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Subject: ‘Arts and Crafts’

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The Pre-Raphaelite revolution in English art ended as wallpaper

Posted in Art, Artist, Arts and Crafts, Famous artists, Historical articles, History on Wednesday, 19 March 2014

This edited article about the Pre-Raphaelite Movement first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 597 published on 23 June 1973.

W Holman Hunt,  picture, image, illustration
Holman Hunt spent his time painting poor pictures in the Middle East by John Keay

Of the three leaders of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, John Millais was now content to be an orthodox figure of the Art Establishment. The former rebel who had produced such a magnificent painting as Ophelia, was now a respectable artist happy to paint portraits of elegant society ladies. William Holman Hunt had become obsessed by a religious frenzy and had gone to the Middle East where he produced a string of poor paintings; and Dante Gabriel Rossetti had fallen so much in love that he saw little of his friends and, like Millais and Hunt, he veered away from the original Pre-Raphaelite ideals.

Other painters such as Hughes, Brett and Wallis came along and flourished briefly. The movement seemed to be dying in the late 1850s and yet it had some thirty years more to run. This last period was divided into two distinct phases. First, there was the time when most pre-Raphaelite paintings seemed to deal with the nobility of labour, and Ford Madox Brown was the leading exponent of this. His major social painting was simply titled Work. On the right it shows the intellectuals; in the centre are the fine, healthy figures of a group of “navvies,” and on the left is a barefoot beggar. In the background is a full, crowded panoply showing all levels of Victorian life. In Brown’s eyes, all are equally admirable. The workman is just as much of an artist as the artist is so often a workman. It seemed that art had come to the people and only an idealist would consider moving it away again.

After this phase came the final decline towards the decadence of the early twentieth century when the most notable artist of the movement was Edward Burne-Jones. Like William Morris, Burne-Jones was at first greatly influenced by Rossetti who had begun to paint Mediaeval subjects again. The wheel of the Pre-Raphaelite movement had come full circle as the artists turned once again to Medievalism. It was to be the last phase of the movement.

All three artists became deeply involved in the world of medieval romance that has the Arthurian legend as its cornerstone. The lovely Jane Burden, a lady whose beauty typifies the Pre-Raphaelite heroine, married Morris and posed for Queen Guinevere for the painting of the same name (now in the Tate Gallery, London). It was virtually the last painting which Morris produced. He had already begun to realise that his talents lay in the field of design and he went on to become, perhaps, the most famous designer of wall paper and patterns for drapes that England has ever known.

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Bernard Palissy – the Protestant potter who died in the Bastille

Posted in Arts and Crafts, Famous artists, Historical articles, History, Religion, Royalty on Tuesday, 25 February 2014

This edited article about Bernard Palissy first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 568 published on 2 December 1972.

Bernard Palissy,  picture, image, illustration
Bernard Palissy burning furniture to heat his furnace by Planella

Bernard Palissy could so easily have lived and died without leaving any trace of his existence on the pages of history if it had not been for a chance meeting which changed the course of his whole life. He had begun his career as a portrait painter and a glass painter, and as such he was a good, solid craftsman, capable of earning himself a reasonable living as a travelling workman. In this capacity, he had travelled extensively through the Low Lands and the Rhine Provinces of Germany, as well as having seen more of his homeland of France than most of his fellow countrymen.

In the year of 1559 he returned to France and settled in the little town of Saintes, where he supported himself as a surveyor, a skill he had acquired as a youth. There he might have lived out his years in happy obscurity if he had not had the misfortune to meet a gentleman named Pons who had returned to France after spending many years in Italy. He had brought back with him, among other things, a piece of white enamelled pottery. He showed it to Palissy who was enchanted by it. What a thing of beauty it was. Palissy held it in his hands, almost reverently. Where was it made? And how had the potter who had made it, managed to achieve that beautiful white glaze?

Alas, Pons did not know the answers to either of those questions. But it did not matter, or so Palissy thought at the time. He himself would find the answers – and in the most practical way. He would first become a potter himself. Then he would apply himself to finding the secret formula for the glaze. A knowledge of the potter’s craft, hard work and a determined spirit would surely produce results.

