THINGS OF BEAUTY GROWING

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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 ETRURIA

Josiah Wedgwood acquired the Ridgehouse estate in 1766 for his Etruria factory during a period of commercial expansion, when he had launched his cream-ware and was beginning to get commissions from the upper class. The company traded there until 1940, when they moved to the new factory at Barlaston, and production at Etruria finally stopped in 1950. The estate was demolished in 1960.

In 1966, when I lived at Keele, the site hadn’t been completely cleared and I took a few photos  – technically poor, but they give an idea of how it looked then. This (below) is the Round House by the Trent and Mersey Canal with the Shelton Bar steel works in the background. At night, the flames from Shelton Bar lit up the sky like Vesuvius in the other Etruria.

Wedgwood Etruria 1966 M Colman

There is a picture (below) taken from a similar angle when the factory was in use:

Wedgwood Etruria roundhouse

The purpose of the Round Houses – there were two, one at each end of the factory – is unknown, but it’s thought they may have been merely decorative, punctuation marks at each end of the building, “in keeping with the 18th century preference for symmetry in architecture” as the Wedgwood archive put it. “It is possible that the Round Houses were Josiah’s own idea possibly having viewed the elevation of Shugborough Hall (below) the home of his patron Lord Anson which is similarly terminated with circular structures.”

Shugborough Hall

LAWN ROAD FLATS

Yesterday we visited Isokon, the Lawn Road Flats in Hampstead, built in 1934 by Wells Coates, which was part of the Open House weekend in London. Three of the residents invited us in. The flats were designed for busy professionals who wanted an uncomplicated life, very small with tiny kitchens originally provided with one hotplate and a grill, so you couldn’t eat much more than beans on toast. There was a restaurant but it turned out that residents weren’t quite ready for that degree of collectivisation and it was replaced by a bar, designed by Marcel Breuer. The flats were intended to be fit for purpose, to discourage excessive consumption and to spearhead social reform. Among the early tenants were Breuer, Walter Gropius, László Moholy-Nagy and Agatha Christie – I like to imagine the conversation between Gropius and Christie. They also had, over the years, a disproportionately large number of Soviet spies.

Jack Pritchard, the owner and developer, worked worked for Venesta, the Estonian plywood company, and specified extensive use of plywood, including walls, floors and furniture. Gropius was the design director of the Isokon company which was set up to produce the furniture. Some of the Lawn Road fittings are currently on loan to the V&A’s Plywood exhibition.

It was interesting to hear that this modernist Grade I listed building is uncomfortable to live in, cold and damp in the winter. Public housing similarly constructed in the ‘sixties and ‘seventies was notorious for damp and condensation. Design and construction have moved on and the Lawn Road Flats are really a museum.

Isokon Plus produces some of the original designs that were made for Lawn Road. The the original Isokon company was committed to standardisation of parts, rationalisation of process and methods, and modern industrial design based on the principle of conspicuous economy, all of which imply low cost, but Isokon products are very expensive now – the famous Isokon Penguin Donkey, for example, is £670. This is conspicuous consumption and runs counter to ideas of producing simple, well-designed products that everyone can afford. The baton has been picked up by Ikea where you can buy comparable products at a tenth of the price.

GORDON FORSYTH: "20th CENTURY CERAMICS"

László Hradszki posted a picture on Facebook of a tile by István Gádor with a leaping horse that he’d bought recently. As it happens, I’d been looking at another picture of this tile (above) (or, more likely, another cast from the same mould) in Gordon Forsyth’s book 20th Century Ceramics, published by The Studio in 1936.

20th Century Ceramics is a good account, one of the best ever written, because it’s an even-handed survey of both factory and studio pottery and it covers studio pottery from around the world in an impartial manner. Forsyth was principal of the Stoke-on-Trent schools of art and a fine designer, known particularly for his decorations in lustre for Pilkington, rather in the style of William de Morgan.

