18 April 2017


I’ve complained about unimaginative and backward-looking domestic architecture in St Albans. Now, in the interest of balance, I show some pictures of an admirable contemporary housing development. It’s Oaklands, built on the site of the old St Albans college of further education and incorporating nearly all of the previous buildings. In a way it's retro - mid-century modern - because it modifies buildings designed in the late 1950s, but it's not sentimental or historicist.

The site slopes and has many mature trees, both taken account of in the college development, which won a Civic Society award in 1961. These features are exploited in the new housing development. It has changing viewpoints, which you discover as you walk through the estate and varied materials and textures in vertical and horizontal surfaces. A lot has been done with simple resources. Landscaping and bold planting exploit the site well and so far it’s been well maintained.

7 April 2017


I went to the Cotswolds yesterday to find out more about the Cotswold slipware potteries that I wrote about earlier. Before calling on Dinah Kunzemann, who used to run the Evenlode Pottery with her husband Dieter, I visited the Gordon Russell Design Museum in Broadway.

Russell was a first-rate furniture designer, a successful businessman, a humane influence on industry and an influential figure in 20th century design politics. The Museum traces his life through his work, from the early part of the century to the 1980s. A phrase that recurs is his wish to “teach the machine manners”. He came from an Arts and Crafts background but he wanted to make practical, modern furniture and he combined hand and power tools in his factory. The pieces on display are wonderful examples of the cabinet maker's art.

Gordon Russell "Double Helix" sideboard, 1950s
He was said to have made an English compromise with modernism, producing modern furniture that everyone could be comfortable with. He believed that an age that didn’t make its own contribution to design wasn’t worth much. He pointed out all the innovations in 18th century furniture, and wondered how poor we’d be if furniture makers had stuck to 17th century models. He led the production of Utility furniture during the Second World War, designing things that didn’t require a lot of labour and that didn’t use imported timber. He was the first director of  the Design Council.

I suppose my first connection with Russell was in my 1950s childhood through our Utility furniture. Because of Utility's use of native timbers, there was a lot of oak in our cupboards and chests of drawers. I cut them down and made shelves from them when my parents disposed of them - they're still in use.

Russell’s approach was like that of Charles and Ray Eames, who tried to make the best things for the least cost for the most people. My visit to Broadway made me think about my recent post on British housing, much of which is imitative, expensive and bland, housing that is not making a 21st century contribution to design and planning. These failings seem to me to be connected with the way the housing market is rigged.

Housing Minister Aneurin Bevan opens the 500th house built after the war.

I’m not a housing economist and my ideas about this are probably naïve, but I think the root of our design problem is the fact that we treat houses as investments. There's no other necessity of life that we want to get more expensive. A fall in house prices is regarded as a disaster by every owner, estate agent and developer. Scarcity is in their interest and cheap, plentiful housing is not. Risky design is to be avoided. In the 1950s, when there were millions of publicly-owned houses built, design was of the time and of a high standard - something like the comfortable modernism of Gordon Russell's furniture.

5 April 2017


I'm testing new glazes. I make small samples, using just 30 gm of dry matter, to which I add about 5% of stains. In these quantities, the measurement of stains has to be accurate to a hundredth of a gram. I have these great little scales, the little oblong thing in the middle of the picture, probably more widely used for weighing heroin than glaze stain, but perfect for the job.

I put the glaze samples on t-shaped tiles, suitably labelled, like the one on the left of the picture. After the tiles come out of the kiln, the bases are snapped off and they're mounted on an A4 board. The best of the tests is made into a large batch of glaze.

I'm looking for a good yellow glaze to go inside tableware. The outside will be a matt grey, which is being tested at the same time.

This is the scientific side of ceramics, which I enjoy as much as the artistic side - but not more so. A colleague makes pottery only so that he can write reports about his glaze experiments. For me the experiment is only a means to an end.

Some potters can't be bothered with this approach. I talked to Gordon Baldwin about his student days under Dora Billington, who was good on ceramic chemistry and who developed a range of glazes for her class at the Central School of Arts and Crafts. Gordon admitted he wasn’t a good student. “I didn’t have the right personality for that diligent testing," he told me. "My idea was more like that of an alchemist, stir it together see what you’ve got and put a pinch more in it.” That approach worked well for him. Different potters, different personalities, different approaches.