First, Palissy went to the neighbouring village of La Chapelle-des-Pots, where he mastered the craft of peasant pottery as it was practised in the 16th century. His workshop where he had once peacefully painted his commissioned portraits of the local worthies, now became a madman’s lair, as he toiled day and night, striving to recreate that fantastic white glaze which had so haunted his imagination.

Week after week, month after month, year after year, Palissy toiled away, making experiments with pieces of common pots over which he spread the different mixtures he had made. These pieces, he tells us in his autobiography, “I baked in a furnace, hoping that one of these mixtures would produce a colour.”

For nearly sixteen years, Palissy laboured ceaselessly, sacrificing everything, even the happiness of his wife and children in order to achieve a goal which always seemed to elude him. It was not enough that they should live in the direst poverty. The amount of wood needed to feed his furnace was enormous, and when Palissy could no longer afford to buy it, he chopped down all the trees and bushes in his garden. When the garden had been stripped bare, he turned his attention to the contents of the house. Before the horrified eyes of his wife, he took an axe and chopped up all the furniture for firewood. When that was gone, he set to work on the floorboards.

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‘Wedgwood converted a rude manufactory into an elegant Art’

Posted in Arts and Crafts, Historical articles, History, Industry on Friday, 14 February 2014

This edited article about Josiah Wedgwood first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 552 published on 12 August 1972.

Wedgwood-Flaxman Chimneypiece,  picture, image, illustration
Wedgwood-Flaxman chimneypiece by Edwin Foley

When Josiah Wedgwood was born at Burslem in Staffordshire in 1730, the thirteenth child of Thomas and Mary Wedgwood, his family had been potters in the town for well over a century. His years at school were very few for when he was 9 years old his father died and it became necessary for him to earn his own living. He went to work for his eldest brother, Thomas, and when he was 14 became one of his apprentices. Josiah became skilful as a “thrower,” which meant that it was his job to shape the clay on a turn-table which he kept spinning with a foot treadle. An attack of smallpox left him with a weak right knee which gave him trouble for many years until the leg was eventually amputated in 1768. He might have remained a thrower but for his disability which made it impossible for him to continue this work. He therefore set about widening his knowledge and skill in the pottery trade.

Josiah’s great enthusiasm for improving his craft was not shared by his brother Thomas who considered his experiments to make clay resemble various natural stones such as onyx and agate an unprofitable waste of time and materials. Neither was he interested in Josiah’s efforts to improve the quality of the everyday ware produced by the pottery. In 1749 when his apprenticeship was at an end Josiah was turned down by Thomas when he requested a partnership.

After a brief, unsuccessful partnership in a business near Stoke, Josiah entered into partnership with a master potter named Whieldon. This man loved experimenting as much as Wedgwood and both men were keen to improve the potter’s craft. They produced a wide variety of different types of pottery including a ware developed by Wedgwood to resemble tortoise-shell and a green glaze ware used for making pottery “Leaves.”

After five happy and profitable years with Whieldon, Wedgwood decided to set up in a “pot bank” (pottery) of his own. He first leased modest premises at Burslem known as Ivy House but soon his business had grown to such an extent that he had to move to the Bell Works where he had more space.

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Some styles of modernism prefer clean lines to decoration

Posted in Architecture, Arts and Crafts, Famous landmarks, Historical articles, History on Monday, 10 February 2014

This edited article about architecture first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 548 published on 15 July 1972.

Bricklayer,  picture, image, illustration
A modern house next to a 1930s semi-detached house with bay windows

Ex-gardener Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace, built in six months of mass-produced and standardised parts, was the real beginning of modern building techniques. For the rest of the 19th century, cast-iron was the stuff of which architectural dreams were made reality.

