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 art teacher told me that new students didn’t know how to hold a pencil 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

LONDON DESIGN FESTIVAL

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As part of the London Design Festival, I’m exhibiting with London Potters at In Design@Battersea, in Battersea Power Station. Part of the riverside, where we are, has already been transformed, elsewhere it’s one of the largest building sites in London.

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My new work on show, In Design@Battersea

Grosvenor Arch, Circus West Village, Battersea Power Station, London SW1 8AH. Underground: Sloane Square. Easy pedestrian access from Chelsea Bridge.

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In Design@Battersea opening
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Grosvenor Arch

SOCIETY OF DESIGNER CRAFTSMEN (2)

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I’m delivering ceramics like this (above) this morning to “Hand of the Maker”, the Society of Designer Craftsmen‘s annual members’ exhibition, to be held this year for the first time at Chelsea College of Arts in John Islip Street, opposite Tate Britain. It opens on Friday, 13 July, and continues until 21 July.

I’m taking the opportunity to post a message from the SDC’s website about the refurbishment of our gallery and workspace in Rivington Street, a project that I’ve been involved with as a Trustee of the Society. I’ll continue to post news about the plan as it advances.

Fundraising for a Sustainable Future
“In our 130th year, the Society of Designer Craftsmen is excited to be working with Elliot Payne Architects to ensure the Society continues to be the success it is today. To help secure our future, we are currently fundraising to refurbish our headquarters in London’s vibrant Shoreditch to provide a members gallery for public exhibitions and creative spaces where members can meet clients and take part in workshops. If you wish to support us in this venture please contact chair@societyofdesignercraftsmen.org.uk.”

 

 

BEATNIK POTTERS

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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).

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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.

 

VILLAGE UNDERGROUND, LISBON

On the way back from Belém and MAAT we looked in at Village Underground, a space in the dock area that has been taken over for a new cultural initiative using old containers and buses. It’s under the 25 April bridge and next to the converted warehouses used for creative industries and new businesses.

This is how they describe it:

“Village Underground (VU) is an international platform for culture and creativity, which was created in London in 2007 and reached Lisbon in 2014. It is also a coworking community and a creative events destination.

“Its unique architectural structure is made from shipping containers and double decker buses, recycled into office spaces, a restaurant and conference room.

“A landmark in the Lisbon landscape, Village Underground is home to a new creative community in the city.”

As it was Sunday there wasn’t much going on, but it was an attractive space and I was sorry not to see it in use.

WEDGWOOD’S VASES

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Wedgwood Black Jasper Vase

In my post on the Vase Mania that swept the country after the discovery of Pompeii and Herculaneum, I mentioned that, as the craze faded away, Wedgwood decided to go down market and to sell his vases more cheaply to the middle classes.

“The Great People have had these Vases in their Palaces long enough for them to be seen and admired to the Middling People,” he said, “which Class we know are vastly, I had almost said, infinitely superior, in numbers to the great, and although a great price was, I believe, at first necessary to make these vases esteemed Ornaments for Palaces, that reason no longer exists, and the middling people would probably buy quantities of them at a reduced price.”

Robin Reilly in his excellent biography explains that Wedgwood’s motives were more complex. Although he had become a hugely successful potter, he never seemed to have any money. Although the business made a profit, he was in debt, and a rumour was going around that he could not pay. He observed that if you lost money you could get it back, but if you lost reputation you would never recover. Up to that point he thought the remedy was better debt collection, but Reilley uncovered the fact that Wedgwood and his partner Tomas Bentley did not understand their business accounts. He was, in fact, under-capitalised, a common shortcoming in rapidly expanding enterprises. Reilley is an ideal biographer because, as well as being a historian, he was a senior manager at Wedgwood for twelve years.

With characteristic energy and resolve, Wedgwood set to analysing his costs, which he had never bothered about too much before. He virtually invented cost accounting and the production of cheaper vases was inspired as much by cost control and the need to improve cash flow as it was by changing fashion.

ELMS IN THE LANDSCAPE

In twenty years, Dutch Elm disease (DED) changed the English landscape that it had taken centuries to make. The elm tree was big, rough and rugged. A specimen tree could grow to 45 metres. Now, fifty years after DED, only a few protected colonies remain. Those who never saw it won’t miss it, but those who knew it feel there’s something missing from their countryside.

I grew up on the margin of London, and as child learned the names of trees. Elms fringed our school and I became familiar with their corky bark and their asymmetrical saw-toothed leaves.

A fine specimen of English elm. (Know Your Broadleaves, HMSO, 1975)
Herbert Edlin of the Forestry Commission described the English elm in 1968, before DED had taken hold:

“The English elm has a magnificent habit of growth, which cannot be matched elsewhere; it adds an individual note to the landscape of England’s vales. The trunk is stout and erect, growing far taller than any associated tree, and from it there extend great billowing clouds of foliage, borne on distinct branch groups. Growth is rapid, and elms are rightly planted, preserved or encourage ed to grow from suckers along the hedgerows as a profitable source of timber. Records for height are 141 feet [43 metres] and for girth 25 feet [7.6 metres], though today no tree taller than 122 feet [37.2 metres] can be found, this stands at Youngsbury near Ware in Hertfordshire.”

In Sylva Britannica, Jacob Strutt (1784-1867) placed elms second in precedence only to oaks. Of the ancient elm in the village of Crawley (above) he reflects that it is –

“an inexhaustible source of pleasure to the train of village children who cluster like bees around it; trying their infant strength and courage in climbing its mimic precipices, whilst their parents recall, in their pastimes, the feelings of their own childhood; when, like them, they disported under the same boughs.” 

Crawley is now under the Gatwick flight path.

The Wych elm is quite different from the English elm. There are many hybrids, including the Dutch elm. The disease is not named after the Dutch elm but after the country where it was identified; it particularly affects the English elm. The tendency to hybridise means that there are local forms, given names like Huntingdon elm and Cornish elm. A confusing tree.

The English elm produces few fertile seeds and propagates by suckers, from which most in our landscape have been cultivated; they are local clones of a local variety. Few elms are truly wild. Both the appearance of the elm and its place in the landscape are products of human activity. Landscape is not natural, it is stage managed and carefully constructed.

It makes a noble subject for the landscape painter. Cuyp’s River Landscape (top picture) shows a clump of half a dozen elms and cattle resting in their shade. (National Gallery).

Constable loved and studied English elms. His painting of Dedham Lock and Mill (V&A) (below) shows them in all their roughness, irregularity and grandeur.

Paul Nash, for whom the landscape was numinous and full of significance, was bound to paint An Avenue of Elms (below).


What made me think of elms in the landscape were the remnants of elms all around us. DED kills the crown but not its roots. Except for the Wych elm, which reproduces only by seed, they throw up suckers that continue until they’re knocked back by the disease. They rarely die completely and the rootstock survives. I keep a lookout for them, and in my home town of St Albans there are several hedges and small trees.

Elms growing to 11 metres (centre of picture), Lady Spencer Grove, St Albans

Elm leaves and trunk, Lady Spencer Grove, St Albans 
Elm cropped to make a useful hedge, King Harry Lane, St Albans
Oliver Watson, the ecologist, takes an unsentimental and scientific view of trees. He wrote to The Times after the Great Storm of 1987 to tell people that it wasn’t such a tragedy because it culled the weakest trees. To those who complain about their favourite wood being coppiced, he says that woods were planted as crops and that the end of economic coppicing means they’re not being properly managed. He says that there have been repeated waves of DED throughout history and the trees have eventually acquired immunity. That will happen again, though it may take centuries.