ORIGINS OF A COLLECTION: KEN STRADLING AND THE BRISTOL GUILD
The Ken Stradling Collection has been assembled over the last six decades by Ken Stradling alongside his role as buyer and later director of the Bristol Guild of Applied Arts the well-known design shop on Park Street in Bristol.
The collection began as an incidental pleasure of the professional and cultural environment in which Ken found himself, of the buying choices he was making for the Bristol Guild and the needs of his own home. Ken once said that, though sensitive to changing fashions, he has always been driven by his own interpretation of good design and quality. The collection is a personal view: reflecting his taste in furniture, pottery, glass, fine art and craft objects from both studio and industry.
“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.”
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. 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 BBC’s Listener magazine, broadcast on contemporary 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 began in 1908 as a collective of makers 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 selling hand-made goods and supporting 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”.
Whilst 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. From the 1960s a gallery enabled the Guild to exhibit the work of individual artists and designers. The Guild became 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.”
Ken was following in the steps of another significant local design figure, Crofton Gane. P. E. Gane Ltd. was a well-established furniture manufacturer in Bristol with a wide catalogue of styles from Tudor Revival to the Arts and Crafts. As a young man, Crofton took a great interest in modern design and joined the Design and Industries Association in 1919. The DIA brought him into contact with leading Modernist designers and enabled him to visit Europe including the influential 1925 Paris Exposition des Arts Decoratifs. He became managing director in 1933 and began to put his ideas fully into practice commissioning designs from leading designers including Bauhaus furniture designer Marcel Breuer who arrived in England from Nazi Germany in 1935. Sadly, the business 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. During his search for work, Ken had even asked Crofton for a job. They share a deep interest in good contemporary design and a passion to educate the taste of those around them.
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. Glass became a particular interest and the collection contains many fine pieces by Holmegaard, Orrefors and Whitefriars amongst others.
In the 1960s Ken’s wife Betty introduced him 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 feature in his collection include Peter Wright, Marianne de Trey and John Leach. Ceramics gradually became a core part of the collection.
As time went on, the range of areas that the Guild covered continued to expand taking in textiles, jewellery, kitchenware and toys. 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. Listening to Ken speak about the collection, his close relationships with many of the people he has dealt with are clearly important. Especially with handmade objects a connection with the maker enhances the object itself. The result is a collection of studio and industrial ceramics and glass, designer furniture and other applied arts 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.” This relationship between the eye of the collector and that of the retailer is fundamental to the collection and makes it unique.
Beyond the Guild, Ken was Deputy Chairman of the Dartington Cider Press Centre for 10 years and he 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’s appreciation of the legacy of Crofton Gane is reflected in the collection by an important group 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 Westbury. It doubled as a show-house that was widely reviewed in the design press. Most of the contents survive and Ken and the Gane Trust have 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.
From the early 2000s Ken considered carefully what to do with his collection and after taking advice from his many friends, he decided to establish a charitable trust. He wanted to ensure that the collection is accessible to view, to consult and to act as inspiration for a new generation. He 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 echoes J. E. Barton writing 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 British art schools; they are as important now as they ever were.