John Farleigh © National Portrait Gallery

This is an edited extract of a talk I gave to the Society of Designer Craftsmen on 25 March.

The debates on art and industry in the 1930s were bound to impinge on the designer craftsman. The progress of manufacturing, modernist ideas and the Wall Street Crash all sowed doubts about the role and purpose of the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society. Within it there emerged a group of reformers who thought a rapprochement with industry was inescapable. They were represented by the wood engraver John Farleigh, who, in 1933, read a paper to the Society, Welcome Machinery! — one of three read before a symposium that year — Farleigh’s, one by J. H. Mason about the place of hand-work in modern civilisation and one by Noel Rooke about the craftsmen and education for industry. Farleigh, Mason and Rooke were all practitioners of fine printing, had all been associated with private presses at one time or another, and all taught at the Central School of Arts and Crafts, part of a strong contingent of book arts in the Society. The president was Edward Johnston and C. H. St John Hornby, the vice-president, ran the Ashendene Press when he wasn’t running W. H. Smith.

Farleigh said the craftsman now had to face the challenge of designing for mass production. There were some things members made that couldn’t be made by machine but there were other things that could. He had no doubt that hand-made things were better, but if something was going to be made by machine, it was best that it was designed by a craftsman. Anyone who designed for the machine had to understand the machine, so the craftsman had to embrace machinery. “We are in a machine age,” Farleigh said, “and to ignore it is to ignore life as it is lived today.” That would be suicide for the craftsman, whose job isn’t just to make unique articles for the client who’s able to pay for them, but also to make things to be used by the many. Later he told the Society that members who refused to design for machine production had no social conscience.

Farleigh’s best-known work is his wood engravings for Bernard Shaw’s book The Black Girl in Search of God, a controversial fable that mocked religion and whose notoriety stimulated large sales. Farleigh put forward the book as an example of designing for the many. Designing for the machine press hadn’t been either easier or more difficult than for designing for the hand press, it was simply a different challenge.

John Farleigh. Illustration for The Black Girl in Search of God.

Farleigh was referring to machinery in two aspects. The first was the factory, but the second was the machine itself, and he observed that opposition to the machine it was based on a misunderstanding because there’s little to distinguish a machine from a tool. The point was better made by David Pye, who is unsurpassed as a writer on design and workmanship.

Pye defined a machine as a tool to which some motor force is applied, whether hand or electricity or anything else. A hand tool wasn’t better or worse than a power tool and it didn’t necessarily call for more skill either. Take the dentist’s drill versus the hand brace. In this case, the power tool undoubtedly requires more care, judgement and dexterity than the hand tool. It’s not possible to distinguish between the appearance of hand-made things and machine-made things because there’s nothing in them that allows us to determine what the motive force was of the tool that was used to make them. Nor can many things be said to be truly hand-made because tools are required for almost everything — the exceptions Pye mentions are writing and sewing and we may add baking. Pye was forced to conclude that “hand-made” isn’t a technical term at all — it’s a social and historical term that refers to workmanship of a kind that existed before the industrial revolution. Pye is much clearer and more analytical than Farleigh, but Farleigh was probably trying to say something similar.

Mason took a rather more traditional view than Farleigh and did believe in the distinctiveness of hand-made things. He said that the division of labour was harmful and that the products of machinery were generally inferior to hand-work. That was especially so in the case of printing, which he knew about as head of the printing department at the Central. Those who work with the hand press can raise the standards of mechanical printing by their influence, as he and Edward Johnston had done. Noel Rooke told an encouraging tale of how the example of typographers, printmakers lettering artists at the Central and the private presses had lifted commercial printing out of the doldrums. Out of this symposium came the idea of including deigns for mass production in the next exhibition. Needless to say, it met with stiff opposition in the following year, notably from Douglas Cockerell, Grailey Hewitt and — the most vociferous — from Bernard Leach.

Noel Rooke. Woodcut.

