Vintage View: Art Deco wall masks

Imagine yourself in the mid 1920s in a smart new, middle-class British suburb. Unless you are some well-heeled visionary aesthete collecting progressive design, your interior décor has a heavy fog of the dull and expected.
Vintage View: Art Deco wall masks

A typical, well behaved dining set comprising a sideboard, dining table with matching caned chairs in faux Elizabethan style — all dark oak, barley twists and knobbley knees, sitting ready for natters over a bare lamb chop.

The good room where you show off your increasing household income, now that you and the husband are working, stages over-stuffed corpses of hefty late Victorian and Edwardian parlour furniture. What light battles through the shrouding nets is suffocated in heavy velvet pelmets and floor length curtains, finally sucked down into a dark Oriental rug.

A second-class carriage clock taps out the hours flanked with inherited Oriental porcelain (made for export, nothing thrilling). You might have gone completely insane to celebrate the end of the Great War, and covered the wing-backed armchairs with Colefax & Fowler shrub roses. Otherwise, all is stifling conventionality that won’t scare your parents, the horses or the neighbours.

The roots of change had arrived a decade earlier, but following the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris in 1925, British and Continental artists, potters, textiles makers, glass houses, and furniture firms began mass producing startling new colours, shapes, and devices as the ‘Art Deco’ took a hold in high society.

However, not everyone in the ’20s and ’30s was a daring Hercules Poirot, turning their houses upside down to this savagely contemporary look. There was more vintage, plain utilitarian, and turn of the century Arts and Crafts styling, than cloud-backed maple chairs or borzoi-topped clocks in a typical semi-D. First-time buyers with modest means needed products that allowed them to dip their toe into the roaring age of jazz without losing a whole leg.

The wall mask of a beautiful woman’s face (and occasionally a hand to the face) was one of a number of ceramics that provided a flash of brazen contemporary colour and glam in the miasma of the plain early 20th-century hall or living-room. Nothing catches our attention like a human portrait, we’re simply hard-wired to look into a face mounted or framed be it a carved African tribal mask or a 18th-century painting.

The mask, an ancient device for transforming and disappearing from everyday life, has a magic all its own. Masks from the Deco era retain this immediacy and drama, and are instantly recognisable as tokens of the age, showcasing new opportunities, attitudes, entertainments, and fashions that were redefining the looks and expectations of an entire generation.

The artists who created the master moulds used to make factory runs, had everything from the shape, ethnicity, and expression of the face, to the styling of the hair, the choice of make-up, plus the addition of a hat, scarf of prop for the divine girl, to play with. Popular interest in celebrity, the silent musicals and comedies of Hollywood, the variety theatre, and the circus were channelled in many masks from the ’20s and ’30s.

Each is highly individual — flirty, enigmatic, surreal, even dangerous, and she will always be finished within bright glazes and be, what was termed in the ’20s ‘delightful’. Curly or waved hair was a popular choice as it added interesting texture. Exotic blue and even luxuriant green tresses, taken from modernist art on the continent, appears regularly. Empty, formless eyes can give some faces a slightly eerie stare.

In affordable masks made between the world wars, look out for English pieces by the Staffordshire potters: JH Cope, Royal Doulton and John Beswick (of Beatrice Potter bunny fame). Prices range from €150-€500. Clarice Cliff also made some very progressive masks in the 1930s with a high degree of stylisation in oriental and starlet styles, which appeals to mask collectors and Bizzare fans; €400 plus.

Royal Doulton masks are rare, but shine with their signature quality for figures and characterful faces. Some English masks had a choice in colour-ways too. The Beswick Marlene Dietrich, very popular with collectors, has a range of beret colours and red or blonde hair; €250-€300. Look for impressed marks on English or French masks or Google and compare to known originals of flat profiles and full face, statue-style masks.

Masks were made right up into the 1960s and honest reproduction and forgery of good pieces began in earnest in the late 1980s. Follow the trail with a collector’s club for the pottery or porcelain makers if you can find them. Chalk masks are relatively common but rarely survive without a chip or two and are not as valuable as fired pieces.

Continental masks offer the significant treasures in their invention and the quality of the sculpting and finish. Individual, bespoke masks are four figure investments. Goldscheider of Vienna are the best known with masks made in multiple pieces and a lot of hand finishing; €450 up. Royal Dux of Bohemia made large elegant cameos in a satin finish with exaggerated features, gorgeous eyes and high couture, which now enjoy an ecstatic following, starting from €300.

Look out for unmarked, well made antique Czech masks. FW Goebel is best known for its saccharine-sweet, child figures beloved of Hitler and made beautiful masks full of intricate work and beautiful shading to the paintwork, again in the €400 plus range.

My personal favourite are the rare and exquisite porcelain works of Sandro Vacchetti and Helen Konig Scavini for Essevi/Leci of Italy, as they just seem to nail the lively expression of a woman at the height of her seductive powers right to the wall.

More in this section

Lunchtime News Wrap

A lunchtime summary of content highlights on the Irish Examiner website. Delivered at 1pm each day.

Sign up
Revoiced
Newsletter

Our Covid-free newsletter brings together some of the best bits from irishexaminer.com, as chosen by our editor, direct to your inbox every Monday.

Sign up