war. After a series of changes and mergers, the Crafts Centre evolved into the Crafts Council.

I have a copy of G. B. Shaw’s The Black Girl in Search of God, a controversial fable and a satire on religion whose notoriety gave Farleigh’s illustrations good exposure and I looked for some of his other work. I soon came across the Heritage Shakespeare, which has good illustrations and incidentally good typography. Farleigh made wood engravings in two colours for the histories, Edward Ardizzone drew for the comedies and Agnes Miller Parker made wood engravings for the tradegies.


The Guardian reports that several Agatha Christie novels have been edited to remove potentially offensive language, including insults and references to ethnicity. When I was 11 or 12 I was reading all of Enid Blyton’s Adventure books — The Island of Adventure, The Castle of Adventure, and so on. Blyton wasn’t a good writer and she had all the faults of Agatha Christie. I can certainly remember her casual xenophobia, generally expressed in her portrayal of villains as untrustworthy, swarthy foreigners.

But children’s literature has the peculiar and intriguing power of creating a world that the reader can inhabit without absorbing its prejudices, for at the same time as I was reading these books I was, for the first time, taking holidays in the Mediterranean with my family, and I never made any connection between the people we met in Alassio and Riccione, whom I liked, and Blyton’s malevolent southern Europeans.

Does Christie work in the same way? I shudder when I read her contemptuous references to Jews. Her bigotry and prejudice are well-known. Will I like the books better when these references are removed? I doubt if I’ll like them better and I may like them worse if to their exisiting failings is added the vice of blandness. Should I like them better? Christie, like Blyton, is a period piece and I don’t want to be persuaded that they’re good or up-to-date writers. They’re read as bad writers. They’re bad and they should be seen to be bad.


John Farleigh © National Portrait Gallery

This is an edited extract of a talk I gave to the Society of Designer Craftsmen on 25 March.

The debates on art and industry in the 1930s were bound to impinge on the designer craftsman. The progress of manufacturing, modernist ideas and the Wall Street Crash all sowed doubts about the role and purpose of the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society. Within it there emerged a group of reformers who thought a rapprochement with industry was inescapable. They were represented by the wood engraver John Farleigh, who, in 1933, read a paper to the Society, Welcome Machinery! — one of three read before a symposium that year — Farleigh’s, one by J. H. Mason about the place of hand-work in modern civilisation and one by Noel Rooke about the craftsmen and education for industry. Farleigh, Mason and Rooke were all practitioners of fine printing, had all been associated with private presses at one time or another, and all taught at the Central School of Arts and Crafts, part of a strong contingent of book arts in the Society. The president was Edward Johnston and C. H. St John Hornby, the vice-president, ran the Ashendene Press when he wasn’t running W. H. Smith.

Farleigh said the craftsman now had to face the challenge of designing for mass production. There were some things members made that couldn’t be made by machine but there were other things that could. He had no doubt that hand-made things were better, but if something was going to be made by machine, it was best that it was designed by a craftsman. Anyone who designed for the machine had to understand the machine, so the craftsman had to embrace machinery. “We are in a machine age,” Farleigh said, “and to ignore it is to ignore life as it is lived today.” That would be suicide for the craftsman, whose job isn’t just to make unique articles for the client who’s able to pay for them, but also to make things to be used by the many. Later he told the Society that members who refused to design for machine production had no social conscience.

Farleigh’s best-known work is his wood engravings for Bernard Shaw’s book The Black Girl in Search of God, a controversial fable that mocked religion and whose notoriety stimulated large sales. Farleigh put forward the book as an example of designing for the many. Designing for the machine press hadn’t been either easier or more difficult than for designing for the hand press, it was simply a different challenge.

John Farleigh. Illustration for The Black Girl in Search of God.

Farleigh was referring to machinery in two aspects. The first was the factory, but the second was the machine itself, and he observed that opposition to the machine it was based on a misunderstanding because there’s little to distinguish a machine from a tool. The point was better made by David Pye, who is unsurpassed as a writer on design and workmanship.

Pye defined a machine as a tool to which some motor force is applied, whether hand or electricity or anything else. A hand tool wasn’t better or worse than a power tool and it didn’t necessarily call for more skill either. Take the dentist’s drill versus the hand brace. In this case, the power tool undoubtedly requires more care, judgement and dexterity than the hand tool. It’s not possible to distinguish between the appearance of hand-made things and machine-made things because there’s nothing in them that allows us to determine what the motive force was of the tool that was used to make them. Nor can many things be said to be truly hand-made because tools are required for almost everything — the exceptions Pye mentions are writing and sewing and we may add baking. Pye was forced to conclude that “hand-made” isn’t a technical term at all — it’s a social and historical term that refers to workmanship of a kind that existed before the industrial revolution. Pye is much clearer and more analytical than Farleigh, but Farleigh was probably trying to say something similar.

Mason took a rather more traditional view than Farleigh and did believe in the distinctiveness of hand-made things. He said that the division of labour was harmful and that the products of machinery were generally inferior to hand-work. That was especially so in the case of printing, which he knew about as head of the printing department at the Central. Those who work with the hand press can raise the standards of mechanical printing by their influence, as he and Edward Johnston had done. Noel Rooke told an encouraging tale of how the example of typographers, printmakers lettering artists at the Central and the private presses had lifted commercial printing out of the doldrums. Out of this symposium came the idea of including deigns for mass production in the next exhibition. Needless to say, it met with stiff opposition in the following year, notably from Douglas Cockerell, Grailey Hewitt and — the most vociferous — from Bernard Leach.

