issue 6

Articles & Reviews


Espresso, Exoticism and Earthenware:
The London Coffee Bar Ceramics of the Picassoettes (William Newland, Margaret Hine and Nicholas Vergette) 1952-1966

Matthew Partington



This article charts the birth of the coffee bars in Britain and the design influences upon them. It focuses on the work of three artist potters who made ceramics for a number of the coffee bars and whose work represented a unique meeting of art, design and commerce. Using excerpts from oral history interviews with these artists, and previously unpublished photographs, the author goes beyond the design concerns of the architecture and design journals of the period and looks at how those who worked on the coffee bar interiors operated: how the commissions came about, how the overall design schemes worked and what the finished interiors were meant to do.

Key words: Coffee Bars, ceramics, Picassoettes, William Newland, Margaret Hine, Nicholas Vergette

The Birth of the Coffee Bars

In 1952 a new phenomenon hit London that was to make an enormous impact on the British high street: the coffee bar. To Londoners used to cafés ranging from the 'greasy-spoon' and American style snack bar to the ubiquitous Lyons Corner Houses and Fuller's tea-rooms, the coffee bars were a revelation. By 1960 there were more than 500 in the Greater London area alone.1 Evocative of all corners of the world (apart from Britain), they bore names such as Mocamba, Moka-Ris, La Ronde, El Cubano, Negresco, Il Latino, Sphinx, Aloha and Las Vegas.

In Don Sharp's 1958 film, The Golden Disc , the heroine helps her aunt brighten up her newly acquired and extremely dowdy coffee bar. The old, dark-wooden tables and bar, the net curtains and the bentwood chairs give way to a horse-shoe shaped bar, a juke-box, painted metal chairs, high bar stools, 'mad line drawings' on the walls and striped curtains. Most telling is the ceremonial arrival of the Gaggia espresso machine and the juxtaposition of the old man amongst the modern surroundings and the recently arrived young people.

Just as the owners of the fictitious bar in the Golden Disc are two singers and a retired lady, the proprietors of the real coffee bars had little to do with the catering trade. As Edward Bramah points out in his 1972 book Tea and Coffee , the catering trade rejected the Gaggia machine and those who opened coffee bars included 'a wine merchant, an interior decorator, an antique dealer, a milliner, not to mention furriers, tailors, dentists, sculptors, psychiatrists and film stars'. Bramah's conclusion was that 'Perhaps it was a good thing that caterers had refused to use this machine, for had they done so it might well have been lost amid the conventional and uninteresting decor of an English café'.2 From the beginning the coffee bars represented a new phenomenon: a place that anyone could go to but that had interesting and unusual interiors and consciously aimed at attracting a young clientele.

It was the machine that made the coffee, which spawned the first coffee bars. Invented in Milan in 1946 by Achille Gaggia, the Gaggia espresso machine made coffee with a concentrated flavour that could be diluted with steamed milk to make a cappuccino. Pino Riservato, an Italian dental technician, brought the first espresso machine to London, apparently in response to the poor quality of the coffee on offer in England's cafes. Riservato and Partners Ltd was set up to import Gaggia machines from Milan. However, there were no takers for the first machines, so Riservato opened his own coffee bar in Frith Street, Soho, to show potential buyers what the machine could do in a café setting. The Moka Bar was fairly restrained with lots of formica and a Gaggia machine taking centre stage. Although traditional machines made equally good coffee, Riservato succeeded in making the Gaggia de-rigeur for any aspiring coffee bar proprietor. Despite being stylistically at odds with most of the interiors, the chrome, art-deco Gaggia acted as the focal point and dominant visual element of many of the bars.

As the number of coffee bars grew in central London, the battle began to make each one even more distinctive. Some had juke boxes and attracted young people; others had large menus, attracting diners in the evenings and shoppers and workers during the day; but most had a mixture of coffee, food and music and aimed to appeal to a wide spectrum of Londoners with money to spend. Whilst the Moka Bar only needed the Gaggia to make its mark, the bars that followed them had to try much harder to attract customers. As a result, they began to lose their early restraint and sought to stand out from the crowd.

