LETTERS Douglas Strachan

Paine probably made the acquaintance of Dr. Douglas Strachan (1875-1950) at Edinburgh College of Art where he  was appointed Director of Design in 1908.    Strachan  is  widely considered  to  have  been   ‘the most significant and prolific stained glass artist’ (Gazetteer for Scotland) of the first half of the twentieth century.   A letter (below) to Paine from Strachan in October 1937 reveals that he submitted designs for a Scottish Mark and that these were rejected.   It is clear from his letters that Strachan much admired Paine’s work.   Of the Mark designs he wrote, ‘Your admirable Mark designs – just exactly what was wanted a pattern … , and distinction, and yet the story as plain as a pikestaff: and then to read that they had been turned down – in favour of footling things’.

It seems that Paine wrote to Strachan in the autumn of 1937 about the Empire Exhibition being planned for the following year in Glasgow.   The policy was to employ only British Artists and that ‘nothing from foreign sources may be shown’.   How this squares with displaying art from imperial possessions is not clear.   It can be surmised from Strachan’s letter (below) in November 1937 that Paine had written concerning foreign influences on British art, evidently referring to Frank Pick’s acceptance of the influence of continental art movements on the design of Underground posters.   Strachan wrote to a friend (unnamed) who was closely associated with the Exhibition and reported his reply:  ‘He thinks Mr. Paine has misunderstood Mr. Pick’s views, and does not agree that Mr. Pick endorses design of continental origin: he states that one of the main points which the Council has made is that industry is dependent to far too great an extent on foreign sources – which is of course begging the question though I am sure he does not see this.’

It may be that Paine was also seeking Strachan’s support for the submission of a stained glass design to the Exhibition.   According to Strachan, the organisers were convinced that there were plenty of Glasgow artists of high calibre and that they had no need to look further.   He wrote, ‘… how maddening that you can’t get your glass set in some church where it could be seen.   What about the Glasgow Exhib. in that connection?   It is, I read somewhere, to have 2 chapels: one Presbyt. tother Pisky (Episcopalian):  and they’ll surely want windows.’    He concludes, ‘… if you would care to make and exhibit a window there I’ll write Bilsland (Sir Alexander Steven Bilsland 1892-1970, member of the executive committee of the Empire Exhibition) about it if you wish and think it worth your while.’

I do not know if Paine exhibited stained glass at the exhibition.

23rd September 1937

Pittendriech, Lasswad

My Dear Paine,

            What a great pleasure to see your beautiful handwriting again, and to get news of you and your thoughts and doings.

            The contents of your letter and the chance hour of its arrival lead me to the philosophical reflection (reached by many before me) that Life is a quaint sort of affair.

            To explain just why your letter and another which reached me 2 or 3 hours earlier have led me into this highly original train of thought, I ought perhaps to begin by saying that one of the first resolutions I made at the beginning of my adult activities was never under any circumstances to allow myself to be drawn into committee work.   I have always loathed Art Politics, and regarded committee activities (doubtless too sweepingly) as utterly futile: as in fact a mere form of sport for the type known as committee-man.   To this resolution I held rigidly throughout:-  at times incurring censure as one selfishly indifferent to the interests nominally concerned:- to which I replied nowt.

            Some four years ago, however, I broke my resolution by accepting an invitation to become a member of the “Royal Commission for Art in Scotland” because the fact that this body is purely Advisory placed it in a different category:- and I may say here and now that work on it has been a pleasure from the start, and remains so, – because it works: because instead of wasting time drawing up high-falutin manifestoes and reports for publication we in a sense do nothing: it is the other fellows – promoters of public undertakings whether governmental or municipal who Do:  and if their designs seem to us artistically bad they are promptly torpedoed and sunk: and this may happen over and over again before an acceptable design is submitted and approved.   Being purely Advisory, the Commission has of course no powers to enforce its ruling: but in the 4 years period that has come under my observation an adverse judgement has never been ignored.   We are in the fortunate position too, of not being concerned with costs.   Occasionally when designs for a big scheme have been rejected twice, irate officials have attended to demand if we realise that we are holding up a £quarter million of works: but these our Chairman blandly silences by saying that such matters are not in order, our terms of reference being purely aesthetic in character: and that’s that.   But within a year of my appointment to the Fine Art Comm. a letter arrived from the president of the Board of Trade inviting me to become a member of the “Council for Art and Industry” about to be formed.   This I promptly declined: but as a bare refusal seemed curt and unmannerly I gave a reason – viz that while fully alive to the importance and urgency of the problem which the Council was meant to solve, the first qualification for a seat on that Council was obviously an extensive practical experience of the Designer-Manufacturer problem:  and of that (by reason of the self-contained nature of my work from the beginning) I had absolutely none.   Which was true, though perhaps lacking in complete candour, since my friends and interests had kept me in close touch with the question all along.   What I ought to have said was that the first requirement was belief in the power of any such Council to solve the problem:  and that of that I had little.   But I didn’t: and back came a very nice letter from Runciman saying that this fact (of my industrial inexperience) was already fully known before the invitation was sent to me: but that the problem contained of course a purely aesthetic element, in which I would etc. etc.: and that he hoped I would reconsider my decision and accept appointment: to which I said Damn (to myself) and very well I accept (to him).   It meant attending a monthly meeting at the B. of Trade, London: but Runciman said it would not demand much of my time, and that the Scottish Committee would soon be formed.   This I read as meaning that the meetings I would have to attend would then take place in Edinbg.: which was not quite so bad: but when the Scottish Comm. was started some three months later I learnt that I had to attend the Council meetings in London and the Scottish Comm. meetings in Edin. as a member of the Council!   So that here after a blameless life I suddenly found myself within the space of twelve months

