A comment often made by 20th century studio potters is that they embarked upon their craft without any books to guide them. George Cox’s “Pottery for Artists, Craftsmen and teachers” (1914) and Dora Billington’s “The Art of the Potter” (1937) are singled out as exceptions.
Cox, who trained with Richard Lunn at the Royal College of Art, came from an Arts and Crafts background and his medievalising approach to the craft can be seen from his frontispiece (above). The book’s usefulness was limited by his indifference to science: “To the artist craftsman, for whom chiefly this book is intended, a little scientific knowledge is a dangerous thing; for that reason no great stress is laid on formulas and analysis. Unless thoroughly understood they are a hindrance rather than an aid.”
Billington’s book, in Oxford University Press’s Little Craft Books series, combined historical and practical information and is the most well-known of the early guides. Fred Burridge said in the preface, “The revival of the crafts is one of the most marked elements in the present social and economic development of this country. Increasing numbers of people are practising them with success and there are admirable text-books for the worker. Hitherto, however, nothing has been written that, in simple form, will help the public to knowledge and understanding of the crafts in which their interest is awakened. The Little Crafts Books are published as a response to this interest.”
There were, however, earlier manuals that studio potters could have made use of. Many served the amateur pottery painting craze of the 1870s, 80s and 90s, but others, particularly those published after 1900, gave a good grounding in pottery making technique and they show that the secrecy commonly supposed to surround potters’ recipes and practices was not universal.
Two books known to Billington and to Dora Lunn, another pottery pioneer, were Charles Binns’s “The Manual of Practical Potting” (1901) and Taxile Doat’s “Grand Feu Ceramics” (1905). Binns was British; Doat, at one time employed at Sèvres, was an innovator in high temperature art wares. Both moved to the USA where their careers flourished. Binns has a claim to share with Bernard Leach the title “Father of Studio Pottery”.
Under Binns’s influence there was a major change in art pottery.He wrote: “Certain occupations or so-called crafts have offered easy paths to the unlearned and in consequence, the country has been flooded by the product.” These occupations consisted in copying, and among them he listed china painting, but there was now a feeling that one should create. “This feeling has caused china-painting to give place to pottery-making. The former consisted in buying finished china and painting upon it with ready prepared colors using, probably, some published design or drawing. Some of the work done under these conditions was, and is, good, even excellent … The fact remains that the bulk of the work was copying of the poorest quality. … But the best of these are now looking toward clay as a creative and expressive medium. In ready-made china there is bound to be some deficiency. The artist is by nature exacting and this purchased piece does not entirely please. It cannot be altered, however, and it is this or nothing. Thus the artistic instinct is violated, the standard lowered and one feels like a caged bird beating its ineffectual wings against prison bars. When, however, the attempt is made to work in the clay itself, liberty is found.”
Similar changes were occurring in Britain under the influence of W. B. Dalton, principal of Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts and a potter of considerable talent, and Richard Lunn, who taught at Camberwell as well as the RCA.
The extent of the pottery-painting craze can be judged from the increase in the number of manuals and guides published in the 1870s and 1880s: 5 between 1850 and 1869, 29 between 1870 and 1889, 12 between 1890 and 1909 and 7 between 1910 and 1929. My list may not be comprehensive, but the trend is unmistakable. It was between 1910 and 1929 that studio pottery emerged in Britain (although were parallel movements in France and the USA that we insular Brits tend to overlook), and so it is understandable that the pioneers felt they were in a new land without maps. The manuals published after 1900 tended to be more about clay and less about painting than those of the 1870s and 1880s. I have found 7 manuals from the 1930s, where my survey ends.In 1940 Bernard Leach published “A Potter’s Book”, a revolution in craft pottery, based on Japanese and English country pottery rather than Stoke-on-Trent and the drawing room. Leach inspired a generation of potters, amateur and professional, and in the 1960s, 70s and 80s the number of pottery manuals increased again, most in the Leach tradition, and more books were published than ever before.