I don’t normally make tiles, but I produced a few for my talk and demonstration at the Buckinghamshire Pottery and Sculpture Society last week – the idea was to have a square on which I could show how different techniques of decorating work. On this tile, I quickly applied a few dashes of wax emulsion mixed with blue stain, then painted stripes of yellow and dark blue over them to give an idea of the texture they produced. The effect is actually different from what I’ve done on my pots before, illustrating the fact that sometimes you can get good results under pressure and without due consideration. I may make a few tiles like this in the future.
In China, so I’ve been told, you can buy Imperial Sung Dynasty ceramics on market stalls for a few pounds. Although they’re not authentic, they’re indistinguishable from the real thing. The Chinese attitude to authorship and authenticity is based on respect for past masters and the belief that you can never do better than them. Chinese “faking” is the reverse of plagiarism, such humility that you pretend your work was done by somebody else.
The Royal Academy exhibition of Ai Weiwei raises questions about credit, authorship and execution. There’s the photo of him dropping a Han dynasty vase, there are ancient vases crudely covered in house paint and Han vases ground to powder and put in jars. What is more valuable, the antique or its re-working by a great modern artist? Ai Weiwei is puzzled about why art is so valuable, but it’s no more a mystery than why, during the tulip craze, a single bulb could sell for hundreds of guilders. The art market is created by authenticity and value attaches to the author. (I wrote about this in my post about Rothko’s vandalized picture.) There’s a circular process in which someone who does good work is so feted that everything they do becomes good.
Charles Saatchi has been accused of thus inflating the value of artists to create a market for his collection. He replies that the value of artworks is what people pay for them. But aren’t there hidden geniuses who couldn’t get that sort of money? No, says Saatchi, genius is in such short supply that it’s impossible to hide it.
Another question about authorship is raised by Ai’s work Straight (pictured), an installation of straightened steel reinforcement rods that were collected from the Sichuan earthquake in which 69,000 people were killed, including 5,000 schoolchildren. Ai has exposed the official cover-up of the names of the victims and the corruption that produced flimsy buildings. Next to Straight is a film showing how he bought 90 tonnes of twisted bar from the earthquake site and how his team of workers laboriously straightened every piece in his factory studio.
Ai’s productivity is epic both in scale and quantity, but I want to see the names of the assistants who toil in his factory as well as those of the dead children. There was once a time when no film goer had heard of a Foley operator – now films credit the names of the last accountant and assistant hairdresser. I don’t mind Ai’s fame, but let’s have credit for all the people who make it possible.
I was at the Royal College of Art (RCA) last night for the first screening of this film about R.J. “Bob”Washington, an original and trail-blazing ceramist.
In the senior common room of the RCA were a penetrating self-portrait of William Rothenstein, the reforming principal in the 1920s, a man who knew absolutely everybody and got the best artists to teach at the college; and Russell Spear’s portrait of Robin Darwin, the post-war principal, who, in this picture, looked more like the managing director of ICI.
I knew about Bob Washington, but didn’t really get to know his work until I started researching one of his teachers, Dora Billington. Bob studied ceramics under William Staite Murray at the RCA in the 1930s, and, as Bob says in the film, Murray was an inspiration but a useless teacher, so he went to Billington’s evening classes at the Central School of Arts and Crafts. Amazingly, in Bob’s archive there are his lecture notes on Billington’s chemistry lectures, a unique insight into the way she taught then, which I saw due to the kindness of Bob’s widow, Su Lupasco Washington.
When I visited Su, she showed me her large collection of Bob’s work. He worked most of his life as a teacher and as an HMI for art education in Essex, but unlike many teachers, who subsume their careers in those of their students, Bob had a long and active retirement in which he returned to ceramics and did some of his best work.
What really appealed to me was his effective marriage of form and surface decoration, a hard thing to do, at which only the best ceramists succeed. His vessel forms are human, but he showed people that if you lay them on their side they also have the contours of landscape. In his later work, which he did in his seventies and eighties, there is more colour – often brilliant colour! And, as he insisted that he was an artist who happened to be a potter, he moved away from the vessel to plates and then to rectangular ceramic pictures. Clay wasn’t a fetish, and he mixed many materials in his work, like ceramic fibre, which made his objects lighter.
