DEAL, KENT

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We stayed a few days in Deal, which is contributing to the revival of the Kent and Sussex seaside. It’s a sober resort with a couple of little galleries, a maritime museum and a modernist pier built in the 1950s. Norman Wisdom spent a miserable childhood in Deal and Charles Hawtrey a miserable retirement.

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We were attracted to The Rose Hotel, which descended from family and commercial house to roughest pub in town. Then it was reinvented as boutique hotel with London chef. Restaurant open Wednesday to Sunday. (We stayed Sunday to Tuesday.) There’s nice attention to detail, such as the room numbers painted by a sign writer.

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Next door is St George’s Church, neo-classical with 19th and 20th century additions and 21st century subtractions: its happy-clappy vicar has taken out the furniture for pop-music services. Gravestones are stacked against the wall to make a park for dog-walkers and joggers, lovely in the early-morning mist.

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The foreshore, as you walk to Kingsdown, is part of a site of special scientific interest, unfortunately without an information board. Wild fennel grows in the shingle and in the gardens. Soon the chalk rises to form the famous White Cliffs.

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A flat in this 1920s coastguard house (now a café) is on sale for £1.25m. There’s a bunker underneath it, excavated in the war as part of the Channel defences. Seeing the coast of France 18 miles away made me wonder how we stopped the German invasion. An exhibit at St Margaret’s Bay, evacuated for use by the armed forces, helps to explain.

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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.

DORA BILLINGTON VASES

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The owner of two Dora Billington vases has given them to me because she is moving house and has no room for them. They are signed and of good provenance. They are important pieces because there is little studio pottery by Billington still extant and none that I know of this size. The grey vase is 27 cm high, the black one 26 cm.

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They are hard to date, though further investigation of the signature may give a clue. Billington started making high-fired stoneware in the late 1920s and probably donated these pieces in the 1950s or 1960s. They are heavily potted, and so may be early works.

I plan to give them to a museum in due course. I am curating an exhibition at the Crafts Study Centre about Billington’s life and work, to be opened in 2020, and these noble vases will be exhibited there.

LEIGHTON HOUSE MUSEUM

 

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Leighton House Museum, the house Frederic Leighton built for himself in Holland Park, which I visited yesterday, will start a big improvement programme soon, due for completion in 2021.

Leighton House is famous for its Orientalist decoration, furnished from Leighton’s travels in the near East, and notable for walls covered in Iznik and Persian tiles set in glazed turquoise panels by William de Morgan. (No photos allowed, but good illustrations in the guidebook  ISBN 0902242237.) Its lavish and exotic public spaces contrast with Leighton’s monastic bedroom. He fiercely guarded his privacy and left almost no personal documents, but the design of the house suggests that he never intended to marry and it is now generally supposed that he was gay, which influences the way we look at paintings like Daphnephoria, (above), where the youths are painted with more conviction than the girls.

The peculiar design of the house, with a large studio, one bedroom and public rooms unsuitable for family living, made it unsaleable on his death in 1896. The sale of the contents, however, raised enough to keep it as a museum.  But it was really only eighty years after Leighton’s death that it began to be run as a proper monument to him. Disagreements between his sisters and Mrs Emilie Barrington, his adoring neighbour and biographer, blocked development for years. On their death the property was sold to the local council, then managed in a half-hearted way, a victim of indifference to Victorian art, and by the 1950s it had fluorescent lighting and cream-painted walls and was being used for exhibitions of modern art. John Betjeman spearheaded its revival, which began in the early 1980s, since when it has been carefully restored and appropriately furnished, original contents recovered wherever possible.

The final phase of the restoration will remove some late additions, restore the Perrin Wing, make a new entrance, improve disabled access and create stronger links with the local community.

 

BEATNIK POTTERS

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BBC Radio recently broadcast an edition of Hancock’s Half Hour from 1959, The Poetry Society. Hancock has joined a bunch of poets, the East Cheam Cultural Progressive Society.

Hancock: “We sit on the old cardboard tombstones round the plastic coffins…and we indulge in philosophical analysis. We formulate our plans for our Brave New World; Gladys takes it down in her notebook and when she’s filled it up we’re going to publish it. We’re calling it “A Thesis on the Reconciliation of Homo-Sapiens in Relationship with his Natural Destiny and the Theory of Selective Evolution”.

Sid: What else do you do?

Hancock: Well, during the day we pursue our various artistic sidelines, some of us make pots and jugs. Then there’s Adelaide, she’s very good on the raffia-mats. Then there’s Percy and his Welsh bedspreads. Some of us paint, and sculpt…and the rest of us lie in bed, thinking.

I was amused to hear that Galton and Simpson identified the crafts with pretentious pseudo intellectuals, just after journalists had coined the term “beatnik” for the Beat with beret and goatee beard playing the bongos. Were studio potters really like that? Mick Casson, one of the founders of the recently-formed Craftsmen Potters Association, had a beard, but he was pretty straightforward and down to earth. Pottery students at Goldsmiths under Richard Dunning  in the 1950s looked quite conventional (below).

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But I do remember in bourgeois Stanmore in the late 1950s a couple of artists with a shop selling their jewellery and pottery, who did look like members of the East Stanmore Cultural Progressive Society, with beard and sandals, long hair and wooden beads, whom I greatly admired, so I suppose the Hancock stereotype was based on something.

 

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.

 

QUERUBIM LAPA

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 (the best pastry shop in the city), 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 a seller of lottery tickets, 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.