TO Litho Vine Ladder copyHere are some pictures by Edwin (Tony) Oldfield. To put them in a context I should say that I have been reading the recent Eric Ravilious biography*, which in turn sent me to Tirzah Garwood’s autobiography* I very much enjoyed this last – sometimes a bit naïve, but perceptive, warm and brave, always a real person speaking. Tirzah was married to Eric Ravilious, who had studied at the Royal College of Art under Paul Nash, along with Edward Bawden, Enid Marx and others.The RCA seems to have dwindled into a rather fusty fine art college so William Rothenstein was sent in 1920 to revitalise it, especially in traniing designers. But William Morris’ generous concept of a community of makers was abandoned for a hierarchy in which ‘design’ was distinctly inferior to fine art. It is worth here quoting Morris’ rousing advocacy of a continuum of art and design

Now as to the scope and nature of these Arts I have to say, that though when I come more into the details of my subject, I shall not meddle much with the great art of Architecture, and less still with the great arts commonly called Painting and Sculpture, yet I cannot in my own mind quite sever them from those lesser so-called Decorative Arts, which I have to speak about. It is only in latter times,and under the most intricate conditions of life that they have fallen apart from one another; and I hold that, when they are so parted, it is ill for the Arts altogether:the lesser ones become trivial, mechanical, unintelligent, incapable of resisting the changes pressed on them by fashion or dishonesty; while the greater, however they may be practiced for a while by men of great minds and wonder-working-hands, unhelped by the lesser, unhelped by each other, are sure to lose their dignity of popular arts, and become nothing but dull adjuncts to unmeaning pomp, or ingenious toys for a few rich and idle men.

William Morris: The Lesser Arts, 1877

Back at the RCA, in 1922. Enid Marx, who was a very gifted student, was ‘denied her painting diploma by teachers who disapproved of her “Fauvist inclinations”’ [ Friend p.57]. Her work was said to be ‘vulgar’ (Wikipedia). She left the RCA in 1925 and became a very successful fabric designer thereafter. Tirzah writes that after the RCA ‘Eric had an inferiority complex because he was a designer, and it took years to get rid of this feeling.’ [Ullmann p.167], and later, more bitterly ‘Eric aimed modestly at being a good second rate painter and engraver’. [Ullmann p.168].

In a later generation of RCA students, Tony Oldfield was failed at the end of his course (1932) by Rothenstein, for being ‘artistically insincere and too much influenced by the French,’ (which might easily have been said about Rothenstein himself in the ’90s). Fortunately his local authority (the West Riding of Yorkshire) paid for him to do another year, after which, having produced his quota of fake Rothensteins, he was given his Diploma. ‘They made me a liar!’ he said.

He emerged from the RCA in the deepest trough of the recession: his wife, Nora, said that she married him to cheer him up, and they used a curtain-ring at the wedding. Tony never really recovered his self confidence (or alternatively, did not have a very great ego anyway), though his critical eye was sharp, and sharpened as he aged.

 

 

 

Tony Oldfield was a fine, but little known, artist, an impressive draughtsman and a great teacher. He also designed and built furniture and made ceramic pieces. As far as I can see there is at present only one image of his work available on the Internet, which is a shame, so here are four more for anyone who might be interested.

*Ravilious and Co, the Pattern of Friendship, Andy Friend, Thames and Hudson, 2017

*Long Live Great Bardfield, the Autobiography of Tirzah Garwood. ed Anne Ullmann, Persephone Books, London, 2016

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