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.