The Transition from Art Nouveau to Art Deco - Jason Clarke

If we define transition as a process of changing from one state to another then from a review of the research on both subjects it is possible to form a clear distinction of form between the periods of Art Nouveau & Art Deco using some strategically chosen objects. This however is not the delineated impression one might have had if you had been resident in England at the turn of the centuries progressing through to the beginnings of World War II. The problem facing students is that England never seemed to embrace the periods in such a definable way as its European and Transatlantic cousins but rather the physical evidence feels more akin to a continuation of the Arts & Crafts Movement incorporating some aspects of the Art Nouveau period and then a late arrival to Art Deco.

It is clear that the Art Deco period with its influences in the Cubist movement and the Russian Ballet was being formulated in France before the onset of the Great War but it is not true that the UK had embraced it by this time. To quote the Department of Overseas Trade following its submissions to the 1925 Paris Exhibition (generally agreed to be the pinnacle of the period) the British were:

“coming to terms with the new order with caution & reserve……he is searching for a middle course. It is notorious that many people, both at home & abroad, are looking for a new movement in England to take the place of that which William Morris became the typical representative…When the change comes, it will not be the Art of Paris of 1925, but it might share some of its features.” (1)

If the term ‘Art Deco’ had been formulated before the 1960’s (Bevis Hillier), then they would have been seeing the “movement” in all its glory and this typifies the British reaction. The rise and fall of a great decorative era had been happening since the 1850’s with the onset of the Pre-Raphaelites and their affinity to nature, Ruskin’s development of Pugin’s earlier theories regarding aesthetics and morality and the purity of the British gothic style. All these culminated in the enormous force of the Arts & Crafts Movement with its denial of the industrial mass production methods following the Industrial Revolution and a return to the merits of the individual craftsman. The British response to the periods in question is akin to the slow demise of the Empire, England’s failure to comprehend or re-invent its dominant style and then from the ashes rises the overseas movements such as the Jugendstihl, The Bauhaus School, French Art Nouveau and De Stijl.

It is absurd to say that England did not have any highly talented artists and designers throughout these years but when analysing the British contribution it is exceedingly hard to find pieces that emulate what we would immediately recognise as pure “Art Nouveau” or “Art Deco” within the recognised time periods. There are earlier examples such as Mackmurdo’s chair of 1882 (fig 1) thought to be the proponent of French Art Nouveau and Christopher Dresser’s Wedgewood vase of 1867 (fig 2). For Art Deco we have an 1879 teapot example again from Christopher Dresser (fig 3) that would not have looked out of place during the 1920’s & 30’s and finally, a sideboard of Edward William Godwin (fig 4) created in 1867-70 that would not have looked out of place in a De Stijl exhibition with its clear Japanese influence.

The British had arrived at varying elements of what could be termed as Modernism long before the turn of the century and the resulting influences were developed in the likes of Paris, Vienna, New York and Brussels. As can be seen below, England had successfully thrown off its image for heavy, un-dainty industrial goods since the Great Exhibition of 1851, looked to its past through the influence of Cole, Ruskin and Owen Jones and found a style within the Arts & Crafts movement that would give equal weight to the fine and applied arts.

 

Fig 1 (below left): Arthur Mackmurdo (1851 – 1942) – Chair for the Century Guild (Los Angeles County Museum of Art)

Fig 2 (below right): Christopher Dresser (1834 – 1904) – Vase by Josiah Wedgewood & Son 1867 (V&A)

 

 

                                    

 

Fig 3 (below left): Christopher Dresser (1834 – 1904) teapot. Made by James Dixon and Son 1879 ( V&A)

Fig 4 (below right): Edward William Godwin. Sideboard made by William Watt & Co London 1867-70 (V&A)

 

    

           

 

Accounting for the above, when looking for what are termed as English Art Nouveau period pieces (1890 – 1910) there is one main area of focus in the number of contributing designers to the shelves of the London’s Liberty store. These included amongst others, Archibald Knox, the Silver Studio and Oliver Baker. One of the major components that separate these normally associated Arts & Crafts designers from the movement is Arthur Lasenby Liberty’s philosophy of providing cheap, manufactured but quality goods to the masses. This revolution originally opposed to the Arts & Crafts philosophy had the effect of bringing the craftsman philosophy back to the people for which it was originally intended. It became evident that Arts & Crafts goods were only available to the very wealthy due to the time and effort taken in hand-crafting their wares. Although we may not consider the cymric (silver) and tudric (pewter) wares designed by Archibald Knox (Figs 5 & 6) as mass produced items in today’s terms, they were certainly more achievable to the ordinary person than anything that had gone before them.

