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.

 

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.

 

HAMADA AND LEACH AT THE JAPANESE EMBASSY

The Japanese embassy has an exhibition of ceramics by Shoji Hamada, Bernard Leach and some of their early pupils, put on to celebrate the friendship between Mashiko, where Hamada had his studio, and St Ives, where they came in 1920 to start the Leach Pottery, Mashiko: Imagined in the UKThe relationship between the towns remains strong, Mashiko town contributing two million yen to the restoration of the Leach Pottery a few years ago.

We went to the exhibition launch on Wednesday, where the main speakers were Tomoo Hamada, Shoji’s grandson, and Rupert Faulkner, senior curator, Japan, in the Asian department of the V&A.

Leach, as we know, had a mission to bring together East and West, combining the best of both cultures, and the Eastern influence on his pottery is familiar, but the speakers made it clear that there was traffic the other way as well. Leach’s Japanese milieu in the second decade of the 20th century was infused with ideas from Ruskin and  Morris and there has been appropriation in Japan of English craft objects and methods, such as rush-bottomed chairs and the English method of making handles on pots, with a loop if clay at the side rather than a loop of bamboo on the top.

POTTERY THROWERS OF STOKE-ON-TRENT

I bought a pottery wheel and several other items from an old potter who is retiring, and among them were these slate throwers’ ribs from Minton’s, the factory where he used to work.

Throwers, who form pots on a rapidly spinning wheel, use these ribs to impart shape and a smooth surface to them. In Stoke-on-Trent the thrower was mainly concerned with the inside shape, and the usual practice was to take the pot when it was firm enough to handle and to impart the outside shape on a lathe.

In Hanley Museum there’s a picture of a thrower, George Myatt, at work at Lockett’s in 1932, with his wife as his assistant, and on the wall behind him there’s a large collection of throwing ribs (below).

In the 1970s Myatt was interviewed by Dr Gordon W.Elliott, who asked him to explain what a rib was.

G.M. The rib is a piece of slate, school slates were always the best, made to represent the inside of the article. They were filed exactly to shape the inside of the article, and the thrower held the rib in his left hand and made it smooth inside. The thrower finished the inside of the article, and the turner shaped the outside. The rib made it that the inside was finished.

G.W.E. Did you make your own ribs?

G.M. Yes, we all made our own ribs because ribs are like pens. It’s very rare that you can use another man’s ribs, very rare.

G.W.E. Is this why so many were inscribed with the thrower’s, or at least, maker’s name?

G.M. Yes, you will find some of mine and some that I left at Wedgwood that have got my name on them.

G.W.E. Was this so that other people wouldn’t take them? 

G.M. It was just that you liked to think that if you had a good rib you’d put your name on it. There was one glorious rib that I had at Lockett’s. It was one of very few ribs that I could use straight away, and it had been made by a man name Jess Amison. On the back of it said “William so and so, born so and so, died so and so. He was a good and generous master.”

G.W.E. So you actually used that rib for your throwing at Wedgwood’s?

 G.M. I did and it’s at Wedgwood’s now. I wish I’d never left it there.

G.W.E. So what was the usual number of ribs for a thrower to have?

G.M. You had a rib for everything you made. I’d got hundreds. You’ll find that at the back of that picture there’s a wall of ’em. You’d got everything egg cups, vases, mortars, every mortal thing that you made, you had a rib for it.

G.W.E. Were the slate ribs preferred to ribs in pottery? I mention this because some that I have seen were actually made from fragments of plates.

G.M. That was before they had any kind of refined slate. They’d even make them from roofing tiles at one time. I had quite a few of those made of earthenware. Yes, quite a lot in the early 19th century were made of earthenware. They were plates that had been trimmed off and made perfect. You had to soak them before they could be used otherwise they stuck to the clay as it went round.


My Minton ribs date from the 1930s, the same date as George Myatt’s picture, and they give me a physical connection to the old throwers of Stoke-on-Trent. Two of them have the thrower’s name on them: S. Lawley. One – the second from the left in my top picture – formed chocolate cups for Tiffany’s of New York. To me it looks like an outside profile, not an inside one – in my picture it’s upside down in relation to the cup (left) so that you can see S. Lawley’s name on it.

