WOMEN POTTERS

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Lucie Rie, one of the women potters in the Dictionary of National Biography

The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (DNB) is filling the gaps in its coverage of notable women and pottery is benefitting from the addition. I have been asked to write entries for Mary Wondrausch and Dora Billington.

Mary Wondrausch, who died in 2016, is well known to studio potters, especially those who are interested in slipware. She was important in its revival and wrote about it in a scholarly way (Mary Wondrausch on Slipware, A & C Black, 2001). Dora Billington (1890-1968), the most significant studio pottery educator in the 20th century, is less well known, even though some of her most eminent students (Alan Caiger-Smith, Gordon Baldwin and Anne Wynn-Reeves) are still alive. She began teaching pottery in the style of Alfred and Louise Powell but in the 1920s she responded immediately to the new pottery of Staite Murray and Bernard Leach. Her most important contribution came after the Second World War when studio pottery seemed to be full of second-rate Leach imitators. Taking her inspiration from the European tradition, she-encouraged new ways of making, notably the tin-glazed pottery of Caiger Smith, Wynn-Reeves and William Newland, and the sculptural ceramics of Baldwin and Gillian Lowndes. Her Technique of Pottery (1962) is still worth reading.

Perhaps there are other entries that could be written on women potters. The DNB has articles on Katherine Pleydell-Bouverie, Lucie Rie and Gillian Lowndes, but nothing at the moment on Louise Powell, Nell Vyse, Dora Lunn, Stella Crofts, Nora Braden, Ursula Mommens or Helen Pincombe.

FOLK ART AT COMPTON VERNEY

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We made the two-hour drive to Compton Verney to see the exhibition of automata, prompted by memories of the little museum of mechanical toys that there used to be in Covent Garden in the 1990s, and stayed to see the folk art from the collections of Andras Kalman and Enid Marx and Margaret Lambert.

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Andras Kalman

Marx started collecting in the 1930s, though her interest began earlier. She said she was influenced by what she learned from her father’s paper-making business, and at the RCA she failed to get her diploma from the painting school because her work was thought to be too vulgar. Kalman, a Hungarian emigré, began after the war, collecting mainly untutored paintings of the late 18th and early 19th century, usually rural, often of favourite animals, sometimes unintentionally funny. The Marx-Lambert collection includes print ephemera, scrapbooks, valentine’s cards, paper peepshows, children’s books, ceramics, corn dollies and toys and, from the period after the war, vanishing crafts. Deeply unfashionable at the time, these items could be picked up for pennies in junk shops.

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Marx’s, Lambert’s and Kalman’s collecting coincided with the relaxing of the severe modernist contempt for anything traditional, un-functional or Victorian. Marx and Lambert’s When Victoria Began to Reign was published in 1937 and English Popular Art in 1951. 1951 was a significant date for folk art and Victoriana. Barbara Jones’s exhibition Black Eyes and Lemonade, a Festival of Britain event about English popular and traditional art, was put on at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1951, and her book, The Unsophisticated Arts – about fairground decoration, tattoos, seaside architecture and funeral ornaments – came out in 1952. (For long hard to find, there is a new edition.)

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This interest in the vernacular and the curious mitigated the modernism of the Festival of Britain, which stimulated interest in the period of the Great Exhibition a hundred years earlier. The Festival Funfair at Battersea featured Rowland Emett’s whimsical and nostalgic “Far Tottering and Oyster Creek Railway“. And so, full circle – Emett’s railways were a feature of the automata exhibition at Compton Verney.

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RYE POTTERY

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Tidying up my papers, I came across this old postcard, which I’d picked up at Gary Grant’s shop in Arlington Street behind Sadler’s Wells. The shop has been closed for many years, but I liked to pop in when I was going to the theatre to look at his excellent collection of mid-century pottery, especially his collection of Rye Pottery. These are Rye butter dishes.

The Rye Pottery was set up by Wally and Jack Cole and thrived after the war, capturing in their bright, whimsical ceramics the spirit of he Festival of Britain. They made tin-glazed tableware and decorative figures, which were very much of the time. The same spirit was expressed in the contemporary pottery of the Bayswater Three, William Newland, Margaret Hine and Nicholas Vergette, who made a good living decorating the interiors of coffee bars. This sort of pottery ran against the Leach current of Chinese-inspired stoneware. Newland found Leach’s dominance irritating but the Coles just got on with it. Their pottery still exists in Rye, still making tin-glazed wares.

Walter studied at the Central School of Arts and Crafts in the 1930s, when Dora Billington was teaching there and at a time when she was making exquisite tin-glazed ceramics, and he was subsequently a member of the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society, of which she was a leading member. Rye was a rare example of a commercially successful craft pottery. Kenneth Clark and Ann Wynn-Reeves ran a similarly successful enterprise, concentrating on tiles but also making use of decorated tin-glaze; and they were also graduates of the Central pottery course.

 

DATING DORA BILLINGTON VASES

 

I have been trying to date these two vases that I was given recently, and which I’m passing on to public collections.

Their provenance is good but they’re hard to date because they were given by the artist to the previous owner some time after they were made, but how long after we don’t know. They are signed on the bottom in the same way as dated pots made in the late 1930s, and my hunch, based on the clear Oriental influence, via Bernard Leach, and their heavy potting, is that is when they were made. Billington exhibited a stoneware vase with the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society in 1938, but, exasperatingly, the catalogue does not describe it.

BATTERSEA POWER STATION

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Photo: Alex McDonald

The picture above, by Alex McDonald, shows two of Sir Giles Gilbert Scott’s memorable designs: the red phone box and the brick exterior of Battersea Power Station. The overused word “iconic” can be properly applied to both. Pink Floyd put the power station on one of their album covers and redundant phone boxes are now being bought and displayed in gardens, precisely as icons.

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The first phase of the power station redevelopment, where I exhibited at the weekend as part of the London Design Festival, is a mix of flats, offices and restaurants.

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Coffee Works, where I took my lunch breaks, served large sourdough-bread sandwiches at £7. The General Store indicates who the local customers are, selling, alongside the croissants and cauliflowers, magnums of champagne and jars of truffles. I didn’t look in the estate agents’ windows, but one of my fellow exhibitors told me I couldn’t afford all the noughts. A local nanny visited my stall and told me she traveled with her boss to her other houses in Gstad and Los Angeles. Friends who moved to Battersea in the  seventies told me that in the eighties the gentrifiers had already started calling it South Chelsea and saying their postal address was SW one-one.

Not everyone has been complimentary about the development. In the Architect’s Journal, Owen Hatherley describes it as dystopian and grim and says it is “devoid of planning, intelligence or character – a tangle of superfluous skyscrapers around parodies of public spaces.”

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.