But what’s interesting is that, when we drill down into Bernard Leach’s views, we find that they weren’t all that different from Farleigh’s. In some ways he was as hostile to industrial civilisation as Ruskin and Morris had been, but he acknowledged that if mass-produced pottery were designed by the right people it could possess what he called “quality of body and beauty of form”. What was needed, he thought, was a new type of designer who understood both the studio and the factory and could keep the factory up to the artistic standards of the studio. Surprisingly, despite disliking much about modern America, he admired Charles and Ray Eames. But Leach always insisted that the factory must come to the craftsman, the craftsman should not go to the factory. He didn’t think the Society should exhibit designs for mass production. Its job was to serve the crafts without compromise, and if it exhibited industrial design it would betray its purpose. He resigned over the issue and Dora Billington had to use all her tact and charm to persuade him to re-join.

Farleigh returned to the topic of admitting design for mass production to the Society on and off for years, but there was always loud dissent and eventually he had to drop the idea. But the dissenters were in a minority and by 1944, two-thirds of the members were said to be designing for industry.

Boxes in Resin ‘M’ designed by Reco Capey and made by Imperial Chemical Industries.
Exhibited at ‘Art and Industry’, 1935.

Design for mass production was included in the 1935 and 1938 exhibitions but those events didn’t differ much from earlier exhibitions. In 1935, six cases out of 600 were devoted to mass production and none departed far from the Society’s traditions. Naturally, Farleigh’s wood engravings featured prominently, and other book arts as well. There was lettering and typography by Grailey Hewett, Alfred Fairbank and Lynton Lamb — all of whom taught at the Central. The only throughgoing examples of industrial design were Reco Capey’s: perfumery productions in glass, metal and synthetic materials for Yardley similar to the designs for manufacture in synthetic resin by ICI that he showed at the 1935 Art & Industry exhibition at the Royal Academy.


This large, decorated tin-glazed dish by Dora Billington just came into my possession, bought from a seller in New Zealand. It’s an exact copy of a dish in a private collection in Sussex, which appears to have been made for the Inn Signs Exhibition, which was held at the Building Centre in Bond Street in 1936, though it wasn’t included in the catalogue and doesn’t appear to have been exhibited. No doubt Billington made two, in case one didn’t turn out well, and indeed the New Zealand version has some smudging in the decoration. How it got to New Zealand it’s impossible to say, but it’s undoubtedly by Billington.

Billington is well-known for championing tin-glazed pottery, which she began to make early in her career in the 1920s and carried on making until her retirement from the Central School of Arts and Crafts in 1955, by which time Leach-style stoneware was highly fashionable and this kind of pottery was rather looked down on by studio potters. Her pre-eminent tin-glaze student, Alan Caiger Smith, told me that when he was at the Central in the early 1950s, the kiln technician point blank refused to fire his tin-glazed pieces.

Billington herself learned to decorate with a brush, painting into the glaze, when she was a student and was working in the studio of Bernard Moore, and when she entered the Royal College of Art in 1912 she studied lettering with Edward Johnston, from whom, as this dish shows, she learned much. So here is a perfect combination of painting in tin glaze, restrained design in two colours, first-class drawing and very elegant lettering.

We don’t know how the plate got to New Zealand but repatriating it was difficult and hazardous. A brief attempt to put it in the luggage of friends who were travelling back to the UK had to be given up as impractical and I entrusted it to Ravi Dhillon, who runs a pack-and-send business in Dunedin. Ravi’s packing was superbly robust and he recommended DHL as a carrier.

I have no experience of international shipping and wasn’t a little anxious to find, as I tracked the parcel, the great number of stops it made and the large amount of handing it went through. Between New Zealand and England it was transferred at Auckland, Sydney, Singapore, Bahrain, Frankfurt, Leipzig, Stansted, Heathrow and Luton. When it had got to Leipzig I found DHL’s promotional video about the new shipping hub there and my mind was put at ease by the amazing scale, expertise and professionalism of the facility.


