Charlotte Samuels – 2/6/21

Charlotte Samuels is a second year PhD candidate at Kingston School of Art working on a thesis entitled ‘The Wrens, Potterscroft and the Oxshott Pottery: Shifting the story of interwar studio ceramics from pot to process’. Her research aims to highlight the unique contribution to enabling amateur pottery made by the Wrens, a family of studio potters who established the Oxshott Pottery in Surrey in 1920, in order to broaden understanding of the history of studio craft. Her interest in Archibald Knox stems from his teaching of Denise Wren at Kingston School of Art between 1907 and 1912 and Denise Wren’s subsequent formation of the Knox Guild of Design and Craft, influenced by her mentor’s design ideas and practice.

Knox’s Clocks: Nostalgia and revival in the designs and life of Archibald Knox

Designer Archibald Knox (1864-1933) created two of department store Liberty’s best-selling ranges, Tudric silverware and Cymric pewterware. Between 1899 and 1912 he designed over 400 homeware items, including clocks. Liberty’s marketed Knox’s designs as ‘Celtic Revival’, one in a long line of resuscitated styles succeeding each other from the 1840s: ‘Gothic, Italianate or Renaissance Revival, Medieval Revival, Oriental eclecticism, Jacobean and Queen Anne Revivals and finally the Adam Revival.’ [1]

These revivals sprung from the Arts and Crafts movement generated by Ruskin, Pugin and Morris, who proposed a return to a golden medieval age of craftworkers in guilds, an ideal impossible to realise in the globalised, competitive modern economy. Nonetheless, Morris’s aesthetic influenced the course of design during the latter half of the 19th century. Craft theorist Glenn Adamson sees the uptake of such ideas as originating in a collective nostalgia prompted by the rupture caused by industrialisation. [2]

The 19th century was an era of nation building and many countries looked backwards to reclaim an indigenous national identity. Sociologist Fred Davis views nostalgia as an important contributor to societal cohesion:

‘collective nostalgia acts to restore, at least temporarily, a sense of sociohistoric continuity with respect to that which had verged on being rendered discontinuous. And this period; when the nostalgic reaction waxes strong, may afford just enough time for the change to be assimilated into the institutional machinery of a society….’ [3]

Therefore this long series of British revivals might be seen as consecutive attempts to restore a fractured national identity. Yet as much as Liberty’s looked back to a pre-industrial past, it equally represented the industrialisation and global trade which enriched Britain.

By the end of the 19th century Arts and Crafts was overtaken by Art Nouveau, a movement led by European designers. Geared to the contemporary moment, Art Nouveau was much employed commercially in mass production and advertising. However, it was attacked by British critics for being foreign and degenerate. Knox’s unique style was close to a British version of Art Nouveau. His creations for Liberty’s were illicitly copied for the German market and sold as ‘Jugendstil’, the German term for Art Nouveau. Knox’s work was simultaneously inspired by a mythic past, and contemporary.

The Celtic Revival at the turn of the 20th century was sparked by an upsurge in Irish political consciousness and a renaissance in Irish drama and literature. It expressed a romantic yearning for a past prior to colonisation by England, extending to the formerly Gaelic speaking regions of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall and the Isle of Man. Knox was fascinated by the Celtic and Norse heritage visibly scattered around his home the Isle of Man. At art school he specialised in Celtic design and was inspired by ancient Irish art like the illuminated manuscripts of the Book of Kells.

By the 1910s, Liberty’s was pressuring Knox to update his style to appeal to changing fashions. Knox simultaneously held another role as Design Master at Kingston School of Art. However, in 1912, the South Kensington exam board criticised his teaching methods. Knox quit London, Liberty’s and teaching to return to the Isle of Man, where he redirected his artistic impulses towards the community and local economy.

Literary theorist Svetlana Boym distinguishes between what she calls ‘restorative nostalgia’ and ‘reflective nostalgia [4]. Restorative nostalgia could describe the ideals of the Celtic Revival, where a truth is built around a shared past, a national identity which legitimates Celtic culture in opposition to the dominant Anglo Saxon one. But what Boym calls ‘reflective nostalgia’ seems a more fitting description for Knox’s designs. Knox innovated not through copying, but because he brilliantly adapted the intricate patterns of Celtic interlacing to the modern era. He also had a keen awareness of machine forms and many of his Liberty designs were mass produced. Thus, Knox’s treatment of Celtic imagery can be seen as reflective nostalgia, which, according to Boym, allows for a reordering of past elements to create something new in kind, reflecting on and referencing multiple layers of past meaning, but which are adapted for present use.

The late 1960s saw an Art Nouveau revival, aptly in the same decade that Knox’s reputation was restored. When Knox had quit Kingston School of Art in 1912, two of his students, Denise and Winifred Tuckfield, retrieved 60 drawings from the waste bin in his office. These were designs rejected by Liberty’s and in the early 1960s Denise donated these to the V&A. They allowed metalwork curator Shirley Bury to identify many of Liberty’s early 20th century products as Knox’s work.

Renewed interest in Art Nouveau was a reaction against the streamlined, neutral look of Modernism. Susan Sontag extolled Art Nouveau in her 1962 article ‘On Camp’ and set the scene for a popularisation of the style, initially through the counterculture of the late 1960s. Countercultural designers like Wes Wilson were inspired by a book of Jugendstil posters held in the University of Berkeley’s library [5]. This was the same Jugendstil which derived some of its original influence from Knox.

Art historian Elizabeth Guffey argues that the postwar turn to a retro sensibility was characterised by ‘a sense of detachment that separates it from the high-minded seriousness of 19th century revivalism, where the present was seen as the culmination of a progressive evolution of human knowledge.’ [5]. There was a shift in societal attitudes ‘from a faith in ever-expanding progress to pessimism about the powers of the state, from a fascination with the future to a preoccupation with the past…’. [6] Knox’s hybrid designs, looking both backwards and forwards, lent themselves to recuperation by the cyclical demands of fashion.

Today Knox’s timepieces may appear mere museum exhibits, representing a moment of elaborate decoration. Yet Brexit has recently deepened faultlines in the supposedly united character of the UK and there is an increasing consciousness of regional identities, especially Scottish and Irish. If a rise in nationalism promotes a concomitant championing of distinctive cultural heritages, it may be time for yet another reset for Knox’s clocks.

  1. Tillbrook, A. (2001) ‘Influences and Designs’ in Martin, S. Archibald Knox London: Art Books International, p.59
  2. Adamson, G. (2013) The Invention of Craft London; New York: Bloomsbury Academic, p.?
  3. Davis, F. (1977) ‘Nostalgia, Identity and the Current Nostalgia Wave’, Journal of Popular Culture, Vol 11, Issue 2, pp. 414-422
  4. Boym, S. (2007) ‘Nostalgia and Its Discontents’, Agora 8
  5. Guffey, E. (2006) Retro : The Culture of Revival, London: Reaktion, p.21
  6. Olick, J.K., Vinitzky-Seroussi, V and Levy, D. (ed.) (2011) The Collective Memory Reader Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, p.399