The book covers pottery from Britain, the USA, Austria, China, Denmark, France, Germany, Holland, Hungary, Italy, Japan, Poland, Sweden and Switzerland. It’s good on Hungarian and Italian potters. The Hungarians are Gádor, Géza Gorka, Margit Kovács and Lili Márkus. I was interested to see some of Kovács’s vessels (above), as she is known mainly for her sculpture, but these vessels are decorative pieces rather than tableware. Forsyth shows a bias towards studio pottery in his coverage of the continent, unlike his excellent coverage of the best British factory pottery, and there is nothing from the well-known factories of Herendt or Zsolnay. The Italian potters are Guido Andlovitz and others of the Società Ceramica Italiana, Dante Baldelli, the Cantagalli pottery, Industria Ceramica Salernitana, Giuseppe Mazzetti, Ugo Zaccagnini and others of the Monteolivito pottery, Mario Morelli, Gio Ponti, Ricardo Ginori, and Luigi Zortea. From Austria, there is pottery made by Lucie Rie (below) before she left for London.

Forsyth occupied that thought-provoking position between factory and studio pottery and he expressed views that were common in the 1930s:

“A wholly artificial gulf has been created between the studio potter and the large-scale manufacturer. Sometimes studio pottery is dismissed as being ineffective “Art and Crafty” productions, technically defective. This is in the main wholly erroneous and unjust criticism of studio potters, but it is equally erroneous for studio potters to think that all manufacturers are Philistines and only concerned with commercial and technical success. 

“We feel very strongly that progress in industry has been considerably retarded by unbalanced enthusiasts on both sides, and the time has now arrived for co-operation between the individual experimenter and his collaboration with large-scale producers. The position at the moment is that all such stupid prejudice that has hitherto kept artists and manufacturers apart should be immediately dropped, and that industrialists must find a solution of the problem of incorporating the best artists that can be found and bring them into industry. 

“Many of our first-class studio potters who at present are having a struggle as individual manufacturers could be well employed within mass production concerns without loss of their own individuality or lowering their own ideals, and with far larger scope and far greater security than they at present enjoy. We look forward to the time when there will be no gulf between the studio potters and the manufacturers.”

PICASSO AND MODERN BRITISH ART, TATE BRITAIN

British curators want to say something new new about Picasso, about whom so much has been said already,  so they  don’t put on general exhibitions of his work any more, only shows with an angle. Tate Liverpool put on Picasso: Peace and Freedom in 2010; Tate Modern put on Matisse/Picasso in 2002; the Royal Academy put on Picasso: Painter and Sculptor in Clay in 1998; and the Tate put on On Classic Ground: Picasso, Leger, De Chirico and the New Classicism in 1990. This exhibition at Tate Britain covers Picasso’s reception in Britain and his influence on British art. To some extent, it is an art historian’s exhibition, detailing past Picasso exhibitions, his dealers and journal articles about him. A similar exhibition, Picasso and American Art, was put by the Whitney Museum, New York, in 2006.  A general exhibition of works from the Picasso Museum in Paris is currently touring the USA, Australia and Canada, but otherwise you will have to visit the permanent exhibitions of his work at the Musée National Picasso (Paris), the Museu Picasso (Barcelona) or the Museo Picasso (Malaga).

Picasso’s reputation in Britain is so big now that it is surprising to discover that it was uncertain here until he was almost eighty. It was not established until 1960, when the Arts Council put on a retrospective of 270 works at the Tate Gallery, including his series Las Meninas, based on Velasquez. It attracted 500,000 visitors. It was the first significant art exhibition I ever went to.

This exhibition concentrates on Duncan Grant, Wyndham Lewis, Ben Nicholson, Henry Moore, Graham Sutherland, Francis Bacon and David Hockney. Moore did not draw attention to Picasso’s influence until his own work was recognized; David Hockney is more open about it. The exhibition is noteworthy for Francis Bacon’s Picassoesque paintings from the 1930s. Bacon destroyed most of his early work and these are not often shown. Of course, many lesser artists were influenced by him as well. (I have talked about William Newland, Margaret Hine and Nicholas Vergette here.)

