I recently went for a holiday to Riccione after an absence of fifty years. I remember the visits with my parents to this Adriatic holiday resort in around 1960, when abroad felt much more foreign. To a boy who had always lived in England, everything in Italy was new: sunny weather for two weeks, fizzy water, huge peaches, coloured matchboxes, even the plugs in the washbasins. Today, when you can get zucchini, parmesan and fresh pasta in the supermarkets every day, Italy seems more familiar. But a vague and abiding memory, formed at a time when I was just developing an interest in design, is the modernism of the hotels. Wide and airy, svelte and rectilinear, they were Italian cool, like the men’s fashion that became Mod.

After such an interval, I recognised nothing of Riccione. There has been a lot of development along the Viale D’Annunzio northwards towards Rimini. The older hotels in the Viale Milano  and Viale Gramsci had so many alterations and accretions that it was hard to see their original form. The Palazzo del Turismo in Viale Dante, built before the war, has had a third storey added. Two of the great hotels, The Grand and the Saviole Spiaggia, were closed for redevelopment and it seemed that work might have been stopped by the financial crisis. But if you look above the shops and restaurants in Viale Dante to the flats on the upper floors, you can excavate the archaeology of post war Italian modernism.

Riccione, with its wonderful climate and long sandy beach, became a holiday resort in the early 19th century, popular with the Bolognese middle class seeking relief from the August heat. By the First World War, it had many villas, some of which still exist but many of which were demolished to make way for hotels in the 1950s. In the small streets running at right angles to Viale Dante, and in the narrow tree-lined Viale Trento e Trieste, scented by plane trees, there is a mix of holiday homes and small hotels that still have the atmosphere of an old resort.

In 1934, Rachele Mussolini bought a villa in Riccione, now the Villa Mussolini. Mussolini’s patronage of the resort, with his well-publicised sea bathing and his gunship anchored offshore, helped to popularise it. There are still unpleasant echoes of this era in the mugs and plaques on sale in tourist shops with portraits of il Duce and slogans like Me ne Frego (I don’t give a damn) and l’Italia agli Italiani (Italy for the Italians).

In the 1930s, the modern layout of Riccione, “The Green Pearl of the Adriatic”, was created, with its broad promenades, tree-lined avenues and hotels on large plots with pine-studded gardens. (The poster above is reminiscent of paintings by the Futurist artist Prampolini, a loyal admirer of Mussolini.) After the Second World War, Riccione was developed for mass tourism, but it also became a fashionable destination, visited by Gina Lollobrigida, Vittorio Gassman and Vittorio De Sica – rapidly followed by the paparazzi.

Out of ignorance, we spent a week in Bologna in August, when the stifling heat had driven the Bolognese away to Riccione, and we went to Riccione in September, when everyone was piling into the trains to go back to Bologna, and it started raining on the beach. But Viale Dante and Viale Ceccarini were still thronged for the passagiata, with a mixture of families, young people and old age pensioners (the shop selling cheap reading glasses was always full).

In these postcards from the collection of Andrea Speziali, the hotels and a cinema of the fifties and sixties are shown as they were built, without additions, at the high tide of modernism when their clean outlines were valued and admired in Riccione.


In the 1980s there were fifty courses training professional studio potters, now there are ten. In this film, a group of Britain’s leading potters make the case for Clay College Stoke, a new training initiative to pass on practical skills of a high standard to a new generation. They are Lisa Hammond, Matthew Blakely, Kevin Millward, Kate Malone and Shozo Michikawa, potters of international renown.

I went to Harrow, the University of Westminster, and I got a ceramics degree from the most prestigious course in Britain, but I wish I’d had the sort of training they’re offering.

I’d retired from salaried employment and, after a lifetime’s passion for ceramics, was flattered to be accepted on the course. I’d spent years in evening classes and alone trying to develop my skills – a difficult task when you’re struggling with a problem and no-one can show you how to solve it. My experience of part-time courses was that, however much they welcome advanced students, most are for beginners. I decided that if I was to progress I had to do a degree.