What set the coffee bars apart from other interior design of the period was the range of styles and influences at work. Edward Bramah describes the El Cubano in Knightsbridge (Fig.1) designed by its proprietor Douglas Fisher:

Not only was there vegetation added to matting, stucco, marble and bamboo, there was an imitation of the parrot house at London Zoo and wild-life was provided to entertain the customers. The coffee was good. The menus were enormous and graded to suit every purse. There were Spanish guitars and air- conditioning and brightly dressed girls to serve the food. Downstairs there was a Roman room, and if there were not exactly orgies, there was certainly an orgy-like atmosphere.3

Fig 1   Horse and rider plate, tin-glazed earthenware, made by Nichaolas Vergette,1952. (Photograph credit: Matthew Partington)

Fig 1   Interior of the El Cubano Coffee Bar, 1954, designed by Douglas Fisher. (Photograph credit: the Design History Research Centre, University of Brighton)

Whilst fairly restrained interiors were designed by the likes of Misha Black, Humphrey Spender and Terence Conran, more still were by less well known designers, such as Fisher, whose aim as proprietor and designer was to entice people in, appeal to popular taste and make money. In a 1955 Architectural Design article, the Piazza Coffee Bar is featured. The walls were covered with large photo-murals of Italian Piazzas and the architects, John and Sylvia Reid, included their own furniture alongside furniture by Arne Jacobsen and ceramics by Rörstrand.4 Despite the much more restrained overall design of the Piazza coffee bar, the accessories, (metal legged chairs, formica-topped tables and Scandinavian ceramics), are indistinguishable from those in the exotic wonderland that was Fisher's El Cubano .

The decorative eclecticism and inconsistency of some of the coffee bar interiors was a strange mix of modernist furniture and accessories, alongside proto post-modernist flourishes. This made it a problematic area for the modernist design establishment to deal with.

The Design Establishment

The interior design of the coffee bars represented the meeting of popular taste and 'official' taste, as defined by the design establishment. The journal articles of the 1950's that I have found relating to the coffee bars are from Architecture and Building , Design , Architectural Design and Architectural Review . The articles concentrate on the exotically named bars of South Kensington and Chelsea. Soho bars such as the famous Two I's , (the home of British rock n' roll), and numerous others with jukeboxes, a coffee machine and less exotic names (such as Sam Widges and the Coffee Pot , were not covered as they only began to appear in 1956, following the birth of rock n'roll. The journal articles ceased to publish substantial articles on the coffee bars after 1955.

The journal articles represent the attitude of the design establishment to the coffee bars. Under the directorship of Gordon Russell, the Council of Industrial Design (responsible for Design journal) saw itself as the arbiter of good taste in design. This meant that a clear distinction was made between popular/commercial taste and the designers' taste as championed by the Council of Industrial Design. As a result the articles give a very narrow view of the coffee bar phenomenon and the images we are left with are mainly from the journals and could easily be used to paint the story from one particular point of view. I have used oral history interviews, magazine articles and unpublished images to present a more balanced view.

This is perhaps best illustrated with reference to a 1955 Picture Post article about the coffee bars.5 Despite essentially being social and commercial spaces, not one of the journal articles include an image of a coffee bar with customers in them. The Picture Post article has several images, all including people, and another that wasn't used, shows people enjoying themselves in the Mocamba . However, the images of the Mocamba used in an article by Paul Reilly in Architecture and Building ,6 concentrate on the décor. Whilst one may not expect a design oriented journal to concentrate on people, it does have the effect of de-contextualising and de-personalising the interiors.

By looking at the hand-crafted ceramics made for coffee bars during the 1950's by a small group of artists we can begin to re-contextualise the interiors and find a more rounded image of the coffee bars than that available in the journal articles.

