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.

TONALÁ POTTERY

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I’m not a collector but sometimes I see something I like, and then I learn something new. I bought this pottery bird in a charity shop. I thought it had been made in continental Europe but after having it a few years I discovered it was Mexican, made in Tonalá, where handicrafts is the major industry (below) and where pottery has been made from  pre-Hispanic times.  The clay is burnished and not glazed and the brushwork is very delicate. The shape is particularly nice – other Tonalá birds are not as pretty.

 

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A S HANDOVER

I was demonstrating my painting of tin-glazed ceramics and noticed that one of my visitors was watching me keenly. Customers who are that interested are often evening-class potters.

“Hello. Do you make pottery yourself?”

“No, I make brushes.”

“Really? Who do you work for?”

“A S Handover.”

“What a coincidence. I always use your brushes.”

“I thought so. That’s a 2115, isn’t it?”

“Yes.”

“Blimey, I came out on my day off, and I can’t get away from work.”

IMITATING CRAFT

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Since my visit to Top Drawer, where I saw how artisanal goods are so on trend that manufacturers of consumer products are striving to make their things look hand-made, I’ve been on the lookout for other ceramic tableware like that and I went straight to Denby, who have been aware of the craft niche since the 1960s. Denby “Halo” (above) uses a complex streaked glaze similar to that used by studio potters.

The idea of making things that look like craft products raises the question, “What does a craft product look like?” I keep going back to David Pye, who is one of the few people to talk sense about making, and who said, “Workmanship of the better sort is called, in an honorific way, craftsmanship. Nobody, however, is prepared to say where craftsmanship ends and ordinary manufacture begins.” (The Nature and Art of Workmanship) He didn’t think the term “craft” was particularly useful and preferred to distinguish between two kinds of workmanship, the workmanship of risk and the workmanship of certainty. The use of machinery helped to produce the regular, finished and repeatable products of the latter kind, but he further questioned the distinction between hand work and machine work, since – as everyone has known for a long time – a machine is a tool driven by some motive force, and the difference between hand power, water, steam or electricity is not important. He concluded that it was impossible to tell by looking at something whether it is the work of a “craftsman” or not.

Since it is difficult to tell from an object’s appearance whether it was made by a “craftsman” or was “manufactured”, the craftsman look can be easily produced under factory conditions.  In case there’s any doubt, the mugs below, by potter Chris Keenan, are handmade and look similar to the pottery made in Denby’s factory.

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THE JOHN BLACK COLLECTION

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Items from John Black’s important collection of Dutch and English Delft were sold by auction today following his death. The details are here.

I visited Dr Black with the Oxford Ceramics Group (of which he was president) in 2013, when handling pieces from his collection gave insights into the workshop practice of the old tin-glaze potters.

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For example, if you have seen a 17th century Delft dish in a museum you may have noticed three marks inside it, indicating that it was fired in a stack separated by three-pronged spurs. These dishes always have a narrow foot-ring, which gives an elegant finish to a fairly roughly made object; but seeing an old spur and having demonstrated to me how a dish fitted on top of it (above) made it clear that the reason for the small foot-ring was practical, not aesthetic. In the 17th century, as firing became more sophisticated, dishes were supported under their rims instead and the foot-ring could be made wider.

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The plate above is unusual in having been decorated in all five of the pigments available to potters at the time: iron brown, copper green, antimony yellow, cobalt blue and manganese purple. Manganese mixed with cobalt produces a good black. Decoration in one, two or three colours is almost universal, the design easier to conceive and manage, with stronger identity and clearer differentiation, than decoration in four or five colours, which is rare.

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The plate above (Netherlands, first quarter of the 17th century) caught my eye because the green in the balls is turquoise rather than the more yellowish green normally produced by copper in a lead tin glaze, which indicates that this plate was covered in an alkaline glaze. Alan Caiger-Smith, in Tin-Glaze Pottery in Europe and the Islamic World, reports the following Dutch glaze recipe from the mid-eighteenth century:

50 lb. dry sand
15 lb. potash
20 lb. soda
6 oz. manganese
Mixed, calcined, ground and sieved.

