THE KING OF FRANCE

Crowds at Versailles throng to see the King’s Bedchamber.

When I was looking at some ceramic plates commemorating the Storming of the Bastille and the Execution of Louis XVI on a brocante stall in France, the stallholder leaned across to me and said in good English, “We don’t have a queen, you see.”

A similar spirit inspired Yasmin Alibhai Brown to tweet mischievously, “France, a Republic, gets ten times more tourists than the UK.” As most people care nothing about politics, it’s unlikely that there’s any connection between visitor numbers and a country’s political constitution. And it’s rather more significant that one of the most popular visitor destinations in France is Versailles, the symbol of absolute monarchy.

As it happens, I visited it myself recently. One of the most crowded places is the King’s Bedchamber, the focal point of the royal cult. Since the King embodied God’s will, the King’s body had a divine quality, and among the most important moments of the day at Versailles were the King’s rising from bed in the morning and retiring at night, which were always performed publicly.

The atmosphere in the King’s Bedchamber when I was there was reverential. The places it most resembled in my experience were the Sistine Chapel, the rock at La Verna where St Francis received the stigmata, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and the room in the Topkapi Palace displaying a hair of the Prophet’s beard.

Music plays in the popular gardens at Versailles, by the way. One of the pieces is Handel’s Coronation Ouverture.

NEW CAROLINGIANS


Queen Elizabeth’s reign began with optimism. The war had ended, the dictators had been defeated and the country looked forward to prosperity. Attlee’s government had introduced irreversible improvements and although the NHS and free secondary education are associated with Labour they were Conservative policies too.

The cheerful mood had been deliberately created by the Festival of Britain and was symbolised in the architecture of the Lansbury Estate, the modernity of the Dome of Discovery and the quirkiness of Roland Emmett’s Far Tottering and Oyster Creek Railway. The watchwords were reconstruction, town planning, full employment and health for all.

With the Festival came the Contemporary style, that tamed British modernism that William Feaver described as “Braced legs, indoor plants, lily-of-the valley sprays of lightbulbs, aluminium lattices, Cotswold-type walling with picture windows, flying staircases, blond wood, the thorn, the spike, the molecule.”

Other symbols were the Royal Festival Hall, the New Towns and the New Universities. The most famous and most fashionable of the new universities was Sussex, designed by Basil Spence, who had worked on the Festival of Britain and had designed the new Coventry Cathedral.

Coventry, a modernist building rising symbolically from the ruins of war, made modern art prominent: Jacob Epstein’s St Michael, Graham Sutherland’s Christ in Glory, stained-glass by John Piper and candlesticks by Hans Coper.

People knowingly called themselves New Elizabethans. New Elizabethans believed in science. They were wowed by Sputnik, the Comet and the Avro Vulcan aircraft. Food manufacturers boasted that their products were made in modern factories and that they had scientific ingredients. There was no Hovis-style nostalgia and no fear of chemicals. The Two Cultures were united in textile designs based on molecular structures and X-ray crystallography. This was Modern England.

Charles begins his reign in a more insecure, doubtful, and self-critical age. A dictator is waging war in Europe. Many people think the active state that made post-war Britain does more harm than good, that science is a conspiracy of experts and that what we thought was progress will kill us.

Charles himself has channelled much of this doubt. His sincere concern about the environment is why many people like him. He ran a company promoting organic food. His hatred of modern architecture is legendary. His style of dress makes him look older than his father.

But every change creates the hope of a better future. The mood of the country is bound to change. Perhaps we will become New Carolingians.

ARNOLD MACHIN AND THE QUEEN


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.

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.

ARTS AND MANUFACTURES


The Select Committee on Arts and Manufactures was appointed by Parliament in 1835 to ‘enquire into the best means of extending a knowledge of the arts mong the people (especially the manufacturing population) of the country.’ Out of it came the schools of design which evolved into our modern art schools.

Witnesses gave two reasons why British design was inferior to that on the continent, singling out France and Prussia and to a lesser extent Bavaria and Italy. The first was that design education was widespread abroad but absent in this country. The second was the lack of adequate protection in Britain for original designs. There were many talented artisans who made work of high quality, but they had, with few exceptions, no formal education and none in the principles of design. Because of the weakness of patent protection, their work was often copied by other manufacturers and consequently employers were reluctant to employ trained artists at greater expense. Lack of education and lack of protection acted on one another and depressed the quality of British goods. In consequence there was much copying from foreign design.

This evidence from men engaged in manufacture and trade about the depression of design standards tells rather a different story from that told by Ruskin and his followers, who made much of the alleged separation of art from manufacture following industrialisation. That story became central to the Arts and Crafts movement and a trope of design reform until the Second World War. It was, for example, repeated by the Gorell Committee in 1932 and the Council of Industrial Design in the late 1940s. Ruskin, of course, lacked practical experience of manufacturing, but he was an eloquent and persuasive writer. Manufacturers told a different tale: there was no separation of art from manufacture but there was no training for designers and designs did not receive the legal protection they needed.

CLAUDIA CLARE (5)

I wrote earlier about Claudia Clare, the artist whose talk at Ceramic Art London was cancelled in spring, apparently because of her Gender Critical beliefs.

Claudia has now started legal action against the Craft Potters Association on the grounds that in cancelling her they unlawfully discriminated against her. She’s relying on the Forstater judgement, which classes Gender Critical beliefs as a protected characteristic.