The Ceramics of the Picassoettes for the Coffee Bars

William Newland, Margaret Hine and Nicholas Vergette worked on ceramic tiles, sculpture and decorative items for a number of coffee bars in central London in the mid-1950s. Known in retrospect as the Picassoettes, (a reference to their stylistic debt to the colourful ceramic sculpture being made by Picasso at this time), these three artists typified a style of work that grew out of the Central School of Art and Design and were renowned for the use of brightly coloured tin-glazed earthenwares (Fig.2). Seen as the antithesis of the Bernard Leach 'school' of Orientally inspired stoneware, the work of these artists quickly went out of fashion and until Tanya Harrod's 1989 article The Forgotten Fifties 7 they were largely overlooked in writing about twentieth century ceramics.

Fig 2   North Wales and Merseyside

Fig 2   Horse and rider plate, tin-glazed earthenware, made by Nicholas Vergette,1952. (Photograph credit: Matthew Partington)

Whilst Bernard Leach looked to the cool simplicity and 'timeless elegance' of Far Eastern ceramics as a source of inspiration; Newland, Hine and Vergette were the post-modernists to Leach's modernism. Fun, irreverent, colorful and ephemeral, their work was perfectly suited to the coffee bar interiors. Their stylistic borrowings ranged from African tribal carvings and Mexican pottery to Picasso, Scandinavian ceramics and Italian maiolica (incidentally, described by Leach in A Potter's Book as 'generally weak, ornate and closely allied to third-rate Renaissance painting'8 .

Kenneth Clark, a friend and colleague of William Newland, described their work in a 1997 interview:

I think they were very influenced by what Picasso had just been doing in Vallauris. So this was the very strong counter element to the Leach tradition... Very much to do with stoneware, muted colours and you know, nobody would dare dream of using colour in stoneware such as a bright blue glaze or a turquoise glaze you know it was all delightful, subtle, muted, rich tenmokus or celadons and that was the ideal. So this was a completely different field, a different approach: still ceramics.9

Audio clip 1 [296kb MP3]

"I think they were very influenced by what Picasso had just been doing in Vallauris...So this was a completely different field, a different approach: still ceramics."

This 'different approach' is clear in the images of Pino Riservato's second coffee bar: the Moka-Ris Experimental Bar (Fig.3). It was the venue for an August 1955 interview in Picture Post , an immensely popular publication during the 1950's. The feature, headlined 'A Red-Head in Search of Black Coffee',10 followed the actress Adrienne Corri,11 touring a number of coffee bars. The Moka-Ris had no particular theme, geographical or otherwise, but was intended by Riservato to be an example, to those wanting to open a coffee bar, of what could be achieved, (provided of course the Gaggia occupied centre stage).

Fig 3  Moka-Ris Experimental Bar, Dean Street, Soho with wall-hung plates by William Newland, Margaret Hine and Nicholas Vergette, (architect, Geoffrey Crockett). (Photograph credit: Nicholas Vergette)

Fig 3  Moka-Ris Experimental Bar, Dean Street, Soho with wall-hung plates by William Newland, Margaret Hine and Nicholas Vergette, (architect, Geoffrey Crockett). (Photograph credit: Nicholas Vergette)

Newland, Hine and Vergette made brightly coloured plates which were decorated with Picassoesque imagery and placed on the wall to diffuse the lights behind them. The Picture Post described the Moka-Ris as 'fantastically decorated' and to readers who were only just beginning to see adverts for Spanish holidays in the small ads, the new coffee bars, inspired by the Mediterranean, Africa and Latin America were a sophisticated and colourful addition to the British high street. The Picture Post , (representative of a populist view of the coffee bars, as opposed to the more esoteric outlook of the design journals), saw the bars as fun places and concentrated on the Gaggia machine, the commercial growth of the bars and the rise of the coffee bar as the place to be seen.

William Newland was interviewed in 1994 and in this excerpt he discusses why their work fitted the coffee bars so well:

Yeah well, coffee bar design. Of course one of the first essentials was it had to be attractive, it had to be jolly, for want of a better word, gay. And fairly large scale and fortunately going back to all the hand-building we'd done and press-moulding it was within our sort of repertoire. And we could do six-foot press-moulded figures, standing, and size was no limitation. Colour, because of our tin-glaze, we had, yeah? ... and design was no problem because we'd been through so-called art school.12

Audio clip 2 [496kb MP3]

"Yeah well, coffee bar design... and design was no problem because we'd been through so-called art school."

