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By Laura Büllesbach on

From cigarette cases to Tutankhamun’s Tomb: John Jesse’s Art Deco Plastics Collection

In 1977, the Science Museum Group acquired a large collection of decorative plastics from the London art dealer John Jesse. In this blog, Assistant Curator Laura Büllesbach explores the extraordinary story of his life and a colourful selection of objects ranging from lamps to ocean liner brooches.

In 1963, a stall opened in Portobello Road antiques market which was different to all those around it. At the time, only artifacts made before Queen Victoria’s coronation in 1838 were allowed to be described as antiques.

Everything Victorian was seen as inferior, Edwardian pieces were classed as second-hand goods and items younger than that not even worth considering!

John Jesse however had an interest in the unusual. His stall was filled with jewellery, lamps, vases, and jugs in a style called Art Nouveau, from a period spanning from 1885 to the beginning of the First World War in 1914. He was the first art dealer in Great Britain to specialise in the style.

Born in 1936, John Jesse grew up in London, surrounded by his mother’s artistic friends, even living in the same building as painter Francis Bacon.

Having served in the military and worked for the War Office, he aspired to become an artist and attended art school. However, an avid collector of stamps, shells, beer mats, and gemstones as a child, he soon discovered that he was more interested in hunting for precious merchandise than in producing it.

When Jesse opened his first stall, it was viewed with contempt and his stock was considered odd and tasteless.

In his autobiography ‘A Fridge for a Picasso’, he even described an encounter with a shopper hissing,’how dare you lower the tone of Portobello Road!’ But it wasn’t long before his stock sparked interest and Jesse became hugely successful as the only seller of Art Nouveau in London.

He extended his business and opened a shop in Kensington Church Street in 1964, which he shared with his wife Sally Fleetwood, a designer. Until its closure in 2006, the shop attracted visitors from across the world including Monica Vitti and Rudolf Nureyev, Andy Warhol, Paul McCartney – even Brad Pitt.

Mirror pendant of ivory cellulose nitrate, lid decorated with moulded head of a woman in the Art Nouveau style, 1900 – 1914

Art Nouveau as an international style of art was a reaction to the Industrial Revolution, its factories, and deteriorating living conditions for workers in cities.

Seeking inspiration from nature, some of its main characteristics were delicate ornaments like bird wings, flowers, and creeping ivy, as well as asymmetrical lines.

Gradually, the public’s fascination for the style grew and more dealers took to selling it.

For John Jesse, who enjoyed the unconventional, this meant that he needed to branch out and begin to look for something even more neglected and curious.

The time period he chose was one that didn’t even have a name yet: the 1920s and 1930s. Once again, Jesse was one of the first traders who took a serious interest, so much so that he became one of the main figures that influenced its name-giving!

The era’s official name was made popular through art historian Bevis Hillier. Hillier had visited Jesse’s shop for research purposes, and Jesse had shared the term he and his fellow art dealers used to describe “Jazz Age” decorative arts: Art Deco, derived from the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes held in Paris in 1925.

Mother of pearl celluloid cigarette case

The exposition marked the beginning of the dominance of plastics in retail goods as designs made of Bakelite, celluloid, and casein began to imitate and replace those made of exotic woods, mother of pearl, and ivory.

Art Deco was a stark contrast to its predecessor Art Nouveau: it embraced the social and technological progress of the 1920s with its new machines, advances in engineering, and novel materials.

With a spike in mass production, designers for the first time considered the style and form of every-day products.  Fashionable interior design, jewellery, and decorative items like these mother of pearl celluloid cigarette cases became available to a broader public.

The large quantities of plastics sold – and thrown away – didn’t make them a particularly desired material among art dealers.

It was exactly this commonness, however, that made Jesse believe that they would one day become a valuable rarity; he mined Art Deco for its richness in obscurity by focusing on this underestimated material.

He displayed his objects, which beautifully illustrate the themes common in Art Deco, during an exhibition at the Adelaide Festival in Australia in 1976: the world’s first large show of decorative plastics.

A year later, the Science Museum acquired the entire collection.

Lamp of pearlised celluloid, designed by Bonaz, c. 1930

Unlike Art Nouveau, Art Deco is characterised by sleek, linear, and geometric forms such as triangles and chevron patterns, that are often disrupted by ornamental figures, fountains, and sun rays. This is evident in this French lamp by Bonaz, or this geometric photo frame.

One major development of the 1920s and 1930s was the expansion of the travel industry, promising people glamour and escape.

Art Deco gave a boost to this glamourisation by making the industry, as well as the new modes of transportation facilitating it, the subject of travel posters and other designs.

A popular motif was ocean liners, particularly the French SS Normandie, which took wealthy Americans to the alluring shops of Paris.

The ocean liners glittering interiors were not only equipped with Art Deco furnishings, they themselves also appeared in furnishings and fashion, such as this brooch.

Brooch in form of the French liner Normandie

Intersecting with the period’s fascination for the mechanised world was a tendency to romanticise the ancient world and foreign cultures.

Through the rise of the travel industry, global influences came into the public eye and led to art styles from Mesoamerica, Africa and Asia being incorporated into Art Deco.

Of special public interest were the archaeological discoveries of the 1920s, such as the opening of Tutankhamun’s tombs in 1922. It prompted an appetite for Egyptian imagery, reflected in this casein pendant resembling a papyrus flower.

Green casein in form of papyrus flower, 1920s.

With the onset of the Second World War, Art Deco slowly fell out of fashion. Pursuing luxury and glamour, its decadence conflicted with the austerity the war brought.

It was only in the 1980s that interest in the art style began to boom, turning it into a popular and nostalgically remembered era.

John Jesse, as always ahead of his time, had by then of course already moved on to pastures new. Filling the window of his shop were new obscure treasures.