I’d met several art students who told me they got neither studio space nor adequate teaching on their BA courses. Harrow was different. The long-established ceramics course had honed instruction to a sharp edge and the studio faculties were excellent. There was a large throwing room. The kiln room had a wide range of electric and gas kilns and there was a kiln site (unique in UK universities) where students learned to build and fire flame-burning kilns. There were well-stocked wet-glaze and dry-glaze rooms. Second and third year students had their own spaces and first year students shared a large studio. There was access to studios and workshops in other departments, especially plaster room, wood and metal workshops and print studio.

In some ways being an experienced maker put me at disadvantage at Harrow because it’s easier to learn than re-learn. I wasn’t allowed to coast until the less experienced students caught up: the pressure was just as intense and I had to go further, throw looser and make bigger. Our throwing tutors, Richard Phethean and Carina Ciscato, are accomplished and make very different types of work. Richard’s is robust, slip-decorated earthenware and Carina’s is delicate porcelain. Being taught by different throwers, who approached nearly everything differently, was valuable, impressing on us that there are useful methods but no right answers. Two sessions with the late Simon Carroll – the wildest thrower I had ever seen – was liberating for everyone. And the input of a handbuilder, Sarah Scampton, also provided a valuable perspective.

The teaching developed your creativity and gave you a good technical foundation. I enjoyed Daphne Carnegy’s workshops in ceramic chemistry and technology, I still consult her notes and my glaze is based on her recipe. We spent mornings in the lecture room and afternoons in the glaze room, ending the year with a themed series of glaze or clay trials and a long analytic report. Mine was about tin-glaze at stoneware temperatures, exploiting the gradient kiln to find a good recipe and testing dozens of oxide combination for in-glaze colours. Other students worked on topics including shino glazes, Egyptian paste, printed surfaces, paper clay and engobes.

Hand building was new to me. Steve Buck was an encouraging and challenging teacher, introducing all hand-building techniques, including mould making with Claire Twomey. Students were given freedom to develop their projects, but under constant questioning. Reflective and critical practice was the heart of the course. It could be unsettling after a day’s happy work to be asked by Steve, “Why are you doing that? Why didn’t you do this instead?” The point was to make you think, to explain your work fully, to relate it to your sketchbooks and to put it in context, including the context of non-ceramic art.

On the kiln site at Harrow

With Nigel Wood we spent a term on the kiln site, with hard hats and steel-toed boots, building a large wood-fired kiln to our own design – my team put up a double-chambered kiln for salt in one side but not in the other.

The work was demanding and Harrow students had to be dedicated. In my last years in salaried employment I was working thirty sedentary hours a week. At Harrow I was working up to seventy a week, most of it on my feet.

Then the art school burned down.

Students and staff were shocked one summer morning to find that a fire had destroyed most of our department overnight. The blaze damaged the kiln room and some of the studios and the fine art and fashion departments. About twenty engines and a hundred fire fighters attended the fire. From the ruins of the studios a fire fighter rescued a sculpture of a boy angel by third-year ceramics student Claire Palfreyman. It was one of several third-year works to be exhibited at the New Designers show soon after. Other exhibition pieces were retrieved later.

Harrow after the fire, 2007

“The angel is a marvellous omen for us,” said ceramics course leader Kyra Kane. “We are determined that the world-renowned ceramics department at Harrow will continue to flourish despite this setback. And this statue represents all the spirit, talent and inventiveness that will ensure our future.” The University responded quickly and all courses were run in temporary buildings the following year.

But although the fire didn’t destroy the course, the accountants did. The bean-counters said the university couldn’t afford it. The equipment was too expensive. It took up too much space. There weren’t enough students. In our meetings with the dean we said that this was the best course in the country, that we were getting visits from universities all over the world, that we had produced some of the most eminent potters in Britain – but in reply we were shown spreadsheets that compared cost per square foot per student per course, and we came out higher than computer animation.

