My paper on Richard Lunn, the pioneer pottery educator who set up the first studio pottery course in Britain in 1901, has been published in the Journal of the Decorative Arts Society, 2022.
Bernard Shaw bequeathed his house at Ayot St Lawrence in Hertfordshire to the National Trust in 1950. He was fifty when he moved in in 1906 and already successful. He became rich but remained a socialist of a peculiar kind, at first wedded to Fabian gradualism but from the 1920s onwards preferring dictatorship and admiring Lenin, Stalin and Mussolini. We went on a tour the other day.
Shaw’s study with a portrait of William Morris above the desk and Morris & Co. curtains. The little monogrammed pot on the right of the typewiter was made by Louise Powell.
When I moved to Hertfordshire in the 1980s, old people remembered him driving through the lanes either in his Rolls Royce or on his tricycle. The tricycle bore witness to his passion for healthy living, including vegetarianism, wool next to the skin, sleeping with the windows open and opposition to vaccination, but it also bore witness to socialist principles.
Bare boards and an electric fire. On the mantleshelf, a Staffordshire figure of Shaw’s chosen rival, Shakespeare, and his 1938 Oscar for the screenplay of ‘Pygmalion’. The portrait is of his wife, Charlotte.
Shaw’s Corner is modestly furnished in the style of a clerk or a schoolteacher and doesn’t look like the house of a wealthy man. The house had servants’ bells but Shaw refused to use them, going down to the kitchen and knocking on the door if he wanted to talk to the cook. Shaw liked the quiet villlage without a train station or a bus service.
The sunny veranda, which Shaw called ‘The Riviera’. The house was built without running water or electricity but Shaw was quick to adopt technical innovations.
It has Arts and Crafts connections. Shaw was a follower of Ruskin and Morris, greater influences on progressive thinkers in England than Marx, and a portrait of Morris hangs above his desk. He was part of the Morris circle. He preached socialism in street-corner meetings with Morris. He flirted with May Morris, she fell in love with him and Morris might have liked him as a son-in-law.
May Morris, her fiancé Henry Halliday Sparling, Emery Walker and Bernard Shaw.
Like every advanced middle-class house of the period, Shaw’s Corner has Arts and Crafts touches throughout: Morris & Co. furniture and fabrics, a piano designed by Walter Cave, secretary of the Art Workers Guild, pottery by Alfred and Louise Powell and a sense of The Simple Life.
A patterned vessel by Alfred and Louise Powell, china and varied reading.
Albrecht Dürer, The Imperial Captain Felix Hungersperg, 1520
Some of Dürer’s drawings and paintings reminded me of Maxwell Armfield (1881 – 1972), who was the first artist I ever noticed because, as a child, I had his illustrations to Andersen’s Fairy Tales, drawn for J. M. Dent in 1910.
Maxwell Armfield, illustration to Andersen’s Fairy Tales, 1910
Armfield trained at Birmingham Art School, the first to come under the infuence of the Arts and Crafts Movement, and painted in a late Pre-Raphaelite style – linear with a highly-worked surface, usually in bright colours and with a shallow picture space – which he kept up long after it had become unfashionable, even in the years after the Second World War.
Maxwell Armfield, Miss Chaseley on the Undercliff, 1927. (Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum)
His landscapes are flat and he’s interested in the patterns they make, which makes them artificial and imaginary, suiting fairytales, especially when they feature castles on distant mountains.
Maxwell Armfield, San Gimignano, Italy (Victoria Art Gallery)
Dürer’s landscapes, many of which also have castles on mountains, have the same fantastic effect. There were other influences on Armfield, notably Japanese woodcuts, and his drawings are very much simpler than Dürer’s, but both have the same hard line and absence of extreme tonal contrast.
Albrecht Dürer, View of the Arco Valley in the Tyrol, 1495
Albrecht Dürer, Christ Carrying the Cross
Maxwell Armfield, illustration to Andersen’s Fairy Tales, 1910
William Rothenstein knew everyone in the art world of the early 20th century, so his memoirs – Men and Memories and After Fifty – are informative as well as entertaining. Since I’ve been writing about W. R. Lethaby, I thought I should go and see what Rothenstein had to say about him. Not surprisingly they knew one another well. They visited Paris and Chartres together. Rothenstein respected Lethaby’s scholarship, judgement and integrity and his contribution to the crafts. I’ve copied the relevant passage below.
Rothenstein became principal of the Royal College of Art shortly after Lethaby had retired as professor of design and while his infliuence was still strongly felt. In a confidential memorandum Rothenstein expressed reservations about the air of medievalism that he’d left behind him and the poor work being done in some of the subjects in the design school.
