Monday, December 15, 2008

Christmas - A time for Dickens

The Beeb's costume drama serial Little Dorrit has just finished. Bizarrely, the penulitmate episode – in which Mr Merdle the banker and richest man in England commits suicide as it becomes apparent that he's been using new investor's money to pay out to already existing investors – was screened just as we were hearing on the news about Bernard Madoff (surely a Dickensian name for today) who has made off with $50 billion in a similarly styled fraudulent scam.

Historian Tristram Hunt wrote in The Guardian back in October ("Toxic debts, collapsing banks and endemic fraud...ring any bells?") that George Bernard Shaw had claimed Little Dorrit to be a more seditious text than Marx's Das Kapital in its critique of capitalism. See here:

To quote Mr Hunt: " many a modern finance house, Merdle's front was all fraud. Dickens modelled him on the railway speculator-turned-MP-turned-minister John Sadleir, who embezzled and then bankrupted the Tipperary Joint Stock Bank before killing himself. What makes Merdle's crime more heinous is the insouciant connivance of the Circumlocation Office, a poorly disguised Treasury peopled by incompetent officials ready to sign off any amount of City sharp practice."

And so it's Christmas and Dickens is still popping up everywhere...and what has this to do with Willow Pattern?

Dickens wrote about the Willow Pattern in his weekly journal "Household Words" in an essay entitled "A Plated Article". In April 1852 he found himself in Staffordshire and stayed the night in a pub called The Dodo which did not impress him. He is bored and possibly a bit lonely, and has "conceived a mortal hatred" of his lodgings. He has a plate of biscuits and is in the mood to burn the biscuits on the fire and break the plate. But first he looks at the back of the plate and realises it is made by the Copeland pottery that he has visited only the day before. He finds the plate, as he looks at it, "growing into a companion".

"And don't you remember (says the plate)...what we spring from:- heaps of lumps of clay, partially prepared and cleaned in Devonshire and Dorsetshire, whence said clay principally comes – and hills of flint, without which we should want our ringing sound, and should never be musical?..." Dickens tells us how the clay and flint are prepared..."And as to the flint and the clay together, are they not, after all this, mixed in the proportion of five of clay to one of flint, and isn't the compound – known as "slip" – run into oblong troughs, where its superfluous moisture may evaporate; and finally, isn't it slapped and banged and beaten and patted and kneaded and wedged and knocked about like butter, until it becomes a beautiful grey dough, ready for the potter's use?"

And so he goes on, describing in great detail how a plate is made, as though the plate were speaking to him, reminding him of each stage of production he had witnessed at the Copeland factory. Items are thrown or moulded, fired (he is quite enamoured with the drama of the firing process) and ornamented.

"And didn't you see (says the plate) planted upon my own brother that astounding blue willow, with knobbed and gnarled trunk, and foilage of blue ostrich feathers, which gives our family the title of "willow pattern"? And didn't you observe, transferred upon him at the same time, that blue bridge which spans nothing, growing out from the roots of the willow; and the three blue Chinese going over it into a blue temple, which has a fine crop of blue bushes sprouting out of the roof; and a blue boat sailing above them, the mast of which is burglariously sticking itself into the foundations of a blue villa, suspended sky-high, surmounted by a lump of blue rock, sky-higher, and a couple of billing blue birds, sky-highest – together with the rest of that amusing blue landscape, which has, in deference to our revered ancestors of our Cerulean Empire, and in defiance of every known law of perspective, adorned millions of our family ever since the days of platters?..."

Glowing and poetic words coming from the plate itself and not Dickens' own opinion apparently. He describes the transfer process, applied cleverly "by a light fingered damsel", and then takes a sideways swipe at the Willow Pattern: "I had seen all this – and more. I had been shown, at Copeland's, patterns of beautiful design, in faultless perspective, which are causing the ugly old willow to wither out of public favour; and which, being quite as cheap, insinuate good wholesome natural art into the humblest households."

The essay is also reprinted as an appendix in David Richard Quitner's "Willow!" (see booklist, right). Quitner says "Dickens...was blind to all artistic conventions but those he had grown used to in the dogmatic Victorian occidental world he inhabited." He reckons that Dickens was by now becoming quite wealthy and successful and was distainful of Blue Willow-ware's mass appeal and considered it "an object worthy of discard in the tortuous climb from hovel to estate."

