English Art and English Rubbish

Peter Campbell

  • C.R. Ashbee: Architect, Designer and Romantic Socialist by Alan Crawford
    Yale, 500 pp, £35.00, November 1985, ISBN 0 300 03467 9
  • The Laughter and the Urn: The Life of Rex Whistler by Laurence Whistler
    Weidenfeld, 321 pp, £14.95, October 1985, ISBN 0 297 78603 2
  • The Originality of Thomas Jones by Lawrence Gowing
    Thames and Hudson, 64 pp, £4.95, February 1986, ISBN 0 500 55017 4
  • Art beyond the Gallery in Early 20th-century England by Richard Cork
    Yale, 332 pp, £40.00, April 1985, ISBN 0 300 03236 6
  • Alfred Gilbert by Richard Dorment
    Yale, 350 pp, £9.95, March 1986, ISBN 0 300 03388 5

In England, where the opposite can easily seem to be the case, there is always someone around to say that the visual arts matter. Not just that they are life-enhancing or give pleasure, but that they are a test of the health of a society. Bad art means bad lives are being lived. Good policies will be known by the art they encourage. The works C.R. Ashbee is remembered for – a couple of original if slightly awkward houses in Chelsea, some pretty silver and jewellery of an almost Art Nouveau sinuousness, some indifferent private press books – would not by themselves have warranted a book on the scale of Alan Crawford’s admirable biography. It is Ashbee’s attempts to give practical expression to the idea that art matters that make Crawford’s apology for a book ‘more ponderous than its subject deserves’ unnecessary.

Ashbee’s ideas were a legacy of Ruskin and Morris: the Ruskin who could write of a little girl he saw in ill-fitting hand-me-downs when he was lecturing in Oxford that ‘nothing spoken about art’ could be ‘of the least use’ to anyone in his audience. ‘For their primary business, and mine, was with art in Oxford, now; not with art in Florence, then; and art in Oxford now was absolutely dependent on our power of solving the question – which I know that my audience would not even allow to be proposed for solution – “Why have our little girls large shoes?” ’ Ruskin’s genius for expression and almost insane intensity and acuity of perception were a poor basis for discrimination, let alone action. Even if his manner had been effective, the change in scale from his cosmic vision to the politics of arts and crafts as represented by Ashbee would be a little comical.

Crawford sees the difference between Ruskin and Ashbee in terms of English sentimentality: ‘the stark challenge which Ruskin and Morris issued was softened by a quirk of British culture: by the fact that the country where the industrial revolution began was still half in love with other and older ways of life ... it was the Romantic image of villages and fields and yeoman stock which excited national pride. The Arts and Crafts Movement was as much a product of this cosy, popular anti-industrialism as of Ruskin’s searing insights and Morris’s courageous logic’ The Arts and Crafts solution did not convince Morris himself. His response to Ashbee’s request to support a guild and School of Handicraft in the East End is recorded in Ashbee’s diary: ‘William Morris and a great deal of cold water ... he says it is useless, that I am going to do a thing with no basis to do it on ... “Look I am going to forge a weapon for you; and thus I too work with you in the overthrow of Society.” To which he replied: “The weapon is too small to be of any value.” ’

Ashbee’s experiments, from the workshops of the Guild of Handicraft to town-planning in Jerusalem, showed, as no theoretical writing of his or anyone else’s could, the limits of what ‘romantic socialism’ could achieve. They were not limits he admitted. Crawford’s final image – ‘The high brow and the little beard, the unquenchable idealism ... old, a little feeble, but undaunted’ – takes one back to the account of Ashbee at Cambridge: ‘Those “isms” with which he was so taken up ... Ruskinism, transcendentalism, socialism, became the starting-point for practical experiments; they were first principles, and they stood almost unchanged throughout his career.’

