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.
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.
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.
The National Portrait Gallery have this rather nice photo showing students and staff of the Royal College of Art in around 1900. Walter Crane (in the white hat) is in the centre. The man on his left in the bowler hat is Beresford Pite, the professor of architecture, and on the far right in the front row is Edouard Lanteri, the professor of sculpture.
Photos like this were taken every summer at the RCA in what is now the John Madejski Garden of the V&A. Crane was College principal from 1898-9, when he made major changes to the curriculum, introducing more practical courses in place of pettifogging detailed drawing, copying from casts and designing on paper.
He wrote of his time there, “As far as the existing constitution of the school and its relation to the Board of Education would allow, I endeavoured to expand the range of studies, especially in the direction of Design and Handicraft; and in order to give the students some insight into the relation between design and material, I was fortunate enough to obtain the services of accomplished artists to give lectures, and demonstrations where possible, in their special crafts.” But he didn’t like all the form-filling that a government post demanded and a bout of flu sapped his energy.
The interesting thing about this photo is that all the students are women. About half the enrolled students were women and about half the graduates became full-time teachers. But why this group was taken isn’t clear.
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 hazards of separating design from execution – for the product, the maker and society – was a persistent theme in Arts and Crafts discourse on manufacture, but the practicality of designers never delegating the execution of their designs to artisans and the desirability of executants making only what they had designed themselves was debatable. Ruskin’s injunction to “never encourage the manufacture of any article in which invention has no share” was certainly not applied to every item made by Morris & Co’s employees, and its implications were the subject of fierce debate between Walter Crane (who insisted on it) and Lewis Foreman Day (who thought it led to bad workmanship).
Although William Morris was a judge of the annual National Competition of Schools of Art, he did not have a detailed knowledge of art education and did not have a high opinion of art schools in general. He believed that everyone should learn to draw and thought it essential that the craftsman should be able to draw well enough for his trade, but he was opposed to the rigid and slavish system of drawing taught in the art schools of the time. He did not believe that design could be detached from making, and insisted that that the designer should have knowledge of his medium and that he should be able to work in it himself. Ideally, designer and craftsman should be one, and failing that, the small workshop was preferable to the large factory.
The government arts schools worked on the opposite principle. But their aversion to students working directly in materials did not only concern Morris and doubts emerged in in official circles as well. The Royal Commission on Technical Instruction (1884), to which Morris submitted evidence, agreed that art education should enable students to judge the suitability of their designs to the material in which it was to be executed.
This idea filtered through into art education and, by the end of the 19th century, men of the Art Workers Guild (AWG) were taking up posts in art schools (at first the municipal art schools that were not under government control) and were driving the reforms of art education. The first municipal school was Birmingham Art School (1885), which introduced training in executed design and which Crane praised for its achievements
Among AWG members, Crane became Master of Design of the Manchester School of Art and subsequently head of the Royal College of Art, Robert Catterson-Smith became the headmaster of the Birmingham Art School, W. R. Lethaby and George Frampton were inspectors and advisors to the London County Council’s education board and the first principals of the London County Council (LCC) Central School of Arts and Crafts (1896), and the potter W.B.Dalton became the first principal of the LCC’s Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts 1899, although he did not become a member of the AWG until 1908.
At the end of the 19th century the Royal College of Art was engaged principally in the training of art teachers, still using narrow and limited methods. It was said that “no system could be better calculated to produce untrained, narrow minded men.” John Sparkes, its principal from 1876 to 1898, fully recognised its deficiencies, but it was not until Walter Crane was put in charge in 1898 that reform really began in earnest. “As far as the existing constitution of the school and its relation to the Board of Education would allow,” Crane wrote, “I endeavoured to expand the range of studies, especially in the direction of Design and Handicraft; and in order to give the students some insight into the relation between design and material, I was fortunate enough to obtain the services of accomplished artists to give lectures, and demonstrations where possible, in their special crafts … . [T]he Royal College of Art has been entirely reorganised, and while its objects, the study of decorative art as well as the training of teachers, have been reasserted, the relation of all branches of decorative design to architecture has been emphasised in the establishment of an architectural school, directed by Professor Beresford Pite, through which all students pass in the five years’ course.”
The bureaucracy of the Department of Art and Science defeated Crane and he resigned after a year, but his reforms were implemented by his successor, Augustus Spencer. Spencer brought in W.R.Lethaby as professor of design, whose curriculum was intended to ensure that those who went on to be art teachers received a broad artistic education, experience of several crafts and competence in at least one.
I was interested to read that the Hungarian designer László Moholy-Nagy (above) was turned down for a teaching post at the Royal College of Art during his residence in England between 1934 and 1937. Walter Gropius, as I mentioned elsewhere, was considered for the post of director when William Rothenstein stepped down, but was thought to be unsuitable because the Bauhaus was mistakenly understood by the Board of Education to be a fine-art school and because of its association with the political left under Hannes Meyer.
