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.
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.
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.
The Museum of Applied Arts in Vienna (MAK) has a large exhibition devoted to the women artists of the Wiener Werkstätte (WW), the company of artists, designers and craft workers who defined Viennese modernism in the first decades of the 20th century. Women played a prominent role, increasingly after the First World War. The work shown is varied, innovative, clever and faultlessly executed.
The Wiener Werkstätte started as a metal workshop founded by Joseph Hoffmann and Koloman Moser, professors at the Vienna School of Arts and Crafts, and Fritz Waerndorfer, their business manager. It expanded to include textiles, fashion, pottery, graphics, architecture, furniture and toys, selling to the Viennese bourgeoisie though their upmarket stores in the Neustiftgasse and Kärntner Strasse, particularly to the cultured and assimilated Jewish bourgeoisie of the kind recently depicted in Tom Stoppard’s Leopoldstadt. (I wrote about their New York store here.)
The artists of the Werkstätte were influenced by the British Arts and Crafts movement but rapidly went beyond it and were less doctrinaire than Morris & Co. They valued art but they were unfazed by machinery. They esteemed handwork but they didn’t think it was essential for designers to make everything themselves. And they didn’t share the social concerns of the Arts and Crafts movement. Unlike Morris, who wanted to create a democratic art and hated pandering to what he called “the swinish luxury of the rich,” the Gesamptkunstwerk to which the WW aspired – designing a project from house to teaspoons to the highest specification – presupposed a wealthy clientele.
The curators have found 178 women who designed for the WW. They made a major contribution to exhibits in the Austrian pavilion in the 1925 Paris Expo and are pictured above setting it up. Hoffmann’s design is well-known but most of the women have been overlooked. In their day the Werkstätte was mocked because it employed so many of them and dismissed as “Weiner Wieberkunstgewerbe“, Viennese Feminine Crafts.
Their diverse talents are illustrated by the graphics, textiles and ceramics designed by Hilda Jesser that I’ve shown. She also designed lace, embroidery, wallpaper, jewellery and leather goods.
This is a just small selection from this superb exhibition. There is a publication with illustrations and biographies of the artists.
Adrian Frutiger (1928-2015), the Swiss typographer, designed the Univers typeface, which you have seen everywhere but never noticed. Which is how a good typeface should be. The Univers family of 20 fonts, cleverly related by weight, slope and width, is rational, versatile and comprehensive. Frutiger abandoned the conventional desciptions of “bold”, “condensed” and “italic”, and numbered the typfaces on a grid sytem. Univers 55 was the standard font for text, 65 the bold version and 56 the italic. Frutiger designed it at the high tide of modernism when decoration was taboo. It was a typeface for every need. You didn’t need fancy fonts. There were superb books, brochures, posters and catalogues set entirely in Univers.
City of Westminster street plaques designed by Misha Black using a condensed Univers font with letter spacing in the name.
It was produced by the Deberny and Peignot foundry in 1957 and licensed by the Monotype Corporation. It’s hard to imagine now that such a modern typeface was made to be cast, but it was the first to be designed for both hot metal and film production.
It was a designer’s font. I’d be annoyed when I specified Univers and the printer did the job in Gill Sans. Gill was an eccentric typeface: it was really a Roman typeface without serifs rather than a true sans-serif (look at that lower case g like a pair of spectacles). But Gill is more suitable for post-modern typesetting and (apart from City of Westminster street signs) we don’t see Univers much now. Ariel, the standard, bland typeface for screens, has pretty well replaced it.
My old friend Nick Rowling, who corrected the mistakes I’d made about the alleged iconoclasm of the English Commonwealth, suggest I read Ernst Gombrich’s Art and Illusion, which he thought was one of the best books on the history of art. I saw that his view was shared by Kenneth Clark, who described it as “One of the most brilliant books of art criticism I have ever read.”
It’s also one of the hardest. Gombrich studied at Vienna, where art historians were steeped in philosophy that they often took for granted, and without a knowledge of which it’s difficult to understand what they’re saying. Although Gombrich lived most of his life in England, and although he wrote Art and Illusion in English, he thought it in German. His idea of the way that mental structures or “schemata” shape perception comes from Kant, and the “mythological explanations” of history that he deprecates (explanation in terms of collectives like “mankind”, “races” and “ages”) come from Hegel. Most of his antecedents are German: Konrad Fiedler, Adolf von Hildebrand, Heinrich Wölfflin, Alois Riegl, Franz Wickhoff, Hans Sedlmayr, Emanuel Loewy, Julius von Schlosser, Aby Warburg, Rudolf Arnheim, Ernst Kris and Karl Popper.
I went online to look for cribs but found that some of them understood even less than me – saying, for example, that the idea of “schemata” was invented by Gombrich, or attributing to Gombrich an opinion of Herbert Read’s that Gombrich dismisses. But that’s how difficult the book is.
I have been trying to find out more about British art schools between the wars to see to what extent they were permeated by modernist ideas and to what extent they remained in thrall to the Arts and Crafts, which I talked about in my last post.