27 March 2017


Why are we so in love with the past that we can't build for the present?

I walked round a new private housing estate in St Albans today that was not an imitation of past architectural styles but an imitation of an imitation.

The hung tiles, bays, dormer windows, small-paned windows, steep-pitched roofs, door styles and prominent chimneys are copied from not from vernacular architecture but from the Arts and Crafts copies of vernacular architecture. At the same time, the estate manages to be bland. With few exceptions, present-day housing is built in this twee toytown style. It has to be forced into modern building standards, modern ceiling heights, modern light standards, modern densities and with modern accommodation for cars, so it's not just twice false but thrice false. No other European country builds houses like this

Jonathan Meades traced this disease to Letchworth Garden City, which he said set the style for suburban domestic architecture until the Second World War, so that every street in England looks like Letchworth. He was not quite right: after three post-war decades, in which some attempts were made to build houses that looked as we had designed them and not our great-grandparents, the disease has come back. Hatfield New Town, which build for the present, now has a rash of Tudorbethan houses on the former British Aerospace site.

Of Letchworth Meades said:
"We walk forever down false memory lane, yearning for the place where the oak was beyond a joke, for the time when the quaintness was 100% proof. An Englishman's home is his fantasy. We're so inured to architectural escapism that we hardly acknowledge it. And we hardly stop to consider that the bucolic past that such houses represent was brutal, callous, cold, diseased, incestuous; and that our forebears spent much of their lives in pain."

This Romantic preoccupation with the past is the reason why we have still have a school system designed for Oxbridge entrance, why we can't train enough people for our economy, why industrial productivity is low, why we can't modernise our legislature, and why we want to leave Europe and return to the days of unregulated businesses that put children up chimneys. If we made these quaint housing estates with proper chimneys we might be able to do that again.

26 March 2017


The Unite for Europe March in London yesterday was determined but good-natured. Marches like this encourage humour and invention. There were some witty and creative signs carried by the protestors against Britain's leaving the European Union.

I had a chat with Grayson Perry, who was there with a Channel 4 film crew and trying to appear neutral. I suggested that he could transform these imaginative banners into a tapestry. He said he's working on some Brexit pots at the moment - they'll be displayed at the Serpentine Gallery in June.

Here are some of the banners we saw.

This lady came from Cadiz to demonstrate with a combined UK/Spanish flag. 
Photo: C.Till
Photo: C.Till
Photo: C.Till
Photo: C.Till
Photo: C.Till

21 March 2017


The great attraction of the Capodimonte museum in Naples is the Caravaggio Flagellation. Naples has three great paintings by the bad boy of art, which we had to see: The Flagellation, The Seven Acts of Mercy (in Pio Monte della Misericordia) and The Martyrdom of St Ursula (in the Gallery of Palazzo Zevallos Stigliano, which makes a quiet escape from the hectic Via Toledo where it stands).

But in the Capodimonte, this picture of the Madonna and Child with St. John stood out. The artist is Raffaello dè Carli, also called Raffaellino del Garbo, a Florentine, 1466-1524.

I liked it and took the photo in poor light with my cheap camera, but it may be the best  you can find because, although it’s a lovely painting and although the artist is very good, I can’t find a good colour reproduction. (There's is a crisp black and white photo here.) It’s mentioned in Berenson’s Italian Pictures of the Renaissance, but I’m surprised it's not talked about more. The composition (never easy in the round) is successful and I like the lively postures of the figures, especially the heads of the Virgin and Child turned away from one another.

Vasari says of Raffaello that, when he was a little boy, he
“... was called by the pet name of Raffaellino, which he retained ever afterwards; and in his earliest days he gave such promise in his art, that he was already numbered among the most excellent masters, a thing which happens to few. But still fewer meet the fate which afterwards came upon him, in that from a splendid beginning and almost certain hopes, he arrived at a very feeble end.” 
He trained with Filippo Lippi, who thought Raffaellino was a better painter than he was. You may agree. The Madonna and Child with St John was painted about 1500, in his early thirties, obviously at the height of his powers.