Alexandre Gustave Eiffel, French engineer and bridge-builder, put a lifetime’s experience in the handling of cast-iron into his masterpiece, the Eiffel Tower, that he built for the Paris Exhibition of 1889. Nearly 1,000 feet high, this marvellous tower remained the tallest man-made structure on earth till the beginning of the 1930s and the raising of the Empire State Building, New York.

With visionaries like Paxton and Eiffel (the latter also designed the inner framework for the Statue of Liberty in New York harbour), modern architecture moved towards a state when it became inseperable from engineering. Not since the days of the ancient Egyptians who, in one stride, left behind the primitive concept of ‘a house as a home’ and discovered architecture had technology and imagination worked so closely.

Poor Pharaoh Cheops’s mummy would have turned in its sarcophagus at the thought that, after 5,000 years, men at last had the know-how to rival him as a builder. And could build quicker and more cheaply.

Not that the break with traditional forms of architecture was so clear-cut as the Crystal Palace and the Eiffel Tower might suggest. The basic shapes of Classical and Gothic continued to point the way to good structural design; and the best architects realised that there was more to Classical than the Five Orders, and more to Gothic than flying buttresses and stained-glass windows. There’s many a modern building of steel, glass and concrete that owes its general proportions to a Greek temple.

Nor did the pioneering work of Paxton and Eiffel send everyone dashing off to build in mass-produced cast-iron. In England, William Morris, architect and designer, believed in a return to the hand-craftsmanship of the Middle Ages. His personal talents ran to the design of wallpaper and fabrics but he believed that his methods could be applied to all art and architecture. The pity of Morris was that though his ideas on design were good, his methods had already been swamped in the relentless, surging tide of history; the teeming millions of this modern world can’t wait around for hand-made wallpaper. Or hand-made houses.

Around the turn of the century, the new modernism threw out an interesting offshoot which was called all sorts of things all over Europe, but is now generally referred to as Art Nouveau.

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Georgian architectural styles in the Age of Elegance

Posted in Architecture, Arts and Crafts, Famous landmarks, London on Thursday, 6 February 2014

This edited article about architecture first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 546 published on 1 July 1972.

Quadrant on Regent Street,  picture, image, illustration
The Quadrant on Regent Street by T S Boys

The Renaissance look in architecture, which had tiptoed so coyly and uncertainly on to the English scene in the days of the Tudors, was so well-established here by the beginning of the 18th century that people of these Georgian times could scarcely conceive the notion of anyone wishing to build in any other style. Gothic was dismissed as “antique,” and associated with the bat-haunted ruins that provided the settings for popular romantic novels. Anyone unfortunate enough to be lumbered with, say, an Elizabethan country house, had the exterior plastered over to conceal the timber framework, knocked off the gables, replaced mullioned and diamond-paned windows with sash windows, and framed the front door with an elegant portico supported by columns of one of the Orders. (In the last 20 or 30 years, when the Elizabethan style came back into high favour, this process was reversed, and everybody began exposing the beams again with a maniac frenzy).

The orderly, classical beauty of those parts of London, Edinburgh, Bath and Dublin that were town-planned during the 18th century is still to be seen. Much of it, particularly in London, has been swept away by the Industrial Revolution and speculative builders, and a lot of what remains is pretty tottery. In its day, it must have looked splendid with all those noble, sweeping curves. The slums were well out of sight. They had been built in the former days – in the “antique” style.

Eighteenth century architects, taken by and large, were men of considerable culture and diversity of talents. Sir John Vanbrugh, creator of Blenheim Palace, was also a notable dramatist and had been, in his time, an army officer, the Controller of the Royal Works and, disastrously, since he knew nothing about heraldry, Clarenceux king of arms. Vanbrugh’s right-hand man was Nicholas Hawksmoor, who had been clerk to Sir Christopher Wren. Between them, they practically created English Baroque.

