I wanted to write in detail about Make Pots or Die, in BBC 1’s “Imagine” series, but I have shows to prepare for and can only recommend that you watch it on iPlayer (click the link highlighted) in the few weeks that are left. If you’d like to leave your comments I’ll reply to them later.
The Guardian rubbished the programme, saying that the presenter, Alan Yentob, should have asked him more penetrating questions, but de Waal has so many ideas and expresses them so well that it was enough to follow him with a camera for a year and let him talk as he prepared for his big exhibition at the Gagosian Gallery in New York and moved into a bigger studio.
De Waal has expressed regret that discussion about ceramics is unintellectual. It’s true, there is an anti-intellectual strand in ceramics, an inheritance of the practical attitude of William Morris and the spirituality of Bernard Leach. De Waal himself has been the victim of it because he is a maker and an intellectual and he’s often sneered at by potters who are just downright. His work can’t be understood without knowing its context. The fact is, no art or craft can be understood without knowing its context, De Waal is just frank about it, explaining his ideas, the history of porcelain, his family history and the provenance of the objects about him.
His next project is a book about porcelain, about the meaning of white. His studio is white (and it will stay that way because he works with white clay), and you notice that he dresses only in white, black, grey and navy. When I have time I hope to say more.
Someone took a quick look at my vessels with flat handles (above) and said dismissively, “Colin Pearson”. Colin Pearson did make some wonderful explorations of vessels with wings – one of them is centre stage in the V&A’s ceramics galleries (below, top left) – and he won the Faenza Prize with others in 1975. But this motif is a great deal older than Colin Pearson’s work and it’s been a theme in ceramics for not hundreds but thousands of years.
I’ve mentioned before the Deruta drug jars, c.1500, (below, top right) in the the Wallace Collection. Drug jars, or albarelli, were functional vessels used by apothecaries and alchemists but they gave potters an opportunity for decoration, calligraphy and flights of fancy like wing handles. Wing handles, I have to say, are not very practical but they’re fun and of course they offer a lovely flat surface for painting on.
The most impressive examples of this kind of vessel are the huge jars made by Arab potters in Spain, of which the most famous is the gazelle vase (c.1375) in the Alhambra, Granada, with its iconic broken handle (above, bottom left). The odd thing is that you wouldn’t want the handle repaired. The reconstructions of it with two handles lack its ruined grandeur and look too neat. Its asymmetry plays into my preference for off-centre design. When I make pots with wing handles, the handles never match.
This pot, from Erimi in Cyprus (above, bottom right), a small deep bowl with flattened handles and some remnants of red slip,on display in the Cyprus Museum in Nicosia, is the oldest example I’ve seen. It was made between 3500 and 2800 BC, a bit before Colin Pearson.