I make contemporary tableware inspired by Mid-Century Modern in monochrome and decorated ranges. I like the challenge of tableware - which is to make pottery that is both beautiful and practical - and I am interested in the place where art and manufacture meet. I subscribe to the ideal of Charles and Ray Eames of getting the best to the greatest number of people for the least.
I did A-level art at school and read history at Keele university, near the North Staffordshire Potteries. My interest in ceramics began when Bernard Leach’s influence was at its height and most potters made tableware in repetition. I shared the contemporary passion for stoneware pottery in the Anglo-Oriental style, fired in reduction, producing durable wares with delicious rough textures that fitted into the décor of the time - stripped pine furniture, rush matting and Japanese paper lampshades.
I spent my spare time in the university art room learning to make pottery on the wheel. After graduation I tried to set up a pottery in Cornwall - lacking money, experience or sense - then begged potters for an apprenticeship. Some still offered them, and I was accepted by Judith Partridge, who ran the Rodmell Pottery near Lewes in Sussex with a couple of assistants. Judith had trained with Alan Caiger-Smith, who made decorated tin-glaze pottery with wonderful calligraphic decoration derived from near Eastern models, and she taught me how to decorate with decisive strokes of a long, soft brush. Mistakes couldn’t be corrected. I remember my first foray into this difficult technique, my brush hovering nervously over a tiny bowl.
My wages at Rodmell weren't enough to enable me to set up my own studio. I gave up full-time pottery for graphic design, then went into public administration (better paid but far less interesting), and kept up pottery in evening classes. The passion never died. I built a studio at home and after early retirement took a BA in Ceramics at Harrow (University of Westminster) and returned to full-time making.
My first ambition, at the high tide of Modernism when the International Style had taken hold of commercial and public building, was to be an architect, and I devoured books about Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier and Mies van de Rohe. I admired tachism and action painting, in which I now see parallels with the aesthetic of Japanese ceramics. All these influences converge in my ceramics: an interest in form and function, texture, design for use, interior style and the modernist aesthetic.
The context and history of craft are important. I travel and learn about artisan traditions, especially living traditions like the azulejos of Portugal or the ceramiche artistiche of Italy. I write about European applied arts from 1850 to the present, with an emphasis on ceramics, and work as an independent curator. I’m currently putting together an exhibition about Dora Billington, who was a major influence on 20th century British studio pottery.
I am a member of London Potters, an associate member of the Craft Potters Association and a selected member of the Society of Designer Craftsmen (SDC). I serve on the SDC Council, I run their mentoring scheme for emerging makers, and I'm contributing to the redevelopment of the Society’s gallery in Shoreditch. I won the St Albans Museums Trust Prize in 2013 for ceramics shown at UH Galleries and received the Judge’s Award for my entry in the London Potters’ 2017 exhibition at Morley College.
Most of the Museum of Applied Arts in Budapest is closed for a long-overdue refurbishment, so I was deprived of one of my regular pleasures on a trip to the city last week. Instead I visited the home of the founding director, György Ráth, (above) which contains his personal collection and some museum exhibits. The museum is noted for its Art Nouveau collection – the second director, János Radisics, made extensive acquisitions at the 1900 Paris World Exhibition – and Art Nouveau objects are well represented in the Ráth villa. They were also displaying contemporary Art Nouveau-inspired glass by Agnés Smetana, (below) whose work was new to me.
Ráth collected studio pottery from England, France and Denmark by brilliant experimenters in stoneware and lustre glazes, some of whom were unfamiliar to me – Harry Nixon of Royal Doulton, William Howson Taylor of the Ruskin Pottery, Valdemar Englehardt of the Royal Danish Porcelain Company, Albert Heinecke of the Königliche Porzellan-Munufaktur, Pierre Clément Massier, Alexandre Bigot and Max Leuger – as well as several dazzling pieces by Vilmos Zsolnay and by Jenő Farkaházy-Fischer of Herend.
The grand feu potters made great technical and artistic innovations in a short time – all the pieces illustrated here were made between 1895 and 1906 – but much of their technique was lost in the 20th century. Alan Caiger-Smith gives a uniquely good though short account of this period in Lustre Pottery.
As I’ve discovered the work of early studio potters in the USA, I’ve come to realise that our account of studio pottery in the UK is parochial and that we have not acknowledged the innovations of the Americans, who were well in advance of us. British accounts nod to French potters, such as Chaplet and Bigot, but they ignore Charles Binns and Taxile Doat.