* * *

English Palladianism, which turned its nose up at Baroque extravagance and harked back to the strict principles of Roman architecture as set down by the Italian Andrea Palladio, had its most brilliant exponent in William Kent. Kent, a bright Yorkshire lad who was the protege of the cultivated Earl of Burlington, became master mason in the Office of Works and portrait painter to the king. As part of a scheme to set the Palladian stamp on London’s public architecture, he designed the royal mews, Trafalgar Square, the Treasury buildings, Whitehall, and the Horse Guards building, Whitehall. This man of many talents was described by Horace Walpole as “the father of modern gardens”. As a landscape gardener, he threw out the old notion of the formal English garden, and introduced the “natural look,” but it was a naturalness that was very carefully contrived, with its winding paths, wooded glades and ivy-hung classical temples, to contrast with the Palladian severity of the architecture. And the curious thing about William Kent was that when there was an 18th century revival of the Gothic style, this stickler for true-blue Classicism was one of the first to take it up by designing Gothic screens and monuments for Westminster Hall and Gloucester Cathedral.

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Prince Albert ensured that the Great Exhibition was a triumph

Posted in Architecture, Arts and Crafts, Famous landmarks, Historical articles, History, Industry, London, Royalty on Tuesday, 4 February 2014

This edited article about the Great Exhibition first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 541 published on 27 May 1972.

Great Exhibition Polka,
'Great Exhibition Polka', a typical sheet music cover from 1851

The Victorians, outwardly at least so prim and proper, did not believe in exhibiting themselves in any shape or form. They had heard vaguely of the curious affairs across the Channel, where in Paris the French had put on no less than a dozen international exhibitions in the first half of the 19th century.

But it was not the way British people went about things . . . and therefore when, in 1849, the idea was put forward that all the nations of the world should be invited to take part in a vast exhibition in London, there were considerable misgivings.

As it happened, the inspiration came from no less a personage than Prince Albert himself. Queen Victoria’s beloved husband envisaged an exhibition that would demonstrate the “development of mankind and the unity of the nations.”

The very thought of London being invaded by thousands of foreigners horrified many of his subjects, and when the Prince further suggested that the exhibition should be sited in Hyde Park, the fears and the indignation knew no bounds.

Doctors feared the plague; manufacturers said the country would be flooded by cheap products; members of Parliament warned that cut-throats and anarchists would cause havoc in the capital of the Empire; and the lives of all would be endangered.

Then Joseph Paxton, formerly head gardener to the Duke of Devonshire, who had already put up a huge glass conservatory at Chatsworth, submitted his design to the Exhibition Commissioners. “The Times” described it scathingly as “a monstrous greenhouse”; but the public, when they saw the sketches published, were enthusiastic, and work began on the construction of the Crystal Palace.

Covering 18 acres, the palace was to be 1851 ft long, to coincide with the year of the exhibition, and 408 ft wide. The amount of glass required consumed one-third of the nation’s output for a year. There were 24 miles of guttering, 25 acres of glass, and over 9,000 tons of iron and steel girders. Construction work began in August 1850, as 2,000 workmen swarmed around the Hyde Park site.

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The architecture of Babylon inspired visitors and conquerors

Posted in Ancient History, Archaeology, Architecture, Arts and Crafts, Famous landmarks, Historical articles, History on Monday, 3 February 2014

This edited article about Babylon first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 537 published on 29 April 1972.

Babylon then and now,  picture, image, illustration
Nebuchadnezzar's royal palace was reached by the Ishtar Gate (left), which was covered with blue ornamental bricks or tiles and decorated with bulls and dragons; nothing but sand-blown ruins remains, by Pat Nicolle

That King Nebuchadnezzar enjoyed what house agents call “an extensive view” from the front porch of his palace is largely due to a little creature called Anopheles Stevensi.

Old Babylon lay in Chaldea, bounded by the rivers Tigris and Euphrates, and it was not a part of the world that had anything to commend it to the tourist trade, being a place of swamps, floods and malaria.

Anopheles Stevensi was the malaria-carrying mosquito of the old Middle East, and the Babylonians, to get away from the attentions of this little pest, built their towns and their palaces high on platforms. Their neighbours (who later became their conquerors) the Assyrians, copied this principle. They did it quite unnecessarily, because Assyria was nearer the mountains and away from the mosquito-ridden swamps. However, the Assyrians were an excessively military race, and not geared to independent creative thinking.

