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.
I have been reading Julian Stair’s thesis on critical writing about English studio pottery, 1910 – 1940, which foregrounds Roger Fry’s formative influence in the first three decades of the 20th century, something that was not mentioned in 20th-century accounts of studio pottery and which is only now being realised, largely due to Stair’s research. In the early years of the studio pottery movement there was a wary rivalry between William Staite Murray, who was the star of studio pottery in the 1920s, and Bernard Leach, who until 1920 worked in Japan. What I didn’t realise, and what Stair explains, is there was a change of gear in the 1930s when Leach’s reputation rose and studio pottery turned from exhibition pieces towards utility, inspired by a late resurgence of the Arts and Crafts philosophy that Leach followed. In the 1930s, Stair discovered, reviews of Staite Murry’s exhibitions became more critical and eventually petered out completely.
Although Staite Murray is still recognised as a major pioneer, auction values of his pots (above) are not as high as might be thought. In MAAK’s latest online sale, expected prices range between £250 and £800, while recent work by living potters is expected to raise much more, for example, Daniel Reynolds: £800 – £1200, Sarah Scampton: £1,200 – £1,500, Tanya Gomez: £800 – £1,100, Sarah Flynn: £1,200 – £1,800, and Edmund de Waal: £2,500 – £3,500
After writing about the Gorell Committee, which reported to government in 1932 on the production and exhibition of articles of good design, I became curious about one of its members, the art writer Margaret Bulley (1882 – 1960). The Gorell Committee was one of the many official and unofficial initiatives in the 1920s and 1930s created to improve the standard of design in industry and the result of its deliberations was the setting up of the Council for Art and Industry (CAI), a precursor of the Design Council.
Margaret Bulley was born into a prosperous but socially progressive family in Cheshire. Her early work was in teaching children in galleries and museums. She was involved in war relief work in France where she met Margery Fry and it may have been through her that she made the acquaintance of her brother Roger Fry. Fry introduced her to Marion Richardson, the influential and innovative art teacher, and Bulley arranged an exhibition of children’s art at the Whitworth Gallery, Manchester. Bulley herself became interested in children’s art and she arranged for children’s designs to be manufactured by her husband’s textile firm Armitage and Rigby. She carried out extensive research into children’s responses to art, seeking universals in art appreciation that were unconditioned by culture, publishing her findings in The Burlington Magazine in the 1920s. She espoused the common idea that children have an innate and well-developed aesthetic sense that adults suppress.
Bulley was invited to join the Gorell committee probably because of her acquaintanceship with Fry (also a member of the committee), her researches into art appreciation and her prior involvement in the British Institute of Industrial Art (BIIA), predecessor of the Council for Art and Industry, to which she had contributed a large collection of contemporary consumer goods, and which on the closure of the BIIA, she donated to the Victoria and Albert Museum. The V&A describe her as a friend of Vanessa Bell and she had been an associate of Fry’s since the days of the Omega Workshops, of which she was a generous patron. Bulley was thus on the fringe of the Bloomsbury Group and her ideas of art and taste are close to theirs in many ways.
The Gorell committee, comprising public officials, artists, writers and industrialists, entangled questions of design with questions of taste and how it might be improved, as did nearly all contemporary discussions about the advancement of design and taste, which was vaguely defined if defined at all. Such discussions inevitably fell back on the taste of those who staffed committees like Gorell. Shortly after Gorell, Bulley wrote Have You Good Taste?, which filled out her ideas in more detail, and throughout her career she wrote several books in a similar vein, like Art and Counterfeit, Art and Understanding and Art and Everyman.
Have You Good Taste? was an investigation of the taste of the public based on an experiment in which their preferences were compared with the judgement of “six well-known art critics or experts”: Roger Fry, W. Constable (Director of the Courtauld Institute), Charles Holmes (late Director of the National Gallery), Percy Jowett (Director of the Central School of Arts and Crafts), Eric Maclagan (Director of the V&A) and R. R. Tatlock (Editor of the Burlington Magazine). Her use of these individuals as a touchstone immediately arouses the suspicion that good taste as understood by Miss Bulley might simply be the taste of the English cultural elite.