So why do we know so much more about Filippo than Raffaellino?  The explanation may be in his final years. Of his end, Vasari writes
“Raffaellino was unfortunate in his connections, for he always mixed with poor and humble people, like a man who had sunk and become ashamed of himself, seeing that in his youth he had given such great promise, and now knew how distant he was from the extraordinary excellence of the works that he had made at that time. And thus, growing old, he fell away so much from his early standard, that his works no longer appeared to be by his hand; and forgetting his art more and more every day, he was reduced to painting, in addition to his usual panels and pictures, the meanest kinds of works. And he sank so low that everything was a torment to him, but above all his burdensome family of children, which turned all his ability in art into mere clumsiness. Wherefore, being overtaken by infirmities and impoverished, he finished his life in misery at the age of fifty-eight, and was buried in S. Simone, at Florence, by the Company of the Misericordia, in the year 1524.”

17 March 2017


Everything about this picture is right: the colours in both foreground and background, the out-of-focus background, the impracticality of Björk's clothing (which redeems the crochet from its awful 1970s associations), her posture, the asymmetry in her dress, hair and eye makeup.  The asymmetric makeup perfects the picture. The human face is asymmetrical and pictures of faces doctored to make them look symmetrical are worrying. Exaggerations of their natural asymmetry are pleasing.

The evil Zorg, Luc Besson's creation in The Fifth Element, played by Gary Oldman (above), with his radically asymmetric hairstyle, would have looked more menacing with a centre parting.  That may be what Blake meant by "fearful symmetry". If not fearful, symmetry is uncanny - here is Björk again

It's thought that biological asymmetry arises from the accumulation of genetic and environmental pressures in human development. The perception that perfect symmetry is uncanny may be a sense that a perfect face cannot be human. Perfect human replicas appear to be almost but not exactly like human beings, and are unpleasant to look at. There is supposed to be a zone between the obviously non-human and the obviously human - the so-called uncanny valley - that elicits this disquiet. The metal robot C3PO was charming, but humanoid robots are creepy. This perfect actroid is in the uncanny valley.

Conversely, the face decorations illustrated in Hans Sylvester's Natural Fashion: Tribal Decoration in Africa, (below) are asymmetrical and also have a disregard for precision, which has a comparably pleasing effect. They appeal not as primitive but as human. 

10 March 2017


The Dulwich Picture Gallery manages its small size and off-centre location well with appropriate and popular exhibitions. Its Ravilious show last year was perfectly suited to the building and its current exhibition of paintings and designs by Vanessa Bell fills a similar slot.

VANESSA BELL (1879-1961)
8 February 2017 to 4 June 2017
10am - 5pm, Tuesday - Sunday (Closed Mondays except Bank Holidays)
Dulwich Picture Gallery
Gallery Road
SE21 7AD

Bloomsbury is endlessly popular, cautiously modern and very English despite its connection with French painting of the early 20th century. Virginia Woolf said that after Roger Fry's 1910 exhibition of French Post-Impressionists the world was never quite the same. Bell was gripped by Post-Impressionism.  In this exhibition we see a collection of accomplished portraits, still lifes and landscapes dating from about 1910 until the 1950s. There is also reference to Bell's interior design, textiles and pottery, to which her decorative style was well adapted and which I would have liked to see more of. Photographs and letters illuminate the creative life of Charleston Farmhouse.

I wrote in another post about Bell's cautious modernism and how, once she had discovered Post Impressionism, she never looked forward. This exhibition confirms her artistic stasis. What she painted in 1954 was hardly different from what she painted in 1914. There were tentative forays into Cubism, but without conviction. Surrealism might never have happened. Nor within her chosen style could I discern artistic doubt, exploration or self-criticism. Despite her early adoption of the art of the avant garde, she became a comfortable artist of the arrière garde. That may be excused by the fact that her whole life was a work of art. She made Charleston the hub of Bloomsbury, brought up a family and always had a house full of brilliant guests. And so she gives the impression of happily painting away without much curiosity about what was going on elsewhere.

Bloomsbury is popular with the English middle class because it is the image of the free artistic and intellectual life that they cannot have. Virginia Woolf is one of the greatest of 20th century English novelists and Maynard Keynes was one of the greatest intellects. But their visual art did not develop and their Bohemianism does not attract me. It depended on servants, it was shot through with anti-Semitism and a self-centred pacifism. Angelica Garnett writes of a Bloomsbury childhood that left her pretty screwed up.

If you would like a more sympathetic view of Vanessa Bell, here is co-curator Ian Dejardin, talking about her abstract designs of the 1910s.

