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Where art & politics mix: the Wolfsonian in Miami Beach is based on the remarkable collection of art between 1880 and 1945 formed by its founder, Mitchell Wolfson Jr. Peyton Skipwith surveys the range and depth of its outstanding holdings of British art, which encompass paintings, sculpture and all the decorative arts, with a special focus on propaganda.

In the November 1988 issue of APOLLO I profiled the American collector Mitchell Wolfson Jr, a resident of both Miami and Genoa. Since then he has moved from being an untamed but instinctive private collector to a public benefactor who has given a museum to each of the two cities where he lives--the Wolfsonian in Miami Beach and the Wolfsoniana in Genoa. Both concentrate on the arts from about 1880 to 1945, but with a particular and personal slant: propaganda in its widest interpretation, together with the decorative arts.

The Wolfsoniana is entirely concerned with Italian material, a rich field, but outside the scope of this article. (A selection was shown in the exhibition 'Under Mussolini' at the Estorick Foundation in London in 2002.) The Wolfsonian is international in scope, with a strong emphasis on America, Italy and Britain, the three countries in which Micky--as he is generally known--was initially most interested. The Wolfsonian opened to the public in the autumn of 1995 as a private museum, but two years later Wolfson handed it over in its entirety, to Florida International University: it is now a major teaching resource as well as an enthralling and provocative institution for the general public, with a permanent collection as well as space for temporary exhibitions. The present display from the permanent collection gives a taste of the range of material Wolfson has collected--and continues to collect. Among them are murals and sculptures by artists involved with the Public Works Administration (WPA), items connected with the Worlds' Fairs, including the Trylon and Perisphere in stainless steel, wood and plastic--a promotional model for the Theme Center at the 1939 New York World's Fair--and a section of a grille of interconnecting swastikas designed by Albert Speer for the German Pavilion at the 1937 Paris International Exhibition.

Amidst these somewhat bombastic assertions of national self-esteem it is comfortingly reassuring to come across Edward Johnston's logo for the London Passenger Transport Board on one of the old brass and enamel signs from Leicester Square Underground station in London, and Harry Clarke's Geneva Window (Fig. 1), as well as a 22-foot-high window-grille in glazed and gilded terracotta from the Norris Theater, Pennsylvania, which greets one as one enters the foyer of the museum.


In 1985, a decade before the Wolfsonian opened its doors, I curated an exhibition at the Miami Dade Community College called 'Style of Empire: Great Britain 1877-1947', for which most of the exhibits were drawn from what was then known as the Mitchell Wolfson Jr Collection of Decorative and Propaganda Arts. Since then, that collection, much augmented, has become a part of the Wolfsonian's permanent collection. 'Style of Empire' contained two significant loans, Clarke's Geneva Window, which Wolfson was able to buy three years later, and two elevations by William Walcot of public buildings in South Africa done for Sir Herbert Baker. These were returned to the Baker family, but since then three further elevations by Walcot have entered the collection, two done for Sir Edwin Lutyens of the Vice-Regal Palace, New Delhi (Fig. 2), and one of the interior of the Senate House in Havana, Cuba. Baker's son, Henry, allowed us to print in the 'Style of Empire' catalogue the unpublished text of a lecture, 'Architecture in Relation to the Empire', delivered in Oxford by his father, which began 'It was a son of Oxford, Sir Christopher Wren, who said that "Architecture has its political uses; public buildings being the ornaments of a country.'"


Wren had thus enunciated the principle which has guided Wolfson, and now the curators of the Wolfsonian, in assembling the collection, housed in a grand 1920s Spanish-revival style building on Miami Beach. Walcot's elevations for Lutyens have joined drawings by Butterfield and Adrian Gilbert Scott for the Anglican Cathedrals at Bombay and Cairo respectively, designs for bank and office buildings in Harbin and Rangoon and an archive of innovative drawings by the New Zealand-born architect Reginald Uren for Hornsey Town Hall, amongst others.

Wren's dictum can be applied equally to sculpture, and the collection includes important pieces by George Frampton, Eric Gill, Gilbert Ledward, Charles Sargeant Jagger, Eric Kennington and others, as well as a very wide range of commemorative medals by many of the most distinguished British sculptors of the period. Ledward's drawing for the rear panel on the Guards' Division Memorial facing onto London's Horse Guards' Parade (Fig. 3) can be seen in the context of Kennington's competition drawings and plaster maquette for proposed sculptures on Waterloo Bridge, and two fascinating photomontage and watercolour presentation studies by Jagger for the Kirby and West Hoylake War Memorial, as well as an early working model for the figure of Agriculture (Fig. 5) for Imperial Chemicals House.