The Bauhaus had not been on Rothenstein’s horizon when ten years earlier he made a tour of continental art schools to see how the RCA might be brought up to date, and although he made radical reforms in the teaching at the college and was aware that the arts-and-crafts ethos was holding it back, he was not an apostle of modernism. He wittily dismissed the followers of Cézanne as ces ânes (these donkeys) and he appointed to the post of professor of design E. W. Tristram, a specialist in medieval wall painting. Britain’s premier art school in the 1930s made little contribution to the development of modernism (although Reco Capey and Paul Nash were notable exceptions).
Tristram was recruited to the government committee on Art and Industry in 1931, the Gorell Committee, which was tasked with advising on the best ways of exhibiting high standards of design in consumer goods, presumably because of his position, but his interests and experience did not fit him to advancing industrial design. Many of the other members of the Committee were fully signed up to the arts-and-crafts philosophy and it is extraordinary to consider that its report was regarded by Pevsner as “the first official document to emphasize the vital importance of improvements in British industrial art” when it was suspicious of industry and mass production.
The attitude of the Gorell Committee and other contemporary British initiatives on art and industry was the inverse of that of Moholy-Nagy. Gorell sought ways of applying an artistic appearance to industrial products while Moholy-Nagy was interested in applying industrial technology to art. During his direction of the metal workshop at the Bauhaus, his class developed industrial prototypes and he was associated with the transition from a craft school to a school designing type-forms. Although made by hand, typical products of the workshop, like its famous table lamps, looked machine made and eliminated the mark of the maker and there have been many industrial iterations of it since (above).
Moholy-Nagy and Gropius were for a short while neighbours in the Isokon building in Hampstead, along with another Bauhaus exile, Marcel Breuer. It’s interesting to think how industrial design in Britain would have advanced if Gropius and Moholy-Nagy had been allowed to join the staff of the RCA at that time.
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.
Cheryl Buckley’s Designing Modern Britain advances the persuasive idea, now well established in design history, that there were several modernisms and not merely the modernism of the International Style and the Bauhaus. Among these modernisms were the Georgian revival and the modern labour-saving home with its Tudorbethan exterior. But Buckley, I think, overstates the degree to which the different strands of design moved in parallel and in the same direction, especially in the art schools.
She describes the Stoke-on-Trent schools, which were led in the 1930s by the successful designer Gordon Forsyth, as one of the strands of this diverse modernism, and also Alfred and Louise Powell’s designs for Wedgwood. But unless you apply the term “modernism” to every contemporary happening, and minimise differences of style and appearance, these trends were far from modernist.
The Powells were in the long tail of the Arts and Crafts movement, which continued until 1945, and they were connected to it both through their designs and their social philosophy. Describing their work for Wedgwood as “mass-produced”, as Buckley does, is wide of the mark. Their designs were traditional, they revived the dying craft techniques of hand-decoration and they shunned the mass-produced method of transfer printing that was used by the makers of cheap pottery like A & G Meakin.
Forsyth is more difficult to classify. His designs for pottery were similar to the Powells, even down to the successful use of lustre (above), and they were very much in the Arts and Crafts tradition. But he was sympathetic to modern production methods. In his review of 20th Century Ceramics (1936) he asserted, “A wholly artificial gulf has been created between the studio potter and the large-scale manufacturer. Sometimes studio pottery is dismissed as being ineffective ‘Art and Crafty’ productions, technically defective. This is in the main wholly erroneous and unjust criticism of studio potters, but it is equally erroneous for studio potters to think that all manufacturers are Philistines and only concerned with commercial and technical success.” Nevertheless his survey is heavy on art pottery and and light on mass production.
Buckley says that there were art schools in Britain in the 1920s that were modernist in approach if not in name. This is an interesting assertion, but if there were such schools I haven’t come across them yet. The Arts and Crafts influence came to bear on the art schools from the 1880s and it wasn’t fully felt until the early 1900s. Charles Holmes’s illustrated review of art schools in 1916 showed them to be totally Arts and Crafts in their approach – the title of his book is actually Arts and Crafts. In the 1920s William Rothenstein at the RCA hired E. W. Tristram, a deep-dyed medievalist, to replace the Arts and Crafts practitioner Anning Bell as head of design. Admittedly he also hired William Staite Murray as pottery instructor, and Staite Murray’s ceramics were praised by arch-modernist Herbert Read; but Staite Murray was wedded to craft techniques and opposed the admission to the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society of designers for industry. The Stoke-on-Trent art schools were certainly, as Buckley says, keen to cement their links with modern manufacturers, but they were not modernist in outlook, and in 1919 government inspectors had judged their efforts to provide technical instruction to be “feeble and inadequate”.
In the 1920s and 1930s design was still broadly conceived as surface decoration, and the main focus of design reformers was improving the appearance and tastefulness of consumer goods. The design profession was in its infancy and it didn’t grow up until the 1950s. The recognition of “other modernisms” is a useful corrective to the self-serving narrative of modernists, but the art schools before the war were not modernist in any meaningful sense