JOSEPH WILLEMS

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

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

JUDD STREET, BLOOMSBURY

Walking back from the Art Workers Guild to St Pancras Station I stopped to look at this pretty shop at 63 Judd Street and was curious about the sculpture above the window of putti with a corncupia overflowing with grapes, which suggests it was once the premises of a wine merchant. (Next door, at No. 61, by the way, Alexander Herzen operated the Free Russian Press between 1854 and 1856.)

Anthony Trollope’s description of the street, from Phineas Finn, 1874, is still surprisingly accurate: “Judd Street runs into the New [Euston] Road near the great stations of the Midlands and Northern Railways, and is a highly respectable street. But it can hardly be called fashionable, as is Piccadilly; or central, as is Charing Cross; or commercial, as is the neighbourhood of St. Paul’s. Men seeking the shelter of an hotel in Judd Street most probably prefer decent and respectable obscurity to other advantages.”

Theodore Lane, ‘A Wooden Substitute’, 1821 © National Portrait Gallery London

Judd Street used to be part of the Skinners Estate. The Skinners Arms nearby and a couple of other pubs still belong to them, but nearly everything else has been sold now. One of the earliest residents of No. 63 (then numbered 79) was the artist Theodore Lane, who was well-known for caricatures of George IV and Queen Caroline. By the age of 19 he was exhibiting at the Royal Academy but his promising career was cut short by his falling through a skylight in 1828. After his death, for about twelve years, the house belonged to a tallow chandler called Paul Biddle.

Emma Biddle, the daughter of the tallow chandler Paul Biddle, who lived at 63 Judd Street, was baptised in 1829.

From the 1850s to the 1880s the shop belonged to an undertaker, then in the 1890s a tobacconist. As the population of St Pancras increased at the end of the century, the house went into multiple occupation and it’s difficult to tell from all the names in the Census who exactly is running the shop. But in 1911 Paolo Cagno, who came from Genoa, and his English wife Annie had a confectioner’s there.

So the motif of the putti with grapes is quite misleading and the shop never had anything to do with alcohol.

POST-WAR MODERN

The exhibition Post-War Modern: New Art in Britain 1945-65 at the Barbican highlights the diversity of the period, including Lucien Freud’s, John Bratby’s and Jean Cooke’s figurative paintings, Lynn Chadwick’s and Eduardo Paolozzi’ s angular bronzes (above), John Latham’s, Victor Pasmore’s and Gillian Ayres’ total abstraction and the beginnings of psychedelic art.

Looking at the period from a distance the curators are bound to evaluate it differently from the way it was evaluated at the time. The art world always knew that John Bratby, despite his huge commercial success, was a pretty obnoxious character and controlled his wife, Jean Cooke, who was already suspected of being a better artist than he was. Post-War Modern thrusts their domestic relationship to the fore and Cooke’s 1966 self-portrait, Blast Boadicea, removes any doubts about her excellence. Abstraction reached its high-water mark in 1960. Herbert Read’s Concise History of Modern Painting (1959) narrated the progress of art from Impressionist beginnings to supposedly inevitable resolution in Pollock, Rothko and De Kooning. Now we see that art was always more diverse. In relation to the representational works on show, the notes are bound to discuss content and meaning but, following the decline of interest in the formal properties of art, they say surprisingly little about the appearance of non-representational paintings by Victor Pasmore, Mary Martin, Adrian Heath, Anthony Hill and Robert Adams.

The photos of Bert Hardy, Nigel Henderson and Roger Mayne show a ravaged urban environment with children playing in bombsites and rotting Victorian streets. We’re presented with artists dizzied by war and engaged in a search for meaning in a world without secure values. That was all true. But the post-war decades were also years of optimism and reconstruction. Hardy was good at showing people enjoying life at fairgrounds, dance-halls and the seaside. And against the photos of crumbling cities might be also be placed the Festival of Britain, the New Towns and the schools of the 1944 Education Act. There was full employment and wages were rising. People believed in Science. The best food, they thought, was made in factories and didn’t go stale. Britons were excited by the Space Age, Sputnik and planes like the Avro Vulcan. Those on the Left thought the Soviet Union was harnessing Science for Mankind and promised a prosperous and peaceful future – at least until 1956 when it invaded Hungary.

Today, however, we are pessimists. Science represents danger. The environment is going to kill us. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Left envisages not Utopia but only endless struggle. So we see in post-war art (and probably in all art) anxiety and anomie rather than celebration and hope.

What did create anxiety, of course, was the H-Bomb, which Britain adopted in 1957. Post-War Modern mentions Gustav Metzger, the inventor of auto-destructive art, who was active in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, but the way the Bomb overshadowed the Sixties wasn’t fully brought out. Jeff Nuttall called the art of the decade Bomb Culture.

