|Dora Billington, a photo taken for The Art of the Potter, 1937|
Dora Billington (1890-1968) was one of the most important British studio potters of the 20th century, but she is better known for the people she taught than for her own work. Among her students were Alan Caiger-Smith, William Newland, Margaret Hine, Kenneth Clark, Ann Wynne-Reeves, Gordon Baldwin, Quentin Bell, Katherine Pleydell-Bouverie, Stella Crofts, Ursula Mommens, Ray Finch, Ruth Duckworth and Valentinos Charalambous.
Julian Stair observed, “History has not been kind to Dora Billington. Her strength lay in the diversity of her contribution to studio pottery. But it was perhaps seen as a weakness that her creative output as a potter and designer, author and critic, as President of the Arts and Crafts Society and as a teacher is difficult to categorise.”
Dora Billington was born in Stoke-on-Trent, studied at Hanley School of Art and worked for the art potter Bernard Moore. She trained at the Royal College of Art. In 1919, she started teaching at the Central School of Arts and Crafts, where she built up the pottery department, retiring in 1955. She did not share the hostility to factory-made pottery fostered by other studio potters. “Because I grew up with industry,” she said,”I have the feeling that pottery, whether mass-produced or studio pottery, is one thing.”
|Ginger jar, decorated by Dora Billington for Bernard Moore, 1910-1912|
She decorated this ginger jar (above) for Bernard Moore. She said that the work his studio was limited in outlook but that his decorators had to be able to paint a pot rapidly, “which meant using the brush quickly; and such a training in the rapid use of the brush was was invaluable.” This piece shows assurance and maturity in an artist in her early twenties, and her painted decoration was always good. Moore was famous for his flambé glazes, and like William de Morgan before him did much research into glazes. Of her time in Moore’s studio she said, “There I got my first insight into studio pottery, and for that experience I have always been grateful to Bernard Moore.”
At the Royal College of Art she was placed in the design school under W.R.Lethaby (1857-1931), a major figure in the later Arts and Crafts movement. She studied embroidery under Grace Christie (c.1872-1953), a great art embroiderer of equal importance to May Morris, and lettering under Edward Johnston (1872-1944), who, despite his famous type design for London Transport, remained an Arts and Crafts calligrapher. She then specialised in pottery, which was taught by Richard Lunn (1840-1915), who taught casting in moulds and surface decoration. His course at the RCA was the first in a British art school where students could carry out all the processes of making, drying, firing biscuit, decorating, glazing and firing glazed ware.
Billington was an accomplished needlewoman and her needlework is every bit as good as her pottery – possibly even better. The first work she exhibited at the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society in 1916, the year she graduated from the RCA, was embroidery which she showed alongside Mrs Christie.
|“The Park”, Dora Billington, c.1914.
Illustration from Samplers and Stitches by Grace Christie
She made this embroidery “The Park” (above) as student piece. She treasured it and on her death in 1968 left it to her friend and colleague Gilbert Harding Green (“HG”). The photo comes from Mrs Christie’s book Samplers and Stitches (c. 1920). Her use of Billington’s sampler in her encyclopedic guide, and the fact that she invited Billington to exhibit with her at the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society, shows how highly Mrs Christie regarded this talented student.
So what became of “The Park”? It is lost. HG died thirty years ago and the inheritor of his estate has also died. I tracked down one of HG’s friends and asked if he knew where “The Park” was? He said he recognized it from the photograph but had no idea what had become of it. It is unlikely that anyone connected with HG would have thrown away such a beautiful piece of work, so it may be languishing in an attic somewhere.
|“A Woman of Fasion, 1914”, sampler by Dora Billington. (Private collection)|
Billington kept interested in textiles all her life and made this sampler (above) for fun. It is nicely designed, with due consideration for form, colour and the traditional vocabulary of embroidery stiches. It demonstrates a variety of motifs, almost as a demonstration piece for students, but to my knowledge she never taught textiles. There are witty and personal touches such as the picture of her house and the address, 13 Uxbridge Road, Kingston on Thames. The “Woman of Fashion 1914” in the centre gives focus to the design but it is curious. Why did she choose the fashion of 1914 in a sampler done in the 1930s? It was the year war broke out, the year she started studying under Lethaby, the year she embroidered “The Park”. It’s hard to know if it signifies anything as her life is so poorly documented.
|Costermonger, needlework by Frances Richards|
The traditional style of the sampler points up a paradox in Billington’s personality: she is well-known for encouraging innovation in ceramics and going against the prevailing orthodoxy but there is little innovation in her own work. She respected innovation in needlework and in 1955 wrote an appreciative article on “Contemporary Needlework Pictures” in The Studio, reviewing work by Constance Howard, Frances Richards (above), Margaret Trehearne and Jean Stubbings. With characteristic openness she observed, “Some people appear to be slightly uneasy about embroidered pictures. ‘I like them , but I am not sure that I ought to,’ is a remark not infrequently heard, and which springs from the feeling that textiles, and stitching, should always be applied to something practical – a cope, a dress, or a seat chair, but not a picture. The same critics probably also feel that every pot should have a practical use, and their point of view cannot be lightly dismissed; but may we not, occasionally, take pleasure in things that are completely and unashamedly nonpractrical – provided, of course, that they justify their existence for other reasons.”
