JAMES TOWER

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I caught up with the centenary exhibition of James Tower’s work at the Victoria Gallery, Bath, by chance after seeing a tweet and went to see it at the weekend. There’s a good collection of his ceramics, which I knew about, and his paintings, drawings and sculpture, which I didn’t.

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His shapes and marks show the influence of his childhood by the sea on the Isle of Sheppey. “This is a landscape of long silent marshes,” he said, “Where the sky seems to dominate the grey-green distance. There are few trees or hills. The forms that engage the eye are the small ones of the beach and the tidal wave. Shells, particularly the bivalves, oyster, mussel and razor shell. The flattened fish of the estuary, plaice, flounder and ray.”

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He studied at the Royal Academy and the Slade, then, training to be a teacher at the Institute of Education in 1949, he came under the influence of the potter William Newland and decided that ceramics offered a better means of artistic expression. He attended the Central School of Arts and Crafts part-time under Dora Billington, which gave him excellent technical instruction, though it was, in his view, aesthetically conservative.

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The Central encouraged a wide range of ceramic expression at the time. The artist-potters, Margaret Hine and Maggie Angus Berkowitz, were Tower’s contemporaries, while more traditional tableware was being made by John Solly, Innes Reich and Doreen Lambert. Tower regarded clay as a medium of exploration and was never a potter, though he later ran the pottery department at Corsham.

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His worked derived from vernacular European pottery and Picasso’s ceramics, which were so startling when they were first shown in Britain, but he quickly went beyond both, creating intriguing conversations between monochrome surface and organic form.

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CENTRAL ST MARTINS ARCHIVE

I’m looking at photos in the Central St Martins archive showing the ceramics class and students’ work in the mid 20th century, to find images to borrow for the exhibition about Dora Billington that I’m curating at the Crafts Study Centre.

The archive has artefacts as well as documents and I was amazed to find that they have a collection of the pigments Billington used. They are in paper packets and they’re dated, some with dates from the 1920s when she started teaching at the Central. They are remarkable because Billington, who had no children, has left no archive and no personal effects and nothing if her survives apart from her own pottery, which will form the core of the exhibition.

The pigments might not have survived. The archivist told me that Billington left some of her effects to Ian Auld, whom she’d taught and who had worked as her technician. Auld married Gillian Lowndes, of a later generation of Central students (and the most original ceramist of that period.) Auld and Lowndes died several years ago, but their daughter thoughtfully donated this interesting item.

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.

WOMEN POTTERS

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Lucie Rie, one of the women potters in the Dictionary of National Biography

The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (DNB) is filling the gaps in its coverage of notable women and pottery is benefitting from the addition. I have been asked to write entries for Mary Wondrausch and Dora Billington.

Mary Wondrausch, who died in 2016, is well known to studio potters, especially those who are interested in slipware. She was important in its revival and wrote about it in a scholarly way (Mary Wondrausch on Slipware, A & C Black, 2001). Dora Billington (1890-1968), the most significant studio pottery educator in the 20th century, is less well known, even though some of her most eminent students (Alan Caiger-Smith, Gordon Baldwin and Anne Wynn-Reeves) are still alive. She began teaching pottery in the style of Alfred and Louise Powell but in the 1920s she responded immediately to the new pottery of Staite Murray and Bernard Leach. Her most important contribution came after the Second World War when studio pottery seemed to be full of second-rate Leach imitators. Taking her inspiration from the European tradition, she-encouraged new ways of making, notably the tin-glazed pottery of Caiger Smith, Wynn-Reeves and William Newland, and the sculptural ceramics of Baldwin and Gillian Lowndes. Her Technique of Pottery (1962) is still worth reading.

Perhaps there are other entries that could be written on women potters. The DNB has articles on Katherine Pleydell-Bouverie, Lucie Rie and Gillian Lowndes, but nothing at the moment on Louise Powell, Nell Vyse, Dora Lunn, Stella Crofts, Nora Braden, Ursula Mommens or Helen Pincombe.

RYE POTTERY

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Tidying up my papers, I came across this old postcard, which I’d picked up at Gary Grant’s shop in Arlington Street behind Sadler’s Wells. The shop has been closed for many years, but I liked to pop in when I was going to the theatre to look at his excellent collection of mid-century pottery, especially his collection of Rye Pottery. These are Rye butter dishes.

The Rye Pottery was set up by Wally and Jack Cole and thrived after the war, capturing in their bright, whimsical ceramics the spirit of he Festival of Britain. They made tin-glazed tableware and decorative figures, which were very much of the time. The same spirit was expressed in the contemporary pottery of the Bayswater Three, William Newland, Margaret Hine and Nicholas Vergette, who made a good living decorating the interiors of coffee bars. This sort of pottery ran against the Leach current of Chinese-inspired stoneware. Newland found Leach’s dominance irritating but the Coles just got on with it. Their pottery still exists in Rye, still making tin-glazed wares.

Walter studied at the Central School of Arts and Crafts in the 1930s, when Dora Billington was teaching there and at a time when she was making exquisite tin-glazed ceramics, and he was subsequently a member of the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society, of which she was a leading member. Rye was a rare example of a commercially successful craft pottery. Kenneth Clark and Ann Wynn-Reeves ran a similarly successful enterprise, concentrating on tiles but also making use of decorated tin-glaze; and they were also graduates of the Central pottery course.

 

DATING DORA BILLINGTON VASES

 

I have been trying to date these two vases that I was given recently, and which I’m passing on to public collections.

Their provenance is good but they’re hard to date because they were given by the artist to the previous owner some time after they were made, but how long after we don’t know. They are signed on the bottom in the same way as dated pots made in the late 1930s, and my hunch, based on the clear Oriental influence, via Bernard Leach, and their heavy potting, is that is when they were made. Billington exhibited a stoneware vase with the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society in 1938, but, exasperatingly, the catalogue does not describe it.

MURRAY FIELDHOUSE

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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.