A case of pottery by Hans Coper and Lucie Rie formed an interesting pendant to the exhibition. They weren’t included in earlier reviews of the period – not, for example, in the Barbican’s Transition: The London Arts Scene in the Fifties (2002) or the Tate’s Art & The Sixties: This Was Tomorrow (2004) These refined ceramics were part of the same movement as Victor Pasmore’s abstract paintings. Rie, a Jewish refugee from Vienna, was of an earlier generation of artists associated with the Weiner Werkstätte. In England she became an inspiring but very demanding teacher at Camberwell School of Art. It’s difficult to say much about her pottery because, in contrast with the other leading potter of the period, Bernard Leach, she not only made pots absolutely of her time but also refused to say anything about them.

PUBLIC ART: THE BLOKES

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.

MAGGI HAMBLING

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After a summer of controversy about public statues it’s not surprising that there’s been a row about Maggi Hambling’s sculpture to Mary Wollstonecraft, author of Vindication of the Rights of Women. It’s not a representation of the writer, it honours Wollstonecraft obliquely, the figure is naked and it’s been criticised on artistic grounds.

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Modern democratic memorials are likely to be at ground level now or put on benches so that ordinary people can sit beside their heroes. Hambling, who is famously abrasive and contrarian, puts this one on a very traditional pedestal.

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A militant smoker, Hambling gave her statue of Oscar Wilde a cigarette, which has since been removed. Wollstonecraft was quickly vandalised by someone who disliked its nudity (top).

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Hambling has said that people don’t get it. But doesn’t the work of communication have to be done by the writer, not the reader, and if people don’t get it, isn’t it her failing? One feminist artist I spoke to said, “They get it well enough – Hambling is the one who doesn’t get it.”

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Wollstonecraft was a pioneering feminist but much of her appeal comes from her life. Born into a large family with poor parents, she established an independent career, moved among radicals,  wrote and published much, supported the French Revolution, engaged in direct controversy with Edmund Burke and lived in Revolutionary Paris. John Opie painted her twice (below).

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After advocating personal independence and platonic love she discovered sex late in life, had a child with the go-getting and irresponsible Gilbert Imlay, narrowly escaped the guillotine, attempted suicide, married William Godwin but lived separately from him according to their shared principles, and died giving birth to a daughter Mary, famous as the author of Frankenstein.

Godwin was admired by his son-in-law Shelley, who later came to find him stuffy and pedantic. Driven by a naïve frankness, Godwin sought to honour Wollstonecraft in a memoir that held back nothing about her emotional instability and bohemian life and virtually destroyed her reputation for a hundred years.

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But there is evidence from the speech and behaviour of some of her characters that Jane Austen knew the Vindication. E. B. Browning read it at the age of twelve, George Eliot was thoroughly familiar with it and Virginia Woolf was well aware of it. The female suffragists brought her writings back into focus again and modern feminist criticism has put her centre stage. Although the ideas and sentiments of the Vindication are surprisingly modern, and there are modern editions, the language probably puts modern readers off and its doubtful if it’s much read.

ART AND ILLUSION

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.

HEINRICH WÖLFFLIN

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Photo: Johannes Rottmeyer

When we were in Puglia in September, I noticed that high baroque churches and palazzi were placed in narrow streets, making it impossible to get a proper view of them. The grand duomo in Gallipoli was a case in point, so were the houses in Martina Franca.

Now, reading Wölfflin’s Principles of Art History, I found that in his view this was not a mistake and was wholly characteristic of the baroque style. His concept of the “painterly style” in baroque denoted movement, indefiniteness and impermanence in the visual arts and applied to sculpture and buildings as well as painting.

The creation of views in architecture, in which buildings were designed to be seen in different ways and from different perspectives, was one aspect of the painterly style and explains why it was unimportant for a façade to be viewed square on or from the front:

Although the full front view will always claim for itself a certain exclusivity, we now find compositions which clearly set out to reduce the significance of this view. This is very clear, for instance, in the Carlo Borromeo church in Vienna [the Karlskirche, above], with its two columns placed in front of the façade, the true value of which is revealed in the non-frontal views, where the columns lose their equality  and the central dome is cut across.

For the same reason it was regarded as no misfortune if a baroque façade was so placed in a street that it was almost impossible to obtain a front view of it.

‘THE NEIGHBOURS’

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The Neighbours, by Siegfried Charoux (Photo: David Holt)

Since I began looking for public sculptures with narratives different from those of the questionable Edward Colston and Cecil Rhodes, I’ve realised that there’s a well-established tradition of egalitarian and popular monuments in England going back at least eighty years.

The latest in my collection is The Neighbours by Siegfried Charoux in Highbury Quadrant, north London, brought to my attention by Municipal Dreams on Twitter.

