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

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.

DORA BILLINGTON VASES

grey-vase

The owner of two Dora Billington vases has given them to me because she is moving house and has no room for them. They are signed and of good provenance. They are important pieces because there is little studio pottery by Billington still extant and none that I know of this size. The grey vase is 27 cm high, the black one 26 cm.

black-vase

They are hard to date, though further investigation of the signature may give a clue. Billington started making high-fired stoneware in the late 1920s and probably donated these pieces in the 1950s or 1960s. They are heavily potted, and so may be early works.

I plan to give them to a museum in due course. I am curating an exhibition at the Crafts Study Centre about Billington’s life and work, to be opened in 2020, and these noble vases will be exhibited there.

NICHOLAS VERGETTE TILE PANEL DISCOVERED (2)

I posted earlier about the discovery under a false wall of tile panels by Nicholas Vergette. I went to see them recently and was bowled over: they are interesting and a beautiful thing to have in a house. One panel decorates a chimney breast, another the lower half of a wall in a sitting room. They are signed “Vergette” and although there are no documentary records I have no doubt that they are by him.

The first panel, dated 1955, is of stoneware tiles, which were probably made by Vergette himself, glazed in a silk-matt white glaze and decorated in a shiny blue glaze applied over wax resist and with marks scratched through (above). Vergette often used wax resist and sgraffito on his ceramics and the blue-and-white colourway is characteristic of his work of this period. The floral design is free and asymmetrical and well scaled for the chimney breast and the small room it is in.

The second, dated 1956, is in some ways more remarkable. It is large, comprising 189 six-inch tiles. It has an eight-colour design with a deep violet and blue-grey background and with floral and animal motifs in royal blue, sky blue, olive green, primrose yellow, brown and red. The background, with the violet cross hatched to reveal grey lines, is original. Vergette painted the motifs first, then covered them in wax and then washed in the dark background. Today we have water-soluble wax emulsion to get resist effects, but Vergette would have used hot candle wax, which is difficult to control and produces noxious fumes – I stopped using it after I almost passed out in my studio.

Vergette’s panel is painted on tiles made by Johnson’s of Stoke-on-Trent, probably bought unglazed and then covered by him in a tin glaze and decorated using the maiolica technique. He may have decided at this stage that manufacturing his own tiles was too difficult and that it was best left to a specialist – tile making takes up a lot of space and the problems of warping and estimating shrinkage are considerable. To decorate the tiles, Vergette would have laid them in position on the floor and painted them, then numbered them, fired them and later re-assembled them on site. This way of decorating was illustrated by Kenneth Clark, a contemporary of Vergette, in his book “Practical Pottery and Ceramics”, showing Tony Hollaway at work (below).

Applying the design to a large tile panel

At the time he made these tiles (just before he went to America) Vergette was working with William Newland and Margaret Hine in a studio in Bayswater, where they received commissions to decorate the coffee bars that were springing up all over London. Vergette and Newland were also teaching at the Central School of Arts and Crafts. Newland thought that British troops advancing through Italy had developed a taste for good coffee and demanded it when they got home. The coffee bars were certainly part of the Italian wave of the ‘fifties, with Gaggia machines, names like “Moka Ris” and openings by Gina Lollobrigida. The maiolica plates and tiles designed by the Bayswater three enhanced their Mediterranean feel. Newland observed that coffee bars gave young people for the first time somewhere to sit indoors without supervision, without having to drink alcohol and without having to spend a lot of money. By the late 1950s, youth fashion was also Italian-influenced.

Nicholas Vergette demonstrating at  the Ceramics in the Home exhibition in 1952.

Dora Billington, under whom Vergette worked at the Central School of Arts and Crafts, said  in“The New Look in British Pottery” that his work, “though much of it is in the round, somehow suggests a painter’s approach. His best work is evocative, always suggesting more than is actually stated.  … it is good to see him turning seriously to tiles.” Billington illustrates a contemporary tile panel, but its present whereabouts are unknown, if it still exists. Nearly all the decorations made by Vergette and his colleagues are lost or destroyed, and if he ever made any tile panels for coffee bars they no longer exist, so these recently discovered panels are outstanding as the only surviving example of tile work by him. The fact that the polychrome tiles were covered up indicates that they weren’t much valued, and it’s fortunate that they weren’t hacked off.

The details of the commission are unknown, but there is a clue in two artists associated with the Central School who lived near the house, Newland and the illustrator Val Biro. They may have introduced the owner to Vergette.

GILBERT HARDING GREEN

Gilbert Harding Green (above) was head of ceramics at the Central School of Arts and Crafts between 1955 and 1971. After the war, Dora Billington had built the ceramics department, with Harding Green’s assistance, into the most innovative and liberal in the country at a time that the Royal College of Art was teaching design for the pottery industry, Farnham was traditional and Camberwell was undistinguished. At the Central there was cross fertilization between disciplines and students studying pottery worked with Eduardo Paolozzi, William Turnbull and Alan Davie. The Central was one of the first art schools to teach Basic Design in the late 1940s, the generic and analytic approach to both painting and design, derived from the Bauhaus course that shaped foundation courses in British art schools.

Harding Green took over the department on Billington’s retirement and developed it “beyond recognition” in her approving verdict.  He expanded into the school’s new building in Red Lion Square, and, post-Coldstream, steered the course into the Diploma in Art and Design. His students included Ruth Duckworth, John Colbeck, Robin Welch, Eileen Nisbet, Richard Slee, Alison Britton and Andrew Lord.

Billington and Harding Green  both subsumed their artistic careers in teaching, Harding Green the moreso. His origins were exotic.  Born in 1906, he was the illegitimate offspring of  aristocratic parents, his mother English and his father either Dutch or Russian according to differing accounts. Most of his childhood and youth were spent abroad, much of it in Italy.  He told one of his students, Kenneth Clark, that, while living in the Vatican, he wandered into a room and looked idly into a chest of drawers, which he discovered to be full of marble penises. In his twenties he traveled in Brazil and learned Portuguese.

He studied sculpture under John Skeaping and Frank Dobson at the Central School in the 1930s and later turned to pottery.  Of the little work by him that still exists, most is totally original and does not derive from any obvious ceramic tradition.  In 1938 he became Billington’s assistant, beating off competition from Henry Hammond, who went on to head the pottery department at Farnham, and Moira Forsyth, who is now better known for her stained glass.

I recently saw this sculpted head in clay by Harding Green (above), which he exhibited with the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society in 1938.

A reviewer said: –

“It held me by its stark truth and brute ugliness – the hard smileless mouth, the hollow cheeks and buried eyes, the repaired nose, the punched ears, and the imbecilic slope of the forehead, and these inelegant features were mercilessly gripped with economy of effort and absolute certainty.”

The subject was far removed from the artist’s life.  Harding Green was a man of wide culture and elegant taste who would attend the ceramics classes in the Central School in a suit, tie and cuff-links, always ready to advise students on a good restaurant or to give away complimentary theatre tickets that he had managed to get hold of.