THINGS OF BEAUTY GROWING

c-Estate-of-Lucie-Rie-1024x821
Lucie Rie tableware. (Estate of Lucie Rie)

I went to see the Fitzwilliam exhibition Things of Beauty Growing: British Studio Pottery for the second time.

One of the changes that has taken place in studio pottery in the years since I first became interested in it is that it has become a topic of academic study, a fact regretted by the more downright potters, but a development that has put it into its proper artistic and historical context. We have come a long way from the early books, which simply listed the author’s favourite potters. Oliver Watson’s survey of the Victoria and Albert Museum’s collection (1990) was the first dispassionate account, and Jeffrey Jones’s Studio Pottery in Britain (2007) established a scholarly discourse. Glenn Adamson, Martina Droth and Simon Olding, the curators of this exhibition, develop that discourse.

The individual art pot dominates this show, but there is a small section devoted to tea-sets and coffee-sets, including sets by Leach, Lucie Rie (above), Ruth Duckworth (a very 1950s-style collection made before she turned to sculpture), an abysmally bad coffee-set by Roger Fry, and high-quality factory-made sets designed by Susie Cooper and Keith Murray, the architect-trained designer whose modernist shapes were manufactured by Wedgwood. The latter call into question the studio potter’s insistence at the time that factory-made pottery was bad and meretricious.

The exhibits of tableware point to the dialogue that took place on and off between the crafts and industry between the 1920s and the 1970s, and the discussions in the crafts about whether the craftsman had a contribution to make to manufacturing. It was inconclusive, rarely productive and sometimes acrimonious. It is not explained in the exhibition but it is discussed in an essay by Tanya Harrod in the accompanying book.

In the the post-war decades potters became preoccupied with repetition throwing. Some vaguely imagined that craft pottery might replace factory-made pottery and potters like Harry Davis, those at Briglin, and Leach’s young assistants mass-produced by hand. But by the end of the ‘sixties, government realised that the crafts had little to offer industry and passed responsibility for them from the Board of Trade (where it had rested since the 1920s) to the Department of Education.

By the 1980s, the market for hand-made tableware was in decline and studio potters had aligned themselves with the arts rather than industry. Now few think studio pottery has much to say about manufacturing, though a notable exception is Sophie Conran’s popular “Pebble” range, which has a deliberately hand-made look and was in fact designed for her by British studio potter.

 

TURNING

Readers of this blog will know that I have been thinking a lot about how I turn my pottery after throwing it on the wheel. Thrown pots often need the foot to be cleaned up and shaped afterwards, and the way potters do it is to let the pot harden off a bit (the jargon is, till leather-hard), turn it upside down on the revolving wheel and trim it with a sharp tool. Flat items – plates and bowls – must be finished like this. Taller objects – cups and jugs – don’t have to be, but the effect of turning is more elegant than leaving the base as it comes off the wheel.

Most studio potters are ambivalent about turning. In the early days of studio pottery (the 1920s to the 1980s) there was a mystique about throwing, which was considered to impart “vitality” to the pot, and there were reservations about turning, whose effect was thought to be “mechanical”. Those ideas came in part from the reaction against industrial pottery, but they were also influenced by Bergson’s anti-rational, vitalist philosophy, which was was hugely popular in the second and third decades of the 20th century and which made “vital” the vogue word in art and art-criticism. Bergson is not mentioned in Emmanuel Cooper’s biography of Bernard Leach, but Leach’s colleague and mentor, Soetsu Yanagi, was certainly influenced by Bergson and it is clear from Leach’s writing that he was too.

The practice in Stoke of Trent from the late 18th century onward was to get the rough shape of the pot on the wheel, then to hand it over to the turner, who imparted the outside profile on a vertical lathe. This process was described well by George Myatt, an old thrower interviewed by Gordon Elliott, and it is illustrated in the 1935 film (top), which shows an amazingly proficient thrower forming a rough shape in under ten seconds, which is then put in a plaster mould and then turned on a lathe.

In the Stoke-on-Trent production process, the work of the turner was more important in making the final shape, and therefore contributing to its saleability, than that of the thrower, and I guess that he was more highly skilled therefore more highly paid.

