18 February 2018


I have to admit that I didn't know much about Archibald Cox until I went to Kingston Museum's exhibition about the Knox Guild. Someone who read my post about him told me how much she liked his clocks, most of which, I think, he designed for Liberty's. They are indeed superb. Here's a link to pictures of them.

17 February 2018


Following up Archibald Knox (above) after visiting the Kingston exhibition about Denise Wren and the Knox Guild, I found an article about him by Winifrid Tuckfield, Denise's sister, in Mannin, a journal of Manx life, written in 1917.

Here is an extract, which shows his originality and independence of the national art curriculum.
"Mr. Knox's system of teaching was essentially his own. Instead of insisting on the English method of art education by making laborious copies of scraps of museum specimens of 'styles' he made at his own expense three thousand lantern slides, illustrating works of art from prehistoric times down to the gipsy caravans of to-day, showing how Art was produced by the workman in the joy of using his chisel or hammer. To you of MANNIN it will be interesting to know that he gave lectures on your grey thatched homes, your churches, and your crosses, making us love them as if they were our own."
The full article can be found here.

Knox was in post at Kingston art school in the first decade of the 20th century. By that time art education had been revolutionized by artists associated with the Arts and Crafts Movement, notably at Birmingham (reformed in 1877) , Glasgow, the LCC Central School,  Camberwell and the RCA. Knox's difficulties show how long it took the government schools to catch up. But change was coming fast. In 1916, Charles Holme, founder-editor of The Studio, published a survey of art schools that showed how they had all been shaped by the Arts and Crafts aesthetic.

16 February 2018


Denise Wren and a student packing a kiln, c.1926

Kingston Museum, Surrey, has an exhibition of rarely-seen work by Denise Wren and the Knox Guild. Wren (1891-1979) was a founder of the Craft Potters Association (CPA), the leading British group of studio potters, and was well-known among older potters, but the Kingston Museum displays work from her archive that reveals her as a significant designer in several other media as well. Little has been written about her, so this is a valuable show.

Kingston Museum,
Wheatfield Way
Kingston upon Thames
Until 7 April 2018
Closed Mondays
020 8547 5006

This is her own account of her life, written in her seventies:

"Came to England from Australia in 1900. Trained Kingston School of Art under Archibald Knox 1907-11. Set up workshop within Knox Guild of Design & Craft at 24 Market Place, Kingston-upon-Thames 1911. Designed 'a potters' house', Potter's Croft, built with her husband Henry Wren (d.1947) and her two brothers in 1919. Whilst building she and her husband founded the Oxshott Pottery. Together they organised the Artist Craftsman exhibition at Central Hall, Westminster 1923-37, wrote Handcraft Pottery (1927), Fingerbuilt Pottery (Pitman), books on basketry and raffia and innumerable articles; ran short courses at Oxshott, supplied plans for small coke-fired kilns and sold pots continuously, exhibiting at e.g. British Empire Exhibitions 1923-4, Chelsea and the Rose Show. More recently exhibited with daughter Rosemary at Berkeley Galleries 1960's, also Commonwealth Institute; continuously supported CPA - particularly concerned with its early development. Work V&A and other collections. Before the war, made earthenware with coloured glazes; since, stoneware and saltglazed pots and some hundreds of smoked biscuit elephants."

Plate by Denise Wren, c.1920, with Art Nouveau design

Wren was one of the pioneers of studio pottery in Britain. It is interesting to note the women who played an important role in its early days: Dora Lunn, Dora Billington, Stella Crofts, Nell Vyse, Nora Braden and Katherine Pleydell Bouverie. Most of Billington's students in the 1920s and 1930s, so far as they can be identified, were women.* Bernard Leach's brand dominance in studio pottery from the 1940s to the 1970s tended to obscure the role of women.