This land of the twin rivers, with its Old Testament associations with the Garden of Eden, Noah the Ark-builder, Sennacherib, Nebuchadnezzar and the rest, was short of stone and trees – but there was ample river mud. So the Babylonians built their towns and great palaces of bricks. And the Assyrians, always ready to copy a good idea, did likewise, although there was plenty of stone in their mountains. This was the military mind again.

The Babylonians, who always strike one as a charming and civilised people, specialised in the building of pyramid-shaped towers called ziggurats, which were used by their astrologer-priests in their reading of the stars. Traces of them are still around; the best of these remains, at Birs-Nimroud, was once 272 feet square and 160 feet high. But the supreme achievement of Babylonian architects was undoubtedly the City of Babylon itself.

We can only begin to imagine Babylon, which was laid out on a square grid of streets with its 100 gates of bronze, its 250 towers, and its high walls on top of which, it is said, a four-horse chariot could do a U-turn. The Greek historian Herodotus said that the city occupied an area of 200 square miles! The tragedy of Babylon, as with so much of the architecture of this area, was that it eventually returned to the mud from which it had been built, while what stone there was in it went into the building of Baghdad.

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A day in the life of Christopher Wren’s promising pupil

Posted in Architecture, Arts and Crafts, Famous landmarks, Historical articles, History, London on Thursday, 30 January 2014

This edited article about Christopher Wren first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 533 published on 1 April 1972.

Christopher Wren at work,  picture, image, illustration
Christopher Wren watches as the young apprentice helps the Master Carpenter, by Peter Jackson

Richard Jennings shivered as he worked, preparing the sockets for the tie-beam. Although it was a hot spring day and the sun was shimmering through the cloud of dust that hovered permanently over the building-site, it was always cold on the roof. Richard had been working up there for two months but still he had not got used to it.

He peered across the crowded streets of the city in the direction of the wharf. Surely the timber must come soon. Most of the carpenters had nothing to do – and this meant trouble. They bickered with the plumbers who were ready to put lead on the roof and who accused the carpenters of holding them up. The rule against swearing on the site was continually broken – it seemed to Richard that, for all the reverence they showed, they might as well be building a warehouse as one of the architectural wonders of Europe – Sir Christopher Wren’s new cathedral of St. Paul in London.

Richard was the son of a bargemaster in Henley. He had been apprenticed as a carpenter in 1689 and in 1695 was sent to spend his last year of service with Master John Longland. In the following year Longland brought him to the cathedral site and set him to work on the transept roof.

Twenty years before, John Longland had been appointed Master Carpenter for the new cathedral. Like the rest of Wren’s team of master-craftsmen, he had been inspired and excited by the plan for the new cathedral; though like many other citizens he regretted the demolition of the old building, which had been so severely damaged in the Great Fire of 1666.

The foundation stone was laid in June 1675 and despite delays and deceit, debts and disasters, the new cathedral grew. By 1696 the choir – the main part of the building – was finished and the joiners under Charles Hopson, working to the designs of Grinling Gibbons, were carving its elaborate wooden fittings, while the wrought iron work was being cast by the swarthy French smith, Jean Tijou in his forge in Piccadilly.

Work had then begun on the transepts. It was at this time that Richard had come to work on the site. It was at this time, too, that the supply of roof-beams ran out and the new timber, promised by the Duke of Newcastle, from his estate at Welbeck, had not arrived. Eventually news had come from Welbeck that the beams were ready and Master Longland had been sent to superintend their shipment.

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The Golden Age of Florence flourished under the reign of ‘Il Magnifico’, Lorenzo de’ Medici

Posted in Architecture, Art, Arts and Crafts, Historical articles, History, Politics on Thursday, 2 January 2014

This edited article about the Medici first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 502 published on 28 August 1971.