Bulley’s view of art, design and taste was barely different from that of Ruskin and Morris. In her gushing theory of aesthetics, beauty is a spiritual quality that resides in objects, is universal and does not change over time. It is not merely personal choice or preference and Bulley notes that many of the things that people prefer are actually ugly. In order to distinguish artistic beauty from beauty in manufactured goods (which, as a rule she thinks, are inferior to art and handmade things), she adds that artistic beauty is the product of passion, so it appears that even though beauty is a quality of objects, process is essential too. She acknowledges beauty in nature, which is not the product of artistic creation, but the difference between the beauty of nature, everyday objects and art is not explained or thought through and she falls back on beauty being a spiritual value that cannot be described in words.
Bulley appears to have absorbed some formalist ideas from Fry and also to have been influenced by Bergson’s Creative Evolution. From the formalists she takes the idea of beauty expressing harmony and from Bergson the idea of creative energy – “the vitality that comes from free creative force” – and a deprecation of science, materialism and “over-intellectualisation”.
Her terms for things that don’t meet her standards of beauty have the echo of Bloomsbury about them – “sham”, “bloated”, “mean”, “anaemic” – but, unlike Bloomsbury, her taste appears to be a Quakerish simplicity and a preference for interiors that are plain and workmanlike, pleasant and unselfconscious and that don’t try too hard to be artistic.
From the Arts and Crafts movement Bulley inherited an anti-industrialism, a dislike of trade and a belief that hand-made things are better than mass-produced things. Her belief in spirit lead her to reject the functionalism of the modern movement, which she says is not enough to produce a work of art.
The book contains 19 pairs of photos that readers of The Listener had been invited to appraise as good or bad and their verdicts are compared with the verdicts of the experts. About three-quarters of the public agreed with the experts, but, in an interesting anticipation of Bourdieu, upper-class, highly-educated respondents were more likely to agree with the experts than labourers, servants and those with an elementary education.
Bulley’s Arts and Crafts philosophy remained widespread in England until the Second World War. Michael Saler saw Ruskin’s philosophy inspiring Frank Pick, despite his association with the modernisation of the London Underground. It pervaded the Gorell report. Bernard Leach’s philosophy, expressed in the best-selling A Potter’s Book, which he wrote in the late 1930s, is similar to Bulley’s and they both dislike modern journalism, cinema and contemporary culture. The appointment of a person like Bulley to advise on the improvement of industrial design raises questions about how suited to the task Britain’s Board of Trade was in the 1930s.
Biographical details from Alan Powers, “Margaret Bulley”, Crafts , No.192, January – February 2005, p.24
Bernard Leach’s A Potter’s Book, which has never been out of print in Britain since it was published in 1940, has been translated into Italian for the first time by Clara Grein. The long delay is explicable by Italy’s very different ceramic tradition, into which the Leach style of stoneware has made few inroads. I learned of Il Libro del Ceramista from British potter Terry Davies, who has been making stoneware pottery in Italy for many years.
Emmanuel Cooper’s biography of Leach refers to Leach’s admiration for Ruskin but I looked in vain for any reference to Bergson, whose whose anti-rationalism and philosophy of élan vital pervade A Potter’s Book. Leach regarded “vitality” as a virtue in pottery, talked of “the intuitive craftsman” and used “intellectual” as a term of disapprobation. This short quotation gives a flavour of his thinking:
Judgment in art cannot be other than intuitive and founded upon sense experience, on what Kawai calls ‘the body’. No process of reasoning can be a substitute for or widen the range of our intuitive knowledge. This does not mean that we cannot use our common sense in examining the qualities in a pot which give us its character, such as form, texture, decoration and glaze, for analytic reasoning is important enough as a support to intuition.
It’s hard to know whether Leach ever read Creative Evolution, the book in which Bergson expounded his idea of the vital spirit that drives evolution and that can be interpreted as the source of human creativity, but it was popular in the first half of the twentieth century, was widespread in artistic circles and (as Rachel Gotleib showed) was marshaled in service of the new ceramics.