In the film (which includes a lot of archive material shot on VHS before his death in 1997), Bob talks about going to the Crafts Centre in Covent Garden, to be told that his work was fine art, and then to the Redfern Gallery in Bond Street to be told that it was craft. In the end he just did what he wanted and didn’t care about being pigeonholed.
There’s a reasonable selection of Bob’s work on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum, but this maverick artist deserves to be better known and more widely exhibited. The film will be posted on Vimeo in due course, and when it is I’ll add the link.
A bad workman always blames his tools – but good work is impossible without the right tools. As you continue in your work, you become attached to certain things, and some, I have found, make possible a huge leap forward. Here are ten.
Sod’s Law says that anything that can go wrong will go wrong, but there’s also Sod’s Second Law: before you can do anything you have to do something else. Preparation is essential, and without well-prepared clay it’s hard to make anything well – and the clay has to be mixed and kneaded. Doing it by hand is pretty back-breaking, and my most useful tool is a Rohde pug mill. It’s German and designed from first principles, unlike the Staffordshire pug mills, which have remained unchanged for God knows how long and are grossly inferior.
Made of brass or aluminium, these will check the shape and smooth the side of pots on the wheel. The traditional profile was used to check the inside of a vessel by throwers of Stoke on Trent, after which the turner would place it on a horizontal lathe for trimming. You can still see this method of working in the Wedgwood factory in Barlaston, Staffs. I have made several, but I particularly like one made by Kevin Millward, which is very versatile.
3. TURNING TOOL
Flat, shallow vessels have to have their bases trimmed by running a sharp tool over them. There are several shapes and sizes, but this one does just about everything, with its sharp point to shape up the most uneven parts, its flat side for dealing with larger areas and its round back. It needs to be kept sharp, so I’m grateful for my…
4. GRINDING WHEEL
Amazingly cheap and effective, it puts a good edge on tools, cleans up the knackered blades of old screwdrivers, will sharpen a pencil when I can’t find a knife.
6. TEST KILN
For testing glazes and colours between firings in the big kiln. I bought it from a school, which, typically, had stopped teaching pottery. It takes as long to heat up as the big kiln but it cools in twelve hours instead of thirty-six because the walls are thinner. Occasionally a customer wants just one mug in a pattern I don’t have in stock – good for that too.
These little ones, bought for a fiver, hold rigid, are accurate and good for checking the width of foot rings when turning. Unfortunately made of mild steel, so they rust.
8. GAUGE POST
A rigid gauge-post is essential for throwing regular shapes. The pointer is set at the top level of your pot; you can have more if you want to measure different diameters elsewhere. I bought one with heavy base and a rubber pointer, both absolutely useless because they move, which defeats the object, so I’ve completely re-engineered it. I got rid of the base and replaced the steel rod with a brass one, which is bolted firmly to the back of my wheel, and I replaced the flexible pointer with a wooden one.
9. POWER DRIVER
Things are always being assembled and disassembled in my studio, and for speed of working a power driver can’t be matched.
10. PLASTIC SHEETING
What did we do before plastic sheeting? Used wet sacking. I’m old enough to remember it – it was horrible. To prevent assembled pots from cracking (because different parts are drying at different rates) they’re wrapped until “equalised” (i.e., the parts have a similar amount of moisture in them and are all drying at the same rate). If you ever wondered if plastic sheeting really is biodegradable, I can tell you it is. After about ten years, my biodegradable black bin liners are beginning to fall apart.
You may have noticed that I didn’t include a wheel or my big kiln. Although I use one, a wheel isn’t necessary for ceramics, there are several other ways of making. Big kiln, yes; but it’s little things like the grinding wheel and the power driver that give me the most pleasure.
In recent years the Leach Pottery in St. Ives, Cornwall, has been run by a trust as a museum and a workshop for potters, and they have revived the idea of standard ware, which was the backbone and the daily bread of Bernard Leach’s pottery after the second world war. A stream of apprentices and trainees went through the Leach pottery, latterly cutting their teeth on standard ware.
