FREDDIE’S RESTAURANT HELPS PUT renaissance: ST ALBANS ON THE MAP

Last night I went to Freddie’s restaurant to help raise funds for renaissance: ST ALBANS, the arts initiative I mentioned in my last blog post. St Albans council and the museums trust want to convert the old town hall into a museum and gallery space and make it a major visitor destination.

The fundraiser was Freddie’s idea – he’s left in the picture above – and he deserves thanks for it. Councillor Annie Brewster (centre) is the project champion, and brings to it energy and enthusiasm. She’s just given Freddie a copy of the new city map. The fundraising target is £1.75 million.  That’s not a lot for a prosperous place like St Albans, and one of the project team told me he was confident that we could hit it and start building next year.

renaissance: ST ALBANS – A NEW GALLERY AND MUSEUM FOR THE CITY


St Albans, where I live, is a historic city popular with tourists. It has Ancient British, Roman and Saxon foundations. It has a rich musical life, ranging from the International Organ Festival to acoustic performers in local pubs – in fact it seems that nearly every pub has a music night.

But the visual arts are not so well served. For many years we’ve had an art gallery run by the University of Hertfordshire; the Verulamium Museum presents our Roman heritage; and the St Albans City Museum has a range of locally themed events.

Now the local council and the St Albans Museums Museums and Galleries Trust have a bold plan to turn the grand Palladian town hall, the focal point of the city, into a combined museums and arts venue. They call the project renaissance: St Albans.

I’m up for it.

We deserve a venue like this and so do our visitors. You can get to St Albans from central London in half an hour, and he who is bored with London often likes to spend a relaxed day here.

Our old town hall is Grade II Listed but it’s shabby, under-used and needs investment. The project will cost £7.75 million. It’s received lottery money and will submit its Round 2 application to the Heritage Lottery Fund in August. Subject to funding, work will start next year and the museum and gallery (left) is expected to open in late 2017.

I’m putting in my two penn’orth. On Monday I’m going to the fundraising dinner at Freddie’s Restaurant: June 29 @ 6:30 pm – 10:00 pm. There’s still time to book. Contact Verulamium Museum 01727 751810 for details.

NEW WORK AT "ART IN CLAY"

Marshall Colman ceramics 2015

Here straight from the kiln are three vases that I’ll be exhibiting at Art in Clay, Hatfield, from 3-5 July. Full details here. They are a selection of three of my current patterns: Parrot, Blue Arabesque, and Harlequin.  I’ll be showing vases, jugs, mugs and covered jars in these patterns.  More pictures soon – I have more glazing and decorating to do and two kilns to fire before Hatfield.

For pottery geeks, my pottery is tin-glazed earthenware. The clay is one part red terracotta to three parts white earthenware, which fires to a warm pink. Bisque firing is to 1085 deg.C and glaze firing to 1060 deg.C.  This reverses the usual method in studio pottery, which is to fire bisque at a lower temperature than glaze, and is like the method used in industry. It suits me for two reasons: I glaze with tongs and they mark soft bisque; and it ensures a good glaze fit without crazing. My glaze is a lead borosilicate tin glaze, based on a recipe from my teacher Daphne Carnegy. After many years of experimentation, my firing cycle is fast to 700 deg. then 50 deg. an hour to maturity. I fire in an electric kiln with a computerized controller, but I check with cones (above left) because a pyrometer gives only a rough approximation of what’s happening and there can be a significant difference in heat between the top and bottom of my large kiln. There’s always a lot of fiddling with controls and vents at the end of the firing to make sure everything is perfect. (Of course, it never is, but that’s what you have to aim for.) The colours are a mix of metal oxides and prepared ceramic stains. These are the colours I’ve used on these three vases:

  • red – high temperature red
  • yellow – Naples yellow + lemon yellow
  • blue – cobalt + copper oxides
  • turquoise – copper oxide + turquoise
  • black – cobalt + manganese oxides.

CERAMICS IN STORE

Every museum and art gallery has dozens of pieces of work in store, and some have most of their collection tucked away, but curators are always pleased to bring them out for anyone seriously interested. Last week I went with the Craft Potters Association to Buckinghamshire County Council’s store of studio pottery in Halton, where Mel Czapski, the collections officer for art and ceramics, introduced us to their collection.

On the table you can see, at the top, a large lustre bowl by Sutton Taylor being admired by one of our party, and, following clockwise, a stoneware jar by Michael Cardew, an oblong dish by Ray Finch, an oval dish by William Newland, in the centre and out of focus a white vessel by Ruth Duckworth, a black jar by Delan Cookson and a conical bowl with painted decoration  by Staite Murray. The county council have listed and illustrated the entire collection of over 300 pieces here.