Lee Cartledge of Bentham Pottery has written a fascinating article about Richard Bateson, an old country potter from Burton-in-Lonsdale, North Yorkshire, who in later life taught students at the Royal College of Art and The Central School of Arts and Crafts. Lee has sent me the manuscript to look at and has kindly allowed me to quote from it and use some of the photos.
Richard Bateson is a legendary character, having taught potters like Gordon Baldwin, Alan Caiger Smith and William Newland, all of whom remembered him with affection. Mary Wondrausch interviewed him for her book On Slipware when he was in his nineties and noted his excellent recall and clarity of expression.
Lee first encountered Bateson in 1977 when a stranger came into the pottery with his grandchildren to asked if he might show them what he used to do for a living. Within a few minutes of sitting down at the wheel, it became apparent that this was an astoundingly good thrower. Lee later got to know Bateson and his family well.
Bateson was born in 1894 and started work at 13 in the Waterside Pottery, which was owned by his father and uncle. Waterside specialised in stoneware bottles, for which there was high demand. His father was a thrower but his uncle never seemed to do any work except counting bottles. He was a man of so few words that he was incapable of negotiating and just dropped the price until he got the contract. As a result the potters had to work harder than they ought to have done. Business was booming in the early 20th century but the demand on the throwers was onerous. Two men were required to produce 3,000 bottles a week, which meant using 700 tons of clay a year. Lee comments that at Bentham Pottery today they get through 4 tons a year.
But in the 1920s demand began to fall as stone bottles went out of fashion, and during the depression the Waterside pottery went down to three days a week. It closed in 1933.
Bateson then then bought Bridge End Pottery, where, working alone with a boy, he made terracotta pots and some decorated wares. Between them they did everything from mining the clay to marketing the finished pots. Despite his humble occupation, Bateson was invited by the Council for Art and Industry to display his work at the International Exhibition of Art and Technology in Modern Life in Paris. (Which, by the way, illustrates how anchored in craft the Council for Art and Industry remained.)
The second world war brought big changes to Bateson’s life. The RCA had evacuated to Ambleside, about 30 miles from Burton, and Helen Pincombe, the acting head of ceramics, discovered Bridge End Pottery and got her students to use its facilities, thus introducing Bateson to teaching, which he took to very readily.
He closed his pottery at the end of the war and shortly after joined Pincombe at the RCA to teach throwing, and it was probably through Pincombe that he met her friend Dora Billington at the Central School of Arts and Crafts, where he became such a notable fixture. Alan Caiger Smith recalled a roguish and engaging teacher, always encouraging, often looking for an excuse for a smoke and with liking for the female students.
Bateson ended up running the pottery course at Wimbledon Art School but as he had no qualifications he was compelled to retire in the late 1950s. He continued to teach informally. There was no shortage of amateur potters and former students who were pleased to employ him. In 1960, he set up a small pottery at Assington, near Ipswich, mainly for teaching. In 1965, aged 71, he retired to Yorkshire, where he lived until his death, aged 98.
How was de Morgan viewed by his contemporaries? I looked at Harmsworth’s Universal Encyclopedia, published in 1922, five years after he died. As you might expect, he was described as a “British novelist” and his pottery was treated as a detour.
“After studying at the Royal Academy, he devoted himself to working in pottery and glass. It was not until he reached his 66th year that his first novel, Joseph Vance, appeared.”
It concluded, “De Morgan is weak in plot construction, but his characterisation is good, and his depictions are true to life,” a fair summary.
William de Morgan’s A Likely Story has long passages in which pictures talk.
The main subject, Reginald Aiken, ekes out a living as a painter by picture restoration. One of his jobs, a seicento portrait, talks to old Mr Pelly about its subject and her adventures in Italy. Mrs Euphemia Aiken later hears a photo of the portrait telling her that Reginald isn’t such a bad fellow after all.