a member of a Commission                                                                                                                a member of a Council                                                                                                                           and a member of a Committee.

Something had to be done about it: so I promptly tabled a motion that Scottish members of Council should be held to fulfil their whole duty if they attended every second meeting of Council.   And this was agreed to.   But, oh my God: the dreariness, the utter boredom to me of these Council and Committee meetings: and as witness succeeded witness, the obvious hopelessness of making any headway with manufacturers who said they could not afford “expensive” designs because the designs produced for the firm by such designers would immediately be stolen by rivals who had no designer to pay:- chiefly foreign rivals, who would flood the market with the new designs at as early a date as the original firm could – and at lower cost.   The question of whether it was or ever would be possible for the designer of a large firm to attain a position of Management which would enable him to determine the design-policy of the firm was treated by witnesses as a sort of feeble joke.   Then there was the question of Volume of Trade: of Overturn constantly cropping up.   This I maintained over and over again simply confused the issue.   Granted that the Council and Committee had been created by the Board of Trade and that the only concern of such a Board is, properly, increase of the volume of trade: yet the Board created the Council, not to do the Board’s work but to advise it on one element in the problem outside its competence – the aesthetic element: and that that alone was our job.   This view was not actually opposed;  it was just listened to and allowed to pass:- presumably as something irrelevant.   Our appointment was for two years, and as the termination of that period approached I gave notice that I didn’t wish to be re-elected.   I was then told that the “2 year” appointment was a mere form and had no real meaning, and was told in kindly fashion not to be a dam fool – that is, not to resign.   But I got hold of the Chairman of the Scottish Committee and repeated that I wanted to resign: and after lunch in his club we discussed the matter in leisurely fashion over coffee and cigarettes in the Smoking Room.   To cut a long story short I agreed to try it for another year: but before the end of that third year last year I gave notice that I would definitely go out with 1936: and did so.   So I have had no connection with either Council (in London) nor Scottish Committee in Edinbg for Art and Industry since this year began.   My influence therefore is nil: but I have consulted a friend closely both with Council and Committee and also, as it happens, with the forthcoming Glasgow Exhibit.   I wrote him a resume of your letter to me: and it is because I have been waiting for his reply that this letter has been delayed in posting.   His reply arrived today: but I don’t know that it amounts to very much.   The man himself I like: but like all prominent public figures, he seems to us artists to be too dam politic and cautious of utterance.   He thinks Mr. Paine has misunderstood Mr. Pick’s (Frank Pick, London Transport Ed.) views, and does not agree that Mr. Pick endorses design of continental origin: he states that one of the main points which the Council has made is that industry is dependent to far too great an extent on foreign sources – which is of course begging the question though I am sure he does not see this.

            He adds regarding Glasgow Exhib. that every effort is being made to employ British Artists: and that one of the conditions of Exhibition is that nothing from foreign sources may be shown.   – which again misses what I take to be your point:- foreign influences rather than foreign designs and designers.   He adds also that if Mr. Paine is ever in Edinburgh Mr. Brown the Secty of the Commission, will be very much interested to have a talk with him at his office 71 George Street or to have any communications from him.

