Gilbert Harding Green was head of ceramics at the Central School of Arts and Crafts between 1955 and 1971. After the war, Dora Billington had built the ceramics department, with Harding Green’s assistance, into the most innovative and liberal in the country. At that time the Royal College of Art was teaching design for the pottery industry, Farnham was very traditional and Camberwell was undistinguished. At the Central there was cross fertilization between disciplines and pottery students could work with Eduardo Poalozzi, William Turnbull or Alan Davie. Paolozzi was based in the textiles department, where Terence Conran was studying. The Central was one of the first art schools to teach Basic Design, a generic and analytic approach to both painting and design, derived from the Bauhaus course, that eventually shaped the foundation course in British art schools.
Harding Green took over the department on Billington’s retirement and developed it – “beyond recognition” was her approving verdict. He expanded into the school’s new building, and, post-Coldstream, steered the course into the Diploma in Art and Design. His students included Ruth Duckworth, John Colbeck, Robin Welch, Eileen Nisbet, Richard Slee, Alison Britton and Andrew Lord.
Gilbert Harding Green with a student in the early 1960s.
(Central Saint Martins Museum Collection)
Billington and Harding Green subsumed their artistic careers in teaching, Harding Green the moreso. Harding Green’s origins were exotic. Born in 1906, he was the illegitimate offspring of aristocratic parents, his mother English and his father Dutch or Russian according to differing accounts. Most of his childhood and youth were spent abroad, much of it in Italy. He told one of his students that, while living in the Vatican, he wandered into a room and looked idly into a chest of drawers, which he discovered to be full of marble penises. In his twenties he traveled in Brazil and learned Portuguese. He studied sculpture under John Skeaping and Frank Dobson at the Central School in the 1930s and turned to pottery. Of the little work by him that still exists, most is totally original and does not derive from any obvious ceramic tradition. In 1938 he became Billington’s assistant, beating off competition from Henry Hammond, who went on to head the pottery department at Farnham, and Moira Forsyth, who is now better known for her stained glass.
I recently saw this sculpted head in clay by Harding Green, which he exhibited at the Royal Academy with the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society in 1938. A review of the exhibition said “It held me by its stark truth and brute ugliness – the hard smileless mouth, the hollow cheeks and buried eyes, the repaired nose, the punched ears, and the imbecilic slope of the forehead, and these inelegant features were mercilessly gripped with economy of effort and absolute certainty.” The subject was far removed from the artist’s life. He was a man of wide culture and elegant taste who would attend the ceramics classes in the Central School in a suit, tie and cufflinks, always ready to advise students on a good restaurant or to give away complimentary theatre tickets that he had managed to get hold of.