ART POTTERY (2)

Thinking about Robin Emmerson’s article which I mentioned in my last post, in which he said that Art Pottery emerged from the anti-utilitarian Aesthetic Movement, I realised that studio pottery in the 1920s was also anti-utilitarian. Bernard Leach exhibited a teapot at the Beaux Arts Gallery in 1933 (illustrated by Jeffrey Jones in his big survey of 20th-century studio pottery). Roger Fry made some amateurish cups and saucers for the Omega Workshops. Dora Lunn, another potter of the period, also tried tableware, but it didn’t sell. These were the exceptions. Studio pottery was not meant for use – and there’s a story that when someone complained to Leach that his teapots didn’t pour well, he said they weren’t meant for making tea in. The other big beast of studio pottery in the 1920s, William Staite Murray, made vases as fine art. Much of the studio pottery of the inter-war years was figurines.

After the Second World War studio pottery took a different turn, with an emphasis on useful wares. Winchcombe Pottery had a huge contract from Cranks, the vegetarian restaurant, much of it fulfilled by Sidney Tustin at considerable personal cost, and Tustin said a machine should have made the pots, not a man. Harry Davis, one of the fastest studio throwers (who were nowhere near as skilled as the Stoke-on-Trent throwers) was deeply committed to the idea of tableware made by hand. There was a proliferation of potteries of varying quality turning out cups and saucers and plates and bowls in large quantities. Why did studio pottery take that direction?

Jeffrey Jones doesn’t really answer the question, but he passes on Harry Davis’s interesting obervations. Davis was one of the few people to recognise the upper-class origins of studio pottery. Although they talked about the virtues of a craft economy, studio potters lacked the organisational ability to create it. Michael Cardew, a gentleman-potter who was only interested in making pots, delegated the loathsome business side to Sidney Tustin and Elijah Comfort. Studio pottery continued the upper-class dislike of trade that had driven the Arts and Crafts movement.

By the 1950s, when utilitarian pottery began to be made in quantity, the design critiques of William Morris and Henry Cole had become irrelevant. The design profession had come to maturity and the critiques had been taken to heart by manufacturers. The best pottery manufacturers, like Wedgwood, had for decades been making beautiful and practical pottery, such as that designed by Keith Murray or decorated by Eric Ravilious (illustrated), that was arguably superior to studio pottery. The training of every art student was shaped by the Bauhaus.

So what could account for a turn to utility when it was least needed? I got some idea when I spoke to the studio potter Murray Fieldhouse (1925-2018) a few years ago. Murray was a passionate advocate of the Leach style of pottery. He explained to me that after the war many potters like him became pacifists, even though they’d been in the armed forces. He wanted to create an alternative society and he looked for a craft he could create it through.  He served his apprenticeship with Harry Davis, who had similar utopian leanings. The idea was that society could be changed by getting out of the factory and into the workshop, preferably run democratically or by craftsmen working alone. The art was secondary, and it’s interesting to see from Murray’s Pottery Quarterly magazine, which he edited from the 1950s to the 1980s, that he had equal disdain for industry, the design profession and fine art.

ART POTTERY

The latest Transactions of the English Ceramic Circle has an article by Robin Emmerson on the origins of Art Pottery which looks at its emergence from the design reform movement, which was familiar, and fashions and trends in home decoration, which was not. The art school at South Kensington was important and was linked with Minton and the Lambeth art school was similarly linked with Doulton.

But ceramics displayed in the home signified that the owner was on the side of the Aesthetes rather than the Barbarians (the contrast introduced by Matthew Arnold). Emmerson points out that Art Pottery was almost all meant for display, one of those obvious things that you could overlook. Charlotte Gere and Lesley Hoskins touched on ceramics and put them into the wider context of the Aesthetic interior in The House Beautiful twenty years ago.

NORTH PECKHAM CIVIC CENTRE

The 20th Century Society report that the North Peckham Civic Centre is to be demolished and its Grade II listed Adam Kossowski ceramic mural (above) relocated.

It’s an outstanding example of post-war civic architecture and the mural of the History of the Old Kent Road is representative of the elevating, slightly didactic public art of the period. Kossowski, a Catholic artist, most of whose work was religious, was an interesting and surprising choice for the commission, and I hope one day to discover how he came to be selected. His artistry is effective, his technique superlative and the story told is perfectly appropriate to the location. A similar mural today, however, would say much less about the past and much more about the present.

