It’s not an idea we hear much about today, when postmodern art has evolved into something very different from painting and sculpture and when the crafts themselves have become more akin to fine arts than boots. Many people, familiar with easel painting and even enthusiastic about 20th century modernism, are simply bewildered by postmodernism. There’s no unity of the arts and there probably never was. The arts, or things called “art”, are members of a large family, within which some distant relations have nothing in common with one another, e.g. Mark Wallinger’s Sleeper (top), a pair of boots by Lobb (above) and Alma-Tadema’s Roses of Heliogabalus (below).
I went to the open day at Nunhead cemetery a couple of weeks ago. Nunhead is one of the Magnificent Seven, the grand 19th century London cemeteries built by private companies and patronised during the heyday of top-hatted, Victorian funerary monuments, now neglected, overgrown, and perfect for film sets.
There was nothing funereal about Nunhead on 16 May, a sunny day and good for family outings among the tombstones and ivy. There was an array of stalls run by local societies (top left) and plenty of tea and cake. Typical of London, which in the election the previous week had shown itself to be one of the most left-wing parts of Britain, there were many radical campaigning groups in evidence and in the ruins of the old chapel I found a socialist choir, Strawberry Thieves (bottom left). On their red tee-shirts you may be able to see a motif from William Morris’s Strawberry Thief textile, illustrated at the top of this post.
Morris was a romantic socialist. Although in his fighting years in the 1880s he declared himself a Marxist, socialism in those days tended to be vague and lifestyle. There were more big ideas and Merrie England entertainments than actual policies. When Morris was asked why he didn’t run Morris & Co. on socialist lines, he said it would be pointless before the Revolution. His utopia, in which marriage and crime were unknown, was called Nowhere.
Morris still has descendants on the left, energetic in their opposition to the Conservative government but outside the political mainstream. They call themselves things like Strawberry Thieves and the News from Nowhere Club, small lights in a bad, dark world
I bought a pottery wheel and several other items from an old potter who is retiring, and among them were these slate throwers’ ribs from Minton’s, the factory where he used to work.
Throwers, who form pots on a rapidly spinning wheel, use these ribs to impart shape and a smooth surface to them. In Stoke-on-Trent the thrower was mainly concerned with the inside shape, and the usual practice was to take the pot when it was firm enough to handle and to impart the outside shape on a lathe.
In Hanley Museum there’s a picture of a thrower, George Myatt, at work at Lockett’s in 1932, with his wife as his assistant, and on the wall behind him there’s a large collection of throwing ribs (below).
In the 1970s Myatt was interviewed by Dr Gordon W.Elliott, who asked him to explain what a rib was.
G.M. The rib is a piece of slate, school slates were always the best, made to represent the inside of the article. They were filed exactly to shape the inside of the article, and the thrower held the rib in his left hand and made it smooth inside. The thrower finished the inside of the article, and the turner shaped the outside. The rib made it that the inside was finished.
G.W.E. Did you make your own ribs?
G.M. Yes, we all made our own ribs because ribs are like pens. It’s very rare that you can use another man’s ribs, very rare.
G.W.E. Is this why so many were inscribed with the thrower’s, or at least, maker’s name?
G.M. Yes, you will find some of mine and some that I left at Wedgwood that have got my name on them.
G.W.E. Was this so that other people wouldn’t take them?
G.M. It was just that you liked to think that if you had a good rib you’d put your name on it. There was one glorious rib that I had at Lockett’s. It was one of very few ribs that I could use straight away, and it had been made by a man name Jess Amison. On the back of it said “William so and so, born so and so, died so and so. He was a good and generous master.”
G.W.E. So you actually used that rib for your throwing at Wedgwood’s?
G.M. I did and it’s at Wedgwood’s now. I wish I’d never left it there.
G.W.E. So what was the usual number of ribs for a thrower to have?
G.M. You had a rib for everything you made. I’d got hundreds. You’ll find that at the back of that picture there’s a wall of ’em. You’d got everything egg cups, vases, mortars, every mortal thing that you made, you had a rib for it.
G.W.E. Were the slate ribs preferred to ribs in pottery? I mention this because some that I have seen were actually made from fragments of plates.
G.M. That was before they had any kind of refined slate. They’d even make them from roofing tiles at one time. I had quite a few of those made of earthenware. Yes, quite a lot in the early 19th century were made of earthenware. They were plates that had been trimmed off and made perfect. You had to soak them before they could be used otherwise they stuck to the clay as it went round.
My Minton ribs date from the 1930s, the same date as George Myatt’s picture, and they give me a physical connection to the old throwers of Stoke-on-Trent. Two of them have the thrower’s name on them: S. Lawley. One – the second from the left in my top picture – formed chocolate cups for Tiffany’s of New York. To me it looks like an outside profile, not an inside one – in my picture it’s upside down in relation to the cup (left) so that you can see S. Lawley’s name on it.
