BILLINGTON MAIOLICA JUG

1942 maiolica jug manchester small.jpg

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.

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.

MURRAY FIELDHOUSE

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Bowls by Murray Fieldhouse (V&A Museum)

I learned today of the death of Murray Fieldhouse, an important figure in post-war studio pottery who edited the magazine Pottery Quarterly, the first periodical on the subject, which came out irregularly from the mid-1950s to the early 1980s. He was also one of the founder members of the Craft Potters Association.

Murray was born in 1925, and after an unconventional wartime national service, when he became a pacifist, he alighted on the crafts as a way of living out his Utopian and anti-establishment ideals. The choice of pottery came later. He served an apprenticeship with Harry Davis in Cornwall, who was also an anti-establishment Utopian, but more austere in his habits than Murray, who was well-known for his enjoyment of life.

In the 1950s, Murray ran Pendley Manor, an education centre in Hertfordshire to which he invited most of the top names in studio pottery to demonstrate. When I was researching the life of Dora Billington, he gave me some photos of her demonstrating there.

Pottery Quarterly in its early days contained reviews of everything that was happening in British pottery and it is an important record of the period, but Murray was a fierce advocate of the Leach style of pottery and his reviews of exhibitions by potters who didn’t follow it became harsher over the years. Nevertheless, he was a close friend of William Newland, who was not in the Leach circle and didn’t like his artistic dominance.

Another of Murray’s initiatives was the Dacorum and Chiltern Potters Guild, of which he remained honorary president until 2009, when he retired and the job passed to Mervyn Fitzwilliam.

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.

 

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.

BUT IS IT ART? BUT IS IT COPYRIGHT?

A small argument has broken out on Wikipedia about whether a photo of a soup bowl can be included. The bowl (above) was one of the St Ives Pottery’s range of standard wares, introduced in the 1940s by Bernard Leach and his son David to provide an income stream for the business. Making standard ware was how generations of potters learned their trade in the much-coveted Leach pottery apprenticeships. Someone on Wikipedia said that the photo was a breach of copyright and that it had to be removed. Like all artists, I’m concerned to protect my intellectual property but I don’t know much about copyright law, and the law as it applies here is complex.

The Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 (section 62) says that an artist has copyright in a work of “artistic craftsmanship” and that such work can’t be copied and that a photo of it taken without the artist’s consent is a breach of copyright. An exemption is made for works of artistic craftsmanship displayed in public places, but the pot in this this photo is in the photographer’s private collection, not in a public place, and, odd as it may seem, that means that the exemption in section 62 doesn’t apply, and so, it is argued, the photo breaches the copyright of the artist. There is another exemption for “fair dealing” where copying is done for the purposes of private study, non-commercial research, criticism, review or comment on current events. Whether this covers Wikipedia or not is a question I leave to the copyright lawyers, but Wikipedia errs on the side of caution and removes anything doubtful.

A more important question, however, is whether the bowl is a work of artistic craftsmanship. These bowls were made in large quantities and over the years thousands of identical objects were produced. It is an example of mass production by hand in which the distinction between “craft” and “manufacture” is blurred. In the Wikipedia discussion, someone said it was not mass production but “limited repeat production by hand”, which implies that work made by hand cannot be mass production, but that is doubtful. The place where hand production ends and machine production begins is hard to define, and so is the place where a tool becomes a machine. Bernard Leach wanted to avoid machine production in his pottery and used foot-driven potter’s wheel, but it’s arguable that a kick-wheel is a machine and not a tool even if it is not steam-driven or electrically-driven. The argument that mass production is not possible without steam-driven or electrically-driven machinery, as opposed to human-driven machinery is also hard to sustain. Although such machinery facilitates mass production and turns out more than can be made by hand, hand workers are also capable of mass production. Country potters working on kick wheels could make hundreds of flower pots in a day and the Delft tile makers, who worked without machines of any kind, are estimated to have made eight hundred million tiles in two hundred years. Where does mass production begin? With a hundred pots a day, five hundred or five thousand? There is certainly a case to be made that the Leach pottery apprentices were engaged in small-scale mass production.

Bernard Leach admired country potters and tried to reproduce some of the conditions of their workshops at St Ives. His apprentices practiced repetition throwing and were given shapes to make in large quantities, and the lidded bowl in question was almost certainly made in that way. It is a work of craftsmanship, but in what sense can it be said to be a work of artistic craftmanship, which connotes inventiveness, creativity and originality – the qualities of the individual, one-off pieces made in the St Ives Pottery by Bernard Leach and Shoji Hamada and impressed with their personal marks? There is a certain degree of inventiveness and creativity in the design, but not a great deal of originality, but the output of the employees and apprentices of the pottery show none of those qualities.

The law protects intellectual property in artistic crafts, but not in crafts as such – so not, for example, a thatched roof.  In artistic craftsmanship there has to be

  • A conscious intention to produce a work of art
  • A real artistic or aesthetic quality
  • A sufficient degree of craftsmanship and artistry (existing simultaneously)

Considering the conditions of production in the St Ives Pottery under which this bowl was made, it is arguable that there was no intention to produce a work of art even if it has real artistic quality and a high degree of craftsmanship. As I said, I don’t know much about copyright law and lawyers might argue differently, but in my opinion the bowl is just a bowl and anyone can take a photo of it.