PITT AND AMERICA

This Derby figure of Pitt the Elder, 1766, caught my eye in the British Museum: well-modelled and painted, lively posture in both the figures, large for a Derby figure and uncomfortable for the modern viewer. Who is that subservient figure?

It’s America, in an established emblem of the continent, one of the four that had been used in art for a couple of centuries. The others were Europe, Asia and Africa. Pitt had changed taxation for the benefit of the colony and here it kisses his hand. There is a similar Derby figure in the V&A where America is black. Modellers were indifferent about such matters and every continent but Europe was similar in its strangeness.

The description in the museum refers to the fact that the Iroquois Confederacy was an ally of England in the Seven Years War against the French, but that alliance does not appear to have been commemorated.

ROSEMARY WREN

Although ceramic modelling went out of fashion among studio potters after the second world war in Britain, there were one or two who resisted the trend to utilitarian ceramics. One was Rosemary Wren, who, as it happens, was a founder of Ceramic Review. I came across this entry in the 1977 edition of the directory of Craftsman Potters Association members which describes what she was doing then.

PUBLIC ART: THE BLOKES

The row over statues seems to be dying down, but someone on Facebook posted a picture (left) that illustrates how they have been democratised – Standing Man by Sean Henry in Paddington Basin, a Bloke on the Ground sort of sculpture that Henry specialises in: anonymous, ordinary people without plinths, natural size and at the same level as the viewer.

For contrast I add The Duke of Cambridge by Adrian Jones, the 1907 equestrian sculpture in Whitehall that is so familiar that it is never looked at, representative of the 19th-century statuary that populates our cities: grand, elevated, establishment and not a little oppressive.

The latter sort is being gradually reviewed and sometimes suddenly and violently removed, but the process of democratisation that the review is part of began long ago with the Blokes on the Ground who are slowly and silently replacing them.

PUNCH AND JUDY, SWANAGE

On the beach at Swanage I was pleased to see the Punch and Judy show in the same place as it was when my daughter was little, so I stopped to watch it. Punch appeals to small children because he is very, very naughty and triumphs over everybody and comes out on top at the end. His little squeaky voice seals their connection with him.

There is no point in cleaning up his act. A nice Mr Punch would be as attractive as warm ice cream. The Swanage performance has most of the traditional elements: Judy leaves Punch in charge of the baby, baby won’t walk, Punch throws baby downstairs, beats Judy, fights the crocodile, nonsense with the sausages, and so on.

After the show I met Joe Burns, the Professor, (above) and told him how much I enjoyed his show and how I remembered his predecessor, Professor Pete. Joe took over from Pete six years ago after Pete had been on the beach for thirty years.  Today’s Mr Punch has a website, a Facebook page and a Twitter feed.

Professor Pete at Swanage, 1994.

There has been a show on this spot since 1906, though the town council banned it at first because it brought the wrong sort into Swanage. Joe is one of the last three beach performers in the country – there are more Professors who are hired to perform at parties. A Guardian article quoting Joe reported that audiences are getting as badly behaved as Punch and that some adults abuse his bottler and refuse to pay.

Margaret Lambert and Enid Marx had a  section on marionettes and glove puppets in English Popular Art (1951), reporting that Mr Punch had changed from one into the other, but they said nothing else about him. In The Unsophisticated Arts (also 1951) Barbara Jones wrote, “One glove puppet remains triumphantly traditional and can still be found at fairs and at the seaside: the Punch and Judy Show. The costumes are commedia del’arte via the English early nineteenth century theatre, and the whole script has hardly changed. Needless to say it is violent and much concerned with death and hanging. Punch and Judy also exhibit the determination of English pantomime to change sex – Punch squeals viciously in a high falsetto, his wife retains the puppet master’s natural bass.”

BOURNEMOUTH

Bournemouth has a financial sector and a new university, and the western suburb is full of grand villas and lovely pine-clad cliffs, which they call ‘chines’. (As a child on family holidays I thought that a ‘chine’ was a pine-clad cliff: it’s not, it’s a ridge and the pines are incidental.) The gardens, running right through the town from top to bottom like lettering in a stick of rock, upon which the town was founded when they were made out of the swampy fringes of the River Bourne two hundred years ago, are still beautiful and relaxing.

But the town centre, which is a BID, a Business Improvement District, with helpful BID guides, has a sad, hollowed-out look about it. There are marks of former grandeur in self-confident, ambitious and sometimes pompous buildings, several in the Deco style like the former offices of the Bournemouth Daily Echo. The purpose of others, like the Cosy Club, is still labelled. The former use of others, however, is impossible to find out from the buildings themselves.