13 March 2018


Max Frances, Hidden

I was in Cheltenham at the weekend, exhibiting at Handmade in Britain in Cheltenham Town Hall, a well-chosen craft fair with very good quality work in all media. While I was there I went to The Wilson, Cheltenham's museum and art gallery, which has a famous collection of Cotswolds Arts and Crafts, which I have wanted to see for a long time.

We caught The Wilson's temporary exhibition "Alternative Visions: Undiscovered Art in the South West" just before it closed on Sunday. Several of the artists deal with physical or mental pain and their work is raw and sometimes difficult to look at. I was struck by the directness of their statements and the absence of artbollocks.

Sometimes they are witty too. I very much liked Max Frances's statement attached to his sculpture "Hidden", in which he said, "I am an artist made of wire, string and the bones of someone else I used to be. For me, creativity is as necessary as respiration. I fight my demons with pencils, and paint them into corners. Inspiration comes from nature and the magic and mystery to be found behind the banal mask of the everyday. All nature is precious, but I am especially fond of vultures. As a scavenger myself, I enjoy using found, recycled and unexpected (cheap) materials. I find beauty that is overlooked, ignored or disdained."

6 March 2018


The star of the Louis Vuitton Foundation is the building by Frank Gehry, which looks good from every angle.

23 February 2018


In Paris we visited the Louis Vuitton Foundation to see the large collection of works that had been brought over from MoMA for the exhibition "Etre Moderne". From its earliest days, MoMA has collected popular art, and here were photos by Walker Evans, Lisette Model and Alfred Steiglitz. Steamboat Willie, the first Micky Mouse film, was made partly at the suggestion of MoMA staff, and was on show.

No surprise, then, to see an early Fender Stratocaster displayed near to Warhol's soup cans. Originally aimed at country musicians in the 1950s, the Stratocaster was quickly taken up by rock guitarists and has been made in the millions, virtually unchanged, over the last seventy years. A multiple? A readymade? Like Warhol's soup cans, an icon.

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.