We don’t know about his schooling or early education but it is recorded (although not verified for lack of records) that he was employed at the De Morgan pottery in Chelsea before its closure in 1881. Certainly, his work (both metalwork and ceramic) shows a number of similarities – thematically and stylistically, with Do Morgan ceramic pieces.
De Morgan designs are, however, (to my mind) much stiffer and serious than those of John Pearson which show a mischievous imagination
An article in the Studio magazine in 1897 records that, before the founding of the Guild of Handicraft in 1888, Charles Ashbee, in his peregrinations in the East End, came upon Pearson who had one time been employed in De Morgan’s tile works. He was ‘broken down in health and out of regular employment’ but had learnt to imitate De Morgan’s tiles in copper (having examined repousse metalwork of the Middle Ages in the British Museum).
There is some evidence that he learnt metalwork with the assistance of the social reformers, Henrietta and Samuel Barnett, who were active in Whitechapel at this time. A John Pearson charger dated 23 December 1912 appeared for sale at Bonhams in July 2007 (the charger carries two John Pearson stamps). An inscription on the back records that this was a gift made by John Pearson for Dame Henrietta and Samuel Barnett whom they ‘discovered’ 30 years ago working as a Pickford’s van boy and whose ‘art power’ they had trained.
The Bartletts were responsible for founding Toynbee Hall in 1884, the idea of which, in essence, was that the middle classes would live in a settlement among the poor where they would become involved in social and educational work, including evening classes. A ‘top-hatty philanthropy’ as Ashbee put it.
Ashbee was closely involved with Toynbee Hall before setting up the Guild. Indeed it has been said that some, perhaps all, of the founding members of the Guild were drawn from Ashbee’s class at Toynbee Hall. (Certainly, the early years of the School and Guild of Handicraft are inextricably linked with Toynbee Hall. It was at Toynbee Hall, on 23 June 1888, that the School and Guild was formally opened.)
When the Guild of Handicraft started, John Pearson was the preeminent metalworker. At the Arts and Crafts Exhibition, of 16 pieces of repousse metalwork, John Williams produced 16 and John Williams only one (Crawford, p.314).It has been suggested in fact that John Williams had had no training at all – in which case John Pearson must have trained him (for their relationship see the blog entry on John Pearson and John Williams).
According to Crawford, in his book on Ashbee, in 1889 the Guild become less reliant on Pearson for copper work.
He cites as evidence of this that, in the Arts and Crafts Exhibition in 1889, Ashbee contributed 8 items compared to 23 by Pearson whereas, in 1888, nearly all had come from Pearson. Personally, I am not sure how much store we can put in this. This was only the second exhibition of the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society and so it may be difficult to draw firm conclusions.
It seems that, in 1889, John Pearson and John Williams were collaborating in producing pieces. In November 1990, Christies sold a large 62cm brass charger with a tree of life design and bearing the “etched mark designer JPearson, workers JP & J Williams 1889″.
In 1890, John Pearson was almost expelled from the Guild of Handicraft for supplying Morris and others outside the Guild and also employing two other metalworkers to help him (Crawford, C.R. Ashbee, p.315, citing the minutes from the Guild of Handicraft).
Certainly, there are a number of pieces produced in 1890, which are fully signed and dated and also in some cases have pattern numbers. Crawford suggests that, possibly as a result of this tension, in 1890, Pearson seems to have withdrawn from metalwork at the Guild, contributing only 6 items to the Arts and Crafts Exhibition.
Alan Crawford, in his book on Ashbee, says that, by 1891, Pearson’s characteristic style had become independent of him, by which I think he means that others had managed to copy his style and method effectively (He does not seem to like Pearson much, referring to him later as a ‘plodding craftsman’). As evidence for this, however, he refers to a biscuit box given by Ashbee’s mother to her daughter Frances in February 1891 in the Pearson style which seems, in fact, to have been executed by John Williams. The style of the box, however, with a rope twist border and flower decoration is remininscent of the box on this page, also dated 1891, and clearly signed by Pearson.
It appears that Pearson was keen to promote his own craftsmanship and ‘brand’. The Guild did not normally identify which particular craftsman had made its pieces, but Pearson did not respect this. The Pearson box shown here is is signed ‘John Pearson’ and dated ‘1891’.
In Crawford’s book on Ashbee, there is a picture of John Pearson, with other members of the Guild of Handicraft, in 1892 – a bearded, slightly sullen figure, at the back of a group photograph. In August that year, he left (as, indeed, did John Williams). It seems likely that he made his way to Newlyn in the same year. The Studio Magazine of 1896 records that John Pearson came down from Whitechapel to teach the teachers of Newylyn, but does not provide a date. According to Harry Lyons, in his article on Pearson, he went straight from London to Newlyn in 1892. Pearson’s involvement at the Newlyn Industrial School is well documented. The School was actually formed in 1890 and it is recorded that Pearson ‘taught the teachers his method’, notably beating the copper on lead.
John Pearson continued to produce metalwork in his own name, as shown by signed pieces dated 1893.
It also seems that, at this time, he started experimenting with some silver pieces. The first silver plate/charger I have seen is dated 1893 and shows marked stylistic similarities with fine copper chargers dated 1894.
The question how long John Pearson stayed at Newlyn is unresolved, although it seems he was back in London in 1894. It seems likely that he was still at Newlyn in 1893 – bearing in mind that he only left the Guild of Handicraft in August 1892 and presumably needed a certain amount of time to ‘train the teachers’ in Newlyn. My suspicion is that he did not stay long.
In 1894, John Pearson registered the JP lozenge mark for silver in London (having experimented in silver the year before). According to the book by Daryl Bennett and Colin Pill, John Pearson was recorded as being resident in London at this time. Given that, stylistically, the Newlyn tradition of metalwork is quite different from Pearson’s individual style, it seems likely that the connection was short-lived and that, by 1894, Pearson had already returned to London – and that he stayed there for the rest of his career.
1895 was a good year for John Pearson, by which I mean that all the pieces I have seen of this date are very good in detail and design.
It seems very likely (in my view) that Pearson was in London at this time and not in Newlyn, as some have thought. As has been pointed out by others, his style has few similarities with the Newlyn metalwork style, even though he used similar motifs. Newlyn fish, for example, are typically naturalistic whereas Pearson’s creatures are generally weird and wonderful, characterful and individualistic.
As further support for the suggestion that John Pearson was back in London by 1896, is this trophy for the Bethnal Green Swimming Association in 1896. The trophy here appears to be in the form of charger inset into a stand, with laurel wreaths and characteristic foliage and characterful, individualised fish is different – a typical Pearson touch.
There are other snippets of information we can glean about his life in the late 1890s and early 20th century. He is is recorded in the 1901 census as living at 20 Hanway Street St Pancras as a widower. We know also that he continued producing pieces until at least the First World War (for example the charger for the Bartletts in December 1912), and possibly longer.