Design for a brooch

Design for a pewter teapot

We are fortunate that Wren never threw anything away. Her archive contains designs for fabrics, jewellery, silver, pewter and posters as well as pottery. Her designs in the 1910s and 1920s were strongly influenced by Archibald Knox's Art Nouveau and Celtic motifs. In the 1950s she had commercial success designing fabrics for Tootal.

Archibald Knox (1864-1933) designed extensively for Liberty's and was a charismatic teacher at Kingston art school. His methods were not approved of by the school inspectors, who it appears were still wedded to the drawing syllabus of the old government art schools, and he resigned suddenly in 1911. Wren and some other students also resigned in protest and formed the Knox Guild in honour of him.

Denise Wren, square pot with incised deer and "stormy sunset glaze", 1930s.

Denise Wren, George and the Dragon, 1920s.

Salt-glazed jug by Denise Wren. She exhibited her innovative glazes at the Craft Potters Association.

The Guild's principles as applied to pottery were: "A piece of pottery is as much of a work of art as a picture. Therefore each of the pieces shown has been made by the designer. Each is the only one of its particular pattern."  It has to be said that Wren's early pottery was clumsy and badly made, but that applies to many of the early studio potters. Her application of Celtic and Art Nouveau patterns was original and unique. She achieved interesting glaze effects. In the 1950s, she and her daughter introduced salt-glazing to studio pottery, where is is now widely used. The little animal figures that she made towards the end of her career were artistically and commercially successful.

* Cayley Robinson, Gertrude Cohen, Annie Maule, Rachel Marshall, Winifrid Williams, Deborah Harding, Stella Crofts, Nora Braden , Sybil Finnemore, Zema Haworth, Olive Jones, Enid Marx, Ada Mason, Sylvia Fox-Strangways, Katherine Pleydell-Bouverie, Elsie Currie, Miss F. Maggs, Nora Stranaghan, Miss D. S. Bell, Mary R. Brace, Miss J. Williams, Constance Dunn, Mrs R. N. Tagore, Norah Godlee, Doreen Goodchild, Ursula Mommens, Rosemary Dugdale-Bradley, Dorothy Morton, Helen Pincombe, Joan Crossley-Holland and Eleanor Whittall. 

14 February 2018


Three things caught my attention recently. 

The first was that the creative industries contribute £84bn to the UK economy every year - almost twice as much as manufacturing. 

The third was that making art has positive health benefits.

Despite the proven value of the arts, some people still think they're useless. Once, when I recommended support for artists’ co-operatives to a London council, councillors said they preferred to aid "real" industries. I pointed out that after making their decision they'd be watching something on TV written and acted by artists, making tea in a pot designed by an artist, drawing curtains decorated by an artist and collapsing into a sofa designed by an artist. You can't move without encountering the work of artists. Unfortunately, there also are some artists who think that the arts are useless, and object to the idea that they might have economic value or to the concept of creative industries. That attitude doesn't help the arts.

As the arts have health benefits, they're actually worth more than £84bn when you add on the health savings and increased productivity. (The Parliamentary Group on Arts, Health and Wellbeing is investigating the contribution of the arts to health and social care.) And the value of other industries - say, financial services -  has to be corrected by subtracting the cost of stress and illness.

Since the arts contribute to the economy and wellbeing, it's crazy for the government to downgrade them in education. But if so few artists make a living, are we educating too many of them? If you want to guarantee a job in your degree subject, study dentistry or nursing. Perhaps we are educating too many artists, but perhaps there's also something wrong with the content of arts degrees. 

4 February 2018


Photo: The Modern House

I'd heard of Span houses but I'd never visited one and didn't know much about them until I visited a friend yesterday who'd recently moved into one. Eric Lyons, Geoffrey Townsend and Leslie Bilsby's Span development company built thirty estates between 1948 and 1984, to which they applied Modernist principles and interesting ideas about living. The houses are modest but they maximize light and space and dissolve the boundary between inside and outside.