English Heritage says  of this listed structure, “Figurative sculpture. Commissioned 1957, unveiled 1959. Siegfried Charoux, sculpture, for the London County Council on the recommendation of the Arts Council. Cemented iron, four feet high. Two figures, realistically portrayed yet demonstrating an idealism of ‘working man’. A strong and humane representation that well suits its setting, and demonstrating the range of the LCC’s patronage.”

The post-war decades of social reconstruction, public enterprise and of art for the people also produced public murals in the same vein. I wrote earlier about the dusty and neglected History of the Old Kent Road by Adam Kossowski, also commissioned by a London local authority. Kossowski’s narrative recalls that of the South Bank Exhibition  the 1951 Festival of Britain, with its displays on “The People of Britain”, “The New Schools,” “Sport” and “The Seaside”.  Although they appear didactic now, this was the era of the 1944 Education Act, the NHS, New Towns and the meritocracy.

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Mosaic nap of Hemel Hempstead by Rowland Emmett. (Photo: Lumos3)

Less didactic but still demotic was Roland Emmett’s mosaic map in Hemel Hempstead.

The tide of democratic public art is so high now that it’s begun to wash round the plinths of the generals and slave traders, all of which which are all over a hundred years old. The fact that democratic sculpture has received so little attention in the current debate reflects the fact that no-one really takes much notice of public art.

CROMWELL, IRELAND AND THE JEWS

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Does anyone imagine you can understand the past simply by looking at statues?

That’s not exactly what’s meant by saying statues are “part of our history”, but it implies that if statues are removed people will know less about history. The history they record, however, is not the deeds of those commemorated but the beliefs of the age that made the monuments.

Most people don’t know much about history. I had an educated colleague who thought the followers of Bonnie Prince Charlie were Jacobins and that Oliver Cromwell came in with the Glorious Revolution. The statue of Cromwell in Wythenshawe Park, Manchester, which has just been vandalised by anti-racists, wouldn’t have helped him.

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The protesters daubed FASCIST, RACIST and COCKROACH on the plinth. The pretext was Cromwell’s conquest of Ireland, which was pretty savage. Cromwell, as it happens also readmitted the Jews to England after an exile ordered by Edward I. If you want get het up about that too, there’s a statue of Edward above the street at 114 High Holborn and a prominent one at Burgh by Sands.

In Ulysses James Joyce wrote about about Ireland’s attitude to the Jews:

Mr Deasy halted, breathing hard and swallowing his breath.

—I just wanted to say, he said. Ireland, they say, has the honour of being
the only country which never persecuted the jews. Do you know that? No.
And do you know why?

He frowned sternly on the bright air.—Why, sir? Stephen asked, beginning to smile.

—Because she never let them in, Mr Deasy said solemnly.

It’s complicated.

ROBIN WELCH

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I was sad to hear of the death of Robin Welch, one of the finest studio potters in Britain. In recent years he exhibited at Art in Clay, Hatfield, and I looked forward to chatting to him in his regular place at the show and buying some of his pots.

Robin was born in in 1936 and studied at Nuneaton and Penzance schools of art, receiving his NDD in sculpture and ceramics in 1953. He spent time at the Leach pottery in St Ives and he told me that, when he began exhibiting, Leach didn’t like his work (which some might take as a commendation). From 1956 he did his national service with the 2nd Battalion Parachute Regiment, taking the opportunity in the Middle East to visit peasant potteries. He then went on to do a postgraduate course in ceramics at the Central School of Arts and Crafts.

The Central was led in the post-war years by William Johnstone, who had moved it away from the arts and crafts (it later changed its name to the Central School of Art and Design) and introduced a design training based on the Bauhaus system and a collegiate style of teaching which exposed students to a variety of disciplines. Ceramics students were aware of the new American painting and in Cornwall Robin himself had already been inspired  by Terry Frost, John Tunnard and Barbara Tribe. They were taught by William Turnbull, Alan Davie and Eduardo Paolozzi (who, typically, was based in the textile department). Ceramics was led by Gilbert Harding Green, a man of wide culture who encouraged innovation, assisted by William Newland, Nicholas Vergette, Ian Auld, Dan Arbeid, Kenneth Clark and Gillian Lowndes.

After leaving the Central, Robin set up in London and got his first break from Henry Rothschild, who gave him £100 and carte blanche to make pots to be sold at the Primavera gallery. He spent three years in Australia, establishing a pottery with Ian Sprague, and returned to England in 1965 to set up the pottery at Stradbroke, Suffolk, where he worked until his death. At Stradbroke he launched high-volume production with half a dozen assistants, using industrial machinery which he’d been taught to use in Stoke-on-Trent. He spent twenty years in this sort of work, selling kitchen ware in interior design stores, but from the 1980s he made large, individual pieces like the one shown in the picture, for which he’s now better known.

A nice pamphlet about him, full of photos, Robin Welch – A Life, was produced by his granddaughter for a school project, but Robin told me he was sorry that no-one had wanted to write a full biography. Perhaps someone will now.