He was born in 1863. His mother was the daughter of Charles Lavy, a prosperous Hamburg merchant who had set his son-in-law up in business in London. She was ‘perhaps the deepest and sometimes the most difficult love of his life’. His father is now best known for his collection of erotica: his bibliographies – Notes on Curious and Uncommon Books – are still the closest thing to a standard work on the subject. He seems to have been an affectionate parent, but a heavy one: it was the assumption of male dominance in family life that Ashbee found most unattractive in his father. Young Ashbee went to Wellington, where he later indicated he had been unhappy, although the school records show him succeeding and conforming. After school, refusing to enter the family firm, he went to Cambridge. He was very happy there: ‘only the best and simplest metaphors are appropriate to this stage of his life,’ Crawford says, and goes on to speak of ‘an awakening, a flowering’.

At Cambridge he began that habit of practical philanthropy which was both a virtue and an indulgence for someone who found Edward Carpenter’s ‘ideal of comradeship among simple honest ordinary lives’ so attractive. He left Cambridge and began to lecture and teach. He was inspired, as Crawford puts it, by ‘a mixture of angry youthful idealism and of upper-class notions of duty tinged with panic’. Working on Carpenter’s farm, he wished he ‘could shake off this devilish gentility’. It was Carpenter who made him fully aware of his homosexuality, and who advised: ‘get to know the people – you will never understand yourself or your work till you do.’

Apprehensive about ‘top-hatty philanthropy’, Ashbee went to the East End, to Toynbee Hall. ‘There are some splendid men here,’ he wrote in 1886, ‘and a great deal of unostentatious heroism.’ It was here that plans for putting Ruskin into practice took shape: a school and workshop where the teachers would work in the shop and recruit the pupils to it. The School and Guild of Handicraft was opened in 1888 in a rented workshop in Commercial Street. The moment was opportune. Philanthropically, because money was available – riots had made social issues a fashionable anxiety. Educationally, because the moment was ripe to break the ‘South Kensington’ mode of finely-detailed drawings, and to develop the practical side of craft. Commercially, because there was a market for craft work among both architects and the general public. ‘As an architect myself,’ Ashbee wrote, ‘I can testify to the need for such work.’ Although Ashbee was not alone in starting a craft guild, its organisation, an intricate co-operative where notions of profit were less important than those of emotional involvement, was unusual in the context of the craft movement. Ashbee’s aim was to make ‘the bulwarks of real love so strong in our men and boys that no castrated affection shall dare face it’. When the school closed in 1895 it seemed to many a consequence of the very values which Ashbee saw as being at the centre of his enterprise. ‘Weapons taken up in hope,’ Crawford says, ‘were always turned against him.’

In 1898 he married Janet Forbes. Her letters, blessedly direct after Ashbee’s, show what the arts-and-crafts life was like for someone who could not escape on a lecture tour when things became dull at home. He kept a distance between himself and emotion which is almost unbelievable. Of his mother’s decision to leave his father, he wrote: ‘And so it came that one day she just passed as moving sunlight out of the house, and all her children, believing her to be right, went with her.’ That is all he has to say on the matter. No wonder Janet could write: ‘I feel I want to hurt you and make you feel something, if only pain – is one real flesh and blood or only a pen behind a brain with an intellect.’ Or in more exasperated vein: ‘Your letters are always interesting,’ but they ‘make me angry, mostly I think because they show you at your very worst. You seem to slip out of my grasp and become again the self-conscious précieux you were when I found you – the man who reads over his letters and writes one word over another as if his wife was a printer.’ Crawford feels it can’t have been easy for Ashbee ‘to live with someone who had so definitely got his measure’. She had it from the time they first met, when he reminded her of Tennyson’s line: ‘So spake he, clouded with his own conceit.’ Her journal records her horror at being so easily influenced by him: ‘if he finds something is beautiful, then I too at once think it beautiful. It is ghastly and I am fighting hard against it, but so far without success.’ The decision that he needed a wife seems to have been a calculated one. He made his proposal, got his acceptance, and then made his explanations in a long, honest, profoundly unappealing letter: ‘You at least shall claim the whole of my philosophy of life so far as I am able to formulate it,’ he wrote. ‘Comradeship to me so far, an intensely close and all absorbing attachment for my men and boy friends, has been the one guiding principle in my life, and has inspired anything I may have been vouchsafed to accomplish in the nature of the influencing or the building up of character. There may be many comrade friends, there can only be one comrade wife.’

