On a visit to Lisbon I found that the azulejo tradition is not only more deeply rooted in Portugal’s culture than I realised but that it remains alive and is being continually renewed.
The Lisbon metro has been decorated in azulejos over the last twenty years, using modern techniques like screen printing and styles and themes that are completely contemporary. Then, when we were walking past the Pasteleria Alcôa at 37 Rua Garrett, I saw the tiled shop front made by Querubim Lapa in 1960, a beautiful, softly-painted panel in shades of blue.
Lapa, I discovered, was one of Portugal’s principal contemporary ceramic artists. The high esteem in which tile painting is held in this country meant that after a training and early career in easel painting, he was able to concentrate entirety on ceramics.
The shop in Rua Garrett, originally for Casa da Sorte, was a collaboration between architect Francisco Conceição Silva and Lapa. Lapa rated his contribution so highly that he asked for his application for the chair in ceramics at the school of fine arts to be assessed on it alone.
When Casa da Sorte closed, there was concern for the future of this fine ceramic work, but, when Alcôa took over the building in 2015, they undertook not to disturb it.
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.
There is a picture (below) taken from a similar angle when the factory was in use:
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.”
I took some Associate Members of the Craft Potters Association to the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge on Tuesday, to view and handle seven ceramics from their collection. The Fitzwilliam has one of the best ceramics collections in Britain and doesn’t have room to display them all, so we were able to see some that aren’t on show.
Above you can see Dr. Julia Poole, past keeper of applied arts, explaining one of the works to us.
We were able to handle a celadon wine jug from Korea, a maiolica dish from the workshop of Durantino in Urbino, a very large Thomas Toft dish (left) with a picture of Adam and Eve, a Bernard Leach pagoda-lidded pot, a yellow bowl by Lucie Rie, a colourful pot by Kate Malone and a hollow, monochrome form by Gordon Baldwin. The pieces were chosen to cover a wide range of styles, methods and periods. Dr. Poole is a specialist in Italian maiolica and gave a fascinating insight into the social conditions in which the Durantino dish was produced. The Toft dish was naively, even crudely, painted, but with great wit and energy and a skilled appreciation of how to fill a space with an image and decorative elements and how to create rhythm and energy with three colours.
But the piece that stood out for me was the Lucy Rie bowl, in the centre of the table in the top picture. It is 34cm wide, finely made, with a pitted and bubbly, sulphur-yellow glaze. A Stoke-on-Trent potter would say that the glaze is faulty, but Rie, who made innovative use of pinholed, bubbling, and volcanic glazes, has judged it perfectly. It was made in the early 1950s. Perhaps it is unfair to compare it with the Leach dish, which was made towards the end of his life when his sight was failing, but it is so much more light and refined and lacking the peasanty affectation of Arts-and-Crafts pottery.
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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