The Bristol Legacy

Cover of The Changing World. A Broadcast Symposium. 6.
Modern Art,
BBC, 1932.

Crofton Gane was not the only advocate of Modernism in 1930s Bristol, nor was he the most well-known. That accolade belonged to JE Barton, Headmaster of Bristol Grammar School who, like Gane, was a member of the Bristol branch of the Design and Industries Association and played a pioneering role in promoting Modernism.

Although now largely forgotten, in the 1930s Barton was an influential theorist whose views on art and design were widely circulated in the press and on BBC radio. Understanding the persuasive power of the young medium, Barton used his radio talks to popularise ideas derived from the Arts and Crafts movement and his conviction that objects in the home and in daily use could share qualities with fine art. In a 1932 broadcast, for example, he argued for a modern art:

‘responding to the needs of the time’ and represented by the ‘perfectly equipped kitchen…its purpose simplicity and freedom’. Barton, JE, 1932. The Changing World. A Broadcast Symposium. 6. Modern Art. London: BBC.

Amongst Barton’s acolytes was Ken Stradling, a pupil of his at Bristol Grammar, who recalls going to his early evening public lectures and, even though tired at the end of a long school day, leaving ‘brimming with enthusiasm’ for Barton’s ideas. An earlier pupil was Allen Lane, founder of Penguin Books who pioneered paperbacks ‘for the price of a packet of cigarettes’, bringing quality books to the mass market.

The seeds sown by JE Barton in pre-war Bristol would bear fruit in the post-war city. In 1948, Stradling, returning from army service to the bomb-battered city, began work at the Bristol Guild of Applied Art. The Guild had been founded in 1908 following the tenets of William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement. Its original guise as a collective of well heeled makers began to change in the 1920s when it was bought out by Arnold Robinson, himself a stained glass artist, who started offering well designed manufactured goods alongside handmade pieces such as Orrefors glass from Sweden.

Bristol Guild advert c.1935
Bristol Guild

Ken Stradling joined as a buyer in 1948, becoming its Managing Director in 1962 and eventually Chairman. Under his leadership the Guild developed as a major centre for the sale and appreciation of contemporary design in the West Country with Stradling encouraging an awareness of international modernism in much the same way as Gane had earlier in the century. At the same time, and quite incidental to Stradling’s growing reputation as a patron, he began his own collection of contemporary design and craft. Considered of national significance, the Ken Stradling Collection is now in the care of a charitable trust which provides public access through exhibitions and events at the Stradling Gallery together with a lively educational programme. 

Items from the Ken Stradling Collection. Stephen Morris