ROBIN WELCH

robin welch

I was sad to hear of the death of Robin Welch, one of the finest studio potters in Britain. In recent years he exhibited at Art in Clay, Hatfield, and I looked forward to chatting to him in his regular place at the show and buying some of his pots.

Robin was born in in 1936 and studied at Nuneaton and Penzance schools of art, receiving his NDD in sculpture and ceramics in 1953. He spent time at the Leach pottery in St Ives and he told me that, when he began exhibiting, Leach didn’t like his work (which some might take as a commendation). From 1956 he did his national service with the 2nd Battalion Parachute Regiment, taking the opportunity in the Middle East to visit peasant potteries. He then went on to do a postgraduate course in ceramics at the Central School of Arts and Crafts.

The Central was led in the post-war years by William Johnstone, who had moved it away from the arts and crafts (it later changed its name to the Central School of Art and Design) and introduced a design training based on the Bauhaus system and a collegiate style of teaching which exposed students to a variety of disciplines. Ceramics students were aware of the new American painting and in Cornwall Robin himself had already been inspired  by Terry Frost, John Tunnard and Barbara Tribe. They were taught by William Turnbull, Alan Davie and Eduardo Paolozzi (who, typically, was based in the textile department). Ceramics was led by Gilbert Harding Green, a man of wide culture who encouraged innovation, assisted by William Newland, Nicholas Vergette, Ian Auld, Dan Arbeid, Kenneth Clark and Gillian Lowndes.

After leaving the Central, Robin set up in London and got his first break from Henry Rothschild, who gave him £100 and carte blanche to make pots to be sold at the Primavera gallery. He spent three years in Australia, establishing a pottery with Ian Sprague, and returned to England in 1965 to set up the pottery at Stradbroke, Suffolk, where he worked until his death. At Stradbroke he launched high-volume production with half a dozen assistants, using industrial machinery which he’d been taught to use in Stoke-on-Trent. He spent twenty years in this sort of work, selling kitchen ware in interior design stores, but from the 1980s he made large, individual pieces like the one shown in the picture, for which he’s now better known.

A nice pamphlet about him, full of photos, Robin Welch – A Life, was produced by his granddaughter for a school project, but Robin told me he was sorry that no-one had wanted to write a full biography. Perhaps someone will now.

WHAT IF GROPIUS HAD BEEN DIRECTOR OF THE RCA?

I’ve been reading Hilary Cunliffe-Charlesworth’s thesis on the Royal College of Art and was intrigued to discover the British response to Bauhaus teaching and to Gropius, who came to England in 1934.

The RCA under Rothenstein had undergone radical change since 1920, when it was primarily a teacher training college. Rothenstein had brought in professional artists who were to have studios in the college and he encouraged the professional art teachers to leave. In 1924 he visited art schools in Prague, Berlin and Paris and saw that the work being done there surpassed anything to be found in England. His visit persuaded him that the College should neither be a teacher training institution nor offer vocational training for specific industries but that it ought to be delivering a high standard of general education to intending designers and artists. Weimar was not on his itinerary so he didn’t see the Bauhaus. Although he took pains to get more government money for the design department, his main achievement was in the fine arts – Paul Nash, Edward Burra, Henry Moore, Eric Ravilous and Edward Bawden were products of Rothenstein’s RCA.

There had been nagging discontent with the college’s failure to produce enough industrial designers more or less since it was founded in 1896, and these criticisms surfaced again during Rothenstein’s tenure. But the methods of the Bauhaus were never seen as as an alternative. It was thought by some in the Board of Education to be a fine art school and its socialist phase under Hannes Meyer frightened them.

When he came to England, Gropius was consulted on design education and his lectures were well attended, but on Rothenstein’s resignation he wasn’t considered as a successor. It’s fascinating to speculate what might had have happened if he had been. The revolution that occurred under Robin Darwin would have taken place ten years earlier. As it was, the Bauhaus system wasn’t fully applied in British art schools until the Coldstream Report in 1960. What if there had been a Gropius Report in 1935?