These occult narratives are hedged about with scepticism and qualifications: were they dreams, or the voice of the unconscious, or perhaps just a sort of self-hypnotism? A young friend of Mr Pelly’s ponders on the meaning of his experiences.
“It was the action of his brain, my dear, not his own doing at all ! Let me see — what’s it called ? — something ending in ism.”
“No ! Oh dear, I shall remember directly …”
“No, no! — do be quiet and let me think. …”
“You silly girl! I had just got it, and you put it out of my head . . . There ! . . . Stop ! . . . No ! . . . Yes — I’ve got it. Unconscious Cerebration!”
The Psychomorphic, a psychic investigation society, investigate Mrs Aiken’s narrative and sagely conclude that, “failing further evidence, we are justified in placing this story in section M 103, as a Pseudo-real Hyper-mnemonism.”
William and Evelyn de Morgan were both associated with Spiritualism. William’s mother Sophia was a medium his sister Mary claimed to communicate with the dead. Lois Drawmer has analysed the Spiritualist content of Evelyn’s paintings, which intensified as she got older (above).
Contemporary with the Arts and Crafts Movement, the Spiritualist craze was associated with progressive politics of the sort that the de Morgans supported, like women’s suffrage and pacifism. Spiritualism was not thought to be inconsistent with science, not least with the theory of evolution, which was extended to the evolution of spirits after death and which explained the superiority of their knowledge to that of the living. Even the evolutionary biologist Alfred Russel Wallace was a Spiritualist. A Likely Story is dedicated to The Scientific Enquirer.
William de Morgan’s novel A Likely Tale has jocular passages and passages of medievalising romance.
His principal character, Reginald Aiken, has to fend for himself after his wife leaves him and he lives in artistic squalor. Aiken takes on a housekeeper, Mrs Gapp, who spends too much time at The William IV, and upon whose return a glance convinced Aiken that “her register of sobriety would stand at zero on any maker’s sobrimeter.” This facetious humour was characteristic of de Morgan.
She said that a vaguely defined community, called The Boys, had been tampering with the lock. Mr. Aiken, from long experience of her class at this stage, was able to infer this from what sounded like “Boysh been ’tlocksh—keylocksh—inchfearunsh.” This pronounced exactly phonetically will be clear to the student of Alcoholism; be so good as to read it absolutely literally.
“Lock’s all right enough!” said Mr. Aiken, after turning it freely both ways. “Nobody’s been interfering with it. You’re drunk, Mrs. Gapp.”
Mrs. Gapp stood steady, visibly. Now, you can’t stand steady, visibly, without a suspicion of a lurch to show how splendidly you are maintaining your balance. Without it your immobility might be mere passionless inertia. Mrs. Gapp’s eyes seemed as little under her control as her voice, and each had a strange, inherent power of convincing the observer that the other was looking the wrong way.
“Me ?” said Mrs. Gapp.
“Yes—you!” said Mr. Aiken.
Mrs. Gapp collected herself, which—if we include in it her burden, consisting of some bundles of firewood and one pound four ounces of beefsteak wrapped in a serial—seemed in some danger of redistributing itself when collected. She then spoke, with a mien as indignant as if she were Boadicea seeking counsel of her country’s gods, and said, “Me r-r-runk ! Shober!”
A Likely Story, William de Morgan’s fifth novel, published in 1911 when he was seventy-two, reveals his wit, nice observation and capacity for satire. The theme is appropriately artistic.
The story opens in the studio of the unsuccessful painter Reginald Aiken and his discontented wife Euphemia. Following a misunderstanding with their servant Sairah, in which she is heard to tell Aiken to take his hands off her, Mrs Aiken flounces out and moves in with her aunt. There she falls in with people of advanced views who take her to a meeting whose purpose is not entirely clear. One of their company is Adolphus Groob, who is too shy to sit next to a woman.
He must needs go and stick himself four seats off Mrs. Aiken, in the two-shilling places, the intervening three seats being vacant.