Billington taught pottery at the RCA after Richard Lunn’s death in 1915 and gradually made changes in the course, introducing throwing on the wheel (which Lunn could not do) and installing a high-temperature kiln. When William Rothenstein arrived as Principal in 1920, one of his first tasks was to persuade the government to fund Billington’s ambitious expansion plans. In 1919 she began her long association with the Central School of Arts and Crafts, where she taught until about 1960.
Billington was an assiduous student, and, even while employed as a teacher at the RCA and the Central she was taking drawing lessons at the Slade under Henry Tonks. Tonks was an autocrat whose method of drawing, strictly enforced, was to represent form by light, graded shading, exemplified in the early work of gifted students like Stanley Spencer. The discipline of the Slade could not but have benefited Billington, but the Slade method was inapplicable to ceramic decoration. She used a calligraphic line perfectly suited to the medium, and if any of her teachers influenced her in this direction it was Edward Johnston rather than Tonks.
|Tin glaze decoration by Dora Billington. (Private collection)|
Her decoration on tin glaze is good, some of it including elegant lettering. On this charming maiolica plate (above), the drawing of the cockerel is lively and convincing. The lettering is remarkable and reveals her debt to Johnston very clearly. It demonstrates the potential she had to establish herself as an artist, which she subsumed almost completely in her teaching, enabling other people to shine where she might have done herself.
|Enamel overglaze decoration by Dora Billington. (V&A Museum, London)|
There are several pieces of pottery in the Victoria and Albert Museum that she decorated in overglaze enamels (above), where she is arguably the equal of famous decorators like Susie Cooper and Jessie Tait.
In 1925 Rothenstein appointed William Staite Murray as head of pottery at the RCA. Staite Murray asked Bernard Leach to help him out with teaching techniques he wasn’t familiar with and Leach, living in Cornwall, said he would prefer to have the job for several months a year. Staite Murray said there was no money for two teachers and that he personally couldn’t afford to vacate his post for Leach for part of the year. Misunderstanding ensued and relations soured. The contretemps has come to be known as “The London Affair”.
Dora Billington was a third party in the London Affair. She had been pottery instructor at the RCA until Staite Murray’s appointment and left before he took up his post. By that time she had been teaching at the RCA for ten years. Why did she leave?
Billington explained it many years later: “When Professor Rothenstein became Principal of the College, he felt that the junior staff should not stay beyond a certain number of years, and we were all informed that we should not be kept on.” That is not really convincing. Rothenstein became principal in 1920 and Billington remained for another five years. Her RCA course won an award at the Paris Expo of 1925. She was 35, not exactly “junior”.
Rothenstein had been brought in to to make major changes and to build up the College’s reputation, which was in the doldrums. He raised the status of painting in the College and brought in practicing artists of high standing who would teach part-time while they continued their own creative work. Staite Murray was an ideal candidate. He was the most famous potter in Britain, eight years older than Billington and far better at promoting himself. I suspect that Rothenstein sacked Billington but put a diplomatic gloss on it.
Billington was a much better teacher than Staite Murray but Rothenstein wanted professional artists and not professional teachers. Staite Murray said that he “taught by not teaching”. His aim was not to instruct but to “create an atmosphere”. He may have created an atmosphere but he was seldom in it and many of his students received no instruction at all and some did not see him for weeks on end. When Robert Baker took over ceramics at the RCA after the war he found a locked room full of equipment that had been put there to stop students using it. Many had to take evening classes at the Central with Billington to learn how to actually make and glaze pots.
After the Second World War, during which ceramic decoration in factories had been banned in order to conserve resources, there was a hunger for cheerful things, and Billington encouraged surface decoration in her class at the Central School of Arts and Crafts, especially on tin glaze. Alan Caiger-Smith, who became the pre-eminent exponent of tin glaze in Britain, took evening classes under Billington. William Newland, Margaret Hine and Nicholas Vergette, variously students, teachers and technicians at the Central, also worked in tin glaze, making modeled figures, one-off pieces and panels and displays for the new coffee bars. She championed their work, calling it “The New Look in British Pottery”. She considered that it was “more in tune with current ideas in house decorations and design generally.”
