WOMEN POTTERS

lucie rie
Lucie Rie, one of the women potters in the Dictionary of National Biography

The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (DNB) is filling the gaps in its coverage of notable women and pottery is benefitting from the addition. I have been asked to write entries for Mary Wondrausch and Dora Billington.

Mary Wondrausch, who died in 2016, is well known to studio potters, especially those who are interested in slipware. She was important in its revival and wrote about it in a scholarly way (Mary Wondrausch on Slipware, A & C Black, 2001). Dora Billington (1890-1968), the most significant studio pottery educator in the 20th century, is less well known, even though some of her most eminent students (Alan Caiger-Smith, Gordon Baldwin and Anne Wynn-Reeves) are still alive. She began teaching pottery in the style of Alfred and Louise Powell but in the 1920s she responded immediately to the new pottery of Staite Murray and Bernard Leach. Her most important contribution came after the Second World War when studio pottery seemed to be full of second-rate Leach imitators. Taking her inspiration from the European tradition, she-encouraged new ways of making, notably the tin-glazed pottery of Caiger Smith, Wynn-Reeves and William Newland, and the sculptural ceramics of Baldwin and Gillian Lowndes. Her Technique of Pottery (1962) is still worth reading.

Perhaps there are other entries that could be written on women potters. The DNB has articles on Katherine Pleydell-Bouverie, Lucie Rie and Gillian Lowndes, but nothing at the moment on Louise Powell, Nell Vyse, Dora Lunn, Stella Crofts, Nora Braden, Ursula Mommens or Helen Pincombe.

RYE POTTERY

img041a

Tidying up my papers, I came across this old postcard, which I’d picked up at Gary Grant’s shop in Arlington Street behind Sadler’s Wells. The shop has been closed for many years, but I liked to pop in when I was going to the theatre to look at his excellent collection of mid-century pottery, especially his collection of Rye Pottery. These are Rye butter dishes.

The Rye Pottery was set up by Wally and Jack Cole and thrived after the war, capturing in their bright, whimsical ceramics the spirit of he Festival of Britain. They made tin-glazed tableware and decorative figures, which were very much of the time. The same spirit was expressed in the contemporary pottery of the Bayswater Three, William Newland, Margaret Hine and Nicholas Vergette, who made a good living decorating the interiors of coffee bars. This sort of pottery ran against the Leach current of Chinese-inspired stoneware. Newland found Leach’s dominance irritating but the Coles just got on with it. Their pottery still exists in Rye, still making tin-glazed wares.

Walter studied at the Central School of Arts and Crafts in the 1930s, when Dora Billington was teaching there and at a time when she was making exquisite tin-glazed ceramics, and he was subsequently a member of the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society, of which she was a leading member. Rye was a rare example of a commercially successful craft pottery. Kenneth Clark and Ann Wynn-Reeves ran a similarly successful enterprise, concentrating on tiles but also making use of decorated tin-glaze; and they were also graduates of the Central pottery course.

 

GORDON BALDWIN IN STOKE-ON-TRENT

Gordon Baldwin

Gordon Forsyth, who I wrote about yesterday, was well-known to Dora Billington, who taught at the Central School of Arts and Crafts for thirty-five years and who is also famous for her sympathies with factory pottery; but she had an ambivalent attitude towards her home town of Stoke-on-Trent and I don’t believe she ever worked there after leaving Hanley art school in 1912. Nevertheless, after the second world war she made a term in The Potteries a compulsory part of the course at the Central.

The history of studio potters offering their talents to industry is not happy. Michael Cardew, who we think of as one of the most anti-industry potters, was inspired by a temporary interest in Marxism to work in one of the Stoke-on-Trent potteries, but they considered his work too “Art and Crafty”. Lucie Rie had a better relationship with Wedgwood, but her prototypes were not put into production. David Queensberry started on the Central course in the early ‘fifties but found that no-one there knew anything about designing for industry and transferred to Robert Baker’s course at the RCA.

Gordon Baldwin told me about his experience as one of Billington’s students. “We all had a sort of down on what had gone on in Stoke-on-Trent,” he said. “We were breaking free of Leach, we were breaking free of Stoke-on-Trent, doing all manner of things.” But he enjoyed his term at Burslem art school, visiting potteries, finding out about industrial techniques, sitting in in with paintresses, learning rosebud painting and how to put on transfers, all of which he used in a different way.

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.