NEW IDEAS AT CERAMIC ART LONDON

Anna Barlow’s deliciously playful ceramic ice creams

Ceramic Art London, an exhibition of work by over 75 leading ceramists, was held at the Royal College of Art last weekend. The show, put on by The Craft Potters Association in partnership with Ceramic Review, has been running for several years and is one of the most important events in the ceramics calendar. Each artist’s work is displayed on a stand a bit like a market stall and, although non-functional ceramics are strongly represented, there is no room for very large pieces or for installations.

For my money, these were some of the best exhibitors, whose work shows development and an engagement with new ideas.

Matthew Blakely. A completely new range of work inspired by the geology of Britain, rougher and wilder than his previously exhibited ceramics.

Jack Doherty. Porcelain fired to produce subtle colours of earth, sky, sea, copper and iron, gradually evolving in its form and glaze.

Clare Crouchman. Tiles, slabs and tablets exploring repetition and variation in a mathematical way. She is not tempted to make vessels. She is also a print maker.

Delfina Emmanuel. Exotic and complex objects hinting at strange life forms. Painstakingly made and full of detail, her work gradually moving away from the teapots she started with.


James Hake. Within the Anglo-Oriental tradition but taking tenmoku and iron glazes to the point of abstraction.

John Higgins. Hand building, basing his structures on thrown forms. The glazed piece pictured herewas not as successful as the rough engobes and oxides he also showed.

Myun Nam An. Making curious and original forms, referring to eyes but also reminiscent of diatoms and bon-bons.

Valeria Nascimento. Grey white and black floating slivers of clay, as far from the vessel form as you can  get. Despite her small exhibition space, she almost mounted an installation.

Elke Sada. Innovative slab built forms decorated in dripping polychrome, looking more like household paint than glaze. A portfolio reveals an artist fizzing with ideas. Awarded the Ceramic Review prize for best in show.

Barry Stedman. A landscape painter gradually evolving his ceramic forms and colours and showing something subtly different at every exhibition.

Each year you will find a few new artists alongside the core of regular exhibitors. If you go every year, you will see familiar work by exhibitors who, it appears, want to remain in the same place. Against that background, it was good to see artists on a journey or with new things to say.

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EMMANUEL COOPER

Emmanuel Cooper (from Online Ceramics)

Emmanuel Cooper, one of the leading figures in British studio pottery, died recently at the age of 73.  He was the founding editor of Ceramic Review in 1970 and continued editing it until 2010.  He was a writer, teacher and curator as well as a potter and served the Craft Potters Association and the Crafts Council.

I first met him in the late 1960s at the Fonthill Pottery in Finsbury Park.  Later he moved to Primrose Hill, where the Fonthill Pottery has a shop front in a good position.  The last time I passed it, the window showed recent pottery, work in progress and his motorbike. 
His pottery was urban and modernist, but functional rather than conceptual.  He became a fantastic innovator in brilliantly coloured glazes  with textured surfaces.
He was one of the potters I approached for advice and to ask if he would take me on as an assistant.  Although he couldn’t take on anyone at that time, he was one of the most helpful and encouraging potters I met. Later he was an external examiner at the University of Westminster when I studied ceramics at Harrow.  Our interviews there were more formal than our first one, but he was good at putting students at ease.  I was very critical of the work I showed.  Emmanuel didn’t tell me to relax my standards but reminded me that when one stops being self-critical it’s time to stop making.

HAND MADE TABLEWARE: GETTING BETTER ALL THE TIME

The curator at the Nantgarw Pottery museum in Wales demonstrates the use of the jolleying machine, 2006. A craft technique retained in industry or an industrial technique applied to craft?  © Marshall Colman

There was a good piece in Ceramic Review a couple of years ago about tableware and studio pottery. It showed two pieces of pottery by David Leach, a little fluted bowl and the same shape with a handle and a saucer. The bowl cost four times as much as the cup and saucer. The cup is tableware, the bowl is art.

It’s often said that tableware is dead. Few graduating ceramicists make tableware and many skilled makers have turned to art instead because they got tired of repetition throwing or couldn’t make a living from it. But how dead is tableware exactly?

The market for functional studio pottery can be measured. In the mid 1970s, over half the members of the Craft Potters Association (CPA) were making tableware, in the mid 1990s just over a third, today under a quarter. But although the proportion of makers has gone down, the number has gone up. There are more potters and more makers of tableware than ever. Apart from the members of the CPA (which represents about ten per cent of the ceramicists in Britain), there are thousands of potters making tableware for local markets. Some of them are unimaginative and technically weak, and the worst are an argument for factory-made pottery. But the best are very good. They are supplying a growing market for hand-made tableware that is worth tens of millions of pounds a year.