The course was allowed to run till 2013 and then closed its doors. Other good ceramics courses in universities followed. They were short-sighted decisions and I believe they were wrong, and so I welcome Clay College Stoke.
I said I wish I’d had the sort of training they’re offering. After my enthusiastic praise for the Harrow course you may wonder why I say that. The ceramics course at Harrow was a fine-art course in clay. What I’ve described accounted for half of it. Although it was hands-on, we were expected to spout artbollocks. Although basic methods were taught in the first year, the course was down on craft. Most students graduated without being able to throw on the wheel.
So I raise my glass to Lisa, Matthew, Kevin, Kate and Shozo, and I praise them for going to Stoke, the heart of British pottery. But I don’t agree with everything they say.
They say the master potters are getting old and that there’s a danger that their skills will die out. But I notice that there are more studio potters than ever before. When I first got interested in the craft there were a couple of hundred. Now there are thousands. Kevin Millward says that there’s a demand for hand-made pottery that can’t be met – but few potters can make a living from it. When I sell at ceramics fairs, the destination for serious collectors, I like to chat to the other exhibitors, and in the last year I’ve noticed that most are unhappy about sales. 
Perhaps I suffer from the disadvantage that my salaried employment taught me about business, marketing and accounting. There are only a few potters who can’t keep up with demand and most need to sell more. Crafts shops and galleries are struggling too, and several that I supplied have closed over the years. We don’t have a shortage of potters, we have a shortage of customers. So, three cheers for Clay College Stoke – but let’s have more input into sales and marketing too.


Arnold Circus

I wrote here about the Boundary housing estate in Shoreditch, built by the London County Council in an Arts and Craft Style in the 1890s. It was the first council housing in England, designed to a high standard of town planning. There was a bandstand at the centre of Arnold Circus, raised so that residents could see green when they looked out of their windows. Those standards make it attractive today.

The BBC made a good documentary about it in The Secret History of Our Streets, which you can see on BBC iPlayer here. It showed the researche of Charles Booth before the estate was build, when it was a area of dangerous slums, and after, when it housed the respectable working class, many of them Jews.

Terry Fitzpatrick

So much I had written. But the documentary went on to the years after the Second World War. The population had declined and flats lay empty. Poor Bangladeshis – the latest wave of east-end migrants after the Irish, the Huguenots and the Jews – came in search of a better life and, like their predecessors, started off in poverty. It was the 1970s, the height of the squatter movement. Terry Fitzpatrick, a local agitator, encouraged them to take over empty flats in the Boundary Estate.

George Tremlett

Then something extraordinary happened. George Tremlett, the chairman of the GLC’s housing committee, which owned the estate, allowed them to stay. This wasn’t the loony left GLC of Ken Livingstone: Tremlett and his leader, Horace Cutler, were right-wing Tories and fans of the new party leader Margaret Thatcher. But they seemed to be pragmatists as well and men of common sense. Tremlett didn’t want to be known as the man who threw sixty desperately poor families into the street and he said that wasn’t his idea of running a housing department. He said he admired the squatters because they were entrepreneurial – they hadn’t waited to be housed, they’d done it for for themselves. Fitzpatrick recalls, “We were gob-smacked. We never expected it! They just said  ‘You say to us where you want to live and we will give you a flat’.”

Today gentrification is shifting the estate into owner occupation, but still a fifth of those who live round Arnold Circus are tenants of Bangladeshi origin. There remain signs in Bengali on the buildings. These are buildings that learn. Now 120 years old they, are part of the new life of Shoreditch.


Lots of people will be familiar with Torquay ware, the little decorated pots from Devon with folksy mottoes on them. I call it tat because in the first half of the 20th century it was churned out in great quantities with the names of seaside resorts scratched on and sold for about sixpence apiece. It declined from about 1950 and by the 1970s nearly all the Torquay potteries had closed. The economics didn’t add up any more: wages had risen but the potteries couldn’t put up the prices of ashtrays, lavender pots, sugar bowls and tiny, teeny milk jugs.