Span thought about landscaping, the arrangement of the houses and ways of enhancing the interaction between people living on the estates. In an age of extreme individualism, these ideas appear socialistic and Utopian, but the houses are practical, they're much in demand and the people who live in them like them and are proud of them. Here is a mixture of pictures, some from The Modern House.

Photo: The Modern House
Photo: The Modern House
Photo: The Modern House
Photo: The Modern House

29 January 2018


It's quite a hoot that the Guggenheim Museum offered to lend the White House Maurizio Cattelan’s America - a functioning gold toilet - after turning down their request for a Van Gogh landscape.  There are ten layers of irony in this:

  • A toilet made of gold.
  • A gift of a toilet made of gold to a man who is reputed to have chairs made of gold.
  • A gift of gold that is intended as an insult to the President.
  • A functioning toilet made of gold that visitors to the Guggenheim are permitted to use.
  • A functioning toilet that Guggenheim guards protect closely and inspect regularly.
  • A reference to Duchamp's readymade Fountain that is not a readymade at all.
  • A precious, commoditised version of Duchamp's inherently worthless Fountain.
  • A reference to the once-shocking Fountain that is now so clichéd that it causes no offence whatever in the art world.
  • " One can imagine creating reverse readymades from some of Duchamp‘s pure readymades, such as shoveling snow with In Advance of a Broken Arm, or like an Italian conceptual artist actually did, urinating in Fountain. Of course, the irony is that in urinating in Duchamp's urinal, the artist created a reverse readymade by retuming it to the use for which it was originally manufactured." Derridada: Duchamp as Readymade Deconstruction, Thomas Deane Tucker.
Duchamp, In Advance of the Broken Arm

  • Playing at political radicalism without being radical at all. So old hat. So fake. Duchamp imagined a readymade in reverse, for example, using a Rembrandt as an ironing board. The only artists who took him up were the students of the Ecole des Beaux Arts in 1968, who confronted the police with old masters from the walls of the school.

26 January 2018


I eventually got to the exhibition of the Women's Hour Craft Prize at the V&A. I liked the prize piece, Phoebe Cummings' Triumph of the Immaterial, a construction in unfired clay of beautiful flowers, reminiscent of Dutch flower painting. There is a short video in the exhibition which shows Cummings using historical reference material, so I'm sure that sort of painting was in her mind. This is her description of the work:

“Historically, fountains have stood confidently (and apologetically) as sculpture, design and craft, with little regard for such categorisations. Triumph of the Immaterial is a fountain made from raw clay. It will enact its own performance, eroding and dissolving over time. The work celebrates the endless possibility for clay to be made and un-made, and considers craft skills and the decorative from a contemporary position.”

Every day at noon the fountain is turned on and this exquisite sculpture is gradually eroded. It is not an original idea - there is a similarly self-destructing piece in the V&A's exhibition of contemporary Korean ceramics - but the delicacy of the object makes the process more poignant here.

24 January 2018


We went to see High & Over and the Sun Houses in Amersham, modernist houses at the far end of Metroland in the stockbroker belt of Buckinghamshire. These four uncompromising buildings were the work of Amyas Connell, the New Zealand born architect who is credited with introducing the International Style to British domestic architecture. They were completed in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Connell and his Amersham development are well described by the Amersham Museum and I won't repeat what they have written.

Some of the gardens have sculptures.

I thought the recent development of  the street, Highover Park, with more ordinary houses works well.

Connell's admiration of Le Corbusier is established, but I was struck by the similarities between the Sun Houses and Loos's Villa Müller in Prague, built at the same time - not only by the cube-shaped buildings, the fenestration and the white stucco, but also by the hilly site and the necessarily sloping gardens.

The situation of Connell's houses is more striking than that of Villa Müller because the surroundings in Amersham have not been so extensively developed as those of Villa Müller, which is now in a Prague suburb, and despite the 1960s and 1970s houses around High & Over, the setting of Highover Park is still rural with splendid views over the Chilterns.

Is the ownership of Minis compulsory for owners of the Sun Houses? These (below) are even colour matched with the window frames.