‘His very sexlessness,’ Crawford writes, ‘appealed to her placid and unready heart.’ In some sense she was the perfect wife. Certainly, as far as the look of things went, she fitted in: on her honeymoon at Alfriston she ‘took off her stays by the water’s edge and never wore them again’, and was remembered in flowing white robes by a girl from Glasgow: ‘the first grown-up I had ever seen wearing bare feet and sandals.’ The marriage was, eventually, consummated, and the first of four daughters was born in 1911. The family and her own work began to take up more and more of her attention. And he went on, in the spirit of Carpenter, making, in Crawford’s words, ‘an honest place for his homosexuality’.

Although the School was disbanded, the Guild went on, first in the East End, later in Chipping Campden. This was his most substantial practical achievement: predictably, nothing much followed from it. This ‘going home to the land’ tested the ideas on which the Guild was based, and separated the younger members, who wanted to go, from the older, a number of whom stayed in London. The hoped-for permanent rooting of the community in the country never took place, although even after the break-up of the Guild some of its members went on working in Chipping Campden. The unnaturalness of the graft at first produced tensions between the locals and the imported Cockneys, but in the end the Guild fell to straightforward commercial pressures: the demand for what they could make, at the prices they could afford to sell it at, was not great enough.

But Ashbee was making himself heard in other places. When still working in the East End he became interested in the preservation of old buildings. The first volume of the Survey of London, which continues his work today, was published in 1900, and he was in at the founding of the National Trust. He made the first of his visits to America in 1896, and responded to both new work and new ideas – ideas which brought him much closer to the main line of 20th-century design in Britain as construed by Pevsner, for example, than anything in his own architecture or the work of the Guild. ‘Ashbee’s concern,’ Crawford writes,’ was the creative life of the average workman, something for which there seemed to be no room in Wright’s technological opera, beween the heroic figures of the Artist and the Machine.’ Ashbee’s introduction to a monograph on the American architect’s work ends with the comment: ‘I have seen buildings of Frank Lloyd Wright’s that I would like to touch with the enchanted wand, not to alter their structure in plan or form or carcass, but to clothe them with a more living and tender detail.’ This truth to the ideals of a handcrafted world, and the social relations which it would foster, simplified – or blinkered – his view of things; he could believe in solutions where a more worldly commentator would see no hope. Called in to advise on the planning of Jerusalem at the time of the Balfour Declaration, he encouraged Chipping Campden-like enterprises – Jerusalem Looms and Dome of the Rock Potteries. But here, as elsewhere, politics and history were too strong, and he resigned.

In 1937, when Ashbee was making his last appearance at an Art Workers’ Guild meeting (looking like ‘Don Quixote, old, a little feeble, but undaunted’), Rex Whistler was well into his murals at Plas Newydd. The two lives might have been invented for the purpose of moral comparison. A community dedicated to the manly love of comrades, on the one hand, a world of camp bitchiness, on the other; pageants for the Guild and Elizabethan partsongs, against amateur movies in drag and popular songs on the gramophone; crafts-manlike architecture and solid wooden furniture against theatre designs and country-house decorations. Even the undaunted Ashbee must have had an inkling that the enemy of the Arts and Crafts Movement might not be the machine without, but dowdiness within.