The great graphic designers are also well represented. C.R.W. Nevinson's famous World War I poster 'Now back the Bayonets with your War Savings Certificates', designs by McKnight Kauffer, linocuts by members of the Grosvenor School and Macdonald Gill's Wonderground Map of London Town are juxtaposed with an outstanding array of books, from Mackmurdo's Wren's City Churches to Gordon Craig's Towards a New Theatre, and many of the finest private-press books from the 1920s. The library of the Wolfsonian is as impressive as the public galleries. It is surprising, perhaps, to find in the collection two superb, rare, watercolour propaganda designs by Eric Ravilious, Britain's Increased Production and Empire Air Training Schemes (Fig. 4). All these fit clearly into Micky Wolfson's self-imposed categories of 'decorative' and 'propaganda' arts, which define the museum's collections.


When it comes to paintings, however, the selection is more idiosyncratic. Brangwyn's mural panel for the Empress of Britain fulfils both categories, as the great Atlantic liners were overt symbols of national prestige, a fact born out in the current display by Jean Dunand's two splendid lacquer panels designed for the SS Normandie. The rest of the choices tend to be intuitive and interpretative. Anna Airy's large oil study for her 1918 painting of women making 15-inch shells on Clyde Bank (Fig. 6) is an important sociological and historic record, reminding us of the significant role played by women in war, and also of how World War I helped emancipate women and free them from the drudgery of domestic service. The choice of other works, by artists such as Ethelbert White and John Cecil Stephenson, may seem less obvious, but there is a consistency of vision behind their selection, just as there is for Gladys Hynes' Chalk Quarry (Fig. 9) and Glyn Philpot's Weight Lifting, Berlin (Fig. 7).


Furniture, metalwork, textiles, glass and ceramics help round out this collection. In 1999 Wendy Kaplan, then an Associate Director of the Wolfsonian, mounted an impressive Arts and Crafts exhibition, 'Leading the Simple Life', displaying the riches of the Wolfsonian's decorative arts in this field, with furniture ranging from early pieces by Gimson and Barnsley, W.J. Neatby and Charles Rennie Mackintosh to Dick Russell's 1948 wireless console radio. It included a room setting by Baillie Scott, from Glencrutchery in the Isle of Man, which had been illustrated in Decorative Kunst in 1900.

Precursors of the Arts and Crafts, such as Dresser and Godwin, are well represented, as are later 'modernist' designers. Metalwork by Benson, Ashbee, John Paul Cooper and Llewellyn Rathbone, as well as textiles by Mary Watts, C.F.A. Voysey and Roger Fry's Omega Workshops, show the richness of the decorative arts tradition. Fine ceramics by most of the well-known art potteries as well as individual pieces by lesser known figures, such as Jessie Jack and Thackeray Turner, add to this kaleidoscopic overview of Britain in the years from 1880 to 1945. One of the most intriguing is a late-20s jazzy stoneware vase by Adrian Allinson (Fig. 8), a Slade-trained painter, who worked alongside Stanley Spencer, Mark Gertler and Nevinson.


It may be unexpected to find such works housed in a public museum on Miami Beach, but as Cathy Left, the Director, said in her preface to the catalogue 'Leading the Simple Life', the 70,000 objects in the Wolfsonian's collection provide 'rich evidence of the cultural, political, and technological changes that swept the world in the [sixty] years preceding the Second World War.'

1 The Geneva Window by Harry Clarke (1889-1931), 1927-30. Stained glass, 182 x 102 cm

In 1925 the Irish Free State agreed to present a stained glass window to the International Labour Building at the League of Nations in Geneva. Harry Clarke, who already had an international reputation, was eventually commissioned and a scheme was evolved for an eight-panelled window of scenes from contemporary Irish literature. The authors chosen were Shaw Yeats, Lady Gregory, Synge, Joyce, AE, Padraic Colum, Seamus O'Sullivan, James Stephens, O'Casey, George Fitzmaurice, Lennox Robinson, Liam O'Flaherty and Seamus O'Kelly. Despite the tact that President Cosgrave and other ministers were involved From an early stage, and that Clarke was careful to avoid the more contentious works, such as Ulysses, in September 1930 Cosgrave told Clarke that the window had been rejected, as certain representations 'would give rise to misunderstanding and much adverse comment.'

Clarke's classic depiction of Joxer from O'Casey's Juno and the Paycock (right, second from top) together with that of the thinly draped nude in Liam O'Flahery's Mr Gilbooley and the suggestively over-tight trousers of Synge's Playboy, were the prime causes for the rejection: the Irish Secretary of Industry and Commerce, R.C. Ferguson, stated that 'A nation famed as a Catholic stronghold was to be represented as bizarre almost viciously evil people steeped in sex and drunkenness and, yes, sin.' Clarke's widow later refunded her husband's fee and reclaimed the window from the State. It is now widely regarded as one of the finest examples of 20th-century stained glass.

