During our weekend in Sheffield we visited the Graves Gallery, who have recently added Grayson Perry’s Comfort Blanket (2014) to their collection.
He describes his tapestry as “A portrait of Britain to wrap yourself up in, a giant banknote of things we live, and love to hate.”
The makers of the tapestry are not acknowledged in the museum’s notes, an annoying habit of artists and galleries who depend so much on craftsmen
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.
I’m co-ordinating the mentoring programme of the Society of Designer Craftsmen, which we run to help our new young members develop their professional careers, and as I don’t believe in reinventing the wheel I’m talking to organisations that run similar programmes. I’ve always worked this way, believing that standards are raised by sharing good practice.
So I was surprised to find that a few publicly-funded bodies were unwilling to talk to me. Their curt replies mean I can only guess why they are so unco-operative and my conclusion is that, now that such bodies regard themselves as businesses, some treat what they do not as a public service but as a commodity, and they treat other organisations doing the same thing not as colleagues but as competitors.
It will be obvious from my comments about Ruskin that I’m an admirer of David Pye, (above) who was the first person to talk sense about the crafts. Here’s a quotation from The Independent‘s obituary:
In The Nature of Design (1964), Pye exposed functionalism as fantasy. ‘Things simply are not ‘fit for their purpose’. At one time a flake of flint was fit for the purpose of surgery; and stainless steel is not fit for the purpose now. Everything we design and make is an improvisation, a lash-up, something inept and provisional. We live like castaways. But, even at that, we can be debonair and make the best of it. If we cannot have our way in performance, we will have it in appearance.’
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?”
“Blimey, I came out on my day off, and I can’t get away from work.”
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.
In 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.