Covid and Christmas gave me the chance to catch up on reading and after Fiona MacCarthy’s life of William Morris, I’ve finally got round to Emmanuel Cooper’s biography, Bernard Leach: Life and Work.

As a man with no doubts about his own importance, Leach (1887-1979) left a large archive, which makes the work of the biographer easy, though Cooper may have been blessed with too much material and remains too close to the sources. In contrast to Leach, Dora Billington, another major studio potter of the period, left nothing. As Leach dominated the pottery studio world, so she dominated pottery in the art schools. She was in a better position to leave an archive than he was. He was peripatetic, had an emotionally turbulent life and was always in search of funds; she remained at the Central School of Arts and Crafts and lived in the same house with one companion for thirty years. The absence of a Billington archive suggests that her papers were destroyed, probably on her instructions.

Leach’s first wife, Muriel, said that no man was ever more in need of a religion than he was. Pottery was a religion for him. He thought that Beauty was to be found in the Absolute. Industry had no soul and bad pottery was “dead”. He could never accept that his work was simply a style that he preferred: he had to believe that it reflected a universal, unvariable and absolute standard that all pottery should measure up to, and damn it if it didn’t. He was brought up a Catholic and was educated by Jesuits. When doubts crept in, he became a follower of a charlatan called Alfred Westharp, who combined polygamy with the Montessori method of education. Westharp conveniently persuaded Leach that his discontent with monogamy was spiritually significant and that he would never develop as an artist if he didn’t follow his sexual urges.

Later, under the influence of Mark Tobey, Leach adopted the Baha’i faith. His employees at the pottery had to attend daily prayer meetings. He stood on a soap box in St Ives harbour to preach on the evils of modern life, which, by the 1950s, included not only industry but also cinema, chewing gum and Music While You Work.

Leach’s mission was to bring together East and West. In Japan he sold pottery based on the English vernacular tradition and he introduced Japanese potters to the clay handle instead of the traditional bamboo handle. He and his colleagues, Soetsu Yanagi and Shoji Hamada, encouraged a Japanese reading of Ruskin and Morris. But as he was so opposed to the values of the West it’s hard to see what he brought to the East – unlike, for example, Charlotte Perriand, whose design was inspired by Japan but who remained a significant Western designer.

Leach made successful tours of the United States, which challenged him because he couldn’t understand a country with diverse traditions and a love of innovation. Cooper is frank about his aloofness and dogmatism in America, but for all that he was often open to new experiences in the arts, society and nature. Most remarkable was his warm response to the designers Charles and Ray Eames, who, despite their collection of folk art, represented the antithesis of Leach’s values. He wanted to produce a small number of things for a discerning élite: their objective, in their memorable phrase, was getting the best to the greatest number of people for the least.

There’s nothing surprising about a man developing odd ideas but it is suprising that Leach’s odd ideas gained so much traction. He and Hamada irrupted from Japan into England in 1920 and worked in disregard of other art potters. There were broadly speaking three groups: Leach and his small band; the late followers of the Arts and Crafts movement, like Alfred and Louise Powell; and the figurative potters like Charles Vyse and Gwendolen Parnell, who were untouched by Orientalism, had little interest in the vernacular and didn’t share Leach’s aesthetic of simplicity, modesty and utility.

Leach’s style was slow to catch on. Some, like the Marxist Henry Bergen and William Slater, the managing director of the Dartington Trust, were unafraid to interrogate his vague ideas, but after the war there was an avalanche of interest. That is partly explained by Leach’s unshakable self-confidence, his talent for publicity and A Potter’s Book, but there have been many confident self-publicists without a following. Murray Fieldhouse, an enthusiastic follower, I think explained it. He told me that after the war a lot of people were looking for a new way of life and that the crafts seemed to offer it. He and several others who went for this way of life were pacifists like Leach. The Leach idea of a small pottery in the country, in the shadow of the atom bomb, away from the rat race, seemed to fit the bill. If oriental religion could be added to the mix, so much the better.