In the early 1970s I was living in Cornwall, struggling to set up my own pottery in the unromantic town of Camborne, part of the Cornwall That Nobody Knows, one of the inland working towns that offer little to tourists. The main industry of Camborne wasn’t fishing, farming or tin mining, but the manufacturing of compressed air machinery at Holman’s.
Naturally, I looked in at the Leach Pottery, but I never met Bernard Leach because causal visitors weren’t allowed further than the showroom. There I picked up the catalogue of standard ware, which shows what they made then. They charged for the catalogue, their main marketing tool, a bizarre decision indicative of how uncommerical Leach was. I bought a couple of bowls (No. 8, 52 pence each) and an ashtray (No. 5, 22 pence). They were practical and hardwearing, though rough and unsuitable for polished tables. I gave up smoking years ago but I still have the ashtray.
BBC TV’s new series The Great Pottery Throw Down is a surprise, taking the successful formula of Bakeoff to the difficult and dirty art of ceramics. The first episode looked good. The judges are two experienced potters, Kate Malone, who makes large, juicy vessels in bright colours, and Keith Brymer Jones, who has applied the methods of studio pottery to long runs of kitchen ware. The host is DJ Sara Cox.
We started with the familiar formula of with ten contestants of varied character and background, all keen amateur potters, given challenging tasks in a limited time with a lot of chivvying from the host and judges. Here they are: James, Jane, Jim, Joanna, Matthew, Nigel, Rekha, Sally-Jo, Sandra and Tom.
First they had to throw a group of bowls that fitted into one another. That requires not only judgement of size but also keen observation of the bowl’s profile. The slightest variation in curve gives a bowl a different character, and the hard thing is not making a bowl but making a consistent series. Nevertheless, they made a good fist of it. TV time is a lot shorter than clay time and the bowls had to dry far too quickly – no wonder so many cracked.
Then they had to pull a load of handles and put them on a group of mugs. Cue innuendo about stroking a wet clay sausage. (That reminded me of an adecdote Alan Caiger-Smith told me about his teacher Dora Billington. One of his fellow students, who used to drink a lot at lunch time, was standing at the back of the afternoon class sniggering as the prim Miss Billington showed them how to make a handle by pulling the clay sausage. Miss Billington looked up and snapped, “Yes, Mr Bolt, it is phallic. Now stop sniggering and pay attention!”) The large number of fat wonky handles showed that this is harder than throwing a bowl.Then to finish, throw 20 eggcups off a 5kg lump of clay in 20 minutes. Phew!
The fired pots were glazed and decorated with colours. Matthew stuck stubbornly to his brown country pottery aesthetic and was ticked off by Kate and Keith. I’m glad that decorating is part of Throw Down because it’s been neglected by many studio potters.
The winner in Week 1 was Tom, a competent and confident maker. Sally-Jo, an interior designer, didn’t have quite Tom’s craft skills but had a nice colour sense and a soft, free decorating style.
The money shot of reality shows is the first contestant to cry. Stick a camera in my face when I’m making something difficult and shout, “Come on, only thirty seconds!” and I’d cry. But the first tears came not from a pottery tyro but from big, chunky Judge Brymer Jones, who was moved by Jane’s efforts. Clay? Weeping for joy? Excellent marketing for potters!
Galleries tell me that pottery vessels are out of fashion and that people are buying pottery animals and glassware. Some say the recession has cut the sales of small items but that big ticket paintings still sell. University courses are closing, fewer and fewer state schools teach pottery and materials-based art is unfashionable. But there are more potters than ever before, and some find it hard to make a living. In that context you may wonder if encouraging more people to be potters is a good idea. But if this show does for pottery what Bakeoff did for cakes, it will be valuable as well as entertaining. Buyers of craft are more likely than non-buyers to know about art and are more likely to be interested in the ideas and skills behind craft objects. Increasing knowledge of ceramics and how it’s made (even with Carry On jokes about pulling handles) is bound to widen the market for pottery and to be good for potters. _______________________________________________
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