 

      

        

Fig 5: Cymric vase (Archibald Knox) C1900

Fig 6: Tudric Vase (Archibald Knox) 1906-09

 

Aside from the Scotsman CR Mackintosh, Archibald Knox is perhaps the closest allied exponent of the Art Nouveau movement in England who is usually cited but if you compare figures 5 & 6 to the silver of the Arts & Crafts movement (see fig 7) and understand the great influence the Celtic symbolism of the Isle of Man and Christopher Dresser had upon him then we must question the roots of his artistry. CR Ashbee (fig 7) was eventually to become a contributor to Liberty’s product range but is rarely considered an Art Nouveau designer due to his strong affiliation with the School & Guild of Handicrafts. In addition in Fig 8 you can clearly see the transition in style that these wares took post WW1 and into the Art Deco period. Most of the original Arts & Crafts associated artists were no longer living and a more sombre approach was taken to design at Liberty which was concentrating more on the fabric designs that were to become its most recognised product. This was also perhaps a mark of the austerity following the Great War.

 

Fig 7: Silver Vase – CR Ashbee 1899 – Guild of Handicrafts

Fig 8: Liberty Tudric ware post WW1 – designer unknown.

 

       

 

We need to look elsewhere for a change in style to the Art Deco period (1910 – 1939) and the example in Fig 9 of a Mappin & Webb Cocktail shaker represents superbly the influences coming from Paris and the USA. The shaker is devoid of any organic ornament but is reminiscent of the ziggurat style made so famous by the American skyscrapers of the period. It is clear to see the transition from organic symbolism to industrial symbolism and geometric styling, both examples representing a move forward into modernism in their own rights. It is also reasonable to point out that Fig 8 may also have been just as representative of the fashion during the periods as England was also seeing a revival in Tudor influenced design. The cocktail shaker being a pure luxury item, one could argue that it wasn’t until the 1960’s Deco revival that these items became largely available to anyone other than Evelyn Waugh and his associates.

 

Fig 9: Silver Cocktail Shaker – Mappin & Webb 1930 (V&A)

 

 

It was another Department Store in Heal & Son that furthered the cause of British Modernism into the Art Deco period (1910-1939). The Design & Industries Association (DIA) had been active since 1914 where a number of British Designers including Sir Ambrose Heal having been inspired by the latest German Designs aimed to further the uptake of industrial practice within the Decorative Arts. Heal & Son had been active since 1810 but it was Ambrose Heal who was to move the store away from its mainstay products of beds and bedding. Heal himself had been a supporter of the Arts & Crafts movement but like Liberty he had seen the potential benefits of linking industry with good design principle. In the same way that Germany had taken William Morris’s principles and applied them to industrial practice, ironically Heal and his DIA colleagues had gone to Germany only to take back to England the further cause of modernism and in part what we may term as Art Deco. The 1919 Bauhaus School of Walter Gropius was to continue to influence British design thinking throughout the 20’s and 30’s.

Heal himself was a designer of furniture and his designs are very representative of the change of British style throughout the two periods and also its continued affinity with the Arts & Crafts movement until as late as 1930. It should be noted that Heal’s sales staff were somewhat reticent of his designs and their saleability and they represented a small proportion of overall furniture stock.

Figure 10: Sir Ambrose Heal – Chair 1922 Heal & Son (V&A)

Figure 11: Sir Ambrose Heal – Chair 1929 Heal & Son (V&A)

Figure 12: Sir Ambrose Heal – Chair 1933 Heal & Son (V&A)

Figure 13: Sir Ambrose Heal – Desk 1930 – Signed Edition range Heal & Son (Woolley & Wallis)

 

 

Fig 10   Fig 11          

 

Fig 12    Fig 13                 

 