In 1911 the government produced a damning report on the Royal College of Art (RCA). It focused on the shortcomings of the school of design, headed by W. R. Lethaby, saying he encouraged petty handicrafts of little economic significance, failed to acquaint students with the requirements of industry and left them unsuited to practical employment. Not surprisingly it was highly controversial and triggered a vigorous public debate.
The driving force behind the report was Sir Robert Morant, permanent secretary at the Board of Education. On his initiative the committee of inquiry was set up and members were recruited who could be expected to come to the conclusions the Board wanted – that is to say, the conclusions he wanted. It’s not entirely clear what his motivation was but it’s reasonable to suppose that he responded to industry criticisms and disliked what he saw as drift and muddle at the RCA.
Morant was a clearsighted and forceful civil servant with long experience of education and a commitment to improving it. In the late 1890s he had been instrumental in creating the Board of Education, which brought into one place the administration of elementary, secondary, technical and university teaching. His great achievement was the 1902 Education Act, which extended secondary education and put it under the control of local authorities instead of the mass of little boards that had existed previously. Later, after leaving education, he set up the national insurance scheme.
Before the report was initiated the Board arranged for Lewis Foreman Day to replace Walter Crane as an RCA Visitor (that is to say, a College inspector) so as to have in place someone who would speak frankly about Lethaby’s shortcomings. Day warned Morant that if he was appointed, he would have to speak his mind. Morant accepted that and told his minister, Sir Walter Runciman, that they had been thinking of getting rid of Lethaby anyway. (As it was, he remained until his retirement in 1918.) Day’s highly critical internal report then prepared the ground for the public report.
Day had recently helped to form The Design Club, which brought together designers, manufacturers and retailers, and he believed that high quality products were made when artists and industrialists worked together. This approach was bound to have recommended itself to the Board.
The differences between Day and Crane – which may be summarised as the difference between the industry outlook and the handicraft outlook – were well-known and Lethaby’s views at this time were closer to Crane’s than to Day’s. Day’s differences with Crane had been set out in their book Moot Points, where they discussed how far the artist should accommodate himself to industry and how far he should stand aloof from it. Crane said how much he disliked the way that artists were forced to make work that would sell and the fact that they were likely to starve if they did not. He looked forward to a society where there was no profit motive and no pressure to sell, where the artist would be free to follow his imagination and where he would be rewarded for doing so by an appreciative community. Day thought Crane took himself too seriously as an artist and that his demand to do whatever he liked was self-indulgent. Both the quality of the art and the character of the artist would be improved in his opinion by the artist learning to design within constraints.
In reality, Day’s, Crane’s and Lethaby’s ideas may have differed in emphasis rather than essence and Day and Crane may have exaggerated their differences in Moot Points for rhetorical effect. A few years later, Lethaby was one of a group of dissidents in the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society who formed the Design and Industries Association. Crane was a practical designer of wallpapers, fabrics and pottery and a prolific illustrator of children’s books and knew full well how to adapt his ideas for manufacturing. His eminence derived in large measure from his achievements as a designer and he was a member of Day’s Design Club. At the RCA Lethaby set his students design exercises intended to give them skills they could apply to a wide range of work. Lethaby’s biographer, Godfrey Rubens – who naturally takes Lethaby’s side against Day and the Board of Education – makes the interesting suggestion that these exercises anticipated the sort of studies that came into the art schools as Basic Design forty years later.
Those like me who have only known the RCA’s Darwin building in Kensington Gore may be interested to know how long it took to build – fifty years if you count from when the decision was made. The College was previously tucked into corners of the Victoria & Albert Museum, where it had been since 1863, and from the turn of the century it was obvious that the premises were too small and badly laid out, incluing sheds and annexes a long distance from the main building in Cromwell Road.
In 1911 a government committee said that some of the RCA’s teachers were producing students with a bent towards handicrafts and little to offer industry but at the same time the inadequacies of the building were frankly acknowledged.
The Board of Education readily accepted the need for better accommodation. (Reading the files, it’s evident that Sir Humphrey – actually Sir Robert Morant – had decided what the committee should say long before the minister set it up.) They rejected the suggestion that the existing building might be upgraded and decided a new one was needed. In 1912 plans (below) were drawn up by Beresford Pite, professor of architecture at the RCA.
Two world wars intervened and it was only after the second, under the rectorship of Robin Darwin, that serious plans got underway. Looking at Pite’s plan, a new building may have been needed in the ‘sixties anyway if it had been implemented.
The William Morris Gallery, one of my favourite boutique museums (the other is the Estorick Gallery in Islington), did community outreach, as musems do, to connect with the large Polish community in Walthamstow. The upshot is their current exhibition, Young Poland: An Arts and Crafts Movement 1890 -1918, mounted in collaboration with the Polish Cultural Institute and the National Museum of Krákow. Young Poland is unknown to most in the west – I’d never heard of it before – and most of the exhibits in this show have never been seen outside Poland.