To this are added:
20 lb. lead
20 lb. tin
Calcined, and oxidized ground and sieved.

Such a glaze was 28 per cent alkaline (disregarding impurities), which would certainly have produced turquoise in the presence of copper oxide.

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The trouble with copper oxide is that it blurs and it is difficult to make a sharp mark with it. Such a quality can be exploited by the designer, but from about 1700 it was replaced with a crisp green made by mixing antimony yellow with cobalt blue, which made an olive green as in the plate above (1720-40).

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There were other insights, perhaps none so revealing as that offered by duplicated designs. In the example above, each plate is copied from the same pattern but they are different in treatment and interpretation. The painter on the left fills the space better and paints his motifs more decisively. In other examples the brushwork varies even more, between fluent and confident strokes and tight, awkward movements. It is clear that these Chinese-style decorations were often painted without understanding, almost as a set of meaningless abstract marks, and some of them look very odd indeed.

Dr Black had plates with bad faults in glaze or pigment and the fact that they had been sent to market at all tells you something about the economics of the potteries or the lack of supervision within them.

His little book British Tin Glazed Earthenware (2001) illustrates his collection.

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.

CERAMICS CO-OP, BERMONDSEY

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I visited Anna and Tatiana Baskakova (above) at the Ceramics Studio Co-op in Bermondsey on Wednesday to find out about their enterprise to support emerging potters. Although it’s their brainchild, the studio is a worker’s co-operative, owned and run by the artists who work in it, committed to the values of “self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equality, equity and solidarity.”

They provide studio space for amateur and professional ceramists, run classes and offer a kiln firing service. Since The Great Pottery Throwdown there’s been plenty of demand for pottery classes and workshops. The co-op has eight resident artists including Anna and Tatiana. They started with a loan in 2014 , which they paid off this year, and they’ve had an Arts Council grant for kilns, but otherwise the co-op is a business and its expenses are covered by users’ fees. And being in an industrial area they can scavenge bits of kit from local skips – their tubs and buckets (which potters can never have too many of) were all got that way.

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The Ceramics Studio Co-op is the new face of pottery training, offering flexible learning and open access studios. I wrote earlier about Turning Earth Studios and there’s also Clay College Stoke, formed by potters who were concerned about the potential loss of skills. These well-equipped ventures are emerging as university courses close, local authority classes price themselves out of the market and schools discontinue pottery under the pressure of exams and the national curriculum. They represent the growing enthusiasm for artisanal products and making by hand and a reaction to the retreat from the haptic to the screen. There was a recent article about lack of dexterity in surgical students who had had too much screen time, and an art teacher told me that new students didn’t know how to hold a pencil, didn’t think they had to draw and thought that it was enough to download pictures from the internet.

The Co-op, Turning Earth and Clay College are making pottery more accessible and I expect their success to generate more initiatives elsewhere. When I looked for training forty years ago it was difficult to find and quite rigid. There were a few potters offering apprenticeships, but they didn’t pay enough for the apprentice to live on, and there were a few degree and diploma courses. As the Craftmen Potters Association wrote at the time:

Anyone wishing to develop pottery skills to a professional standard has two choices: to enter a workshop direct as a trainee assistant, or to follow an art school course with a strong bias towards craft pottery. Many potters and students favour a combination of the two – a preliminary art school training followed by a period of workshop practice.

It was a huge leap from a leisure class to this sort of training and required a big commitment of time and money. The new ceramics training is more adaptable and responsive to the trainee’s needs. At the Ceramics Studio Co-op you can do a leisure class for fun, a more specialized course, or take studio space and progress to professional practice.

Ceramics Studio Co-op
Unit 17C
Juno Enterprise Centre
Juno Way
New Cross
London
SE14 5RW

020 8691 6421