28 February 2017


Seen in every lounge in 1960: Buffet's Head of a Clown

Bernard Buffet (1928-1999), the French painter popular in the 1950s but dismissed by critics, has two exhibitions in Paris, one a large retrospective in the Museum of Modern Art (MAM). As I shared the common disdain for his work and as he had been out of my consciousness for fifty years, I was curious to see him presented seriously as an artist.

The MAM show is large. Buffet was a workaholic and when he died he left 8,000 canvasses. His career began in about 1946, so that’s about three a week. This is no mean feat because he often worked on a large scale, even as a young man. Whatever you think about his paintings, you have to respect the fact that he took himself seriously and worked hard at his profession. He painted until his death at the age of 71, committing suicide because Parkinson’s disease was preventing him from work.

Buffet was popular but controversial. “He painted a lot,” was a typical judgement. “He’s a St Germain-des-Prés artist.” “He’s a commercial painter.” “He always paints the same way.”

Buffet was a prodigy. He entered the Ecole des Beaux Arts at 14. By 1946, at 18 he was winning major awards and was an instant success. In the years after the Second World War he painted in sombre colours, partly because he could not afford bright colours, and his earnest themes were taken as a comment on life in post-war France. He was co-signatory to the Manifesto of Human Witness (Manifeste de l’Homme témoin) declaring that, in this environment, representation, not abstraction, was called for from artists.

"Bernard Buffet- An Existentialist?" His Self-Portrait (1949), aged 21

His signature style was established before he was twenty: a shallow picture space with almost no perspective, hard black outlines, lack of modelling or detail and flat areas of paint cross-hatched in black. It was effective in his self-portraits – one in which he stands behind his canvas, thin and with bared teeth, is striking. Not surprisingly, the magazines could ask of this young painter of grim scenes, “Bernard Buffet – An Existentialist?”

Although his treatment didn't change much in fifty years, his subjects were varied: portraits, still lifes, landscapes, historical and religious canvasses, genre, fantasy, literary illustration – there was nothing he didn’t try at some time or other. Although the wider public knew him for the vast number of reproductions of his kitsch still lifes, clown portraits and bullfighters, he also wanted to shock. There is nothing very pleasing about his Birds or Skinned Heads.

Red Bird

He was a smash hit because of his youth, his reliability and his reflection of the post-war world. By 1955, he was awarded the first prize by the magazine Connaissance des arts, based on a poll naming the world's best artists. But his highbrow reputation was damaged by a Paris Match feature in the same year that showed him with his Rolls Royce, his castle and his servants. At 27, the emaciated young Existentialist was getting plump.

Young millionaire, 1955

Buffet continued to provide a new collection for his dealer every February. He never abandoned the popular Buffet style but every year he adapted it to a new theme to keep his public interested. His large signature, often at the centre of the picture, was part of the Buffet brand. There may have been financial calculation in his choice of subject, but his passion for his work protected him from cynicism.

Pont Alexandre III

Should Buffet be judged harshly? Although he never developed much, his spiky style was well suited to some subjects, particularly his Paris scenes of the early 'fifties. He developed a recognisable character out of good but limited drawing - but so did Henri Matisse and Paul Klee. He made a lot of money - but so did Picasso and so did Rembrandt for a while. (Picasso, by the way, had an envious hatred of Buffet.)

Dante's Inferno

In 1977, a public familiar with his landscapes were surprised by his return to grand themes, with a suite of large canvasses of Dante’s Inferno. Buffet’s success kept him in demand. He was commissioned to do a series of paintings illustrating Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. It wasn’t necessary, but he also did these pictures on a large scale. There were the familiar black outlines, the flat perspective, the simplified faces. Reduced to book size they make tremendous representations of the story. He would have been a great book illustrator, but book illustration doesn’t make a good living, doesn’t give you a dealer and doesn’t give much outlet for a huge joie de peindre. So here is Bernard Buffet: a combination of book illustrator and painter on the grand scale, clever businessman and serious artist.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

People will think me pretentious, but look at these paintings - "It takes some doing," as the saying goes.

Musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris
11 Avenue du Président Wilson
75116 Paris
Tel. 01 53 67 40 00

Open until 5 March 2017

Tuesday to Sunday 10.00 to 18.00
Thursday evening until 22.00