Young Poland is often regarded as a fine art movement with a record of patriotic, religious and pastoral painting, typified in Vastomil Hofmann’s Confession (above), but the Gallery decided to record the artists’ contribution to the crafts, often overlooked but very important.
In central and eastern Europe the Arts and Crafts were an assertion of national identity, one aspect of the struggle for independence, rejecting the forms and styles imposed by the imperial powers. While the British looked to the Middle Ages as they imagined it to be, the Poles looked to contemporary peasant life and art. Young Poland, which emerged in Kraków, focused on the Highlander people of the nearby Tatra mountains and adapted their architecture, interior decoration, textiles and dress in an attempt to create a national Polish style.
Stanisław Wyspiański (top), a key figure in the movement, might be called the Polish William Morris – a brilliant polymath, a painter, poet, playwright, textile designer, furniture maker and graphic artist – though the two men never met and there’s no record of any communication between them.
In one room of the exhibition there’s a large stained glass, a reproduction of a window designed by Wyspiański for the Kraków Medical Centre, in another a model of The House Under the Firs, a vernacular house by Stanisław Witkiewicz, another major figure, drawn from the Zakopane style of building. Witkiewicz is shown with the model on the left of the group above, the other men dressed in traditional Highlander costume.
In lighter mood there were reconstructions of toys from the Kraków Workshops, a co-operative of artists and craftsmen formed in 1913, who made use of folk patterns in their work. The picture (above) shows delightful original toys in the Ethnographic Museum of Kraków.
The row over statues seems to be dying down, but someone on Facebook posted a picture (left) that illustrates how they have been democratised – Standing Man by Sean Henry in Paddington Basin, a Bloke on the Ground sort of sculpture that Henry specialises in: anonymous, ordinary people without plinths, natural size and at the same level as the viewer.
For contrast I add The Duke of Cambridge by Adrian Jones, the 1907 equestrian sculpture in Whitehall that is so familiar that it is never looked at, representative of the 19th-century statuary that populates our cities: grand, elevated, establishment and not a little oppressive.
The latter sort is being gradually reviewed and sometimes suddenly and violently removed, but the process of democratisation that the review is part of began long ago with the Blokes on the Ground who are slowly and silently replacing them.
On the beach at Swanage I was pleased to see the Punch and Judy show in the same place as it was when my daughter was little, so I stopped to watch it. Punch appeals to small children because he is very, very naughty and triumphs over everybody and comes out on top at the end. His little squeaky voice seals their connection with him.
There is no point in cleaning up his act. A nice Mr Punch would be as attractive as warm ice cream. The Swanage performance has most of the traditional elements: Judy leaves Punch in charge of the baby, baby won’t walk, Punch throws baby downstairs, beats Judy, fights the crocodile, nonsense with the sausages, and so on.
After the show I met Joe Burns, the Professor, (above) and told him how much I enjoyed his show and how I remembered his predecessor, Professor Pete. Joe took over from Pete six years ago after Pete had been on the beach for thirty years. Today’s Mr Punch has a website, a Facebook page and a Twitter feed.
There has been a show on this spot since 1906, though the town council banned it at first because it brought the wrong sort into Swanage. Joe is one of the last three beach performers in the country – there are more Professors who are hired to perform at parties. A Guardian article quoting Joe reported that audiences are getting as badly behaved as Punch and that some adults abuse his bottler and refuse to pay.
Margaret Lambert and Enid Marx had a section on marionettes and glove puppets in English Popular Art (1951), reporting that Mr Punch had changed from one into the other, but they said nothing else about him. In The Unsophisticated Arts (also 1951) Barbara Jones wrote, “One glove puppet remains triumphantly traditional and can still be found at fairs and at the seaside: the Punch and Judy Show. The costumes are commedia del’arte via the English early nineteenth century theatre, and the whole script has hardly changed. Needless to say it is violent and much concerned with death and hanging. Punch and Judy also exhibit the determination of English pantomime to change sex – Punch squeals viciously in a high falsetto, his wife retains the puppet master’s natural bass.”
When I wrote about Art Nouveau ceramics I said that there were few books about these potters, but recently a lavish volume about Adrien Dalpayrat by Etienne Tournier has been published. It’s large format and has wonderful detailed, full-page pictures showing Dalpayrat’s complex, irridescent glazes. Like the previous titles on this subject – Paul Arthur’s French Art Nouveau Ceramics (2015) and M. Lambrechts’ L’Objet sublime: Franse ceramiek 1875-1945 (2016) – Tournier’s book is not cheap. Phaidon’s RRP is £200.