Laurence Whistler’s biography of his brother Rex is a very literary performance; the book flows with novelistic smoothness. Moreover the life of the real Rex Whistler so often brings to mind that of the fictional Charles Ryder that the elegiac tone of the novel infects one’s impressions of the biography. And Rex, like Charles, seems to have been far too keen to please dreadful people. He was the son of a builder and a vicar’s daughter (a social disjunction preserved in the children’s vocabulary – she was always ‘Mother’, he ‘Daddy’). He was a gifted child, and used his gifts to amuse in a gentle sort of way. Caricatures of schoolmasters at one end of his life, and caricatures of his fellow officers in decorations for the regimental mess at the other. Vignettes were scattered over letters of apology, and alterations were made to commissioned decorations when demanded. His early pleasure in making drawings of tortures, and some erotic drawings (by his brother’s account, very mild), are signs he could also please himself. His ‘mature’ style was a smoothly blended confection of other men’s mannerisms – feathery trees and clouds from Claude, drapery from early Gainsborough perhaps – and his own fantasy world of private jokes, prancing horses, blackamoors, and Classical architecture. It was untouched by anything close to modern painting, but was very well connected, in every sense, in the world of fashionable decoration.

At the Royal Academy School (where he said his only friends were the porters) he failed to win a permanent place. Tonks took him on at the Slade (‘If we were commercial gents we’d get this fellow to sign on the dotted line ... We’d make a money spinner out of him’). Finding him ‘pencilling away with his back to the model,’ Tonks is reported to have been angry, but Whistler was also his prize pupil – and if the prize pupil could not be taught he would be allowed to do things his own way. It was agreed that in his case looking first and then doing the drawing from memory produced better results.

At the Slade the only annoying thing was that ‘the students wear sandals and bobbed hair, and I simply can’t bring myself to do that.’ He found his best friend in Stephen Tennant, who, Rex thought, overdid the make-up later in life. ‘We’ve got rather a “case”,’ he wrote at the time – the Haileybury term for a love affair between boys. Twelve years later he added: ‘thank God it grew and lasted all this time, owing nothing to unhappy destructive sex ... physical love.’ Tennant gave him an entrée into the aristocratic world which was to provide much of Whistler’s income as well as most of his love afairs and his friends. While he was still at the Slade he was persuaded to follow Tennant, who was convalescing from tuberculosis, to Switzerland, and then on to Italy. Here he first met Edith Oliver, a spinster in her fifties, whose journals are one of the major sources for the life. Her first impression (‘a delightful keen boy who loves talking’) was not to change. He was equally pleased. After his first visit to her house, in the grounds of Wilton, he wrote of ‘darling Edith whom I adore’. She had never married (‘I rather shared my father’s fancy for the unattainable in bridgegrooms’) and he never would. It was easier for the unmarried to keep up a connection with the very rich, and the conclusion that the connection was in some sense emasculating is hard to avoid.

His place in society was not won by charm alone. He was a precocious performer – Tonks arranged for him to get the commission to paint the Tate Gallery tea-room when he was only 20. He was a pretty illustrator, and painted portraits of daughters rather than men of power. Faced with the business of tonal painting, of representing reality, he was unmanned. In Rome, he wrote that he was ‘trying very hard to paint exactly what is before me ... hardest of all perhaps to paint colours as they really are – to my eye ... grass, for instance, is such a hideous colour I often think, and it is very hard not to “improve”.’

He was a little out of his time in thinking that anyone any longer cared to try for this sort of thing. Lawrence Gowing, writing of a painting by Thomas Jones who was in Rome a century and a half earlier, explains: ‘The normal way of gathering information about nature is in a drawing, but this oil sketch is nothing like a drawing. It is based not on line but on solid colour matched in value and hue to visual tones, which was from the traditional standpoint a difficult and unconventional thing to do, unusual then and now incidentally somewhat controversial again. Matching oil-colour to observation out of doors was only normal for fifty years between 1870 and 1920.’ That Whistler tried, and went on trying, is, perhaps, evidence of a distaste for his own work in the alternative mode. Rowlandson, a much better artist and more vigorous draughtsman, but nonetheless one who had the same kind of facility, never gives the sense Whistler does of sometimes not liking his work enough to stand up for it.

