The Ken Stradling Collection is an unique cross-section of 20th and 21st century design and applied arts. It has been assembled over the last 60 years by Ken Stradling alongside his role as buyer and later director of the Bristol Guild of Applied Arts the well-known design shop in Park Street, Bristol. The Collection is now in the care of the Ken Stradling Collection Trust with the aim is making it accessible to the public. The Collection is housed in its own building at 48, Park Row. For more information and visiting arrangements see our website.
ORIGINS OF A COLLECTION: KEN STRADLING AND THE BRISTOL GUILD
“I’m interested in design generally, whether it’s pottery, glass, industrial design or craft and so on; it’s all design to me and that’s why I can go from one to the other.”
The Ken Stradling Collection is a reflection of one man’s engagement with design as a buyer and retailer and as a patron and collector from the late 1940s to the present day.
In his role as buyer, manager and director for Bristol Guild of Applied Art since 1948, Ken Stradling has been actively involved in the constantly changing world of design and domestic taste. His superb collection of 20th and 21st century design began as a pastime, an incidental pleasure of the professional and cultural environment in which he found himself, and of the buying choices he was making for Bristol Guild. Ken once said that, though sensitive to changing fashions, he has always been driven by his own interpretation of good design and quality. Thus the Collection is a personal view of the world: reflecting his taste in furniture, pottery, glass, fine art and craft objects from both studio and industry. It is not a formal account of changing taste or design history and nor is it a history of the Guild itself.
Ken Stradling was born and brought up in south Bristol. His family, though not affluent, was comfortable and cultivated good taste. His mother encouraged an early interest in antiques, taking him to auctions with her where he occasionally bought things. This helped to develop an interest in material culture and connoisseurship. As a pupil at Bristol Grammar School in the 1930s, Ken developed his interest in the arts through the influence of its headmaster, J. E. Barton. Barton wrote for the Listener magazine and broadcast on modern art and design and was passionate about the value of art and design education. Demobbed from the army in 1948 Ken found employment as Assistant Manager at the Bristol Guild of Applied Art in Park Street, increasing the staff from two to three. “I knew the Guild and so I came in to them one day and said, “you need me, can I join you?” and that’s how it all started.”
The Guild had originated in 1908 as a collective of artists who promoted and sold their work and offered handicraft classes. By 1929 the original group had scattered and under its remaining member, stained glass designer Arnold Robinson, the Guild became a small retail shop maintaining its original remit to sell good design and support local makers. In 1948 the Guild’s stock was inevitably limited in scope. It was “a little gift shop… really half a shop, 68A – the other half was a wool shop” Stradling imposed a strong, creative identity of his own, finding, buying and selling new and innovative work. “You’ve got to be in control of the buying,” he says, and “quality is always terribly important… and you do recognise it, with experience it becomes almost intuitive”.
While the 1951 Festival of Britain set out a dynamic modern agenda for architecture and design, economic recovery took time.
“Right through the 1950s it was a terrible time for trade. You couldn’t get any tableware, it was all export rejects, white stuff, and when you suddenly got some export rejects that weren’t white things – there was great excitement when you were unpacking a crate.”
Expansion brought with it a furniture department, a restaurant and a food-hall amongst other additions. From the 1960s a gallery space enabled the Guild to present exhibitions of the work of individual artists and designers. The recently completed remodelling of the main stairwell, new food-hall and redesign of the Guild Café with an outside seating area reflects an ongoing process of revision and renewal. The Guild has become a focal point in Bristol and the region for quality design and applied arts.
A customer of the 1970s remembers “Ken’s courage and faith in the modern: you entered with such confidence. There was evident care and good judgment in the selection, a commitment to contemporary craftsmanship and good design, local or foreign.”
Before the Second World War, contemporary design was championed in Bristol by Crofton Gane of furniture manufacturer P. E. Gane Ltd. Gane’s was an established company making Arts and Crafts style pieces for middle-class homes. In the 30s Crofton used it to explore new materials and ideas. Through the Design and Industries Association he visited Scandinavia, Holland and Germany and saw the influential 1925 Paris Exhibition. The DIA also brought him into contact with leading Modernist designers working in Britain including Wells Coates and Bauhaus furniture designer Marcel Breuer. When Breuer arrived in England in 1935 Gane commissioned furniture, interiors and a pavilion for his company at the 1936 Royal Agricultural Show in Ashton Court. Although the furniture was not a market-changer commercially – Britain was not ready – the relationships built up were important and Gane’s continued to manufacture for the avant-garde design firm Isokon until the Second World War. Gane and Breuer remained lifelong friends. The company was a victim of the Blitz in 1940 although Crofton continued to run a small shop on Park Street until 1954. The parallels between Gane and Stradling are not hard to see. They share a deep interest in good contemporary European design and a passion to educate the taste of those around them.