This is a significant action for artistic freedom against a creeping Macarthyite tendency to exclude from events and organisations creatives who hold unacceptable views. The case, which Claudia reports on in detail in her blog, is at a preliminary stage where documents are being asked to be put before the court.

ARMAZENS CUNHAS, PORTO


Next to the Carmo Church in Porto this fine Art Deco building dominates the Praça Gomes Teixeira. Armazens Cunhas (motto “We Sell Cheaper”) has been selling sheets, bedspreads, tablecloths, pyjamas and work wear in the same way and with the same internal layout for decades with few concessions to modern life and none to tourism.



José de Almeida Cunha founded the company in 1917 and it remains in the same family today. The facade was designed by Manuel Marques, Amoroso Lopes and Coelho Freitas, linking three earlier buildings. The same team of architects also designed the Farmácia Vitália in the Praça Liberdade.


Photo: Manuel V. Botelho (Wikipedia)

DULWICH POTTERY

This little figure was made by Jessamine Bray and Sybil Williams at the Dulwich Pottery in 1939. They were the last and Jessamine was the youngest of the Chelsea Potters, makers of the figurative ceramics that were so popular in the 1920s that they were the first things that came to mind when people talked about ‘studio pottery’.

Jessamine studied at Camberwell School of Art in the early 1920s, where she became interested in modelling, of which the school was the leading exponent. She worked for Charles Vyse and then became a teacher of ceramic sculpture at the art school. Sybil, who was older, also studied with Vyse and they probably met in his studio. The two women began their partnership in 1926.

This small model is typical of their work, with its mild Continental exoticism, its portrayal of a child with an animal and its meticulous underglaze painting.

Changing artistic fashion, changing family circumstances and the outbreak of war brought the Dulwich Pottery to an and, but Jessamine continued modelling at home at least until the late 1950s. This picture (below) was taken of her at the art school in the early 1920s.

PAULA REGO: SECRETS AND STORIES

I caught the repeat on BBC2 of Nick Willing’s film, Secrets and Stories, about his mother Paula Rego, a useful pendant to the recent retrospective at Tate Britain – a long interview interspersed with images of her at work and film of her younger self. What was obscure at Tate became clear: the autobiographical sources of her art and the way she exorcised her demons through painting. She inherited her father’s disposition to depression and admitted that her childhood was full of fears.

Willing said that until her eighties Rego was almost secretive about her life, but then she began to tell stories. The cause of her reticence may have been the way her experiences motivated her. If she talked she wouldn’t have painted. Well-adjusted people aren’t great artists.

The film was informative about Victor Willing, Rego’s husband. It was he who was tipped for artistic stardom at the Slade, not her, but as his inspiration withered, hers grew, and he enouraged her without jealousy.

Rego followed an undistracted figurative course through post-war fashions to become one of our greatest artists, but we saw here that she took 25 years to make the paintings we recognise her for. Not unconnected with her greatness is the fact that her talk was free of artbollocks. There was no wish to impress, to which lesser artists are prone, no conventional jargon, no theorising. She said what she felt and believed. Everything was real.

SHAW’S CORNER


Bernard Shaw bequeathed his house at Ayot St Lawrence in Hertfordshire to the National Trust in 1950. He was fifty when he moved in in 1906 and already successful. He became rich but remained a socialist of a peculiar kind, at first wedded to Fabian gradualism but from the 1920s onwards preferring dictatorship and admiring Lenin, Stalin and Mussolini. We went on a tour the other day.

Shaw’s study with a portrait of William Morris above the desk and Morris & Co. curtains. The little monogrammed pot on the right of the typewiter was made by Louise Powell.


When I moved to Hertfordshire in the 1980s, old people remembered him driving through the lanes either in his Rolls Royce or on his tricycle. The tricycle bore witness to his passion for healthy living, including vegetarianism, wool next to the skin, sleeping with the windows open and opposition to vaccination, but it also bore witness to socialist principles.

Bare boards and an electric fire. On the mantleshelf, a Staffordshire figure of Shaw’s chosen rival, Shakespeare, and his 1938 Oscar for the screenplay of ‘Pygmalion’. The portrait is of his wife, Charlotte.


Shaw’s Corner is modestly furnished in the style of a clerk or a schoolteacher and doesn’t look like the house of a wealthy man. The house had servants’ bells but Shaw refused to use them, going down to the kitchen and knocking on the door if he wanted to talk to the cook. Shaw liked the quiet villlage without a train station or a bus service.

The sunny veranda, which Shaw called ‘The Riviera’. The house was built without running water or electricity but Shaw was quick to adopt technical innovations.


It has Arts and Crafts connections. Shaw was a follower of Ruskin and Morris, greater influences on progressive thinkers in England than Marx, and a portrait of Morris hangs above his desk. He was part of the Morris circle. He preached socialism in street-corner meetings with Morris. He flirted with May Morris, she fell in love with him and Morris might have liked him as a son-in-law.

May Morris, her fiancé Henry Halliday Sparling, Emery Walker and Bernard Shaw.


Like every advanced middle-class house of the period, Shaw’s Corner has Arts and Crafts touches throughout: Morris & Co. furniture and fabrics, a piano designed by Walter Cave, secretary of the Art Workers Guild, pottery by Alfred and Louise Powell and a sense of The Simple Life.

A patterned vessel by Alfred and Louise Powell, china and varied reading.