2 Perspective View of the South Elevation of the Viceroy's House (now known as Rashtrapati Bhavan), New Delhi designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens by William Walcot (1874-1943), 1914. Gouache, graphite and ink on paper, 46.7 x 109.1 cm

New Delhi, the creation of Sir Edwin Lutyens and Sir Herbert Baker, was the finest set-piece of British imperial architecture, and Lutyens's Viceroy's House was intended to be the focal point, at the summit of the grand processional route. Unfortunately, a miscalculation of the gradient obscured this objective and led to a falling out between the two architects. William Walcot, born in Russia of English parents, trained both as a painter and architect. He settled in London in about 1905, and became the most celebrated architectural draughtsman of his generation. This is one of two elevations of Viceroy's House at the Wolfsonian, which were previously in the collection of the last Viceroy of India, Viscount Mountbatten of Burma.

3 Study for the Bronze Relief Panel on the Rear of the Guards' Division Memorial, St James's Park, London by Gilbert Ledward (1888-1960), 1923. Pen and ink on paper, 14 x 23 cm

The Guards' Division Memorial-situated midway between Jagger's Artillery Memorial and Lutyens's Cenotaph--is one of London's most distinguished memorials of the Great War. Its five seemingly identical figures represent each of the Guards' Divisions, presenting arms against the background of a truncated obelisk. The dignity of these figures is enhanced by bronze relief panels on the sides of the obelisk, representing the accoutrements of war, and one to the rear, which depicts soldiers of the Divisional Artillery desperately loading a gun, for which this drawing is an early study. Ledward was the first winner of the Prix de Rome for Sculpture in 1913, but his studies were cut short by the war, during which he served in the Artillery on the Italian front. Charlton Bradshaw, his architectural collaborator in the design of the memorial, was the first recipient of the Prix de Rome for architecture.

4 Empire Air Training Schemes by Eric Ravilious (1903-42), c. 1940-41. Watercolour, graphite and ink on paper, 15.2 x 23.2 cm

Ravilious was appointed an official war artist late in 1939, and assigned to the Admiralty. During the next three years, before his death on an air-sea rescue mission off Iceland, he produced a series of watercolours of Britain's coastal defences as well as of airfields and shipping in the coastal waters off Scandinavia. He also made an important group of lithographs of submarines. The present rough, clearly intended for propaganda purposes, is from a small group concerned with armaments and production, which may have been made for the Department of Overseas Trade-two further ones are reproduced in Alan Powers's Eric Radlious: Imagined Realities (2003). A debt to McKnight Kauffer can be detected in its tight geometric and concentric layout.

5 Maquette for Agriculture: Mother Earth Strangling Famine by Charles Sargeant Jagger (1885-1934), c. 1928. Plaster, ht 35.6 cm

In 1927 Alfred Mond commissioned Sir Frank Baines to design a new headquarters building in London for ICI. Four sculptures representing the chief areas of the firm's business--marine transport, building, agriculture and chemistry--were to adorn the parapet. Baines commissioned one work from each of four sculptors, but was overruled by Mond, who insisted that Jagger should do them all. This maquette, reminiscent of a detail from a medieval doom, with its brutal representation of farmer/death driving a spade blade into the neck of the skeletal figure of famine, is an early exploration of the theme 'Agriculture overcoming Famine'. The final stone carving, 12 feet high, is much blander, depicting the farmer, in social-realist mode, as a proud peasant watching a laden harvest wagon pass beneath a radiant sun.

6 Study for The 'Verdun' Shop, 15-inch Shells: Singer Manufacturing Company, Clydebank, Glasgow by Anna Airy (1882-1964), 1918. Oil on canvas, 84.5 x 111.8 cm

Anna Airy, who trained at the Slade in 1899-1903, under Professor Tonks, was employed by the Ministry of Information during World War I to record work in various munition factories around the country. Many of these, such as the Singer Sewing Machine factory on Clydebank, were industrial establishments, whose pre-war manufacturing activities had been suspended for the duration and converted to the production of armaments, usually with a largely female workforce. At the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in 1919, she exhibited three of these, all lent by the Imperial War Museum: The 'L' Press Forging an 18-in Gun at the Works of Messrs Armstrong, Whitworth and Openshaw and The Shell Forge: National Projectile Factory, Hackney Marshes, as well as the finished painting from the Wolfsonian study.

For further information on the Wolfsonian's collection, visit The Wolfsonian also has a rare book and reference library, which holds some 50,000 books, periodicals and ephemeral items. It is open by appointment to visiting scholars (, and there is a fellowship programme enabling scholars from a wide range of disciplines to conduct research for periods of three to five weeks (

Peyton Skipwith, a former director of the Fine Art Society, is a writer and art consultant.
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Author:Skipwith, Peyton
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1U5FL
Date:Aug 1, 2006
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