ROBIN WELCH

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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.

JAMES TOWER

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I caught up with the centenary exhibition of James Tower’s work at the Victoria Gallery, Bath, by chance after seeing a tweet and went to see it at the weekend. There’s a good collection of his ceramics, which I knew about, and his paintings, drawings and sculpture, which I didn’t.

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His shapes and marks show the influence of his childhood by the sea on the Isle of Sheppey. “This is a landscape of long silent marshes,” he said, “Where the sky seems to dominate the grey-green distance. There are few trees or hills. The forms that engage the eye are the small ones of the beach and the tidal wave. Shells, particularly the bivalves, oyster, mussel and razor shell. The flattened fish of the estuary, plaice, flounder and ray.”

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He studied at the Royal Academy and the Slade, then, training to be a teacher at the Institute of Education in 1949, he came under the influence of the potter William Newland and decided that ceramics offered a better means of artistic expression. He attended the Central School of Arts and Crafts part-time under Dora Billington, which gave him excellent technical instruction, though it was, in his view, aesthetically conservative.

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The Central encouraged a wide range of ceramic expression at the time. The artist-potters, Margaret Hine and Maggie Angus Berkowitz, were Tower’s contemporaries, while more traditional tableware was being made by John Solly, Innes Reich and Doreen Lambert. Tower regarded clay as a medium of exploration and was never a potter, though he later ran the pottery department at Corsham.

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His worked derived from vernacular European pottery and Picasso’s ceramics, which were so startling when they were first shown in Britain, but he quickly went beyond both, creating intriguing conversations between monochrome surface and organic form.

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DESIGN EDUCATION IN 1916

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In my last post about the radicalism of Omega designs at around the time of the First World War, I mentioned that the context in which they were produced was the dominance of Arts and Crafts design. Art history focuses on innovation and the history of this period tends to be the history of Post-Impressionism, Cubism, Futurism and Expressionism, so, even if we understand that Omega were designing for a minority with avant-garde tastes, we can easily overlook the fact that the taste of most design-aware people was based on styles developed in the 1880s.

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In 1916, Charles Holme, editor of The Studio, published Arts & Crafts – A Review of the Work  Executed by Students in the Leading Art Schools, from which the illustrations here are taken – a fascinating record of what students were being taught at that time. Since the 1880s, many art school principals and lecturers had been drawn from members of the Art Workers Guild, and by the turn of the century the Arts and Crafts influence was firmly established. Both style and teaching methods changed, with a new emphasis on “designing in materials” rather than on paper. And as Holme’s illustrations demonstrate, art students were producing nothing like the Post-Impressionist and quasi-abstract designs of the Omega Workshops.

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CENTRAL ST MARTINS ARCHIVE

I’m looking at photos in the Central St Martins archive showing the ceramics class and students’ work in the mid 20th century, to find images to borrow for the exhibition about Dora Billington that I’m curating at the Crafts Study Centre.

The archive has artefacts as well as documents and I was amazed to find that they have a collection of the pigments Billington used. They are in paper packets and they’re dated, some with dates from the 1920s when she started teaching at the Central. They are remarkable because Billington, who had no children, has left no archive and no personal effects and nothing if her survives apart from her own pottery, which will form the core of the exhibition.

The pigments might not have survived. The archivist told me that Billington left some of her effects to Ian Auld, whom she’d taught and who had worked as her technician. Auld married Gillian Lowndes, of a later generation of Central students (and the most original ceramist of that period.) Auld and Lowndes died several years ago, but their daughter thoughtfully donated this interesting item.

MAY MORRIS

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A picture of this 1910 women’s suffrage banner, juxtaposing Arts and Crafts irises and the hammers and horseshoes that the Suffragettes used to break shop windows with, was tweeted by @womensart1

My first thought was, “Did it have anything to do with May Morris?” considering that she was an important Arts and Crafts embroiderer and had been an active socialist since she joined the Hammersmith Socialist League, which was run by her father William Morris. She was largely responsible for the revival of free hand embroidery and taught it at the Central School of Arts and Crafts. 

I found Elizabeth Crawford’s blog about a Suffrage Procession organised by the Womens’ Union of Suffrage Societies in 1908, featuring banners designed by the Artists’ League for Women’s Suffrage, including some made by May Morris. Anna Mason writes of Morris’s political engagement that she was not militant and that during her father’s period of political activity in the 1880s she did not like the idea that he might be arrested. So it may be that she was not associated with the window-breaking Suffragettes; and in 1910 she had long departed from Hammersmith and was living in Oxfordshire.

BILLINGTON MAIOLICA JUG

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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.

GEORGE CLARKE AND CHRIS BRAMBLE

george-clarkeIn his current Channel 4 series, “Old House, New Home”, architect George Clarke asks potter Chris Bramble to make an umbrella stand for a couple featured in the programme and George has a go at throwing himself (above). (Series 3, Episode 1) George makes a pretty good fist of it, handling a large lump of clay, and, on his first go he does better than many beginners manage after a year of evening classes.

I’ve seen this kind of thing before. A mechanical engineer I knew with years of experience of lathe turning, asked me to show him how to throw and took to it at once.  The potter William Newland, who taught at Central School of Arts and Crafts (now Central Saint Martins), said, “I found that most students can be taught to throw. A small percentage are natural; some even though they are hooked on day one find throwing difficult if not impossible.”

I guess there are certain abilities, like the spatial awareness of the architect or the turning ability of the engineer, that can be transferred quickly to throwing on the wheel. Physical strength is essential, so is hand-eye co-ordination. Other qualities that make a good thrower are observation, discrimination and taking care. I have seen experienced amateurs who simply do not notice essential details of their making, such as the profile of a rim or a foot-ring. As in many occupations, like sport and music, good pottery-making depends on some innate qualities that cannot be learned.