Contrary to Quitner's interpretation, it is possible that Dickens' dislike of the design was wrapped up in his analysis of commercialism, industrialisation and the petit bourgeoisie, like another (although much later) critic of the design that Quitner found: a ceramic encyclopedist called Warren E Cox who briefly mentions the Willow Pattern is his 1944 Book of Pottery and Porcelain:

"...Nothing could better exemplify the utter dearth of aesthetic consciousness than the stupid copying of this design which lacks every element of true Chinese painting and any real claim to beauty whatsoever, and the maudlin stories wrought about it to please the sentimental old ladies of the late 18th century...the terrible willow pattern, sentimentally concocted from Chinese originals, was sent back to China to copy. Such is the effrontery of merchants."

Common as muck, indeed, and one of the first mass marketed products of the Industrial Revolution, whether churned out in China as export to order by foreign buyers, or made in England. But how lovely is this piece that my sister (with a good eye for antiques) found for my birthday this November. Marked Royal Doulton Burslem, England, Willow (known by the mark to be circa 1891-1902, a bit later than Dickens' visit to Staffordshire), it's a Flow Blue Willow vegetable bowl.

You can read Dickens' entire essay online (and also download other Dickens' writing, under Creative Commons License) at eBooks@Adelaide:

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Saatchi Gallery

I went to the new Saatchi Gallery in the Kings Road..a very impressive space with twelve great galleries within. Julian Schnabel was on the top floor and by the time I got to his room I'd seen over sixty works by twenty four contemporary Chinese artists. The Chinese work was good though pretty much like you'd expect from any Western artist (The Chapman Brothers and Ron Mueck spring to mind among others) – except for the jokes about Mao. But nothing really to inform my current work, and the Schnabel paintings were at least interesting in that respect...They are massive however, as one would expect from this bombastic American giant and I doubt I'll ever get to make work this big...(Apart from stations, theatres, concert halls, galleries and museums and the studio I used to have at APT, I've hardly spent any time in a room with a ceiling height above 12ft)...

All the paintings are worked over a stretched polyester print of a Chinese painting of a woman that he took from some old mirror in his collection, so they all have the same ethereal figure in the background. Polyester? Yes, polyester. It's a bit shiny...
The only image reference I can find is this auction website:

I'd recommend the Chinese show The Revolution Continues: New Art From China and a visit to this really great new venue (although there's no cafe yet and nowhere to sit, and the compulsory cloakroom is understaffed especially if it's raining). I wouldn't recommend going to the Saatchi website which is a horrible and frightful mess but there is a lot of information about the artists there ( You can also see a small selection of the work on show at this Grauniad link:
And you can read a review by Laura Cumming here:
She reckons the Schnabels are "trashy"...
And Adrian Searle doesn't like any of it, including the building...

Oh well...

I told my artist friend Deepa about the show and commented on how the Chinese artists (both young and old) seem to be living very comfortable middle class lives in Beijing. She responded with her take on the successful Indian artists living very well in Mumbai, and how Saatchi is creating the market for artists from China, India and the Middle East. Big money is changing hands and the new rich in these places are investing in art, even as we hear reports that the Western art market is in a credit crunch slump. One of the most successful Indian artists, she says, lives in Mayfair. It's a different world, she sighed.

I found a report, again in The Grauniad, that discusses the effects of this new market. Jonathan Watts meets the Chinese artists "in the grip of a goldrush":

On a final note: in The Guardian, Jonathan Jones quotes Damien Hirst from 2004:
" ... Art is about life and the art world is about money although the buyers and sellers, the movers and shakers, the money men will tell you anything to not have you realise their real motive is cash, because if you realise - that they would sell your granny to Nigerian sex slave traders for 50 pence (10 bob) and a packet of woodbines - then you're not going to believe the other shit coming out of their mouths that's trying to get you to buy the garish shit they've got hanging on the wall in their posh shops ... Most of the time they are all selling shit to fools, and it's getting worse."