THE DE CHIRICO MOMENT

Giorgio de Chirico’s metaphysical paintings captured the uneasy feeling of abandoned urban spaces that are uncannily full of absence.

There’s a similar feeling in the work of other artists: Eric Ravilious’s interiors and some of Munch’s and Carel Weight’s paintings. It’s also conveyed in Hitchcock’s scene in The Man Who Knew too Much where James Stewart, in search of Ambrose Chappell, walks down an empty London street with footsteps echoing behind him

Anyone who visits Italy will soon have a de Chirico moment in an empty square in strong afternoon sunlight between three and four in the afternoon, like this place (above) that I happened on in Verona.

OXFORD COMMA

There was a time when writers separated every clause and phrase with a comma, but it’s now common practice to reduce commas to a minimum and to eliminate semicolons and colons. The effect is to make prose more informal and fast-moving. Lynn Truss, in her funny and clever book, Eats Shoots and Leaves, is generally in favour of the low comma-count.

As the purpose of writing is to communicate – or it should be, because some people write to impress and bewilder – the only purpose of punctuation is to improve communication. It also aids rhythm, but as the purpose of rhythm is to aid understanding, that amounts to the same thing.

Rules of grammar can help tyros who don’t know how to write. In every field of activity, the absolute beginner doesn’t know the rules, the inexperienced person keeps all the rules and the experienced person breaks the rules.

Apart from the distraction value of Therese Coffey’s laying down the law about the Oxford comma, her instructions suggest a lack of writing experience. Her exhortations to civil servants about clear writing are anachronistic, since Ernest Gowers’ guidance revolutionised official communications sixty years ago. Good writers don’t bother about rules like this.

THE KING OF FRANCE

Crowds at Versailles throng to see the King’s Bedchamber.

When I was looking at some ceramic plates commemorating the Storming of the Bastille and the Execution of Louis XVI on a brocante stall in France, the stallholder leaned across to me and said in good English, “We don’t have a queen, you see.”

A similar spirit inspired Yasmin Alibhai Brown to tweet mischievously, “France, a Republic, gets ten times more tourists than the UK.” As most people care nothing about politics, it’s unlikely that there’s any connection between visitor numbers and a country’s political constitution. And it’s rather more significant that one of the most popular visitor destinations in France is Versailles, the symbol of absolute monarchy.

As it happens, I visited it myself recently. One of the most crowded places is the King’s Bedchamber, the focal point of the royal cult. Since the King embodied God’s will, the King’s body had a divine quality, and among the most important moments of the day at Versailles were the King’s rising from bed in the morning and retiring at night, which were always performed publicly.

The atmosphere in the King’s Bedchamber when I was there was reverential. The places it most resembled in my experience were the Sistine Chapel, the rock at La Verna where St Francis received the stigmata, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and the room in the Topkapi Palace displaying a hair of the Prophet’s beard.

Music plays in the popular gardens at Versailles, by the way. One of the pieces is Handel’s Coronation Ouverture.

NEW CAROLINGIANS


Queen Elizabeth’s reign began with optimism. The war had ended, the dictators had been defeated and the country looked forward to prosperity. Attlee’s government had introduced irreversible improvements and although the NHS and free secondary education are associated with Labour they were Conservative policies too.

The cheerful mood had been deliberately created by the Festival of Britain and was symbolised in the architecture of the Lansbury Estate, the modernity of the Dome of Discovery and the quirkiness of Roland Emmett’s Far Tottering and Oyster Creek Railway. The watchwords were reconstruction, town planning, full employment and health for all.

With the Festival came the Contemporary style, that tamed British modernism that William Feaver described as “Braced legs, indoor plants, lily-of-the valley sprays of lightbulbs, aluminium lattices, Cotswold-type walling with picture windows, flying staircases, blond wood, the thorn, the spike, the molecule.”

Other symbols were the Royal Festival Hall, the New Towns and the New Universities. The most famous and most fashionable of the new universities was Sussex, designed by Basil Spence, who had worked on the Festival of Britain and had designed the new Coventry Cathedral.

Coventry, a modernist building rising symbolically from the ruins of war, made modern art prominent: Jacob Epstein’s St Michael, Graham Sutherland’s Christ in Glory, stained-glass by John Piper and candlesticks by Hans Coper.

People knowingly called themselves New Elizabethans. New Elizabethans believed in science. They were wowed by Sputnik, the Comet and the Avro Vulcan aircraft. Food manufacturers boasted that their products were made in modern factories and that they had scientific ingredients. There was no Hovis-style nostalgia and no fear of chemicals. The Two Cultures were united in textile designs based on molecular structures and X-ray crystallography. This was Modern England.

Charles begins his reign in a more insecure, doubtful, and self-critical age. A dictator is waging war in Europe. Many people think the active state that made post-war Britain does more harm than good, that science is a conspiracy of experts and that what we thought was progress will kill us.

Charles himself has channelled much of this doubt. His sincere concern about the environment is why many people like him. He ran a company promoting organic food. His hatred of modern architecture is legendary. His style of dress makes him look older than his father.

But every change creates the hope of a better future. The mood of the country is bound to change. Perhaps we will become New Carolingians.

ARNOLD MACHIN AND THE QUEEN


One of the constants in our lives that will have to change now – the postage stamps, which have carried the same image since 1966. These almost unnoticed works of art – said to be among the most reproduced in history, with 320 billion copies made – have a connection with the pottery industry, having been designed by the eminent Stoke-on-Trent modeller, Arnold Machin.