Torquay ware grew out of the Devonshire slipware tradition. Pottery made from the local brown clay was covered in white or blue slip (a slurry of clay mixed to the consistency of cream) and then decorated, either by scratching through the white to make a line of brown, or by painting with coloured slips.
This tradition has been revived by studio potters, who generally make robust pieces decorated in an energetic way, and the Torquay style, which is a bit fiddly, has pretty well died out. Mary Wandrausch is a British studio potter well known for her slipware, who has studied slipware all over Europe; she says that the homely Torquay potters used advanced techniques and that she cannot work out how some of their pots were made. The striking thing is the placing of handles on jugs, cups and teapots: the pots were slipped, and then the handles were put on after. This had to be done while the slip was still damp and the pot still soft, yet it was done without any disturbance of the surface – no dents, scratches or abrasions. As far as I know this method was unique to the Torquay potteries and has never been done since.

A lot of Torquay ware, especially the older sort from the early part of the century, is ugly and over-elaborate, but the simpler pieces are good. Above you can see a small bowl from the Long Park Pottery with a sailing ship and “Watchet” on the front; on the back is the motto “‘elp yerzel tu sugar”; and there is a squat little jug with a cottage on it, probably from Long Park as well, with the motto “Salcombe – Fresh from the dairy” on the back. The jug uses two greens, two browns and black on the cream-coloured slip; the bowl uses blue, green and light brown.  The decorations are well arranged on the pots, which are made with wide foot-rings and a mouth turned inwards from a very sharp shoulder.  The pots were thrown on the wheel, then turned  (probably on a lathe in the Stoke-on-Trent manner), then coated in slip, then painted, then the mottoes and  bands on the shoulders and lips are scratched through the slip.  You can tell that the handle was applied to the jug  and the cream-coloured teapot after the sgraffito was put on, because the sgraffiito band goes right round the jug and under the handle. And all for sixpence!

For those confused by the mottoes, it is English, a rendering of Devon speech. The same mottoes were used on pots going to seaside resorts all over Britain, and I have a Hastings dish with a bit of Devon speech on the back, “Be aisy with tha Butter”. Thus holidaymakers brought back multi-regional souvenirs, marked with the name of their holiday resort on one side and a Devon homily on the other.

There are collectors of Torquay ware and there are a couple of societies devoted to the hobby.  It’s still cheap. You can acquire pieces for under £5.  Better pieces, like the blue, two-pint teapot from the Watcombe Pottery with a kingfisher, will cost you more, but you can build a reasonable collection for £100. I’m not a collector, but a few pieces I saw in antique shops appealed to me. Although they were made just to be looked at, I like to use them. I horrified a serious collector by saying this once – he was a completist who only bought the Torquay ware with cottages on and organised his holidays around collecting. You can’t really be serious about such pretty and charming little things, but what the collector seldom recognises is that this tat was a tour de force of the potter’s art.

D. and E. Lloyd Thomas, The Old Torquay Potteries, Ilfracombe: Arthur H. Stockwell, 1978


This porcelain tea service was made in 1901-2 from a design by Jutta Sika (1877-1964). The milk jug is 8.5cm high, the teapot 12.5cm, the cup 6.5cm high, diameter 9cm, and the saucer has a diameter of 16.5cm. It was manufactured by Josef Böch of Vienna, 1901-1902

It is in the Museo Internazionale delle Ceramiche, Faenza. The catalogue says, “Jutta Sika was a pupil of Kolomon Moser at the Vienna Kunstgewerbschule from 1897-1902 and one of the founders of the Wiener Kunst im Hause. The Wiener Werkstätte never directly produced glass and porcelain itself, entrusting its execution to the most prestigious Bohemian and Viennese factories of the period, Bakalowitz and Böch. This tea service exhibits simplicity, the use of a geometrical matrix and a pioneering functionality. The decoration, employing groups of white circles against a pale blue background, shows the influence of the Viennese strand of Art Nouveau. The inscription ‘Schule prof Kolo Moser’ is impressed upon the reverse of the saucer.”

The modernity of this tea service is striking, especially when you consider that British potteries at the time (such as Doulton and Pilkingtons) were producing historicist Arts and Crafts pottery.