            71 George Street is an office established by the Scott. Comm. for Art and Industry: and Mr. Brown a nice rather solemnly quiet young man whom you would find very pleasant.   Bye the bye one of the last things I did in 71 George as a member of Committee was to recommend you as designer for a Scottish national Mark.   I trust for Scotland’s sake that they get you.

With kindest regards

Yours sincerely

Douglas Strachan

11th October 1937

Pittendriech, Lasswade, Midlothian.

My Dear Paine,

            Just a hasty line to catch the evening mail.   Your admirable Mark designs (national Mark for Scotland Ed.) – just exactly what was wanted – a pattern … , and distinction, and yet the story as plain as a pikestaff: and then to read that they had been turned down.   For what?   I should like to know, and shall make a point of finding out.   Why the devil did I not think of holding on as a member until this was settled.   The footling things that had been already submitted before I knew anything about it – maps of Scotland with all the Western Isles!   : makes you sick.   I said what I thought about them the moment I learned of their existence:  and then a sub-committee was formed to deal with the matter: and I was on that:- and as I say, its one meeting was my last: that is, I had ceased to be a member before, or if, another meeting was called.   What I said was wanted was a big fat mark like a rubber stamp or stencil: a thing that should arrest attention as a shape yet at the same time be legible as words:- an extremely difficult thing to do with such limited space and subject matter.

            Many thanks for your kind invitation to come and see your glass.   I should greatly like to:- and might have done it early in September as we motored north from London – if I’d known.   But when I shall be in London again I don’t know:  for, like the curate in the old play, “I doant lyke Londun”:  and I hailed escape from the periodically enforced visit to attend the Art and Industry Council, as a boy does the first day of hols:-  though I should add that as big cities go, I prefer it to most: much prefer it to Paris for instance that all good Americans and Artists are expected to adore.   But how maddening that you can’t get your glass set in some church where it could be seen.   What about the Glasgow Exhib*. in that connection?   It is, I read somewhere, to have 2 chapels: one Presbyt. tother Pisky (Episcopalian Ed.):  and they’ll surely want windows.   Glasgow has lately been making rather an ass of itself, directing its fury against me and my kind: shouting that Glasgow is itself simply hotching with s. glass geniuses of the first rank, and that the city gates should be shut against all others.   But the Glasgow citizen and donor goes on his way unperturbed: and I shouldn’t think the Exhib. authority would be influenced by any dam (sic) nonsense of that sort.   Anyway if you would care to make and exhibit a window there I’ll write Bilsland (Sir Alexander Steven Bilsland 1892-1970, member of the executive committee of the Empire Exhibition Ed.) about it if you wish and think it worth your while.

Ever Yrs

Douglas Strachan

*The Exhibition referred to is the Empire Exhibition May to October 1938, ‘the last public showcase of the British Empire’.   The Exhibition showcased British industry generally although the industries of Glasgow and the West of Scotland were in the forefront.

1 January 1939

Pittenriech. Lasswade, Midlothian.

My dear Paine,

            Just a line to say how deeply your kind remembrance of us was valued: though I cannot better or equal the neatness of your wish that we might have all we would wish for ourselves, I can heartily return it: hoping 1939 will bring you satisfaction in your work, and as much material “success” as you may deem to be good.   We all know that financial success (and costly mode of life that results) is a danger to the artist:yet when circumstance leads some of us deeper and deeper into it we acquiesce or at least do nothing to stop it: yet I imagine that even the most pampered of fortune’s pets in this respect continues to live as rigorously behind the scenes as any of us: knowing in his very bones that overpayment brings no satisfaction at all to him: his one unchanging ambition and hope being that despite the fact that to him his past seems to consist mainly of failures to “get through”, he may yet rpoduce something that will satisfy him, and stand (i.e. the work) unashamed before his fellow artists.   The funny aspect of the matter is that while Reason makes it quite clear that one will never achieve this, the conviction that it may happen remains: unabashed: undaunted.

            Pardon this platitudinous page.   It is New Year’s Day: the dreariest, most characterless of all days: a dies non: a beast: a thing without flesh blood or breath or any existence or place in life – or thought: hence platitudes: for one has somehow to exist through it: a patch of time that might puzzle even J. W. Dunne to explain.   if it was only a question of one day per year one might manage somehow{ but even in this heathen land of Scotland, Christmas gives one a jolt: a reminder that the Awful Day approaches: so that between them these two precious festivals poison a week, leaving one with only 51 to enjoy oneself: and that’s not enough.

            But I must stop this drivel.  Even N.Y. Day can hardly excuse it.

Ever yours

Douglas Strachan

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