I have been looking at the exhibition catalogue for English Pottery Old and New at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in 1935. It was intended to illustrate “modern industrial art in its relation to English historical styles”. It displayed a range of pottery, from rough medieval earthenware jugs to modern factory tableware, including 18th century Staffordshire wares, laboratory porcelain, some plain far-eastern pottery of the fourteenth century and examples of modern studio pottery. The idea was to show the thread of simplicity, fitness to purpose and decorative restraint that linked them.
The choice of both the contemporary pottery and the historical styles was clearly inspired by modernist principles. The editors stated that “English pottery has always been distinguished by the devotion of its makers to utility as the prime reason for the existence of their wares; the virtues of these wares are generally the outcome of intelligent use of their materials with this end in view, rather than a deliberate aim at decorative effect.”
Decoration could not be excluded from the selection because it was so much a part of pottery, but it was downplayed. The exhibition included modern dinner services with spare patterns by A. E. Gray, Keith Murray and Millicent Taplin, 18th century transfer ware and modern freehand painting by Louise Powell, Dora Billington and Truda Carter. But these had to be seen in the context of the plain surfaces of Keith Murray’s Art Deco designs, white 18th century tableware and undecorated modern ceramics by Doulton and the Poole Pottery.
The exhibition was organised by the Council for Art and Industry (CAI), the government-sponsored body formed to raise the standards of industrial design. Its directors were Frank Pick, whose influence on the design of the London Underground is well-known, and Eric MacLagan, the director of the V&A.
Their opinion that “Decoration has been most notably successful where the technique proper to clay has been the vehicle for it” was identical to that of the studio potters and it illustrates the artistic context in which studio pottery emerged, with its combination of modernism, historicism and ruralism. The modernist aversion to ornament played powerfully into the studio pottery ideal and explains why the admiration of far-eastern pottery focused on Sung rather than Ming wares. A couple of years after English Pottery Old and New, Dora Billington expressed similar ideas about decoration in The Art of the Potter when she said, “Modern taste has for some years been in revolt against too much ornament, or even any ornament at all. … The average pottery showroom is enough to make any one prefer plain pottery.”
This harmony of views between Billington and the selectors of the exhibition is not surprising since they were part of the same circle. The selectors included Fred Burridge, principal of the Central School of Arts and Crafts where Billington taught, W. B. Honey, the keeper of ceramics at the V&A, who was well known to her, and W. B. Dalton, a pioneering studio potter and one time principal of Camberwell School of Art.