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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TONALÁ POTTERY

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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.

 

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A S HANDOVER

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?”

“Yes.”

“Blimey, I came out on my day off, and I can’t get away from work.”

A HOUSE IN FRANCE

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We stayed for a few days with our friends in France, where they have an old farmhouse well away from town in a peaceful spot with roses and fruit trees. In the sweltering heat we preferred to stay indoors, protected by two-foot walls, but the evenings were pleasant in the garden under the vines.

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Over the years they have built an eclectic collection of china and pottery, for use and ornament, found in antique shops and brocante stalls, and generally bought for a few euros. Here are some pictures, and also pictures of other items from their cabinet of curiosities.

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SOPHIE CONRAN TABLEWARE

I mentioned Sophie Conran’s Pebble range of tableware in my last post and thought I’d say a bit more about it.

It has been a popular range over a long period and says a lot about attitudes to handmade and factory-made pottery. It is factory-made, but with its wonky shapes and ridges it looks as if it has been thrown on the wheel (except that each piece is identical and has a practical, clear glaze). As factory-made pottery it is good, and highly original, but if it had been made by hand it would be bad.

Factory pottery can imitate studio pottery, and in the 1960s Denby produced some excellent studio-type tableware which you can still find in perfect condition in charity shops. But handmade tableware has to aim for a degree of fineness and regularity even if it doesn’t try to look factory-made. There are potters who are happy to make very rough mugs and bowls, but they are few now. My practice is different and the way I put it is that if you aim at perfection your work will be imperfect, but if you aim at imperfection it will be rubbish.

I also mentioned that Pebble was designed by a studio potter, one I know well. He is not acknowledged and his fee bore no relation to the profits this range has generated.

WEDGWOOD’S CREAMWARE

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Wedgwood creamware, “Frog Service”, 1773 (Victoria and Albert Museum)

Much of the history of European ceramics is the attempt to imitate Chinese porcelain. The Ottoman Turks covered buff clay with white slip and a clear glaze. The Moors brought opaque white tin glaze into Spain, from where it spread to Italy, the Netherlands, central Europe and England. Meanwhile, there were experiments in porcelain, adding products like crushed glass to clay. In 1693 a soft paste porcelain was invented at Rouen, and in 1708 a hard paste, closer to the Chinese original, at Meissen.

Wedgwood went in a different direction, aiming for a white earthenware, his experiments finally yielding a satisfactory cream-coloured body in the late 1760s.

I had known that creamware spelled the end of tin-glazed earthenware – Alan Caiger-Smith mentions it in Tin-glazed Earthenware – but I had not known exactly how Wedgwood displaced delftware until I read Robin Reilley’s Wedgwood biography.

Wedgwood could not export to France because the quality potteries were protected by the crown, but trade with the Netherlands was easier and creamware made rapid inroads there. His Dutch agent, Lamertus van Veldhuysen, introduced it to the upper class but had difficulty selling it to “the middle sort of people” because it was too expensive. The Delft potters recognised its superiority and tried to imitate it, some of them bankrupting themselves in the process. Wedgwood was unconcerned. When van Veldhuysen sent him a sample of creamware made by a potter called Zwenck, he said, “With regard to the quality of the body & glaze, they are so bad that we could not sell such pieces at 1 shilling a dozen.” Reilley comments that no Dutch manufacturer succeeded in copying creamware until the nineteenth century and that the Dutch have always been among Wedgwood’s best customers.

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.