As Kenneth Clark put it:

... they did lots of decorative pieces: figures on horses, animals, birds, plaques, plates, all put on the walls round these coffee houses ... they were designing for an interior and they made you a whole lot of plates to go on a particular wall ... I remember one of Bill's donkeys with panniers on them and someone sitting on the donkey. All these things went in almost as entertainment, in to these coffee houses.13

The Picassoettes made Spanish ceramics for a Spanish interior and African ceramics for an African interior. Their primary concern was pleasing the patron who paid their wages and so they fitted their style to the theme they were presented with. The context defined the work, (at a time when most ceramics were not site specific).

The interior of the 1953 Moo Cow Milk Bar is clean, tasteful and modern, (Fig.4). The architect, Geoffrey Crockett, used over 2500 square feet of formica. However, this modernist image of acres of wipe-clean formica is rather shattered by the complete image which reveals an entrance area with a huge multi-coloured tile panel of cows by Vergette, alongside a wall of cubby holes bearing ceramic cows heads by Newland and Hine and lined with real cow-hide, (Fig.5). Whilst milk bars were soon to disappear amidst the onslaught of the coffee bars, the Moo Cow was a good example of what made the coffee bars so different. The milk bars were formal, clean and uncluttered. Coffee bars had individual touches, often reminiscent of foreign holidays; they opened late and they sold coffee, (a much more sophisticated drink than milk). The entrance area of the Moo Cow Milk Bar was meant to entice the visitor in to the traditional milk bar interior, whilst coffee bars sought to make the whole of the interior exciting and welcoming.

Fig 4  Interior of Moo Cow Milk Bar, Victoria Street, London, c.1952, (architect, Geoffrey Crockett). (Photograph credit: Nicholas Vergette)

Fig 4  Interior of Moo Cow Milk Bar, Victoria Street, London, c.1952, (architect, Geoffrey Crockett). (Photograph credit: Nicholas Vergette)


Fig 5   Interior of Moo Cow Milk Bar, Victoria Street, London, c.1952, (architect, Geoffrey Crockett). On the left the entrance area includes thrown earthenware cow heads by William Newland and tiles by Nicholas Vergette. (Photograph credit: Nicholas Vergette)

Fig 5   Interior of Moo Cow Milk Bar, Victoria Street, London, c.1952, (architect, Geoffrey Crockett). On the left the entrance area includes thrown earthenware cow heads by William Newland and tiles by Nicholas Vergette. (Photograph credit: Nicholas Vergette)

Newland was a member of the Studio Club in Soho and said that his membership led to commissions from the Kaye brothers, (businessmen who owned a number of coffee bars):

... because we were at the Studio Club and because we were doing Italian tin-glaze as it were, the architect walked down and said you must come and do the first, you know come and work on the coffee bar with these Italianate sort of designs. Which we did, and there were two Jewish brothers who financed the thing called, not Kray, Kaye, and they started building one every two to three months and it was marvelous: very, very lucrative...14

Audio clip 3 [628kb MP3]

"because we were at the Studio Club... it was marvelous: very, very lucrative."

Like the milliners, furriers and film stars who were also starting coffee bars, the Kayes were new to the business and as a result they didn't go to a recognised designer and ask for what had gone before. They wanted something that would stand out. Interviewed in 1965 for Malcolm Newell's book, Mood and Atmosphere in Restaurants , Philip Kaye described a 'ghastly eight foot high ceramic mask' by William Newland in the 'window of the Edgware Road branch [of the Golden Egg restaurant]: people stopped to look: they were horrified, they were mystified, but it intrigued them and they went in to the restaurant'.15 Uninterested in discreet design, the Kaye's wanted to attract attention. The Picassoettes were making ceramics that made people stop and stare: the very antithesis of the understated Leach ideal, but exactly what the coffee bar owners wanted.

