BLUE AND WHITE CERAMICS AND THE MYTH OF THE PEASANT POTTER

I’m about to go to Italy, where I’ll be visiting the International Museum of Ceramics in Faenza, which claims to have the largest collection of ceramics in the world.  I’ve never been there before and it will be fascinating to compare it to the ceramics gallery of the V&A, which I know well.

After writing my post on cobalt blue, I realized that I’d omitted to mention Nigel Wood’s work on blue-and-white ceramics, of which he is making a special study, researching the uses of cobalt ores throughout history in the fine and applied arts.  He describes Chinese blue and white ceramics as the most influential ceramics in the world and says that it’s hard to find any country that doesn’t have blue and white ceramics from China.

In one of his lectures he observed that a single piece of blue and white pottery in China may have passed through 80 hands in the workshop.  I find this fact interesting in the context of the influence of the Arts and Crafts philosophy on British studio pottery, which I’ve been writing about.  Coming via Japan with Bernard Leach and Hamada Shoji, that philosophy led early studio potters to say that all processes should be carried out by one craftsman, or at least in a small team with as little division of labour as possible.  That ethic rested on the myth that before the industrial revolution artisans worked in this way, but that was unlikely, except in domestic workshops where goods were made for the maker’s own household.  For the early studio potters, the myth was reinforced by the practice of the few remaining English country potters, men like Fishley Holland, George Curtis and Isaac Button.  But when he was filmed in the 1960s, Button was working for a disappearing local market and he no longer employed any assistants.

The myth of the peasant potter (an odd term, because artisans are not peasants) led to the devaluation of work that was not made by one person, however good it was.  William de Morgan (above), the supreme ceramist of the Arts and Craft Movement, who stands head and shoulders above every other art potter of the period, was thus demeaned because he made designs that other people painted, on blanks that had been bought from Stoke on Trent.  If de Morgan had been a potter and not a designer, we would not have his glorious lustre pottery, we would have had something else instead, and the world of ceramics would be more uniform and less beautiful.

The myth also leads to a devaluation of art and a selective reading of the so-called peasant potters. Edwin Beer Fishley, celebrated by Bernard Leach as “the last of the peasant potters”, made made elaborate pieces, including imitations of Attic vases, that revealed knowledge of western art, and he was a reader of art magazine; and Isaac Button, the country potter immortalised in Robert Fournier’s film, with his flat cap and overalls, also like to go the the opera with Fournier; but this has been edited out of the studio potters’ narrative. There are many such selections in the reading of craft. George Sturt’s The Wheelwright’s Shop, a key text in the myth of craft, shows the wheelwrights working intuitively, but they told Sturt what he wanted to hear and they used more measurements, plans and science than they admitted.  Ruskin’s doctrine of savageness, which is the origin of the doctrine of rough finish in modern craft, simply dismissed the fine finish that many pre-industrial craftsmen like Thomas Chippendale strove to achieve.

Jeffrey Jones, Studio Pottery in Britain 1900-2005
George Sturt, The Wheelwright’s Shop
Christopher Frayling, On Craftmanship
John Ruskin, The Nature of Gothic
David Pye, The Nature and Art of Workmanship
Glenn Adamson, The Invention of Craft 

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One thought on “BLUE AND WHITE CERAMICS AND THE MYTH OF THE PEASANT POTTER

  1. I think there should be room for both ( i.e. I am sitting on the fence).. I thought of the Chinese idea that grinding the inkstone allows the user to gather their thoughts for the brushstrokes to come, or Cennini with his instructions for preparing tools, pigments and surfaces, and surely Cellini had assistants to help throw the metal for his sculpture into the pot. And now we have Ai Wei's ceramic cowrie shells at the Tate. Lots of food for thought here. Enjoy Faenza.

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