My preference for throwing over turning, and that of most studio potters, comes partly from the fact that throwing is easier than turning. Good turning is immensely difficult. The skill of the craftsman in industry was, I believe, superior to that of the studio potter, and understandably so, because there was specialisation in the industry and everyone concentrated on his trade.

 

WEDGWOOD’S CREAMWARE

Wedgwood creamware 1773
Wedgwood creamware, “Frog Service”, 1773 (Victoria and Albert Museum)

Much of the history of European ceramics is the attempt to imitate Chinese porcelain. The Ottoman Turks covered buff clay with white slip and a clear glaze. The Moors brought opaque white tin glaze into Spain, from where it spread to Italy, the Netherlands, central Europe and England. Meanwhile, there were experiments in porcelain, adding products like crushed glass to clay. In 1693 a soft paste porcelain was invented at Rouen, and in 1708 a hard paste, closer to the Chinese original, at Meissen.

Wedgwood went in a different direction, aiming for a white earthenware, his experiments finally yielding a satisfactory cream-coloured body in the late 1760s.

I had known that creamware spelled the end of tin-glazed earthenware – Alan Caiger-Smith mentions it in Tin-glazed Earthenware – but I had not known exactly how Wedgwood displaced delftware until I read Robin Reilley’s Wedgwood biography.

Wedgwood could not export to France because the quality potteries were protected by the crown, but trade with the Netherlands was easier and creamware made rapid inroads there. His Dutch agent, Lamertus van Veldhuysen, introduced it to the upper class but had difficulty selling it to “the middle sort of people” because it was too expensive. The Delft potters recognised its superiority and tried to imitate it, some of them bankrupting themselves in the process. Wedgwood was unconcerned. When van Veldhuysen sent him a sample of creamware made by a potter called Zwenck, he said, “With regard to the quality of the body & glaze, they are so bad that we could not sell such pieces at 1 shilling a dozen.” Reilley comments that no Dutch manufacturer succeeded in copying creamware until the nineteenth century and that the Dutch have always been among Wedgwood’s best customers.

MONSERRATE, SINTRA

On our last day in Lisbon we took the advice of Miguel, the helpful receptionist at our hotel, and visited Sintra, where Lisboetas used to build their summer residences. From there we took the bus to Monserrate, the house in expansive, hilly grounds that records the eccentric tastes of its former occupants.

Now owned by the state, it is undergoing extensive restoration and has a thorough exhibition about its history, “Monserrate Revisited: The Cook Collection in Portugal”, open until 31 May.

Monserrate has been Anglo-Portuguese for over two hundred years. The first English intervention was William Beckford’s (whose only remains are the Romantic waterfall and cromlech) immortalised by Byron as “Cintra’s glorious Eden” in Childe Harold.

In 1856 Francis Cook, a hugely rich textile magnate, took over the estate for his summer residence, reconstructed the house as a Moorish-Gothic fantasy and filled it with an eclectic collection of Italian art, English furniture, Oriental ceramics and a Bechstein grand, including Pugin chairs and a reproduction of the Alhambra Gazelle Vase. The gardens, also eclectic, benefiting from the warm but not harsh climate, and designed by a Kew head gardener, have an Indian arch acquired (perhaps one might say looted) after the Sepoy Mutiny, exotic succulents, an English rose garden, ponds and ferny woods. Cook’s collection demonstrates mid-nineteenth century taste and Orientalism extraordinarily well, as only the collection of a very rich man can.

Monserrate stayed in the Cook family for ninety years. At the end they could no longer afford it and rarely visited. In the 1930s they hired Walter Kingsbury as estate manager, despite his lack of experience or knowledge of Portuguese. Kingsbury lived there with his family until after the war, when the estate was sold and the precious collection broken up.

I found the period of Kingsbury’s stewardship to be the most fascinating part of the Monserrate story. It is narrated in a memoir by Walter’s son Richard, who lived there as a boy.

During the war, Portugal was a crossroads for spies, including Ian Fleming and Malcolm Muggeridge. “It is reported that on one occasion,” says Richard Kingsbury, “a dinner party was given, attended by an agent who travelled specially from England for the purpose of being seated next to a Portuguese lady (a certain Mrs Espirito Santo) who was known to have pro-German sympathies, in order to feed her false information which, it was believed, would be conveyed to the Germans in Lisbon.”

