THINGS OF BEAUTY GROWING

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Lucie Rie tableware. (Estate of Lucie Rie)

I went to see the Fitzwilliam exhibition Things of Beauty Growing: British Studio Pottery for the second time.

One of the changes that has taken place in studio pottery in the years since I first became interested in it is that it has become a topic of academic study, a fact regretted by the more downright potters, but a development that has put it into its proper artistic and historical context. We have come a long way from the early books, which simply listed the author’s favourite potters. Oliver Watson’s survey of the Victoria and Albert Museum’s collection (1990) was the first dispassionate account, and Jeffrey Jones’s Studio Pottery in Britain (2007) established a scholarly discourse. Glenn Adamson, Martina Droth and Simon Olding, the curators of this exhibition, develop that discourse.

The individual art pot dominates this show, but there is a small section devoted to tea-sets and coffee-sets, including sets by Leach, Lucie Rie (above), Ruth Duckworth (a very 1950s-style collection made before she turned to sculpture), an abysmally bad coffee-set by Roger Fry, and high-quality factory-made sets designed by Susie Cooper and Keith Murray, the architect-trained designer whose modernist shapes were manufactured by Wedgwood. The latter call into question the studio potter’s insistence at the time that factory-made pottery was bad and meretricious.

The exhibits of tableware point to the dialogue that took place on and off between the crafts and industry between the 1920s and the 1970s, and the discussions in the crafts about whether the craftsman had a contribution to make to manufacturing. It was inconclusive, rarely productive and sometimes acrimonious. It is not explained in the exhibition but it is discussed in an essay by Tanya Harrod in the accompanying book.

In the the post-war decades potters became preoccupied with repetition throwing. Some vaguely imagined that craft pottery might replace factory-made pottery and potters like Harry Davis, those at Briglin, and Leach’s young assistants mass-produced by hand. But by the end of the ‘sixties, government realised that the crafts had little to offer industry and passed responsibility for them from the Board of Trade (where it had rested since the 1920s) to the Department of Education.

By the 1980s, the market for hand-made tableware was in decline and studio potters had aligned themselves with the arts rather than industry. Now few think studio pottery has much to say about manufacturing, though a notable exception is Sophie Conran’s popular “Pebble” range, which has a deliberately hand-made look and was in fact designed for her by British studio potter.

 

A LUCY RIE BOWL AT THE FITZWILLIAM MUSEUM

I took some Associate Members of the Craft Potters Association to the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge on Tuesday, to view and handle seven ceramics from their collection.  The Fitzwilliam has one of the best ceramics collections in Britain and doesn’t have room to display them all, so we were able to see some that aren’t on show.
Above you can see Dr. Julia Poole, past keeper of applied arts, explaining one of the works to us.

We were able to handle a celadon wine jug from Korea, a maiolica dish from the workshop of Durantino in Urbino, a very large Thomas Toft dish (left) with a picture of Adam and Eve, a Bernard Leach pagoda-lidded pot,  a yellow bowl by Lucie Rie, a colourful pot by Kate Malone and a hollow, monochrome form by Gordon Baldwin.  The pieces were chosen to cover a wide range of styles, methods and periods.  Dr. Poole is a specialist in Italian maiolica and gave a fascinating insight into the social conditions in which the Durantino dish was produced.  The Toft dish was naively, even crudely, painted, but with great wit and energy and a skilled appreciation of how to fill a space with an image and decorative elements and how to create rhythm and energy with three colours.

But the piece that stood out for me was the Lucy Rie bowl, in the centre of the table in the top picture.  It is 34cm wide, finely made, with a pitted and bubbly, sulphur-yellow glaze.  A Stoke-on-Trent potter would say that the glaze is faulty, but Rie, who made innovative use of pinholed, bubbling, and volcanic glazes, has judged it perfectly.  It was made in the early 1950s.  Perhaps it is unfair to compare it with the Leach dish, which was made towards the end of his life when his sight was failing, but it is so much more light and refined and lacking the peasanty affectation of Arts-and-Crafts pottery.

MANET’S CERAMIC CONNECTION


I was familiar with reproductions of Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe (above) long before I saw it in the Musée d’Orsay but however blasé I was the impact of its size (more than two metres by three) and the juxtaposition of the naked woman with the clothed men was great.

In the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, which has one of the best collections of tin glazed pottery in Europe, I saw a fine maiolica dish (left) from the workshop of Guido Durantino (16th century) showing The Judgement of Paris. There, on the bottom right, was Déjeuner sur l’herbe though not so shocking as Manet because everyone is naked.



What’s the connection between Manet and a maiolica dish?  Durantino copied a famous engraving by by Marcantonio Raimondi (below) from a design by Raphael. Manet studied the old masters and copied the three principal figures in Déjeuner from Raphael’s design.