 

 

ANNI ALBERS

Anni-Albers-in-her-weaving-studio-at-Black-Mountain-College,-1937
Anni Albers in her weaving studio at Black Mountain College, 1937. (Photo: Helen M. Post, Western Regional Archives, State Archives of North Carolina)

I once shared a house with the weaver Jill Maguire, and as the house was small I had to share my bedroom with her loom; but although I watched her at work I never developed an interest in her art. So the Anni Albers exhibition at Tate Modern was an eye-opener to me.

ALBERS FABRIC
An Albers wallhanging designed in 1926 while she was at the Bauhaus

Albers (1899-1994) took up weaving rather reluctantly at the Bauhaus, where the weaving department was called the women’s workshop, but she discovered its artistic potential and even while still a student produced original and technically adept textiles that worked as abstract art. She seems to have become absorbed in the complex possibilities of weaving, which requires planning thread by thread, spatial reasoning and a grasp of permutation and combination.

She moved to the the USA in 1933 as the Nazis descended on the Bauhaus, and found work at Black Mountain College, where her practice was enlarged by the study and collection of the traditional weaving of South America. The equipment of these weavers was simple but their fabrics showed advanced mathematical thinking. Albers worked with twisted warps, double fabrics and floating wefts, pushing the boundaries of the craft. She was commissioned by forward looking industrialists who saw the commercial possibilities of her advanced methods. She demonstrated weaving to be a place where art, mathematics and manufacturing meet.

Anni-Albers-Tikal-1958-Cotton-30-x-23-in
Anni Albers, Tikal (1958), using twisted warps

Anni Albers Tate Britain
Until 27 January 2019

GILBERT HARDING GREEN

Gilbert Harding Green (above) was head of ceramics at the Central School of Arts and Crafts between 1955 and 1971. After the war, Dora Billington had built the ceramics department, with Harding Green’s assistance, into the most innovative and liberal in the country at a time that the Royal College of Art was teaching design for the pottery industry, Farnham was traditional and Camberwell was undistinguished. At the Central there was cross fertilization between disciplines and students studying pottery worked with Eduardo Paolozzi, William Turnbull and Alan Davie. The Central was one of the first art schools to teach Basic Design in the late 1940s, the generic and analytic approach to both painting and design, derived from the Bauhaus course that shaped foundation courses in British art schools.

Harding Green took over the department on Billington’s retirement and developed it “beyond recognition” in her approving verdict.  He expanded into the school’s new building in Red Lion Square, and, post-Coldstream, steered the course into the Diploma in Art and Design. His students included Ruth Duckworth, John Colbeck, Robin Welch, Eileen Nisbet, Richard Slee, Alison Britton and Andrew Lord.

Billington and Harding Green  both subsumed their artistic careers in teaching, Harding Green the moreso. His origins were exotic.  Born in 1906, he was the illegitimate offspring of  aristocratic parents, his mother English and his father either Dutch or Russian according to differing accounts. Most of his childhood and youth were spent abroad, much of it in Italy.  He told one of his students, Kenneth Clark, that, while living in the Vatican, he wandered into a room and looked idly into a chest of drawers, which he discovered to be full of marble penises. In his twenties he traveled in Brazil and learned Portuguese.

He studied sculpture under John Skeaping and Frank Dobson at the Central School in the 1930s and later turned to pottery.  Of the little work by him that still exists, most is totally original and does not derive from any obvious ceramic tradition.  In 1938 he became Billington’s assistant, beating off competition from Henry Hammond, who went on to head the pottery department at Farnham, and Moira Forsyth, who is now better known for her stained glass.

I recently saw this sculpted head in clay by Harding Green (above), which he exhibited with the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society in 1938.

A reviewer said: –

“It held me by its stark truth and brute ugliness – the hard smileless mouth, the hollow cheeks and buried eyes, the repaired nose, the punched ears, and the imbecilic slope of the forehead, and these inelegant features were mercilessly gripped with economy of effort and absolute certainty.”

The subject was far removed from the artist’s life.  Harding Green was a man of wide culture and elegant taste who would attend the ceramics classes in the Central School in a suit, tie and cuff-links, always ready to advise students on a good restaurant or to give away complimentary theatre tickets that he had managed to get hold of.