So I’ve been pleased to spend some time at the Met in New York looking at the superb Robert A. Ellison collection of American Art Pottery.
My picture shows a case of vessels with crystalline glazes made at the University City Pottery, Missouri around 1912-13, an early course for art potters. In the foreground is a double gourd by Doat. The large vase and the tall bottle on the right were also made there at about the same time. Doat began his career at Sèvres and was one of the first American studio potters. The term “studio pottery” is actually American, already in use at the time these subtle and beautiful pots were made.
The picture below shows Doat (far right) and his colleagues in 1910 at the City University Pottery.
At that date in the UK there was no such glaze experimentation in British art schools, except for W. B. Dalton’s private investigations at Camberwell, which were not shared with the pottery students there.
Sir Barnett Stross was a medical adviser to the Potters’ Union, active in the prevention of silicosis, the potter’s lung disease, and was an MP from 1945 – 1966. He was serving the Hanley constituency while I was was a student at Keele University, which he’d helped to set up. At about that time he donated his art collection to the University.
Among the collection was Lowry’s The Mill Gates (1923) (above), which Stross must have picked up while Lowry was still cheap. In 1964, my first year at Keele, the university was lending paintings from the collection for students to put in their study bedrooms. I chose The Mill Gates.
At some point it became too precious to lend and it’s now kept securely locked away. I’m glad I had the opportunity to hang it above my bed and to study it at close quarters for a term before it became so valuable. I think I’ll ask to see it again next time I visit Keele.
I went yesterday to see this Dora Billington jug in the Manchester Art Gallery. I saw it there about twenty years ago but it has not been on display for several years and I had to go down into the store to look at it. It made an impression on me when I first saw it and it was the starting point of my interest in Billington because it showed her mastery of maiolica, a technique not widely practiced by British potters and not held in high esteem by collectors of British studio pottery. From this interest came a determination to bring her work to to wider notice and this jug will be shown in an exhibition of her work that I am organising at the Crafts Study Centre, Farnham, next year.
The jug, about 30cm high, was made in 1942. Billington said that she turned to art to escape the anxieties of war. Much of the Central School of Arts and Crafts, where she had taught for over twenty years, had been evacuated and the building in Southampton Row was damaged by bombardment. In those conditions she made this beautiful and life-affirming piece of pottery – one of her best. The calligraphic brush work is absolutely characteristic. She had trained in calligraphy with Edward Johnston at the Royal College of Art and had worked part-time as a decorator for Bernard Moore when she was a student, so this sort of loose, free decoration became second nature to he. It was a great pleasure to see it again.
I’m not a collector but sometimes I see something I like, and then I learn something new. I bought this pottery bird in a charity shop. I thought it had been made in continental Europe but after having it a few years I discovered it was Mexican, made in Tonalá, where handicrafts is the major industry (below) and where pottery has been made from pre-Hispanic times. The clay is burnished and not glazed and the brushwork is very delicate. The shape is particularly nice – other Tonalá birds are not as pretty.
These houses are next to one another in a street I visited in Letchworth Garden City today. They were built in the inter-war years in the vernacular, Arts and Crafts tradition established by Raymond Parker and Richard Unwin, and although they’re unique they appear familiar because the Letchworth style dominated suburban England between the wars. Jonathan Meades, in a scathing opinion piece on Letchworth (below), described this kind of architecture as a trip down false-memory lane.
I think it was Colin Ward who pointed out that the design of Letchworth seemed to realise the world invented by Kate Greenaway (below). Its characteristics are whitewashed roughcast walls, gables, dormer windows, hanging tiles, timber boarding, low-slung roofs, casements and mullions.
I tweeted about the Ruskin exhibition at 2 Temple Place, mentioning that Ruskin’s great influence on English thinking came about partly because his books were given as school prizes right up to the 1920s. Michael Rosen commented that he read Ruskin’s tale The King of the Golden River many times over as a boy and loved it. I had never read it, in fact I’d never heard of it, but I read it last night.
Ruskin wrote the story for the young Effie Gray and it became very popular. Ruskin is one of the great prose stylists of the 19th century and this is a beautiful moral tale, beautifully written, but it is the only children’s story he ever wrote.
The illustration above is by Arthur Rackham, from an edition made in the 1920s. Rackham was good at myths and fables and had done good illustrations for Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelungen ten years earlier. All Rackham’s illustrations are now hugely collectible.