From 1958 Ken was furnishing and equipping his and his wife Betty’s first home in Bristol. Ken’s buying for retail sale at the Guild often but not always coincided with his buying for the home; many of the objects in today’s Collection were acquired by Ken, the incidental collector, to embellish their household.
Ken’s business contacts with Scandinavian furniture, glass and ceramics manufacturers provided access to some of the leading work of the post-war period and unusually Ken was able to travel and meet Scandinavian and other European makers, taking a particular interest in Swedish, Danish and Finnish design generally. Alongside the furniture and ceramics by manufacturers such as Arabia, glass became a particular interest and the collection contains many fine pieces by Holmegaard, Orrefors and Whitefriars amongst others.
In the 1960s Betty introduced Ken to studio ceramics. She had been a student at Corsham College of Art in the 50s and had come into contact with the new sculptural ceramicists emerging from the Central School at that time. The rough handbuilt sculptural ceramics of this group resonate with the Scandinavian studio glass of the period and friendships emerged with ceramicists like Dan Arbeid, Gillian Lowndes, Robin Welch and Ian Auld. Other potters with whom Ken has been friends for many years and whose work features prominently in his collection include Peter Wright, Marianne de Trey and John Leach. Ceramics began to be a core component of the collection as it emerged although taken as a whole it has always remained very broad. One might liken it to the contents of a home in the sense that it inherently combines materials and categories of object to make an organic whole.
Buying for the Guild brought Ken into contact with all manner of other artists, designers, manufacturers and makers and helped to build up many close friendships. These networks were also an important element in his involvement with the Dartington Cider Press Centre where he was Deputy Chairman for 10 years. The range of areas that the Guild covered expanded steadily taking in furniture, textiles, jewellery, kitchenware and toys; the addition of a gallery allowing this to include areas such as painting and printmaking. Ken’s deep concern for his home city and its region has also meant that there has been a strong local element within this. Ken has involved himself in many local projects and campaigns including the SS Great Britain Trust and City Docks Ventures. He has always been interested in supporting and encouraging artists and designers from the West Country and with a particular interest in young people starting out from the region’s colleges and universities. Fittingly, he has for many years been Chairman of the Gane Trust, established in memory of Crofton Gane to support young people in the fields of craft, design, the arts and social care in the South West.
Ken has been an astute observer of the changing nature of the design world. The collection of studio and industrial ceramics and glass, designer furniture and other applied arts is remarkable for its breadth, consciously mirroring the range of the Guild itself whilst nonetheless personal and idiosyncratic. He has maintained the same essential view – “I’ve only ever bought things I like – never invested in anything I didn’t.” Listening to Ken speak about the collection, his close relationships with many of the people he has dealt with are clearly also a factor. Especially with handmade objects a connection with the maker enhances the object itself. The result is a collection that juxtaposes different materials and approaches, and the studio with the industrial. This relationship between the eye of the collector and that of the retailer is fundamental to the collection and makes it unique.
Ken’s appreciation of the legacy of Crofton Gane is reflected in the Collection by an important group of pieces of 1930’s furniture. While commissioning Marcel Breuer to design furniture for P. E. Gane Ltd, Crofton also asked Breuer to remodel and furnish his house in Bristol. This was both an assertion of his personal taste and an opportunity to put together a show-house that was widely reviewed in the design press. Much of the contents of the house survive and Ken has assembled the largest group in a public collection. This can be seen both as a tribute to Crofton Gane and as a way of celebrating the presence of a major international designer from the Bauhaus in Bristol in the 1930s.
The Ken Stradling Collection Trust has been set up to maintain the collection and make it available to the wider public. Ken considered carefully what to do with his collection and after taking advice from a variety of people including Christopher Lloyd, June Lancaster, David Whiting and the collector Anthony Shaw, he decided to establish a charitable trust and provide it with a building. The key factor is that the collection is accessible to view, to consult and to act as inspiration for a new generation. Ken Stradling wrote in 1988 that ‘the general standard of public taste will never improve until design becomes an integral part of everyone’s general education.’ This can be read as a direct reference back to J. E. Barton and his concerns about art and design education in the 1930s. These concerns were voiced as early as the 1830s and lie behind the establishment of the great tradition of art schools in this country: they are as important now as they ever were and it is why the Ken Stradling Collection has been placed in trust and made accessible to everyone from the curious to the serious student.