Stuart MacDonald, in The History and Philosophy of Art Education, says little about the art schools in the 1920s and 1930s, turning in those decades to theories of child art, but he does comment that the Arts and Crafts approach persisted until the Second World War, which I think is generally agreed.
The plate above, from Charles Holmes’s Arts & Crafts: A Review of the Work Executed by Students in the Leading Art Schools in Great Britain and Ireland, is typical of the work that was being done in 1916. The tiles were made by Reco Capey at Burslem Art School. This talented pupil did similar work for Doulton’s at the same time as he was a student there. Capey, who is perhaps best known for his designs for Yardley, was appointed chief instructor in design at the RCA in 1925, where he worked under the traditionalist E. W. Tristram for ten years.
These items by Capey (above), sold at Christie’s in 2014 , show how decidedly he had left behind the Arts and Crafts in his professional life and how enthusiastically he embraced Art Deco. In an article “Design in Everyday Life”, which he wrote for the Journal of the Royal Society of Arts (23 February 1940), he expressed a firm commitment to modernist design (below). He was undoubtedly a modernist influence at the RCA, where he worked with Paul Nash. Capey’s and Nash’s appointments look very much like an attempt by Rothenstein to counterbalance Tristram’s medievalism.
William Johnstone, a key figure in the modernisation of British art schools, says in his memoir, Points in Time, that, when he took over the Central School of Arts and Crafts after the war, the crafts were in his opinion too geared towards the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society “and not enough towards present day living”. He decided that John Farleigh, head of book production, was blocking change, got rid of him and appointed Jesse Collins in his place. Collins had taught book production part-time at the Central in the 1930s, where he was one of the few teachers aware of the Bauhaus. He helped Johnstone to introduce Bauhaus methods at Camberwell and also did so at the Central after the war.
Between the wars, pottery at the Central had been taught by Maggie Hindshaw and her strong-minded assistant Dora Billington, who was actually the driving force behind the course. Hindshaw had worked in Alfred and Louise Powell’s London studio and her work never strayed far from their their orbit. Billington had worked in a similar style, but when she encountered the pottery of William Staite Murray and Bernard Leach in the 1920s, she appears to have undergone a Damascene conversion and by the early 1930s decorated earthenware at the Central had been replaced by bold, simple forms whose appeal derived from glazes and kiln accidents rather than brush work. Studio pottery’s relationship to modernism is complex and ambivalent and although it can be described in modernist terms – functional, unornamented and anti-historicist – its ideology, largely the creation of Bernard Leach, was anti-modern, anti-industrial and anti-intellectual.
The complexities of the period are illustrated by the fact that many of the figures in this narrative were at once modernist and associated with the backward-looking Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society. Capey, Farleigh and Billington were all its presidents in their time, and Johnstone, despite his disparagement of the Society, collaborated with it and was made an honorary member. Ideologists of modernism, of the stripe of Adolf Loos, Wells Coates and Herbert Read, might be inclined to declare modernism to be not a style but a principle (to adapt a phrase of Pugin’s), but for most artists the opposite was the case. Change in style comes from the accumulation of innumerable influences, adaptations, imitations and alliances. It is unsurprising that artists and teachers in the 1920s and 1930s changed their styles and their way of working, but the change in art schools was slow and gradual.
I misrepresented William Rothenstein’s views on design teaching in my last post, commenting on his association with the arts-and-crafts colony in the Cotswolds and his appointing E.W.Tristram, a medievalist, to the post of professor of design at the RCA. Rothenstein wanted to modernise design education at the College and was well aware of new developments on the continent.
After having been in post at the RCA for a while, Rothenstein recorded his impressions. In a memorandum to the Board of Education, he wrote in 1921:
I hope I have your support in looking on the College as a centre which serves, not so much to give a vocational training, as to give each student, whether he intends to be a simple designer of cotton fabrics or an ambitious painter or sculptor, the best general education through the arts. Some commercial men hold that an industrial designer does not require so complete an education as a more ambitious artist. But I feel sure that Board considers this to be a short sighted view, and that well educated designers will finally prove of greater service to British industry than less well educated men.
Much of the work in the Schools of Pottery, of Painting and Decorating and of Metalwork is too unexperimental and derivative. No consistent attempt has been made to deal with the interpretation of the contemporary world in design and execution. A wrong understanding of the spirit which made mediaeval art so vital persists at Kensington, and the research work towards the discovery of new subject matter and new treatment, so noticeable on the Continent, seems to have ben wanting. It is important that we do not fall behind the Continental industries, and the freshness of design, execution and subject matter which s characteristic of the best French, German and Austrian work has not been sufficiently encouraged and sought for at the college, in my opinion.
Rothenstein recommended E.W.Tristram, faute de mieux, for the post of professor of design on the resignation of Anning Bell.