Given the kind of people he aimed to please, a degree of self-disgust seems appropriate. Edith Oliver’s record of a visit to his parents’ house imparts some sense of the strain new friends put on old relationships: ‘He adores his mother, but she is really a kind pretty governess, and his father is terrible, an awful little clerk with black hair and a moustache laying down the law about trivialities ... it’s unbelievable that these two barn door fowls can have hatched this wild swan.’ Siegfried Sassoon thought Rex was ‘showing signs of falling under my spell’, although he preferred Stephen Tennant, and perhaps most of all, being ‘up late with the two of them, in succession, straightening out their sorrows’. Tallulah Bankhead was the first woman he had a physical relationship with, and Caroline Paget, who was ‘not singlemindedly attracted to men’, the one he seemed to pursue most strenuously. His brother says that his failure to find a satisfactory relationship was due to his ‘invariable choice of a girl for supreme looks and grace without regard to any deeper quality’. Both in life and work the deeper qualities seem to have been positively avoided, not just disregarded. When the war came, Whistler, like Charles Ryder and Guy Crouchback, found himself a rather old soldier. But he wanted an honourable war, and even if the War Artists’ Committee had called on him, he might well have chosen regimental service. He died in France in 1944, in his first tank battle.

He is not a painter about which there is much to say, and his work isn’t such as to attract attention from historians. Yet Whistler’s kind of Rococo decoration is not a negligible aspect of English taste in the Twenties and Thirties. Along with the photographs of Cecil Beaton, and the stage designs of Beaton and Messel, it set a style which influenced advertising, films and interior decoration. It vulgarised the past, prettified it into palatability, rather as Beaton’s photographs and Norman Hartnell’s frocks produced a style for queens and princesses which seemed to have some kind of historical authority, but was flattering and gauzy rather than stiff and formal. The autumnal overtones, forced sprightliness and nostalgic theatricality of Whistler’s murals were suited to what turned out to be the last gestures of departing inhabitants.

Ruskin and Morris believed that the ugliness of industrialisation could be expunged by a return to a better way of working. Ashbee found that the market was too strong to be deflected by anything short of legislation. So the attention Ruskin gave to the education of working men and guilds of workers was replaced in the first half of this century by an attempt to legislate, to set up advisory councils and commissions. The attempt to make all men artists was discarded in favour of the more practicable task of improving their taste.

Whistler’s major country-house decorations are in buildings now belonging to the National Trust. The preservation of ancient buildings, which began as an attempt to keep evidence of the past intact, became a way of slowing down change in the environment. If you can slow down decay you will slow down change. And if change must come, you can see that it is to your taste by encouraging an official lamp-standard, selling good design to industry and editing the high street with planning laws.

Decisions about taste, if they are not made by the makers, are made by the choosers. And to choose you have to have something to choose from. In the years between the wars a number of loose, frequently overlapping groups of taste-makers and form-givers made an English style – or rather a number of English styles. Whistler has probably affected more council-flat interiors than Corbusier, Beaton still causes women to wear black and white at the races. Clues to the origins of the scrubbed-pine kitchen with the old crockery, dried flowers and patchwork will be found in Kettles Yard, the pub in the basement of the Architectural Press, the paintings of David Jones and Eric Ravilious, and John Minton’s decorations for the cookery books of Elizabeth David. Only in the coolest hardware shops or the deepest Habitat basements can one believe that the purpose of kitchen design is functional. In the history of taste, painting is only occasionally important: originality of a profound sort very rarely so.

Originality, as Lawrence Gowing has it in an admirable sentence in his lecture on Thomas Jones, ‘may be the recourse of talent that has failed – failed as likely as not in its social fulfilment, failed to find an audience, failed to satisfy its possessor’. Jones’s oil sketches, which were unknown until thirty or so were sent for auction in 1954, are astonishing: in themselves, but especially in their context. The first time you see them hanging among the works of his contemporaries, as a couple of them do in the Tate, you think there has been a curatorial slip-up. They do not look like late 18th-century pictures at all.