Minton’s were one of the old pottery firms that went through mergers before winding up and disappearing completely. They had a grand history and produced top-class work over a long period. After the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, they recruited Louis Solon from Sevres, who was responsible for some of their finest work.
By the 1930s much pottery in Stoke-on-Trent was cast in moulds, but throwers were still employed. In this film from 1935 about the making of silver jubilee mugs, a thrower starts the process by forming a rough pot on the wheel. It’s then dropped into a mould and shaped in a jolleying machine. In this case, the thrower doesn’t have to work precisely but he has to work at speed. He has a helper who forms the ball of clay for him and lifts the pot off the wheel; he centres the clay, opens it out, pulls it up and cuts it off, all in seven seconds. That’s 480 cups an hour – over 3,000 a day if he can keep it up that long.
Stoke-on-Trent throwers were faster and better than studio potters. As a child, I was fascinated by the BBC TV interval film of the potter’s wheel, which may have sparked my interest in pottery, but looking at it again recently I realised that the potter, George Aubertin of the Compton Potter’s Art Guild, was actually a rather bad thrower. More recently, at the exhibition Anarchy and Beauty: William Morris and his Legacy, I saw a film of Bernard Leach throwing and was surprised to see how slow he was, although a bit of a show off. Leach’s best pupil, Michael Cardew, also appears in this film to be slow and laboured.
The Stoke-on-Trent throwers and the studio potters had little to do with one another. In the 1970s George Myatt was completely unaware of studio pottery. His comment on the decline of his trade was, “Today I think there’s only about four or five throwers in England.” Actually, there were hundreds, but he could run rings round them all.
Paul Atterbury and Maureen Batkin, The Dictionary of Mintons, ACC Art Books, 1999
Gordon Elliott, Potters, Leek: Chernet Valley Books, 2004
Fiona MacCarthy, Anarchy & Beauty: William Morris and his Legacy, London: National Portrait Gallery, 2014_______________________________________________
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A small argument has broken out on Wikipedia about whether a photo of a soup bowl can be included. The bowl (left) was part of the St Ives Pottery’s range of standard wares, introduced in the 1940s by Bernard Leach and his son David to provide an income stream for the pottery. Making standard ware was how generations of potters learned their trade in the much-coveted Leach pottery apprenticeships.
Someone said that the photo was a breach of copyright and that it had to be removed from Wikipedia. Like all artists, I’m concerned to protect my intellectual property, but I don’t know much about copyright law, and the law as it applies here is complex.
The Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 (section 62) says that an artist has copyright in a work of “artistic craftsmanship”. Such work can’t be copied and a photo of it taken without the artist’s consent is a breach of copyright. An exemption is made for works of artistic craftsmanship displayed in public places. But the pot in this this photo is in the photographer’s private collection, and, odd as it may seem, that means that section 62 doesn’t apply.
There’s another exemption for “fair dealing” where copying is done for the purposes of private study, non-commercial research, criticism, review or comment on current events. Whether this covers Wikipedia or not is a question I leave to the copyright lawyers, but Wikipedia errs on the side of caution and removes anything doubtful.
A more interesting question, however, is whether the bowl is a work of artistic craftsmanship. These bowls were made in huge quantities – over the years thousands of identical bowls were produced. It’s an example of mass production by hand in which the distinction between “craft” and “manufacture” becomes blurred. In the Wikipedia debate, someone said it was “limited repeat production by hand” rather than mass production, i.e. that work made by hand cannot be mass production, which only machines can do. That’s a distinction without a difference. Almost nothing is made by hand without tools and there’s no meaningful difference between tools and machines. Delft tile makers, who worked without machines, are estimated to have made eight hundred million tiles in two hundred years. What is that if not mass production?
Craft is a slippery concept and is virtually impossible to define. David Pye, the most trenchant writer on the subject, said that craft is sometimes defined in a way that makes it impossible to tell by looking whether a product is the work of a craftsman or not. The way it was defined was inconsistent and contradictory: items that were not works of craftsmanship said to be
- Imprecise, or
- Precise, or
- Unskilful, or
- Made to someone else’s design, or
- Made by power-driven tools, or
- Producing a series of perhaps more than six things of the same design, or
- Not made by the same person from start to finish.
The law protects intellectual property in artistic crafts, but not in crafts as such – so not a thatched roof, for example. In artistic craftsmanship there has to be
- A conscious intention to produce a work of art
- A real artistic or aesthetic quality
- A sufficient degree of craftsmanship and artistry (existing simultaneously)
Considering that Bernard Leach had such an ambivalent attitude to fine art and that he adhered to Yanagi Soetsu’s ideology of the Unknown Craftsman, it’s arguable that there was no intention to produce a work of art in the making of a thousand identical soup bowls. This bowl, made by an Unknown Apprentice, is just a bowl and anyone can take a photo of it.