Newland explained the rather informal nature of the commissioning process:

Well, the normal way we were commissioned was that if we had to do a job we'd take along drawings and meet the patron, the Kayes, and the architect and show them our drawing and the main thing of course, we were always paid but of course you looked after the guy who was going to pay you: if he approved it was alright and of course the architects were so hungry for bloody work that if the patron wanted something, they agreed too. So we more or less had a free, absolutely free hand. And we did some really crazy ones you know, and got away with it ...16

Audio clip 4 [408kb MP3]

"...Well, the normal way we were commissioned... crazy ones you know, and got away with it..."

Having built up a reputation for making brightly coloured sculptural ceramics, they were in the right place at the right time to decorate coffee bar interiors. Not being part of the ceramic establishment and eager to make a living, they were happy to make objects to fit a patron's scheme. They were not making art for galleries or private clients: they were to decorate coffee bars, enhance the overall design scheme and give a hand-made quality to the surroundings. As Newland said, 'we did some really crazy ones ... and got away with it. ' 17


The work of Newland, Hine and Vergette was very much 'of it's time' and as a result it quickly went out of fashion. In this way the work of the Picassoettes echoed the end of the coffee bar phenomenon. Although many of the bars survived throughout the fifties and well in to the sixties, the majority did not. Whilst many simply ceased trading as the custom could not support the ever increasing number of bars, many became cafes and restaurants, concentrating on serving food. Running a restaurant, whilst having higher overheads, had a greatly increased revenue per customer and as a result it was easier to make a living.

Very little survives of the ceramics made by the Picassoettes for the coffee bars. Newland, Hine and Vergette are no longer with us: we are left with interviews with Bill Newland which include discussions of the 1950s. It is only with these oral history interviews that we gain some depth of understanding of the day to day mechanics of the coffee bar interiors, allowing us to go beyond the rather dry, de-personalised approach of the journal article.

The ceramics were defined by their context: they were made to decorate a design scheme and liven up interiors and when those interiors ceased to entice enough customers through the door, they closed. Perhaps it is fitting that these ceramics, which were so of their time and so site specific, should have gone when the coffee bars went: victims of the very commercial imperative that led to their creation.


1 Edward Bramah. Tea and Coffee: A Modern View of Three Hundred Years of Tradition, London, Hutchinson, 1972, p.70.

2 Bramah, Tea and Coffee, p.72.

3 Ibid.

4 'Three Restaurants', Architectural Design , December 1955, p.391.

5 P. Graham. Picture Post , 21 August 1954, pp.38-39.

6 Paul Reilly and Helen Low. 'London Coffee Bars', Architecture and Building , March 1955, pp.83-95.

7 Tanya Harrod. 'The Forgotten Fifties', Crafts , no.98, 1989, pp.30-33.

8 Bernard Leach. A Potter's Book , London, Faber and Faber, 1957, p.120.

9 NEVAC (National Electronic and Video Archive of the Crafts), interview with Kenneth Clark, MD 171, 00:35:17.

10 Graham, Picture Post , pp.38-39.

11 Adrienne Corri (1933 - ) was a Scottish actress promoting her latest film, Make me an Offer. The article includes two photos of her and one of customers in the Moulin Rouge coffee bar. The fact that Adrienne was a Glaswegian was not mentioned as perhaps it was not conducive to the rendering of the exotic tone desired by the writer.

12 NEVAC, AC118side1, (00:35:00 onwards), audio recording of William Newland, 1994.

13 NEVAC, interview with Kenneth Clark, MD 171, 00:35:17.

14 NEVAC, William Newland, AC118 (side 1), 00:31:37 onwards.

15 Malcolm Newell. Mood and Atmosphere in Restaurants , London, Barrie and Rockliff, 1965, p.34.

16 NEVAC, William Newland, AC118 (side 1), 00:31:37 onwards.

17 NEVAC, AC118side1, (00:31:37 onwards), audio recording of William Newland, 1994.

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Espresso, Exoticism and Earthenware • Issue 6