Lorenzo de Medici, picture, image, illustration
Lorenzo de Medici visiting the school he set up for artists in a garden between the Medici Palace and the San Marco church by Pat Nicolle

On Easter Sunday in the year 1478, a huge crowd packed the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence to celebrate High Mass. Lorenzo de’ Medici, joint ruler of the city with his brother Giuliano, was at the head of the worshippers, waiting for the ceremony to begin. At the last moment, three figures entered the church, the one in the centre limping badly and supported on either side by a priest. As the group approached the altar Lorenzo watched them with surprise. The central figure was Giuliano, who had that morning excused himself from the service because he was suffering from a bad leg.

As Giuliano lowered himself awkwardly to his knees, the two priests fussed about him, full of care to make sure he was as comfortable as possible. Lorenzo signalled impatiently for the service to begin, the officiating cardinal raised his hands, and a hush fell on the packed assembly. Why, thought Lorenzo, should his brother stumble into church when he was ill and in such obvious pain? Why, too, should two priests of the aristocratic Pazzi family – who hated the Medici – assist him?

The service proceeded and had reached the most solemn moment of the Mass before Lorenzo had the frightful answer to his questions. As the cardinal raised the Host, everyone bowed their heads in reverence – except Lorenzo, still worried by his brother’s unexpected appearance in the church. This saved his life, for he had a split second’s warning of the two priests’ intentions. Suddenly, they drew weapons from their vestments and struck violently at the Medici brothers, their eyes blazing with murderous hatred.

Giuliano had no chance to defend himself and was hacked to death. Lorenzo drew his sword and, with only minor cuts, fought his way to the sacristy and safety. The Pazzi conspiracy to dethrone the great Medici had failed and Lorenzo’s, and the city’s vengeance was terrible. The leaders of the Pazzi family were hanged in the streets, and over two hundred of their followers were torn to pieces by the mob. And Lorenzo, great patron of the arts, ordered Botticelli to paint a picture of his enemies’ bodies as they hung upside down, lifeless.

The Medici family had a chequered history, falling in and out of favour and power, but for some 200 years they dominated the political scene in northern Italy. The true founder of their greatness was Giovanni de’ Medici (1360-1429), who built up the family’s wealth by astute trading and a vast banking business with branches in all the capitals of Europe. Unlike many of the Medici, Giovanni was modest, hardworking and charitable. He began the tradition of Medici patronage of artists and craftsmen, and gave away much of his money to finance public building and social reforms.

His son, Cosimo “the Elder,” inherited his wealth and, surviving a year’s banishment, established the position whereby the Medici became hereditary rulers of Florence. Cosimo was also a great political leader, and friend to such artists as Brunelleschi and Donatello. From his period dates the fortress-like Medici palace, which still exists in Florence.

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The craftsmanship and precious trade secrets of Antonio Stradivarius

Posted in Arts and Crafts, Famous artists, Historical articles, History, Music on Monday, 16 December 2013

This edited article about music first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 495 published on 10 July 1971.

Stradivarius, picture, image, illustration
The violin: Stradivarius in his workshop

On a bright March day in 1783, Father Ascensio, a violin maker and friend of the Spanish King Charles IV sat down at his desk and opened his diary.

“The Keeper of the Royal Musical Instruments,” he wrote, “has brought me a violin today asking me, by order of His Royal Highness, to Improve the tone. The instrument is dated 1709, and bears the name of Antonio Stradivari.”

Father Ascensio looked at the violin which lay on the table beside him, then closed the diary. It was a magnificent instrument, this Stradivarius, with a deep lustre made even richer by the morning sun which flooded in through the windows.

“It’s almost a crime,” he told himself. “This instrument is perfect. The tone is mellow, but powerful, and the craftsmanship is superb.”

The violin that had so impressed Father Ascensio had been made by Antonio Stradivari, one of the greatest violin-makers of all time, and a painstaking perfectionist.

Stradivari was born in the Italian town of Cremona, although the exact date of his birth is not known. At the age of 12, he had been apprenticed to the violin maker, Nicolo Amati. But Amati soon realised that the boy needed little tuition. He had a genius for his trade.

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