MURRAY FIELDHOUSE

fieldhouse
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.

BEATNIK POTTERS

hancock

BBC Radio recently broadcast an edition of Hancock’s Half Hour from 1959, The Poetry Society. Hancock has joined a bunch of poets, the East Cheam Cultural Progressive Society.

Hancock: “We sit on the old cardboard tombstones round the plastic coffins…and we indulge in philosophical analysis. We formulate our plans for our Brave New World; Gladys takes it down in her notebook and when she’s filled it up we’re going to publish it. We’re calling it “A Thesis on the Reconciliation of Homo-Sapiens in Relationship with his Natural Destiny and the Theory of Selective Evolution”.

Sid: What else do you do?

Hancock: Well, during the day we pursue our various artistic sidelines, some of us make pots and jugs. Then there’s Adelaide, she’s very good on the raffia-mats. Then there’s Percy and his Welsh bedspreads. Some of us paint, and sculpt…and the rest of us lie in bed, thinking.

I was amused to hear that Galton and Simpson identified the crafts with pretentious pseudo intellectuals, just after journalists had coined the term “beatnik” for the Beat with beret and goatee beard playing the bongos. Were studio potters really like that? Mick Casson, one of the founders of the recently-formed Craftsmen Potters Association, had a beard, but he was pretty straightforward and down to earth. Pottery students at Goldsmiths under Richard Dunning  in the 1950s looked quite conventional (below).

Hancock dunning_group

But I do remember in bourgeois Stanmore in the late 1950s a couple of artists with a shop selling their jewellery and pottery, who did look like members of the East Stanmore Cultural Progressive Society, with beard and sandals, long hair and wooden beads, whom I greatly admired, so I suppose the Hancock stereotype was based on something.

 

CERAMIC ART LONDON (continued)

I said that there were only a few traditional studio potters in Ceramic Art London last week and that there was more innovation than ever. Not surprisingly, some potters are unhappy about it. Eddie Curtis (above), a potter for forty years, and by no means conservative in his work, just missed selection and has written a long post on Facebook expressing his annoyance. He is leaving the Craft Potters Association (CPA) in protest.

Phil Rogers, a potter in the Leach tradition, who was for many years a leading figure in the CPA also writes about his disillusionment and explains why he left several years ago, feeling marginalized.

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.

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.

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.