In The Technique of Pottery she mentioned tin glaze only to give technical information, but in The Art of the Potter, which is a historical survey, she had more to say: “The decoration of early Italian maiolica clearly shows its eastern origins, but by the fifteenth century all foreign influence had disappeared. Once the technique became familiar, flat, abstract patterns no longer satisfied and the decoration became entirely Italian, three dimensional and pictorial. In fact, the maiolica painter attempted the same pictorial subjects as were used for wall decorations. The potter was rarely, if ever, the painter, and in time there was a tendency to regard pottery shapes, especially dishes, merely as grounds for elaborate pictures.” But what did she think of that sort of pottery? She was invariably dispassionate and objective and was reluctant to intrude her views.
In her notes for a series of lectures on the history of pottery at the Central there are intimate touches that you don’t find in The Art of the Potter. I particularly like the introduction to her lecture on Italian maiolica, in which she acknowledged the low esteem in which which it was held:
“Tonight we are going to consider the wares of Italy, mostly tin glazed and all highly decorated, and you are probably already feeling bored. ‘Those elaborately painted dishes; those pictures on plates! Could anything be more awful.’ They are just about as far from contemporary taste as anything could be. Potters no more want to emulate an Urbino dish than do painters wish to produce a Tintoretto. Let us at least be honest and admit that we certainly couldn’t if we would. To quote Mr. Arthur Lane in another context, ‘Us in our decrepitude they mock.’”
She was thinking not only of the taste of potters but also of taste in interior design, which she kept abreast of. She wrote about contemporary Scandinavian tableware and contemporary embroidery as well as contemporary studio pottery and furnished her house in a contemporary style.
But who was Dora Billington? There are no papers, diaries or archives. There are a few letters but they’re professional and impersonal. Her books were like that too. She was a woman of firm opinions but she put nothing of herself into her writing. She’s typical of many women artists, important in their time but leaving no trace.
|HG, Catherine Brock and Dora Billington, c.1940|
The first clue I got to her personal life was from a niece, who asked me “Do you know about her friend?” Her friend was Catherine Brock, also an artist, with whom she lived from 1912, when she came to London on a scholarship to the RCA, until Brock’s death in 1944. Brock left everything to her. In the holiday snap above, taken in about 1940, Brock is in the centre and the cheerful, confident-looking man on the left is HG. There’s a fourth person, the one who took the snap; I’ll come to him in a minute.
When Billington met HG in the late thirties her family were relieved that she’d found a man friend at last; but HG was gay and the person behind the camera above must have been his partner. That year, HG, his friend, Billington and Catherine Brock went on holiday together, probably posing as two heterosexual couples for the sake of respectability. HG and Billington took many holidays together – she died in 1968 shortly after returning from a holiday with him in Sorrento. In the end, her relationship with HG confused her family because they didn’t know quite what it was.
Billington converted to Roman Catholicism early in life, perhaps in the slipstream of the Catholic literary revival. Her work in the 1920s included a stained glass of St Joan and a mosaic of St Catherine of Siena, and, although the saints are revered by Protestants as well, her interest in them is significant. Joan of Arc, a famously powerful woman, had recently been canonized, and Catherine is an obvious namesake of Catherine Brock. Several of her colleagues were Catholics: Bernard Moore, the art potter from whom she learned about ceramic decoration, the silversmith M.C. Oliver and the calligrapher Irene Wellington; and although the advocates of eastern spirituality among the studio potters had the loudest voices, there were also Catholic potters – David Leach, Ray Finch, Kenneth Clark and Ann Wynn Reeves.
Of Catherine Brock we know even less than Billington. They had the same background, Stoke-on-Trent families connected to the pottery industry, and they probably met at Hanley art school. Catherine trained at the Slade and there’s a painting by her of the young Dora (drawn with affection but not very good), and that’s about it.
Billington left nearly everything she owned to HG, but almost nothing can be traced. Was there attrition with each subsequent bequest until her papers were thrown away by people who had never heard of her? Or did she herself destroy everything personal, or perhaps instruct HG to do so? It’s possible: a devout Catholic in a lesbian relationship in an intolerant era might well have wanted to keep her life private.
But don’t jump to conclusions. It has been suggested to me that, according to HG, Billington was in love with the sculptor John Skeaping, or had a relationship with him that didn’t work out. Skeaping came to teach at the Central in 1931, the year he separated from Barbara Hepworth. In 1934 he married Morwenna Ward. But it’s not possible to confirm this rumour: there’s no correspondence with Billington in the Skeaping archive and this tale of HG’s is a will o’ the wisp. Her personal life remains a mystery.
MORE ABOUT DORA BILLINGTON
You can read more about Dora Billington in my article on her early career, “From Arts and Crafts to Studio Pottery”, in Interpreting Ceramics here.