The collection is difficult to find, in the middle of RAF Halton, a huge military camp, in an anonymous old school building unhelpfully labelled “Resource Centre”. It wasn’t until I was inside and warmly welcomed by Mel that I knew I was in the right place.

The collection dates from the 1960s when then curator, Christopher Gowing, decided to buy current studio pottery for display and for circulation to schools. In those days a bowl by Lucie Rie could be picked up for £3. An older member of our party said he was only earning £6 a week then – but a Rie pot now would cost £3,000. In the post-war decades it was common for local authorities to buy pottery to send round schools. The most active were the West Riding of Yorkshire, Leicestershire and Hertfordshire. Pottery was a particularly tactile art form that children could relate to directly and without prejudice or fear, and it was part of the school curriculum. At the London Institute of Education, where William Newland worked, all art teachers had to do pottery. Newland said that in the fifties and sixties he had a thousand students who wanted to pot. No longer, and it’s not much taught in schools either. So the county collections now have a different function, as a resource for specialists and pottery aficionados.

School pottery has been squeezed by the national curriculum, cost cutting, health-and-safety and lack of knowledge among teachers. The decline of school pottery is part of a general trend away from materials-based teaching and it’s consistent with the elevation of concept over material in the visual arts generally – which perhaps can’t even be called “visual” any more. But these collections remain in out of the way places for anyone who wants to see them, with curators who know about them and who are enthusiastic about ceramics.

NELL VYSE, POTTER AND COMMUNIST

This picture came up on e-Bay recently, from the London Illustrated News, May 1922, a reproduction of a painting by W.R.S.Stott. The caption reads, “The revival of the potter’s art: at the kiln. The principal “Revivalist” in the picture – which the artist names “The Revivalists” – is Mr. Charles Vyse, the well-known potter.  He is seen at work beside his kiln on his pottery figures, which were shown at the Collector’s Gallery in Sloane Street.  Mr. Stott’s picture was exhibited in last year’s Royal Academy.” The tall, aristocratic-looking woman on the right is Nell Vyse.

Charles Vyse (1882– 1971) was an early studio potter who made a good living with his wife Nell Vyse (1892-1967) in the 1920s and 1930s, producing the sort of figurines shown in this picture and illustrated left, but they also had a very different line of work making innovative pottery in the Sung Chinese style. The Vyses lived in Chelsea, neighbours of W.R.S.Stott and of George Eumorphopolos, an important collector of Chinese ceramics and a formative influence on British studio pottery. Stott’s picture is reproduced in colour in Terence Cartlidge’s book on the Vyses.

When this picture was painted, pottery figurines were very popular and were made as much by art potters as by factories. Figurative ceramists like the Vyses, Gwendoline Parnell, Stella Crofts and Wilfrid Norton exhibited with Leach, Staite Murray and Cardew into the 1930s, although by the outbreak of war figurative pottery had gone out of fashion.

Charles remained an artist all his life, but Nell Vyse had a more extraordinary career. She joined the Communist Party in 1934. Her marriage to Charles ended after a political argument and she subsequently formed a relationship with leading Communist Joe Bent and moved to Southwark, south London, where she became a tenants’ and pensioners’ leader and stood as a Communist candidate for the local council. As she lived until 1967, she is still within living memory, but her political career, both as Suffragette and Communist, is barely documented. Typical of women artists, she is usually appended to accounts of her husband and her contribution is obscured, despite the fact that her knowledge of glazes  was indispensable to the pottery.

A fascinating gap in ceramic history, but a career that falls into two different halves like this also raises the question, “How is Nell Vyse to be regarded, as an artist or a political agitator?” In histories of pottery her political career is generally shrugged off and she is too local to figure in political histories. Unlike William Morris or Diego de Rivera, who were artists and political activists simultaneously, Nell Vyse seems to have entirely given up art for politics, perhaps because she thought art trivial, and by the early 1960s she was presenting herself in TV interviews (pictured) merely as “pensioner Mrs Nell Vyse”. A full account of her has to treat her artistic and political lives equally seriously. _______________________________________________
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QUALITY CONTROL: 10 CONTEMPORARY POTTERS

Here’s something quite random and personal: ten contemporary potters that I like. Although I have a practical interest in painted pottery, not all of them decorate their work, and although I work in earthenware, most of them work in stoneware or porcelain. Their work is different but it’s united (apart from the fact that they’re British) by elegance, refined finish, mastery of their medium and rigorous quality control.

From left to right, top to bottom they are:

James and Tilla Waters | Sue Paraskeva

Chris Keenan | Daphne Carnegy

Walter Keeler | Bridget Drakeford

Laurence McGowan | Tony Laverick

Sara Moorhouse | Andrea Walsh