Minton’s were one of the old pottery firms that went through mergers before winding up and disappearing completely. They had a grand history and produced top-class work over a long period. After the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, they recruited Louis Solon from Sevres, who was responsible for some of their finest work.

By the 1930s much pottery in Stoke-on-Trent was cast in moulds, but throwers were still employed. In this film from 1935 about the making of silver jubilee mugs, a thrower starts the process by forming a rough pot on the wheel. It’s then dropped into a mould and shaped in a jolleying machine. In this case, the thrower doesn’t have to work precisely but he has to work at speed. He has a helper who forms the ball of clay for him and lifts the pot off the wheel; he centres the clay, opens it out, pulls it up and cuts it off, all in seven seconds. That’s 480 cups an hour – over 3,000 a day if he can keep it up that long.


Stoke-on-Trent throwers were faster and better than studio potters. As a child, I was fascinated by the BBC TV interval film of the potter’s wheel, which may have sparked my interest in pottery, but looking at it again recently I realised that the potter, George Aubertin of the Compton Potter’s Art Guild, was actually a rather bad thrower. More recently, at the exhibition Anarchy and Beauty: William Morris and his Legacy, I saw a film of Bernard Leach throwing and was surprised to see how slow he was, although a bit of a show off. Leach’s best pupil, Michael Cardew, also appears in this film to be slow and laboured.

The Stoke-on-Trent throwers and the studio potters had little to do with one another. In the 1970s George Myatt was completely unaware of studio pottery. His comment on the decline of his trade was, “Today I think there’s only about four or five throwers in England.” Actually, there were hundreds, but he could run rings round them all.

Paul Atterbury and Maureen Batkin, The Dictionary of Mintons, ACC Art Books, 1999
Gordon Elliott, Potters, Leek: Chernet Valley Books, 2004 
Fiona MacCarthy, Anarchy & Beauty: William Morris and his Legacy, London: National Portrait Gallery, 2014_______________________________________________
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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 (left) was part 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 pottery. Making standard ware was how generations of potters learned their trade in the much-coveted Leach pottery apprenticeships.

Someone said that the photo was a breach of copyright and that it had to be removed from Wikipedia. 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”.  Such work can’t be copied and 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, and, odd as it may seem, that means that section 62 doesn’t apply.

There’s 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 interesting question, however, is whether the bowl is a work of artistic craftsmanship. These bowls were made in huge quantities – over the years thousands of identical bowls were produced. It’s an example of mass production by hand in which the distinction between “craft” and “manufacture” becomes blurred. In the Wikipedia debate, someone said it was “limited repeat production by hand” rather than mass production, i.e. that work made by hand cannot be mass production, which only machines can do. That’s a distinction without a difference. Almost nothing is made by hand without tools and there’s no meaningful difference between tools and machines. Delft tile makers, who worked without machines, are estimated to have made eight hundred million tiles in two hundred years. What is that if not mass production?

Craft is a slippery concept and is virtually impossible to define. David Pye, the most trenchant writer on the subject, said that craft is sometimes defined in a way that makes it impossible to tell by looking whether a product is the work of a craftsman or not. The way it was defined was inconsistent and contradictory: items that were not works of craftsmanship said to be

  • Imprecise, or 
  • Precise, or
  • Unskilful, or
  • Made to someone else’s design, or
  • Made by power-driven tools, or
  • Producing a series of perhaps more than six things of the same design, or
  • Not made by the same person from start to finish.

The law protects intellectual property in artistic crafts, but not in crafts as such – so not a thatched roof, for example. 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 that Bernard Leach had such an ambivalent attitude to fine art and that he adhered to Yanagi Soetsu’s ideology of the Unknown Craftsman, it’s arguable that there was no intention to produce a work of art in the making of a thousand identical soup bowls. This bowl, made by an Unknown Apprentice, is just a bowl and anyone can take a photo of it.

A LUCY RIE BOWL AT THE FITZWILLIAM MUSEUM

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.