Harrods Exhibition

In 1997, leading 20th Century Decorative Arts expert, Richard Ansell, published, in association with Portcullis Publications, a much acclaimed article on the 1934 Harrods Exhibition. We reproduce it here in part under license from the author.

For collectors and enthusiasts of Art Deco tableware, pieces including in their backstamp the words 'First Edition 1934' demonstrate a provenance back to the landmark Modern Art For The Table exhibition, when, demonstrating their commitment to modern art and design, Harrods successfully brought together the long-standing concerns about art and industry.

Known today as The Harrods Exhibition, this fascinating venture involved the bone-china manufacturers E Brain & Co Ltd (now part of Wedgwood's Coalport), earthenware producers A J Wilkinson's Ltd, and their subsidiary Newport Pottery (where the already famous Clarice Cliff was Art Director) and Stourbridge glass manufacturers Stuart & Sons, known today as Stuart Crystal. The resulting exhibition was to feature some 60 designs and displayed the talents of 27 leading artists, many of whom were new to the constraints of industrial ceramic and glass design.

Attracting considerable press, and filling the china halls of Harrods in November 1934, the event was opened by Royal College of Art principal Sir William Rotherstein, in the company of Harrods chairman and managing director Sir Woodham Burbidge. Well received by both trade and press, the exhibition was favorably reviewed by over 30 newspapers and periodicals, including most of the national daily's.

The Times was to describe the event as 'amazing in its vividness and beauty' and with the submitting artists reading like a Who's Who of British talent, the displayed patterns ranged from Old English rustic to the most modern of linear designs.

In an extraordinary marketing ploy, all the earthenware (produced by Wilkinson's) was to include Clarice Cliffs name, alongside that of the artist, claiming the wares used to be part of the Bizarre range. This was to include, rather confusingly, the special shapes designed by Dame Laura Knight, DBE, ARA, for her showstopper Circus pattern. Produced as a complete table service, with matching glassware, each piece shows different circus themes which include seals, horses, acrobats and tightrope walkers, linked by a recurring clown motif. The design was to feature centrally in the exhibition and included specially shaped tureens, jugs and a teapot. Crowning the display was a Circus lamp base, 19" high, composed of clowns forming a human tower, supporting five female acrobats. Again, the backstamp claimed it to be produced in Bizarre by Clarice Cliff.

One of the Clarice Cliff shapes successfully used in the exhibition was a range already in production called Bonjour, which in reality was one of the many purchased by Wilkinson's from French designer Jean Tetard. Used by several artists, the shape can be found in a variety of exhibition patterns, including those by Eva Crofts, who successfully applied a classical medieval scene, a pattern called Wild Flower, and a third, much rarer pattern, which featured a red-breasted bird against a sunny background.

Clarice Cliff herself, lacking the originality of her more talented colleagues, restricted her own contribution to simple banded patterns painted onto another of Tetard's shapes. Called Biarritz, this shape was also utilised by Burslem School of Art director Gordon Forsyth, RI, a leading figure in ceramic design. His school was responsible for training many of the well-known designers in the Potteries, including Susie Cooper, OBE.

Gordon Forsyth also executed designs on the bone china (produced by Brains), including the striking blue, green and pink Sprig. Other contributions in bone china included Gay and Forest by Paul Nash, Cupid and Plumes from Dame Laura, and some stunning enamelled abstracts from husband and wife team Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth.

Despite a declared intention to market the wares at a reasonable price, it was decided that initial production should be sold as signed limited editions, with prices ranging from 2-10-0 (2.50) for an 18 piece tea set, to 35 for a 52 piece dinner service. Despite its early successes, the venture was soon to run into problems.

Many of the artists involved had no previous experience of tableware design and failed to understand the integration of pattern to shape, or the industrial technicalities and restrictions in applying their designs to the wares. There were of course some notable exceptions to this; Frank Brangwyn, RA, had experience designing for both Royal Doulton and Wilkinson's, Milner Gray worked for Brains, and Eric Ravilious had already commenced on his long and distinguished career with Josiah Wedgwood. However, in reality many of the patterns did not work well and several were expensive to apply to the wares, and it was quickly realised that most of the patterns were not commercially viable.

Problems also arose in the production of glassware from Stuarts, with some of the designs being held over to the 1935 Royal Academy's British Art In Industry exhibition. Eight of the submitting ceramics artists joined Stuarts' own Ludwig Kny, with perhaps the most notable and prolific contribution again coming from Dame Laura. Sadly, excepting the work of Kny, only Paul Nash's design Rain was ever to  make the companies pattern book.

With interest on the wane, it was decided to tour the exhibition with hopes of repeating the London success. Unfortunately, participating stores found themselves left with 80% of the stocks they purchased, and with losses mounting, the project was abruptly terminated.

Although of little commercial significance, the trade considered the venture of considerable interest and the exhibition was to have a profound and long lasting effect on the development of design and its relationship to industry.

No part of this page may be copied or stored without the written authority of the Author. The right of Richard Ansell to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988. 1997 rda@claricecliff.co.uk



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