The Wiener Kunst im Hause (Viennese Art in the Home) created integrated domestic interiors. Their products, which they exhibited at the Paris Exhibition of 1900 and the Vienna Seccession Exhibition of 1902, were praised for their simplicity, practicability and affordability. Out of the Weiner Kunst grew the Wiener Werkstätte. Its founders, Josef Hoffmann and Kolomon Moser, were inspired by the Arts and Crafts Movement but rapidly went beyond it, embracing machine production and developing a forward-looking aesthetic. The Bauhaus followed a a similar path after the First World War. The early experimental ceramics of the Bauhaus are less convincing than Sika’s, but some of its graduates, for example Margarete Heymann, did striking work.

This was the artistic environment in which Lucie Rie was educated. She studied ceramics at the Weiner Kunstgewerbschule from 1922 under the traditional Michael Powolny but came under the influence of Moser, who encouraged her to exhibit at the Wiener Werkstätte. By then it had lost its original drive and had been reduced to selling presents and nick-nacks.


Monster vase by Jean-Laurent Legeay.

The two-handled vase has an intrinsic appeal for artists. The form is elegant and it may suggest the human form. Artists since the Renaissance have been fascinated by it and the way it can present itself for ornamentation. Enlarged and placed on a plinth, it becomes a sculpture, like this vase (below) of unknown provenance in Floral Street, London. Adding two handles to a vessel defines a front and back that’s useful in decoration.

Floral Street, London

There was a mania for vases in late 18th century Europe – vases used in interior decoration, vases for gardens, vases as building motifs, and ultimately vases as grave ornaments. They didn’t contain anything, they were simply to be looked at or to communicate the taste of the owner. If a vase was useful it was not as a vase but as something else wittily got up as a vase – a knife box or a stove. Josiah Wedgwood said that “an epidemical madness reigns for Vases, which must be gratified.” With characteristic talent and energy he gratified it, making clever and beautiful adaptations of Classical models. Vase Mania drove him to technical innovations in ceramics. In order to meet the demand, he changed his method of production and marketed his products with vigour. With some justification he titled himself “Vase Maker General to the Universe”.

The excavations at Herculaneum and Pompeii had produced masses of material for architects and designers and they helped to create the Neo-Classical style. Archaeology uncovers more vases than sculptures, so vases became emblematic of the ancient world and were studied in depth. The finds of southern Italy (loosely called “Etruscan”) were disseminated through books of engravings. Architects and designers looked for models in Anne Claude de Caylus’s Recueil d’antiquités égyptiennes, étrusques, grècques, romaines et gauloises (1752-1755) and Giovanni Battista Piranesi‘s Vasi, candelabri, cippi, sarcophagi, tripodi, lucerne ed ornamenti antichi (1778) (below).

 Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s Vasi, 1778

Sir William Hamilton, British ambassador to Naples, amassed a large collection of vases, which he donated to the British Museum. His Collection of Etruscan Greek and Roman Antiquities (1767) was intended to influence taste. “We think also, that we make an agreeable present to our manufacturers of earthenware and china and to those who make vases in silver, copper, glass, marble, etc.,” he wrote. “[T]hey would be glad to find here more than two hundred forms, the greatest part of which are absolutely new to them; there, as in a plentiful stream, they may draw ideas which their ability and taste will know how to improve to their advantage, and to that of the public.” There were other vase collections by J.F.J. Saly (1746), J. M. Vien (1760) (below), C.de Wailly (1760) and E.A.Petitot (1764)

Suite de Vases, Joseph Marie le Ven (1760)

Wedgwood owned Hamilton’s Collection and was himself a collector of vases, to the despair of his wife. She wrote, “I am almost afraid he will lay out the price of his estate in vases he makes nothing of giving 5 or 6 guineas for.” Well abreast of the antique taste, Wedgwood called his new Stoke-on-Trent factory “Etruria”. It gave its name to the surrounding district and anyone like me who has spent any time in Stoke-on-Trent thinks of Etruria as a dirty industrial area in North Staffordshire, not as a place in Italy.

