Ada Louise Lessore known as ‘Lalla’ to her family and close friends was one of a number of talented female Arts and Crafts designer-makers, including Georgina Gaskin and Edith Dawson, who are remembered primarily as part of a husband-and-wife team. She was however an established artist in her own right with a remarkable pedigree before her marriage to Alfred Powell in 1906.
She was born in London in 1882 into a prominent family of French artists; her grandfather Emile Lessore had trained as a painter in Paris and worked for the Sèvres Porcelain factory before moving to England, first to Mintons and then in 1860 to Josiah Wedgwood & Sons in Stoke-on-Trent as Art Director. Louise’s father Jules Lessore also combined painting with work as a designer at Wedgwood. Both Louise and her younger sister Thérèse studied painting at the Slade and Louise also took classes in calligraphy from Edward Johnston at the LCC Central School of Arts and Crafts alongside Graily Hewitt and Eric Gill. She was also associated with the Royal School of Art Needlework where she became friendly with May Morris. This training was reflected in her early work, illuminated manuscripts and embroideries which were regularly featured in The Studio and other art journals. From 1904 she collaborated with Charles Fairfax Murray and Graily Hewitt on a major project, completing William Morris’s manuscript, The Aeneids of Virgil where her role was to design and execute the elaborate border patterns. Her intricate Christmas card with gilded lettering on an illuminated floral ground was bought by Sydney Cockerell from the 1906 Arts and Crafts Exhibition in London and subsequently given to the Victoria and Albert Museum. She also designed a number of altar-cloths and wall hangings including an altar-cloth for Edward Prior’s Arts and Crafts masterpiece, St Andrew’s Church at Roker, Sunderland worked by her and Frances Channer in 1907. ‘Larkspur’, a Morris & Co. woven silk damask of 1875, provided the ground for her design of flowers and leaves and the combination was much admired by a reviewer in The Art Journal writing: ‘In the work of the loom and the needle, beauty and grace of the living flowers of the earth are translated into fair and happy art.’[i]
In about 1905 Louise Lessore was introduced, probably by William Lethaby the Principal of the Central, to his contemporary and her future husband Alfred Powell, some 17 years Louise’s senior. That year she accompanied Lethaby, his wife and Powell on a visit to Paris and the couple’s engagement was announced shortly after. There was some concern from the Powell family, not least because of the age difference. However Powell was able to reassure his mother of his fiancée’s maturity, writing that following her father’s early death in 1892 Louise had taken on much of the responsibility for her mother and younger sister so despite her relative youth – she was 23 when they married – ‘her head is very screwed on, & as you must have seen she is not an ‘ordinary one’!’[ii] There is no record of any comment from the Lessore family although they could have had justifiable concerns. Apart from the age difference, Powell had trained as an architect but had reached 40 without having settled on a profession or craft to make his own, having tried his hand at watercolour painting, conservation architecture, carpentry, chair-making, wood-block printing and plasterwork.
He was however taking the first tentative steps in becoming a painter of ceramics. In 1902 Wedgwood was struggling financially and the two cousins running the firm, Cecil and Frank Wedgwood, decided to try to inject new life into the firm’s output by employing freelance artists who could produce contemporary designs to rival the popularity of continental wares. Cecil Wedgwood approached Lethaby at the Central for possible names; Alfred Powell was mentioned, his initial designs approved and he began painting simple floral patterns on unglazed Wedgwood pottery. During their engagement Louise accompanied him on a visit to the factory. She was inevitably fascinated by the history of the firm because of her family’s involvement and during that first visit unearthed some of the original pattern books used by Josiah Wedgwood. She was entranced by the colourful border patterns used on creamware dinner and tea services in the 18th century. Although some of these designs were still in use they were transfer-printed rather than hand-painted, lacking the immediacy and vigour of the originals. The Powells persuaded Wedgwood to let them reproduce the hand-painted wares. They were sold through James Powell & Sons Whitefriars Glassworks and they proved a great success.
Both the Powells decorated pottery for Wedgwood working from their studio in Red Lion Square in Bloomsbury, London and from their homes in the south Cotswolds. They were part of the craft community that developed round Ernest Gimson and Ernest and Sidney Barnsley in the south Cotswolds and lived variously in the villages of Oakridge, Tunley and Tarlton. They sometimes collaborated on large pieces but also worked on their own designs. Alfred often included buildings and landscapes in his pieces while Louise’s specialities were plants, flowers and abstract patterns, all showing her great sense of pattern and colour. She was inspired by illuminated manuscripts, Persian textiles, 15th-century Isnik ceramics, and Spanish maiolica as well as her own observations from the natural world.
Painting freehand onto unglazed pottery was a difficult and unforgiving craft. They had to paint quickly and confidently with little or no margin for mistakes. The painted pieces were then carefully packaged in straw and hampers and sent by cart and train to Stoke-on-Trent where they were glazed. The Powells were paid a fixed sum by Wedgwood as designers with an additional percentage if designs were put into production. By the mid-1920s they had over 50 designs in production and were working with a number of pupils including Grace Barnsley, Star Wedgwood and Margery Hindshaw. They had also set up a Handcraft Studio at Wedgwood training young women to paint pottery. Millie Taplin who had joined the studio at 14 ended up in charge and had the knack of simplifying the Powell designs so they could be easily reproduced by less skilled hands.
Their designs were also adapted for painting on furniture. Pieces painted by Louise are displayed at Rodmarton Manor in Gloucestershire, the home of Claud and Margaret Biddulph where the Powells were frequent visitors. They include the family’s Bluthner piano decorated with bands of floral sprays and two massive chests commissioned by Margaret Biddulph in 1927. They were made in chestnut in the workshop of Peter Waals and decorated by Louise with bold and bright chinoiserie designs. Other clients for furniture painted by Louise included George Bernard Shaw and C.H. St John Hornby.
Louise and her husband exhibited their work regularly. They took part in many of the London-based Arts and Crafts exhibitions and for the1916 show Louise organised a room display which included twelve large panels which she and Alfred painted in egg tempera representing an English copse in May: on the ground bracken is pushing new shoots through last year’s leaves, young oak saplings are just coming into leaf and thorn trees are in full blossom. Birds and squirrels inhabit the scene. She reworked this idea a number of times including for a painted six-panel screen at Rodmarton Manor and an embroidered hanging ‘The Whitebeam Tree’ undertaken with Ethel Mairet and Eve Simmonds now at the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester.
The inter-war period was very busy for Louise with many commissions for painted pottery and furniture and the development of designs in conjunction with the Handcraft Studio at Wedgwood. Their only child Catherine showed a youthful talent for music but unfortunately died young. They spent more time in the Cotswolds, where they had many friends including the painter William Rothenstein and the Biddulphs. The outgoing Alfred was particularly popular and his fine singing voice made him a welcome visitor for dinners and house parties. Louise was a much quieter character but she brought together many like-minded craftswomen including her sister Thérèse, Eve Simmonds, Phyllis Barron and Dorothy Larcher. In 1930 she was heralded by the Daily Telegraph as one of the finest living brushwork artists.[iii] The couple continued working through to the 1950s although Louise had increasing problems with her eyesight. She died in 1956 while Alfred survived her till 1960.
- Thérèse Lessore, Madame Lessore, Alfred and Louise Powell, about 1907. Copyright: The Trustees of the Wedgwood Museum.
- Christmas card with gilded lettering on an illuminated floral ground, 1906. Copyright: V&A images.
- Piano at Rodmarton Manor painted by Louise Powell, about 1920.
- Vase, Wedgwood earthenware painted by Louise Powell, about 1930. Private collection.