For some time I thought it would be possible to find an artist as renowned as Professor Bell to undertake the direction of the most important school of the College. But the movement started by William Morris and his friends seems to have spent itself. I know of no younger men associated with the arts and crafts society endowed with the wide culture which was, and still is, characteristic of Morris’ immediate disciples. It is true that a new life Is stirring among the younger painters and craftsmen. But this movement, which had its origins in France, has not yet taken firm root in this country. Of the present men associated with traditional English craftmanship and design, I know of no-one more capable and scholarly than Mr Tristram. His patient and profound study of English wall painting – in fact of every kind of English painting – has at last won for him a unique position among his contemporaries.
Noting Tristram’s shyness, Rothenstein recommend the appointment of Paul Nash, Ernest Dinkel and Philip Boydell to work with him in the design department. Nash is well-known. Dinkel was a bold poster designer for the London Underground and Boydell designed the Festival Titling typeface used in Festival of Britain publications. Tristram’s main work was in medieval wall painting, and although Rothenstein referred to his work in modern textile design, it is still questionable whether he was the best representative of design education for the Gorell committee.
I have been looking at the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society catalogue for their 1935 exhibition, which shows the Society (which gave its name to the Arts and Crafts movement and had doubts about the propriety of machine-made goods) flirting with design for mass production.
It was a small step but a significant one. William Morris’s ambivalence about machinery had hardened into outright opposition and in the 20th century the craftsman evolved from a generalist with a wide range of abilities (usually based on architecture), who sometimes contracted the execution of his work to a tradesman, into a specialist, frequently working alone and controlling every stage of production.
Pevsner argued that the lead in design in the 20th century passed from the Arts and Crafts to pioneer modernists like Adolf Loos, Peter Behrens, Josef Hoffman, the Deutsche Werkbund and the Bauhaus, and by the 1930s, some design thinkers doubted that there was much room for the crafts. Gropius, in a lecture he gave in England in 1934, argued that their future lay not in production but in “research work for industrial production and in speculative developments in laboratory workshops where the preparatory work of evolving and perfecting new type-forms will be done.” Herbert Read took a similar view in Art and Industry.
These ideas became so widespread that craftspeople were either persuaded by them or understood the need to engage with them. Among potters, even two of the most craft-based were briefly enchanted by them, Bernard Leach toying with the idea setting up a small factory and Michael Cardew trying to design for Stoke-on-Trent. John Farleigh, who was on the modernising wing of the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society, responded to this current of thought by declaring to members that “We are in a machine age, and to ignore it is to ignore life as it is lived today,” but he contended that craft objects that could be reproduced by machine would be better if craftsmen supervised their manufacture, proposing a larger role for the craftsman in industry than that indicated by Gropius and Read.
In 1935 the Society included in its exhibition a section devoted to design for Mass Production, stating that the artist-craftsman “is admirably fitted to design for ‘batch-production’, ‘quantity-production’ or ‘mass-production’ in industry”. It led with Farleigh’s wood engravings for Bernard Shaw’s Adventures of the Black Girl in Search of God (above) and the exhibit was dominated by design for print, with lettering by Edward Johnston, Noel Rooke, Grailey Hewett and Alfred Firbank. There was some furniture by Romney Green and Gordon Russell, some printed fabrics by Heals, and some pottery designed for Doulton by Reco Capey. This was a hardly a major departure from hand-work. Ambrose Heal was a staunch supporter of the crafts anda member of the Society, and Doulton’s was an art pottery rather than a manufacturer of tableware. There was no evidence of any serious engagement by the Society with industry or any real interest in industrial design. Nevertheless, it was too much for some members. Leach was in the opposing faction and resigned. Staite Murray agreed with him that the Society’s policy of encouraging design for industry would “subvert the object of the Society to preserve the Crafts.”
The exhibition of British Art in Industry in 1935 talked of a “struggle for supremacy” between machine methods that made possible cheap goods and hand craftsmanship that could give goods individuality and character. The “art and industry debate” that persisted throughout the 1930s was never resolved and was brought to an end by the war, when craft production became an impermissible luxury. By 1944, two-thirds of Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society members were said to be designing for industry.
In my last post about the radicalism of Omega designs at around the time of the First World War, I mentioned that the context in which they were produced was the dominance of Arts and Crafts design. Art history focuses on innovation and the history of this period tends to be the history of Post-Impressionism, Cubism, Futurism and Expressionism, so, even if we understand that Omega were designing for a minority with avant-garde tastes, we can easily overlook the fact that the taste of most design-aware people was based on styles developed in the 1880s.
In 1916, Charles Holme, editor of The Studio, published Arts & Crafts – A Review of the Work Executed by Students in the Leading Art Schools, from which the illustrations here are taken –a fascinating record of what students were being taught at that time. Since the 1880s, many art school principals and lecturers had been drawn from members of the Art Workers Guild, and by the turn of the century the Arts and Crafts influence was firmly established. Both style and teaching methods changed, with a new emphasis on “designing in materials” rather than on paper. And as Holme’s illustrations demonstrate, art students were producing nothing like the Post-Impressionist and quasi-abstract designs of the Omega Workshops.