Wedgwood Black Jasper Vase
Wedgwood Agate Vase
Wedgwood Porphyry Vase
Wedgwood Portland Vase

Wedgwood rapidly capitalised on the taste for vases. Here are representative vases from his output in different ceramic media: a vase in black Jasper ware, an agate vase in which clays of different colours are mixed, an earthenware vase with a so-called porphyry glaze, and the famous Portland vase, also in Jasper ware. Wedgwood developed the Jasper body specifically for imitations of antique vases, taking many years and encountering many problems. It’s a vitreous body that doesn’t need a glaze. He worked to high standards and had difficulty in finding the right craftsmen. (He’s famous for going round the factory and knocking down anything that wasn’t good enough for him.) He had to find ways to make unique designs pay. “It is this time losing with Uniqueness,” he complained, “which keeps ingenious Artists who are connected with men of great taste poor.” He had to improve productivity, driving down the piece rate he paid, but doing his best to persuade his workers that his methods would increase their wages in the long run because they would be making more.

Wedgwood was observed by Matthew Boulton to be “scheming to be sent for by his Majesty.” He marketed his vases to aristocracy and royalty, charging the highest prices possible. At the height of Vase Mania, vast sums were paid for desirable items. In one auction, a tea kettle was sold for 130 guineas.

Decorative vases in the antique style were made by Wedgwood’s rivals in Staffordshire, the factories of Derby, Worcester, Coalport and at Sèvres. Nor was pottery the only medium. Matthew Boulton, the Birmingham metalworker, made teapots, hot-water urns, egg caddies and chandeliers in vase forms. Silver vases were used as ornaments and given as prizes. Wooden knife boxes were made to look like vases and Robert Adam designed a cast iron stove to look like a vase. During Vase Mania and after, the vase motif proliferated in surface design, in marquetry and on textiles.

Silver vase given as a prize
Wooden knife box
Robert Adam Stove

Vase Mania peaked around 1772. Wedgwood saw the way the wind was blowing and decided to make more and to sell more cheaply. “The Great People have had these Vases in their Palaces long enough for them to be seen and admired to the Middling People,” he said, “which Class we know are vastly, I had almost said, infinitely superior, in numbers to the great, and although a great price was, I believe, at first necessary to make these vases esteemed Ornaments for Palaces, that reason no longer exists, and the middling people would probably buy quantities of them at a reduced price.”

Some artists faithfully copied antique vases in their engravings, others invented fantasy vases that never were and never could be. The vase had become separated from function, turned into a marker of taste, an object of contemplation and a stimulus to historical reflection or emotion. In Jean-Laurent Legeay’s Collection de divers sujets des Vases, Tombeaux, Ruines et Fontaines (c. 1770), the antique vase becomes Romantic and mysterious, recalling Piranesi’s imaginary prisons. In Legeay’s drawing at the top of this post, a huge vase and pestle stands in a ruined landscape dwarfing the human figures. The image uncannily anticipates the appearance of a neglected Victorian cemetery, in which the tomb-vase has been routinised. (I’ve written more about the Victorian funerary urn here.) Ennemond-Alexandre Petitot in a different kind of fantasy humanised the vase form (or vasified the human form) in this drawing of The Greek Bride (below).

Ennemond-Alexandre Petitot, The Greek Bride

From stove vases, vase brides and enormous vases in a landscape it’s a short step to vases on funerary monuments. Urns appeared on tombs ten years after Vase Mania had passed its peak. In the Victoria and Albert Museum, there is a monument by Joseph Nollekens, erected 1786 but designed earlier (below), with a fine draped urn, which the V&A describes as “a standard classical symbol of death”. Next to it is a monument in Coade stone to Sir William Hillman (1800), with a vase on a pedestal attended by a mourning woman – a motif that might have been taken from Legeay. The funerary urn was clearly from the vocabulary of Neo-Classicism, a remnant of Vase Mania, and although symbol hunters speculate endlessly about its meaning, there’s no evidence that it means anything except an association with the antique and the bestowal of honour.

Design for a monument by Joseph Nollekens, erected 1786 

Stefanie Walker (ed.) Vasemania – Form and Ornament in Neoclassical Europe, New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2004.
Jenny Uglow, “Vase Mania”, in Maxine Berg, Elizabeth Eger (eds.) Luxury in the Eighteenth Century, Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2001.