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.
Yesterday I went to a party to say farewell to Kyra Kane, (above centre) head of ceramics at Harrow, the University of Westminster. She is leaving following the University’s decision to close the Harrow course in 2013. The Harrow course is one of the leading ceramics courses in Britain and is respected throughout the world. The accountants have decided it costs too much. Of course, it always cost too much, but in past decades it was worth paying for; closing it means the University does not value it.
Kyra was one of my teachers on the BA Ceramics course. We also said farewell to Richard Phethean, Carina Ciscato and Daphne Carnegy, who taught on the first year of the course. There will be no more first year intake. Kyra, Richard, Carina and Daphne were important in my ceramics education, especially as they are all throwers and I am a thrower.
The Harrow closure is the latest in a series of closures of ceramics courses. There is no ceramics BA anywhere in Scotland now. The extraordinary thing is that the market for ceramics seems to be bigger than ever. The best data on this is in the Crafts Council’s survey of crafts activity in England and Wales, which found about 6,700 people working in craft ceramics in England and Wales. (Making It in the 21st Century, London, Crafts Council, 2004) From their data, I estimate that the annual sales of studio ceramics is about £114m. They say that, “During the 1980s there was an overall growth in the domestic market for crafts and an associated increase in the number of craft fairs and specialist shops,” and that the output of the crafts sector has more doubled since in 1994.
So why is a leading course training ceramic artists closing down? There is no national planning of vocational education and the universities can make their own decisions. There was a huge outcry from major figures in the crafts and education and I understand that there is concern at a senior level about the future of education for the crafts. Education in all crafts is expensive, because of capital costs and space requirements. If this is not squarely faced and adequately funded, training for this important industry will continue to decline.
Fortunately there is an imaginative initiative to provide another training route, complementary to university education. Lisa Hammond of Maze Hill Pottery is putting tremendous energy into a campaign to re-introduce pottery apprenticeships. Her Adopt-a-Potter scheme has a lot of support among ceramists and it deserves even more.