ALAN CAIGER-SMITH

I learned the other day of the death of Alan Caiger-Smith, an outstanding potter who revived the art of tin glaze and who became an important scholar of the tin glaze tradition.

Caiger-Smith was born in Buenos Aires in 1930. He studied at Camberwell Art School of Art and read history at King’s College, Cambridge. Inspired by French painted pottery in his mother’s kitchen, he enrolled in pottery evening classes at the Central School of Arts and Crafts under Dora Billington. His aims were unformed at the time, but when he told Billington of his interest in decoration she said, “Then you want to do tin glaze,” which he had never even heard of.

In 2013 I interviewed him about his time at the Central and his memories of Billington. His recall was sharp and he was a brilliant raconteur. The Central in around 1950 was an old building filled with ex-servicemen and young girls, known to the students as The Central School of Tarts and Drafts. Billington had taken on an old Yorkshire country thrower, Richard Bateson, whom Caiger-Smith found to be endlessly patient and helpful, though preferring to give advice outside the classroom where he could have a sly smoke at the same time.

Caiger-Smith warmed to his work, coming to the evening class earlier and earlier, eventually arriving at 8.30 a.m. William Johnstone, the college principal, called him in and instructed him to stop doing that, but Billington, who spotted his potential, took him aside and advised him to quietly ignore Johnstone.

By this date Billington was over sixty. One of Caiger-Smith’s colleagues, a student who frequently got drunk at lunchtime, stood at the back of the class sniggering as his prim old teacher showed them how to pull a handle by stroking and squeezing a sausage of clay. She looked up and said sharply, “Yes, Mr B— , it is phallic. Now sober up and pay attention and you may learn something.”

Caiger Smith remained grateful to Billington for her teaching and encouragement. Tin glaze was so out of fashion that the college technician (who I think at the time was Ian Auld) refused to fire his work and he had to smuggle it into the back of the kiln.

As it happened, his Aldermaston Pottery stuck a chord and his work was soon in demand. Last year, Jane White, published an account of Alan Caiger-Smith and the Legacy of the Aldermaston Pottery that traced the assistants who had worked with him there. Alan spoke at the book launch at the Ashmolean with Tim Wilson, an expert in maiolica, whom he had consulted during his historical researches and who also consulted him.

Tin-Glaze Pottery, published in 1973, was a rare thing, combining deep scholarship with practical understanding, and in my view it’s the standard account of the subject.

In a search for a real red pigment, Caiger-Smith rediscovered the technique of reduced lustre glaze (picture, top) after long experiment and many failures. His reduced lustre pottery is among his most beautiful work and is now very collectable. As an indication of how well-respected he became, he was honoured by the town of Gubbio, which had brought Italian lustre to the peak of refinement in the 16th century.

ALFRED H. POWELL

Alfred Hoare Powell interests me because he persuaded Wedgwood to revive the art of freehand painting and worked with them to produce beautiful decorated pottery that was made from 1903 right up to the 1940s. The partnership was one of the most successful between arts and manufacturing on Arts and Crafts lines. And I should not omit to mention Powell’s wife Louise – “Lalla” – whose training in embroidery and calligraphy was germaine to the enterprise and whom Alfred always insisted should be named alongside him. Powell is pictured at the back of the photo (above) with Louise in front of him.

Part of the Powells’ motivation was to make the task of the decorators at Wedgwood’s enjoyable for them, believing that the production methods developed in the 19th century had dehumanised them by reducing decorating to the mere placing of blobs of colour on printed outlines.

At the end of his life, Powell wrote an autobiographical note, which I saw yesterday in the British Library’s manuscript collection, and in which he recorded his satisfaction with his long association with Wedgwood.

I asked Frank Wedgwood if I might go and learn to paint pottery at Etruria. I had the warm & hearty welcome that was so characteristic of JW’s and for 30 or 40 years I was with LP painting and teaching girls how to draw correctly and to use a brush neatly and swiftly. I had the run of the works & every worker on the place seemed at my disposal & glad to help – to tell me things and show all the tricks of the trade. In all this I was backed up by long and interesting letters from Lethaby, who was delighted to hear of any efforts to bring JW’s to see better and do better and I did help them as they have often agreed since. In 1906 Lalla joined me at this work, taught me & encouraged me & kept me alive to the pottery and pottery painting. Of the brilliant beauty of her own work I need not write here.

Lethaby’s “long and interesting letters” have not survived, unfortunately.

Powell’s appreciation of the skill of working people, his interest in them and his willingness to learn from them, is absolutely characteristic. He wrote similarly, in the context of his architectural work, of his respect for building workers and his preference for being on site with them rather than sitting and writing letters in an office. And his acknowledgement of Louise Powell’s contribution to the pottery painting is also characteristic of the man and, I thought, rather touching.

ROGER FRY, BERNARD LEACH AND WEDGWOOD

roger fry

Roger Fry occupies a noteworthy position in 20th-century decorative arts, and pottery in particular.  He tried to make pottery himself, not very successfully, attending classes at Camberwell School of Art. His formalist conception of art helped to establish the new studio pottery of W.B.Dalton, Charles Vyse, Bernard Leach and William Staite Murray. He recognised the genius of Josiah Wedgwood but ultimately dismissed his work as retrograde, as I found from his interesting review of an exhibition of Wedgwood china published in The Athenaeum in 1905. (Reproduced in A Roger Fry Reader.)

Writing about Flaxman’s recently-discovered wax models from which Wedgwood’s relief figure were cast, Fry says:

They all show extraordinary technical skill, and are marked by a cold excellence and negative perfection. … [I]t gives one an idea of the shrewd intelligence and resource of the man who accomplished what hardly anyone else has – the feat of making a commercial success of fine-art pottery. As pottery, Wedgwood’s work is beyond praise, though it probably contributed to the final destruction of the art, as an art, in England, since it set a standard of mechanical perfection which to this day prevents the trade from accepting any work in which the natural beauties of the material are not carefully obliterated by mechanical means. In fact. Wedgwood destroyed the craftsman’s tradition by substituting the artist turned craftsman for the craftsman turned artist by experience and natural aptitude.

1905 was the high-water mark of the Arts and Crafts movement and Fry’s views are typical, though he had little time for the moralising representatives of the movement. In this evaluation of Wedgwood and his successors, he forms a bridge between the Arts and Crafts movement and the studio potters. Leach’s evaluation of Wedgwood thirty-five years later in Towards a Standard was similar but harsher and less sensitive to cultural and artistic context:

The small establishments of the Tofts and other slipware potters were succeeded by the factories of the Wedgwoods and the Spodes, and in a short space of time the standard of craftsmanship, which had been built up by the labour of centuries, the intimate feeling for material and form, and the common, homely, almost family workshop life had given way to specialization and the inevitable development of mass production.