Noel Rooke. Woodcut.

But what’s interesting is that, when we drill down into Bernard Leach’s views, we find that they weren’t all that different from Farleigh’s. In some ways he was as hostile to industrial civilisation as Ruskin and Morris had been, but he acknowledged that if mass-produced pottery were designed by the right people it could possess what he called “quality of body and beauty of form”. What was needed, he thought, was a new type of designer who understood both the studio and the factory and could keep the factory up to the artistic standards of the studio. Surprisingly, despite disliking much about modern America, he admired Charles and Ray Eames. But Leach always insisted that the factory must come to the craftsman, the craftsman should not go to the factory. He didn’t think the Society should exhibit designs for mass production. Its job was to serve the crafts without compromise, and if it exhibited industrial design it would betray its purpose. He resigned over the issue and Dora Billington had to use all her tact and charm to persuade him to re-join.

Farleigh returned to the topic of admitting design for mass production to the Society on and off for years, but there was always loud dissent and eventually he had to drop the idea. But the dissenters were in a minority and by 1944, two-thirds of the members were said to be designing for industry.

Boxes in Resin ‘M’ designed by Reco Capey and made by Imperial Chemical Industries.
Exhibited at ‘Art and Industry’, 1935.

Design for mass production was included in the 1935 and 1938 exhibitions but those events didn’t differ much from earlier exhibitions. In 1935, six cases out of 600 were devoted to mass production and none departed far from the Society’s traditions. Naturally, Farleigh’s wood engravings featured prominently, and other book arts as well. There was lettering and typography by Grailey Hewett, Alfred Fairbank and Lynton Lamb — all of whom taught at the Central. The only throughgoing examples of industrial design were Reco Capey’s: perfumery productions in glass, metal and synthetic materials for Yardley similar to the designs for manufacture in synthetic resin by ICI that he showed at the 1935 Art & Industry exhibition at the Royal Academy.


The Barbican at night, arguably one of the most forbidding urban developments in London. I took this picture, which looks like a Piranesi nightmare, after leaving a concert at the Barbican Centre.

The route to and from the Centre isn’t intuitive and those who aren’t regular visitors have to be guided from the surrounding streets by a line painted on the ground. The Barbican isn’t legible, in the sense that you can’t read your direction or see where your path is leading. You always seem to be shut in. Its forbidding aspect doesn’t come from the high towers or any lack of human scale but from this sense of being trapped and lost.

Town planners now understand that legibility is needed for a sense of safety and to deter crime. The animal welfare expert Temple Grandin showed that cattle in slaughterhouses were afraid of walkways whose exits they couldn’t see and persuaded the owners to change their layouts. Even the inside of the Barbican Centre is hard to read.

I came out of my concert from one of the many exit doors to find myself in the underground car park. (If a building has too many exits, for all practical purposes it has no exit.) Then a walk to the underground station through a dark vehicle tunnel with a narrow pavement.


In a paper on The Flowering of the Arts in the Inter-War Period (1918 – 1939), Enid Marx has an arresting juxtaposition of pictures, the interior of Picadilly Circus Underground Station, designed by Charles Holden, and the interior of the City Employment Office in Dessau, designed by Walter Gropius, both built in 1929. Were they in contact and did Holden go to Dessau? Marx doesn’t say.

Picadilly Circus Underground Station

Dessau Employment Office


That’s what Steve Wager calls his occasional classes in making a silver spoon, which is pretty accurate because, when I went to one last weekend, we did spend five hours hitting a silver ingot with a hammer. There’s a way of doing it, of course, and it was interesting to me because I’ve never worked in metal before, except occasionally to cut a brass profile to shape clay, but all materials have their own way of behaving and all have to be treated with respect. Silver hardens as it’s worked and has to be softened in heat – not too much, not too little. Steve’s rule was “until salmon pink”, and if too much you ruin the silver.

By lunch – which Steve serves to his students – our little ingots were still little ingots with hammer marks, but Steve assured us we’d have a spoon by the time we left. Sort of. There was still a lot of filing and polishing to do when we got home. Obviously not a professional job, but I’ll take pleasure in serving jam from one of my jam pots with my silver jam spoon. For information about Steve’s classes you can contact him here.


Steve Wager, whom I’ve known for several years as a fellow trustee of the Society of Designer Craftsmen, runs classes in his south London workshop for people who’d like to know something about the craft of the silversmith. Just for fun I went to one of his spoon bashes at the weekend, where he taught us how to take a small silver ingot and to beat it into something vaguely resembling a spoon. It was a change from clay, a very different material.

He’s been in the trade for forty years, serving a traditional apprenticeship with Asprey and then working for them for many years before setting up independently. The large piece he’s holding is a loving cup in silver and silver gilt with inlaid jewels, which he talked to us about between our sessions with the planishing hammer and which I persauded him to take out of its box and to show us. It has a maritime theme, with a Neptune and a mermaid. (Price on application to S. E. Wager.)

Steve, with his great skill and experience, has a low opinion of jewellers and silversmiths who can do no more than assemble prefabricated components – he dismisses their work as “modern craft”. On the wall is his very formal admission certificate from the Worshipful Society of Goldsmiths in 1983, acknowledging that he has been apprenticed to a master in the ancient mystery.