Why, then, is the market for tableware said to be dead? Partly because there was a time when “ceramics” was pretty well equivalent to “tableware”, which is not the case today. Partly because demand fluctuates with the economic cycle. Partly because few potters can make a living from it even at the best of times.

Studio pottery and factory pottery have more in common than the Arts and Craftsy studio potter liked to admit. There has always been an exchange between studio ceramics and the pottery industry, and it shows that hand-made tableware and factory-made tableware are complementary, not opposed to one another. Completely automated production is possible but many factories use quasi-craft techniques, and studio potters use some industrial methods. What distinguishes studio pottery from industrial pottery is not its methods but the fact that some studio potters make a fetish of method. The commonality of studio and factory is such that it’s impossible to say whether jigger-and-jolly is a craft technique retained in industry or an industrial technique applied to craft.

One of the only people to talk any sense about craft was David Pye. He pointed out what should have been obvious, that nothing is made by hand and that everything is made with tools. The distinction is not between hand made and machine made but between the type of motive force that drives the tool and the in way in which it is guided. In the making, the difference is not between craft and manufacture, but between the workmanship of risk and the workmanship of certainty. Things made with hand tools in small runs cannot always be distinguished by appearance from things made with power tools in long runs.

With rising standards of interior design and higher consumer spending, the market for tableware has become more varied and complex. Design-led retailers sell elegant, factory made ceramics that are just as good as studio ceramics and often better. Rather than competing with handmade tableware, this sort of ceramics has lifted the standard of handmade tableware. The new ceramics galleries of the Victoria and Albert Museum have a representative sample of studio pottery from its heyday in the 1950s, demonstrating how bad it was.  Consumers today expect to have a wide choice of good products, both mass-produced and hand made. Marketing events like Origin have helped to bring hand made tableware to this discerning public, to raise its price and, by selecting exhibitors, to raise craft standards as well.

GRAYSON PERRY OFF-CENTRE

Here is an article Grayson Perry wrote in Ceramic Review a few years back.

“A ceramics centre in North Devon? Why not go the whole hog and put up signs saying ‘You are now entering “Leach Country”?’ After all, we’ve got Bronte Country and Hardy Country. A Potter’s Book should be made into a TV mini-series with Colin Firth as Bernard Leach.

“Pottery has been trying to shake of the smock of those kickwheel wurzels for more than a generation. Most good functional ware now seems to owe more to Philippe Starck than Michael Cardew and the arty farty ceramists all want to be Rachel Whiteread or Gilbert and George, not Barbara Hepworth.

“If you stick the centre down in that caravan traffic-jam called the West Country, nobody but grockles and trainspotters will ever visit the place. If we have to have an institution that is defined by its material like some medieval tradesman’s guild, then bung it somewhere in the middle.

“I’m sure all those ‘liddle’ potteries tucked away in Windchime-upon-Jostick churning out sub-Keeler and owls would benefit from exposure to Islington Man, but most pot-knockers live in lovely towns. I for one do not want to traipse out into overrated Devon countryside to avail myself of the Carpal Tunnel Syndrome seminar. Even Essex has more thatched cottages in one village than the entire West Country, so why not plonk the centre in Castle Hedingham.

“I have always needed a reason to go to Birmingham. Why not a disused council tower block in Britain’s second city? The centre could provide some of the following invaluable services:

“Pot recycling: Bring along all those god-awful pots, i.e. 99% of them that clog the nation’s shelves. Make space for good work and supply a profitable hardcore business.

“Careers advice: This could just consist of a sign saying, ‘Don’t become a potter we’ve got enough, go and do something useful.’

“Self-help group: For potters addicted to rabbiting on about firing cycles and their home-made pug-mill. Hopeless cases could sit in a room boring on until, after several days of trading tips with other technical know-alls, they might run out of things to say.

“For the public, we could jazz up pottery’s dreary old evening class and beard image with a few theme park style rides. They could have names like The Whirler, Slab Roller and Quartz Inversion Point.

“If this centre ever gets off the ground, please let it not become another place for families to drive to on a Sunday afternoon; whisking round the exhibits in ten minutes, half an hour in the shop buying Lucie Rie tea towels, Hans Coper fridge magnets and Philip Eglin scented candles, then an hour trying to swallow dry carob cake served on half inch thick ‘real clay’ crockery that cools tea to room temperature in thirty seconds. Outside the kids playing on a huge fibreglass harvest jug. It’s enough to make we want to throw.”

The Bideford pottery centre was never built.