In a filmed interview, Richard Kingsbury appears as a tall, handsome old man, fluent in Portuguese but with a self-deprecating English manner. Montserrate was a peculiar and fortunate place for a boy to grow up in. He remembers his childhood there as perpetually sunny, taking his impractical, Gothic-Oriental home for granted and riding his toy car round the rooms. It’s actually an uncomfortable house, cold inside when we visited and presumably impossible in winter, but it was Kingsbury’s idyll, magical and eerie, and he often returned to Sintra in adult life.

He worked as an interpreter until his death at the age of 83. His colleague Felix Ordeig recalls meeting him, at first doubtful of the abilities of someone so old, but quickly coming to appreciate his professionalism and competence. Kingsbury translated into English and Portugese, had a good knowledge of Spanish and a passing acquaintance with several other languages. He had a passion for travel, and as a young man went overland from London to Cairo via Istanbul and the Middle East, “on foot, hitch-hiking and by whatever other means of transport became available” says Ordeig, “a trip that would be very difficult if not impossible today. ” He taught English in Argentina and travelled in Latin America, visiting indigenous peoples before the continent was opened to tourism.

Ordeig says, “I got the impression that he lived his life to the full right to the end, with an adventurous spirit, but also a very practical approach to life, as well as with an enquiring mind. In the short time I was with him I took a liking to the man; he was good company and I enjoyed his sense of humour, his unfeigned modesty, and total lack of snobbishness, his intellectual curiosity about both his surroundings and the people he came across, his friendliness and good manners. But I also suspect that he was a very decent human being.”

VILLAGE UNDERGROUND, LISBON

On the way back from Belém and MAAT we looked in at Village Underground, a space in the dock area that has been taken over for a new cultural initiative using old containers and buses. It’s under the 25 April bridge and next to the converted warehouses used for creative industries and new businesses.

This is how they describe it:

“Village Underground (VU) is an international platform for culture and creativity, which was created in London in 2007 and reached Lisbon in 2014. It is also a coworking community and a creative events destination.

“Its unique architectural structure is made from shipping containers and double decker buses, recycled into office spaces, a restaurant and conference room.

“A landmark in the Lisbon landscape, Village Underground is home to a new creative community in the city.”

As it was Sunday there wasn’t much going on, but it was an attractive space and I was sorry not to see it in use.

MAAT, LISBON

In Belém we visited the new Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology, which brings together artists, designers, architects and visionaries in Amanda Levete’s dramatic, shark-shaped building.

The displays focus on global threats, environmental change and mass population movement.

Tomás Saraceno’s Thermodynamic Imaginary (above) is a sustainable housing future of balloons that draw energy from the sun and the earth’s radiation. The Center for Genomic Gastronomy wrote The National Dish, in which they brought scenario planning to bear on Portuguese food. The Living exhibited mycelium bricks, their energy neutral and biodegradable building materials. Diller Scofido and Renfro presented Exit 2008-2015, a startling summary of the effects on the world population of war, drought and flooding (below).

I would have liked less apocalypse and more solutions, but this is an unusual and challenging gallery of blue-sky thinking.

WEDGWOOD’S VASES

BLACK JASPER VASE.jpg
Wedgwood Black Jasper Vase

In my post on the Vase Mania that swept the country after the discovery of Pompeii and Herculaneum, I mentioned that, as the craze faded away, Wedgwood decided to go down market and to sell his vases more cheaply to the middle classes.

“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.”

Robin Reilly in his excellent biography explains that Wedgwood’s motives were more complex. Although he had become a hugely successful potter, he never seemed to have any money. Although the business made a profit, he was in debt, and a rumour was going around that he could not pay. He observed that if you lost money you could get it back, but if you lost reputation you would never recover. Up to that point he thought the remedy was better debt collection, but Reilley uncovered the fact that Wedgwood and his partner Tomas Bentley did not understand their business accounts. He was, in fact, under-capitalised, a common shortcoming in rapidly expanding enterprises. Reilley is an ideal biographer because, as well as being a historian, he was a senior manager at Wedgwood for twelve years.

With characteristic energy and resolve, Wedgwood set to analysing his costs, which he had never bothered about too much before. He virtually invented cost accounting and the production of cheaper vases was inspired as much by cost control and the need to improve cash flow as it was by changing fashion.