Creative responses to change

Henry Wren demonstrating pottery making at the annual Artist Craftsman Exhibition, 1930s
Henry Wren demonstrating pottery making at the annual Artist Craftsman Exhibition, 1930s

This New Year we emerge from restricted festivities into total lockdown. Those of us lucky enough to still have a job are used to working from home by now, but the weather is cold and dull, unlike 2020’s springtime quarantine. Shops, cafes and pubs are shuttered again, and parents are back to home schooling on top of the working week. Anxiety at the rapidly increasing rate of Covid infection alternates with a sense of resigned disenchantment. The shutdown is clearly essential, but life has come to a kind of standstill and the vaccine has not yet made an impact.

Most of us alive today in Western Europe have never faced such a reversal of norms. Denise Wren (1891 – 1979) lived through two world wars and found ways to put her endless creativity and talent for improvisation to good use during these challenging periods. 

Denise was a young woman when she co-founded the Knox Guild of Design and Craft in 1912. This was a group made up of classmates and their first action was to quit Kingston School of Art in protest. This followed the resignation of their Design Master, Archibald Knox, who was probably disillusioned with the South Kensington exam board’s criticism of his teaching methods. Pledging themselves to his design ideals, Knox Guild members were eager to prove their worth as craftworkers. They rented a studio overlooking Kingston Market Place as a base for their activities.

The Guild held their first exhibition in Kingston Museum Art Gallery in 1914, where they demonstrated crafts like weaving and pottery. They sold jewellery, needlework, handwoven objects, needlepoint lace, leatherwork, watercolours, lithographs and ceramics. However, their enterprise was abruptly shut down by the advent of the First World War. Guild members watched soldiers assembling in the market place to begin their journey to the Western Front.

Denise and Henry Wren married in 1915 and Henry went to work for Intelligence in the War Department. Denise took on a wartime role at the National Physical Laboratory at Teddington. She was in charge of organising the gauge store, an assembly of objects used in munitions factories to ensure products were manufactured to standard dimensions. Colleagues included other capable young women like her sister Winifred Tuckfield, Secretary of the Knox Guild, and stained glass maker Maudie Bishop, another Guild member.

The Knox Guild made contact with contemporary artists Jan and Oskar de Clerck when the two brothers arrived in Kingston as refugees via a fishing boat from Belgium. In 1915 the De Clercks organised ‘The Belgian Exhibition of Modern Art’ in Kingston Museum Art Gallery to raise funds for Belgian refugees. Winifred Tuckfield designed the programme for this display of paintings and sculptures by Belgian artists, including A Rainy Day at Kingston by Jan de Clerck.

Local paper the Surrey Comet remarked sardonically of the exhibition: ‘It needs a cultivated taste, no doubt, to appreciate the value of such works, many of which are repellent rather than attractive to the ordinary lover of pictures.’ Post-impressionist artworks were still not widely appreciated in Britain. However, the display reviewed well in The Times. Later that year Jan de Clerck opened the Knox Guild exhibition, held for a fortnight from the end of May in Kingston Museum Art Gallery.

Denise’s daughter Rosemary Wren recalls that the boyfriends and fiancés of many Knox Guild members were killed during the fighting. Henry Wren saw active service in Belgium, where he was wounded. Thankfully, he was able to return home, and underwent some months of outpatient treatment. In 1920, Henry and Denise purchased a plot of land in Oxshott under the Homes for Heroes scheme. Together they built themselves a house to Denise’s design, named Potter’s Croft, alongside which they established the Oxshott Pottery.

By the outbreak of the Second World War, Denise had spent two decades making pots and moved on to designing textiles as her main income source. She paused her design career to manage a team of Women’s Land Army members who grew vegetables to contribute to the war effort. Denise already had experience of raising goats and was a prize-winning bird breeder and beekeeper. 

Cultivating the land inspired Denise to devise a scheme for a self-sufficient smallholding. She created an information poster entitled ‘The Homestead Half-Acre Food Unit’. It depicts a plot divided into areas for producing milk, honey, fruit and vegetables, and extols the virtues of organic farming. This way of living fitted in well with the Wrens’ existing lifestyle as craftworkers in a rural setting.

The Wrens’ daughter Rosemary left school in 1939. She hoped to follow in Denise’s footsteps and attend art school, but had to defer her ambition and undertake essential work instead. Rosemary loved animals and initially worked at Chessington Zoo where she looked after some of the creatures in captivity. 

Rosemary was in charge of feeding an ostrich, whose eggs were used for food, and she provided the elephants with cabbages and the chimpanzee with onions. She recounts how one day the chimpanzee snatched her brightly coloured glove and tried to put it on his own hand. Rosemary wanted to give him the other glove, but as clothes were rationed, she had to persuade him to return it. She quit her post in disgust after learning that a goat and its kid that she was caring for had been fed to the lions. Perhaps these experiences inspired some of her later ceramic animal sculptures, of which David Attenborough was a fan.

Rosemary’s next wartime venture was joining the Land Army. Invalided out with eczema, she was able to start at art school about a year before the end of the war, choosing to study at Guildford, under potter Helen Pincombe, who had taught at the Royal College of Art. Helen Pincombe became a friend and later moved to Oxshott where she lived for around a decade from the 1950s. 

The Wrens were lucky in that they survived both world wars. They were enterprising, making the best of new opportunities to develop skills and interests even during difficult and frustrating times. Henry Wren saw craft as a healthy outlet for human energies, writing in a letter to exhibitors participating in his 1938 Artist Craftsman Exhibition: ‘It seems to me increasingly clear as the years go by that handcraft training is an essential in education and in life. Only by recognising this can we develop citizens leading complete lives and show that in self-expression in creative work the world has a positive alternative to negative militarism.’ 

Rosemary, who became first Chairman of the Craftsman Potters’ Association, understood the experience of war as being a motivator for change in the lives of some of her fellow potters: ‘There were lots of men who’d been through the war and wanted to do something that had some kind of imagination to it.’ (1). The Wrens made a conscious choice to be true to their vision of living the good life, even when this was tough. In our own time perhaps a reconsideration of priorities, both individual and collective, will be one of the better outcomes of the pandemic.

(1) Wren, R. (2005) Interview with Rosemary Wren. Interviewed by Hawksmoor Hughes for National Life Stories Collection: Craft Lives

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