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.