Jones was already known from his memoirs – the first autobiography of a British artist – when the sketches came to light. He became a painter because the uncle who was seeing him through university died, and a landscape painter because he could afford a pupilage with Richard Wilson, but not with a portrait painter. His work in the vein of his master was not a path to fame either in England or in Italy, where he travelled from 1777 to 1783. He sought the patronage of Sir William Hamilton, and failed to get it: ‘his recourse in disappointment was ... to the private alternative – a recourse to the beauties which, as he tells us, were unfelt by his companions.’ From the windows of a Neapolitan apartment he made the first of what Gowing calls ‘the masterpieces of the 18th-century oil sketch’. When his elder brother died in 1797 he left the little house he had bought just off Fitzroy Square and returned to Wales. He became a typical squire – except that squires did not usually give over a room to the public exhibition of their paintings. Gowing points out that we are fortunate in his family, who valued and preserved his ‘gentle and precise’ paintings which ‘illustrate nothing’.

Once the idea that public patronage should take responsibility for the improvement of taste became common, even before the trusts, councils and commisions took their mature form, and the expert, and therefore supposedly prescient, public arbiter became an accepted figure, it seemed to many that originality like that of Thomas Jones need no longer suffer so long in obscurity. One effect of this was to increase the speed of stylistic change: artists were led to put a higher value on innovation now that the search for true originality was on. Another was to start the dialogue between advanced art, critics and public, in which the latter for a time crossly refused to see how splendid the new was. Now the uncomprehended artist is almost in the position of the uncomprehended scientist, admired for the depth which the very difficulty of his work confirms.

Richard Cork’s account of some 20th-century excursions into public art – Epstein’s sculptures on what is now Zimbabwe House, the Omega Workshops interiors, Wyndham Lewis’s wall paintings, the sculptures on the Underground building at St James’s Park – deals with work which was produced about the time the arbiters of advanced taste were feeling their way to power. It was also the period when cartoons and outraged letters to the editor, daubings with paint and complaints about public sculpture offending public morals, gave evidence of a crossness which, in retrospect, is rather attractive. At least there was less indifference, and more artists wished to see painting escape from the world of ‘the art exhibition, and the freak-selling or the commercial-selling of the dealer’s shop’, as Wyndham Lewis put it. Lewis thought an England in which bad ornament had crawled over every surface needed Blasting, that artists and engineers must join hands and throw out the architects. This very Ruskinian sense of the need for socially appropriate art seems like a throwback, and the enterprises Cork writes about, some of the most hopeful public commissions of the century in England, did not win public affection. Eros is still much preferred to the sculpture by Moore and Epstein on the London Transport building; and the Epsteins which can still be seen in their hacked and battered state on Zimbabwe House are often just thought of as pleasingly weathered.

Alfred Gilbert was not a natural public sculptor, though he was an effective one. Richard Dorment’s biography, now issued in paperback, describes his dramatic rise to fame, fall from grace and rehabilitation, and gives an account of the rough treatment Eros (or more properly the Shaftesbury Memorial) had from the press when it was unveiled in 1893. Those who found the base shapeless had a point: it is, as Dorment says, the work of a goldsmith, not a monumental sculptor, and should be looked at close-to, not across Piccadilly traffic. But although its present success has more to do with fondness than form, it does seem to belong where it is in a way much post-war sculpture, which often looks as though it is outdoors only because it is too big to keep inside out of the rain, does not. Gilbert’s manner, too eloquent to seem entirely honest, suited public statements whose chief purpose was ceremonial.

If you are interested in what art ought to do you may fail to notice what it is actually doing. Ruskin’s first attack on Whistler – ‘a daub professing to be a “harmony in pink and white” (or some such nonsense); absolute rubbish and which had taken about a quarter of an hour to scrawl or daub’ – was made in the context of a lecture on the status of the Medieval artist, and the superiority of his relationship to society over that of the modern painter ‘paid irregular and monstrous prices by an entirely ignorant and selfish public’. The taste of the selfish public has much to do with fantasies, signs and symbols and little to do with great or even good art. It draws on what it finds stimulating, pretty or comforting. True originality lives a precarious life, waiting for changes in understanding. These books help explain why we are losing the sense that this is a very bad thing.