The image is a photo of a clay bas-relief, reminiscent of reliefs on the ceramics of Wedgwood, a firm Machin once worked for. He also designed the image of the Queen on the decimal coinage introduced in 1968 and seen on all British coins until 1984.

The Portland Vase, Wedgwood’s first successful use of bas-relief sculpture, now a cliché of Jasper ware.


Machin started as an apprentice china painter at Minton’s at the age of 14, studied sculpture at Stoke-on-Trent College of Art and in the 1930s moved to Royal Crown Derby. He went on to study at the Royal College of Art and later taught there.

Machin’s choice as the official stamp designer is interesting because he wasn’t an establishment figure at all, having been imprisoned as a conscientious objector in World War II.

In 1947 he was elected ARA. At his death in 1999 he was the longest-serving member of the Royal Academy.

It was suggested to the Queen several times that Machin’s image be replaced, but she never agreed.

JOSEPH WILLEMS

The Flemish sculptor Joseph Willems made this wonderful porcelain figure at Chelsea in the 1750s. I saw it in the V&A yesterday, not in the ceramics galleries, which explains why I’ve never noticed it before, but in the British galleries. It’s the largest figure known to have come from Chelsea, about 38 cm high and wide. It was described at auction in in London in 1756, as ‘A most magnificent LUSTRE in the Chinese taste, beautifully ornamented with flowers, and a large groupe of Chinese figures playing on music.’

Willems was born in Brussels in 1716 and came to Chelsea in 1749, where he worked until 1766, when he returned to Flanders to become Director of the Imperial Royal Academy of Drawing and Modelling at Tournai.

ARTS AND MANUFACTURES


The Select Committee on Arts and Manufactures was appointed by Parliament in 1835 to ‘enquire into the best means of extending a knowledge of the arts mong the people (especially the manufacturing population) of the country.’ Out of it came the schools of design which evolved into our modern art schools.

Witnesses gave two reasons why British design was inferior to that on the continent, singling out France and Prussia and to a lesser extent Bavaria and Italy. The first was that design education was widespread abroad but absent in this country. The second was the lack of adequate protection in Britain for original designs. There were many talented artisans who made work of high quality, but they had, with few exceptions, no formal education and none in the principles of design. Because of the weakness of patent protection, their work was often copied by other manufacturers and consequently employers were reluctant to employ trained artists at greater expense. Lack of education and lack of protection acted on one another and depressed the quality of British goods. In consequence there was much copying from foreign design.

This evidence from men engaged in manufacture and trade about the depression of design standards tells rather a different story from that told by Ruskin and his followers, who made much of the alleged separation of art from manufacture following industrialisation. That story became central to the Arts and Crafts movement and a trope of design reform until the Second World War. It was, for example, repeated by the Gorell Committee in 1932 and the Council of Industrial Design in the late 1940s. Ruskin, of course, lacked practical experience of manufacturing, but he was an eloquent and persuasive writer. Manufacturers told a different tale: there was no separation of art from manufacture but there was no training for designers and designs did not receive the legal protection they needed.

CLAUDIA CLARE (5)

I wrote earlier about Claudia Clare, the artist whose talk at Ceramic Art London was cancelled in spring, apparently because of her Gender Critical beliefs.

Claudia has now started legal action against the Craft Potters Association on the grounds that in cancelling her they unlawfully discriminated against her. She’s relying on the Forstater judgement, which classes Gender Critical beliefs as a protected characteristic.

This is a significant action for artistic freedom against a creeping Macarthyite tendency to exclude from events and organisations creatives who hold unacceptable views. The case, which Claudia reports on in detail in her blog, is at a preliminary stage where documents are being asked to be put before the court.

ARMAZENS CUNHAS, PORTO


Next to the Carmo Church in Porto this fine Art Deco building dominates the Praça Gomes Teixeira. Armazens Cunhas (motto “We Sell Cheaper”) has been selling sheets, bedspreads, tablecloths, pyjamas and work wear in the same way and with the same internal layout for decades with few concessions to modern life and none to tourism.



José de Almeida Cunha founded the company in 1917 and it remains in the same family today. The facade was designed by Manuel Marques, Amoroso Lopes and Coelho Freitas, linking three earlier buildings. The same team of architects also designed the Farmácia Vitália in the Praça Liberdade.


Photo: Manuel V. Botelho (Wikipedia)

DULWICH POTTERY

This little figure was made by Jessamine Bray and Sybil Williams at the Dulwich Pottery in 1939. They were the last and Jessamine was the youngest of the Chelsea Potters, makers of the figurative ceramics that were so popular in the 1920s that they were the first things that came to mind when people talked about ‘studio pottery’.

Jessamine studied at Camberwell School of Art in the early 1920s, where she became interested in modelling, of which the school was the leading exponent. She worked for Charles Vyse and then became a teacher of ceramic sculpture at the art school. Sybil, who was older, also studied with Vyse and they probably met in his studio. The two women began their partnership in 1926.

This small model is typical of their work, with its mild Continental exoticism, its portrayal of a child with an animal and its meticulous underglaze painting.

Changing artistic fashion, changing family circumstances and the outbreak of war brought the Dulwich Pottery to an and, but Jessamine continued modelling at home at least until the late 1950s. This picture (below) was taken of her at the art school in the early 1920s.