Pathé News made an informative film, "The House of a Dream" in 1931 about High & Over, showing the interior as it was then - simpler and more austere than the interior of Villa Müller.

23 January 2018


I posted earlier about the discovery under a false wall of tile panels by Nicholas Vergette. I went to see them recently and was bowled over: they are interesting and a beautiful thing to have in a house. One panel decorates a chimney breast, another the lower half of a wall in a sitting room. They are signed “Vergette” and although there are no documentary records I have no doubt that they are by him.

The first panel, dated 1955, is of stoneware tiles, which were probably made by Vergette himself, glazed in a silk-matt white glaze and decorated in a shiny blue glaze applied over wax resist and with marks scratched through (above). Vergette often used wax resist and sgraffito on his ceramics and the blue-and-white colourway is characteristic of his work of this period. The floral design is free and asymmetrical and well scaled for the chimney breast and the small room it is in.

The second, dated 1956, is in some ways more remarkable. It is large, comprising 189 six-inch tiles. It has an eight-colour design with a deep violet and blue-grey background and with floral and animal motifs in royal blue, sky blue, olive green, primrose yellow, brown and red. The background, with the violet cross hatched to reveal grey lines, is original. Vergette painted the motifs first, then covered them in wax and then washed in the dark background. Today we have water-soluble wax emulsion to get resist effects, but Vergette would have used hot candle wax, which is difficult to control and produces noxious fumes - I stopped using it after I almost passed out in my studio.

Vergette's panel is painted on tiles made by Johnson’s of Stoke-on-Trent, probably bought unglazed and then covered by him in a tin glaze and decorated using the maiolica technique. He may have decided at this stage that manufacturing his own tiles was too difficult and that it was best left to a specialist - tile making takes up a lot of space and the problems of warping and estimating shrinkage are considerable. To decorate the tiles, Vergette would have laid them in position on the floor and painted them, then numbered them, fired them and later re-assembled them on site. This way of decorating was illustrated by Kenneth Clark, a contemporary of Vergette, in his book “Practical Pottery and Ceramics”, showing Tony Hollaway at work (below).

Applying the design to a large tile panel

At the time he made these tiles (just before he went to America) Vergette was working with William Newland and Margaret Hine in a studio in Bayswater, where they received commissions to decorate the coffee bars that were springing up all over London. Vergette and Newland were also teaching at the Central School of Arts and Crafts. Newland thought that British troops advancing through Italy had developed a taste for good coffee and demanded it when they got home. The coffee bars were certainly part of the Italian wave of the ‘fifties, with Gaggia machines, names like “Moka Ris” and openings by Gina Lollobrigida. The maiolica plates and tiles designed by the Bayswater three enhanced their Mediterranean feel. Newland observed that coffee bars gave young people for the first time somewhere to sit indoors without supervision, without having to drink alcohol and without having to spend a lot of money. By the late 1950s, youth fashion was also Italian-influenced.

Nicholas Vergette demonstrating at  the Ceramics in the Home exhibition in 1952.

Dora Billington, under whom Vergette worked at the Central School of Arts and Crafts, said  in“The New Look in British Pottery” that his work, “though much of it is in the round, somehow suggests a painter’s approach. His best work is evocative, always suggesting more than is actually stated.  … it is good to see him turning seriously to tiles." Billington illustrates a contemporary tile panel, but its present whereabouts are unknown, if it still exists. Nearly all the decorations made by Vergette and his colleagues are lost or destroyed, and if he ever made any tile panels for coffee bars they no longer exist, so these recently discovered panels are outstanding as the only surviving example of tile work by him. The fact that the polychrome tiles were covered up indicates that they weren't much valued, and it's fortunate that they weren't hacked off.

The details of the commission are unknown, but there is a clue in two artists associated with the Central School who lived near the house, Newland and the illustrator Val Biro. They may have introduced the owner to Vergette.