Now, if only lean men, operating edgewise, had attempted to pass into these seats, things might have gone otherwise. Fate sent a lady over three feet thick all the way down, and apparently quite solid, to wedge her way into one or more of these seats. Mr. Adolphus shrank, for all he was worth, but it was a trying moment. The lady was just that sort the Inquisition once employed so successfully; one with spikes, that drew blood from anyone that got agglutinated with her costume. She might, however, have got through without accident – you never can tell! – if the trial had been carried out. It was suspended by a suggestion from Mrs. Aiken that Mr. Adolphus Groob should come a little farther along and make room; and when he complied, to the extent of going one seat nearer to her, a second suggestion that he should come nearer still, to which he assented with trepidation. Resistance was useless. A galaxy of daughters had already filled in the whole row behind the stout lady, and were forcing her on like the air-tight piece of potato in a quill popgun, only larger. So in the end Mr. Adolphus Groob found himself wedged securely between the stout lady and Mrs. Euphemia Aiken, quite unable to speak to the former, for though they had certainly met – with a vengeance – they had never been introduced.
“Do you know what the lecture is about?” said Mrs. Aiken.
“Couldn’t say,” was the reply. “Never know what lectures are about! I’m an Artist, don’t you know! My brother Bob could tell you. He’s a scientific chap — knows about Telephones and things that go round and burst.”
“Is there anything that goes round and bursts in the lecture, I wonder?”
“Shouldn’t be much surprised. Here’s the Syllabub – I mean Syllabus.” Mr. Adolphus handed his information to his neighbour. Caution made him uncommunicative. Naturally, he was of a more talkative disposition.
Mrs. Aiken studied the heads of the lecture. “What is meant, I wonder, by the Radio-Activity of Space?” said she. Now in asking this question she was deferring to the widespread idea that Man understands Science, and can tell Woman all about it. He doesn’t, and can’t.
He accepted the position of instructor his sex conferred on him.
“It’s got somethin’ to do with Four Dimensions,” he said. “Can’t say I’ve gone much into the subject myself, but I’ve talked to a very intelligent feller about it. Did you ever see any Radium?”
“Me? No. My husband saw some, though. He looked through a hole.”
“That’s it. It destroys your eyesight, I believe, and loses decimal point something of its volume in a hundred thousand years. There is no doubt we are on the brink of great discoveries.”
“How very interesting! I wish the lecturer would begin. Oh – here he is !”
The novel is 99p on Kindle, but I like books so I bought the copy illustrated above for £6.50.
I’ve been reading William de Morgan’s lively and enjoyable novel A Likely Story (1911), which justifies the occasional comparison with Dickens.
After a trade recession forced him to close his pottery business he made more from writing than he had ever made from art. His first novel, Joseph Vance, is probably his most read – Oxford University Press reissued it in the 1960s – and between 1906 and his death in 1917 he wrote eight more. His reputation waxed and waned. His books were popular in the USA. After his death his wonderful lustre pottery faded from view. The studio potters were sniffy about it and it was only in the 1960s that it was re-evaluated. Now no-one reads his books.
His sister-in-law Wilhelmina Stirling wrote a biography shortly after his death. The William de Morgan Foundation say she is the first source for information about the de Morgans and their Arts and Crafts circle, even if she is not always a reliable one. She treasured their work and kept their memory green for fifty years until her own death, when de Morgans’s pottery was coming back into fashion. Her collection then passed to the De Morgan Foundation.
The image above is one of William’s illustrations to his sister Mary’s fairy tales, which, says the de Morgan Foundation, “challenge the prevalent ideologies by subverting the traditional fairytale conventions and therefore also societal ones.”
There is one rather odd de Morgan publication, The Result of an Experiment (1909), a record of their exploration of automatic writing. William’s mother was a spiritualist and his sister Mary was said to have spirit communications with a dead sister, though she claimed her mother’s seances were staged. Although William and Evelyn were associated with progressive social causes they toyed with the occult and Jane Drawmer argues that Evelyn’s paintings combined ideas about evolutionary science with spiritualist notions.