The confused nature of British design throughout the periods is clear within these examples. In Fig 10, there are some recognisable elements of the Nouveau organic structure in the arms but the chair still seems to maintain something of the country style of the arts & Crafts in the same way as Mackmurdo’s chair structure (fig 1) aside from the fretwork has a somewhat classical appearance. Similarly we see in fig 11 the scallop shaped upholstery so reminiscent of an Art Deco club chair but constrained within an English oak frame that has more affinity with a gothic style church pew. It is not until 1930 with the onset of Heal’s Signed Edition Range (fig 13) that the Art Deco represents itself in a form that would be easily recognisable to today’s audience. The use of geometric shaping in fig 13 however belies the fact that Heal was still later referring back to the Renaissance for inspiration (fig 12). In this example it is not the design but the materials that really give away the era. The use of metal in furniture had been used as far back as the Great Exhibition where RW Winfield exhibited an iron framed rocking chair but it was not until the onset of the Bauhaus school that chrome and steel began to take the place of wood as the material of choice.

 

Most of the representative examples chosen throughout this exercise would contest a specific Art Nouveau movement in England and rather lean towards an embellishment of the Arts & Crafts movement. This may not be so difficult to understand when we consider that the Arts & Crafts movement is generally considered the forefather of the continental movements and was probably rather difficult for England to relinquish. It is also difficult to see a transition from this period to the English Art Deco until around 1930. This is more understandable when overlaying the political and economic context of the times with the aftermath of WW1, the Great Depression and England’s lagging in the advancement of new technologies. The Jazz Age was perhaps best reflected in England through the fabrics, graphic art and ceramic representations that remain most popular to today’s collectors. Through the new elements of colour, geometry, folk art influence and the onset of the Cubists the vibrancy of the Art Deco period was exuded. These media were perhaps the least costly and therefore the biggest proponents of the style but again do not have specific English Art Nouveau counterparts that bear realistic comparison.

Fig 14: LNER advertising poster by Henry George Gawthorne - 1928

Fig 15: Clarice Cliff –Bizarre range

 

Fig 14             Fig 15     

    

The British at the end of the 19th Century ruled supreme in Europe when it came to ingenuity within the Decorative Arts but you can see from Figures 1 to 4 that its designers were developing in very different directions which did not allow for a cohesive development of style or movement. It was up to the rest of Europe to benefit from the ingenuity of these individuals and develop those differing strands of artistry into new and more modern forms. As a result the British were largely left as interpreters of these styles. What the British did do throughout these periods was lay claim to the rise of what we could now term consumerism. The modernism in thinking that Liberty and Heals provided around the shopping experience made quality design available to all far beyond the Art Nouveau and Art Deco.

 

Quotations:

1) Art Deco 1910 – 1939 – Charlotte Benton, Tim Benton & Ghislaine Wood

From the Department of Overseas Trade, Reports on the Present Position & Tendencies of the Industrial Arts as indicated at the International Exhibition of Modern Decorative & Industrial Arts Paris 1925 (London 1925)

References – Art Nouveau

1) Art Nouveau – A Fascinating Guide to one of the Most Noted Periods of Decorative Art – Grange Books

2) Art Nouveau – Klaus-Jurgen Sembach

3) Art Nouveau 1890 – 1914 – Paul Greenhalgh

4) Art Nouveau – Norbert Wolf

5) Art Nouveau – Alastair Duncan

References - Art Deco

1) Art Deco – The Golden Age of Graphic Art & Illustration – Michael Robinson & Rosalind Ormiston

2) Art Deco Complete – Alastair Duncan

3) Art Deco – Alastair Duncan

4) Art Deco – Bevis Hillier

5) Art Deco 1910 – 1939 – Charlotte Benton, Tim Benton & Ghislaine Wood

6) Encyclopaedia of Art Deco – Alastair Duncan

7) Art Deco – Derek Avery

References - Arts & Crafts

1) Charles Rennie Mackintosh – Charlotte & Peter Fiell

2) Arts & Crafts Collector’s Guides – Judith Miller

3) William Morris – Helen Dore

References – Others

1) 100 Pre-Raphaelite Masterpieces – Gordon Kerr

2) Design & the Decorative Arts (Britain 1500 – 1900) – Michael Snodin & John Styles

3) Modernism – Modernist Design 1880 – 1940 – Alastair Duncan

4) The Grammar of Ornament – Owen Jones

top