This is not a review of the exhibition and I just want to talk about three pictures that fired me up.

Picasso’s use of colour in Nude Woman in a Red Armchair (1923) (top) is arresting. Most of the painting is monochrome, but parts are brilliant red, dark green and pastel shades of green, blue and yellow, some with black outlines. The combination of monochrome, strong colour, pastel shades with sparing use of line is bold and novel. One cannot say that anything Picasso did was arbitrary, but the colour combinations in this work will never be found in any designer’s scheme. Despite making a formal analysis of this work, I have to say that Picasso was not a formalist. There is always something humane, erotic, historicist, mythic or autobiographical in his work – sometimes all five in one. The gallery note says of Nude Woman in a Red Armchair that it depicts his lover Marie-Therèse Walter. “She is presented as a sequence of sensuous curves and her face is made up of two profiles, the sitter’s own and that of her secret lover whose lips kiss hers.”

I was attracted to the work by Ben Nicholson. Ben Nicholson’s work in the early 1930s owes a debt to Picasso, but it was original. You can be influenced by other artists and be original at the same time. In fact, if you are not influenced by others, you are not original, you are illiterate.

The exhibition has three paintings from this period: 1933 (Coin and musical instrument) (from the Metropolitan Museum of Art) (left), 1933 (Musical Instruments) (from Kettle’s Yard) and 1933 (St Remy, Provence) (from a private collection). As an artist, I am interested in the way these paintings were made. In 1933 (Coin and Musical instruments) a dark ground of browns and blacks has outlines scratched through to the white canvas and there are textures made by the use of a dry brush of one colour over another, none of this visible in the reproduction. Nicholson’s adaptations of Picasso’s style and methods were formal and his formalist trajectory took him to the white-on-white constructions of his later period, a long way from Picasso.

Finally, Picasso’s Portrait of Emilie Marguerite Walter (1939) (left).  This is a deconstructed Picasso portrait of the type that generated so much mockery. Two things are now clear about such portraits. The first is that they are not arbitrary, as you will discover if you try to make such a portrait and arrange the features in an arbitrary way. David Hockney did some in homage, and there is a similar portrait of Christopher Isherwood, a good one, in this exhibition.  The second is that, although Picasso could make aggressive pictures like his weeping woman series, this picture of his lover’s mother is affectionate.

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PRESTON BUS STATION: IN DEFENCE OF MODERNISM

Britain was never at home with modernism. We are comfortable with the 1930s semi, the fag-end of the vernacular revival, made from builders’ pattern books. Hatfield, a new town, built during the 1950s, is now being extended in this style. It’s bad enough when town planners won’t allow any new buildings that jar with the Georgian or Victorian townscape, it’s worse when they allow Tudorbethan buildings in an essentially modernist town.

My own town, St Albans, has few modernist buildings. In The Buildings of England, Nikolaus Pevsner singled out the Express Dairy in Branch Road, a good sub-Bauhaus building. The college of further education had a modernist extension that attracted a Civic Society award. Both sites have been converted to housing, the Express Dairy butchered but the college building thankfully preserved.

Housing developments in continental Europe don’t defer to the past like ours and people live more happily in the present. The irony of the British desire to heritage everything, and to make every building look old, is that that it leaves no heritage of our own time.

So I was pleased to see the mounting campaign to save the Preston Bus Station (top), an outstanding Brutalist building, designed by Keith Ingham and completed in 1969. It is faced with demolition by Preston City Council. All parties on the council want it to go, although the people of Preston recently voted it their favourite building. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work as a bus station, but less versatile modern buildings have been preserved – for example, the Shredded Wheat factory in Welwyn Garden City with its monumental grain silos (above). The bus station could certainly find a suitable use for the 21st century.

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