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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SEASIDE MORRIS DANCING

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I’m working on a series of drawings of Morris dancers in English seaside resorts. I’ve been fascinated by this tradition for years, particularly Border Morris because of the way its dress updates a tradition with punk elements and random collections of ornamentation. (The dancer below had sausages in her hat.) And I connect the dancers with the seaside because that’s where I’ve come across them, like modern end-of- the-pier shows.

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Border Morris goes in for weird dress and violent dancing, which involve shouting  and striking sticks together, and some dancers introduce modern instruments like saxophones and electric guitars. Like all traditions, this one is curated, continually re-invented, altered and embellished.

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But Border Morris (unlike the bells-and-hankies type of Morris dancing from the Cotswolds) has become embroiled in controversy because its traditional dance requires black face, which, with the dancers’ penchant for sunglasses, makes their performance look even more malevolent. A Border Morris side in black face was recently stopped from performing in Birmingham, the first time they have been challenged. The bemused response of the dancers is to say that black face has nothing to do with racism and originated in the need of dancers to disguise themselves. But others have said that this story is repeated from an assertion by Cecil Sharpe without evidence, and that there is evidence to the contrary of the co-incidence of black face Morris with black face minstrel shows, and of 19th century dancers talking of “going niggering”. Compared with Cotswold Morris, Border Morris has a sinister back story which its supporters are unaware of. I expect that in a rapidly changing climate it will have to re-invent itself again.

The English seaside resort also has an uncomfortable history. It has been in decline for fifty years and seaside towns are among the most socially deprived in the country, but there is also a steep social gradient on the coast – between, say, chic Deal and squalid Margate.

 

ANNI ALBERS

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Anni Albers in her weaving studio at Black Mountain College, 1937. (Photo: Helen M. Post, Western Regional Archives, State Archives of North Carolina)

I once shared a house with the weaver Jill Maguire, and as the house was small I had to share my bedroom with her loom; but although I watched her at work I never developed an interest in her art. So the Anni Albers exhibition at Tate Modern was an eye-opener to me.

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An Albers wallhanging designed in 1926 while she was at the Bauhaus

Albers (1899-1994) took up weaving rather reluctantly at the Bauhaus, where the weaving department was called the women’s workshop, but she discovered its artistic potential and even while still a student produced original and technically adept textiles that worked as abstract art. She seems to have become absorbed in the complex possibilities of weaving, which requires planning thread by thread, spatial reasoning and a grasp of permutation and combination.

She moved to the the USA in 1933 as the Nazis descended on the Bauhaus, and found work at Black Mountain College, where her practice was enlarged by the study and collection of the traditional weaving of South America. The equipment of these weavers was simple but their fabrics showed advanced mathematical thinking. Albers worked with twisted warps, double fabrics and floating wefts, pushing the boundaries of the craft. She was commissioned by forward looking industrialists who saw the commercial possibilities of her advanced methods. She demonstrated weaving to be a place where art, mathematics and manufacturing meet.

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Anni Albers, Tikal (1958), using twisted warps

Anni Albers Tate Britain
Until 27 January 2019

FOLK ART AT COMPTON VERNEY

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We made the two-hour drive to Compton Verney to see the exhibition of automata, prompted by memories of the little museum of mechanical toys that there used to be in Covent Garden in the 1990s, and stayed to see the folk art from the collections of Andras Kalman and Enid Marx and Margaret Lambert.

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Andras Kalman

Marx started collecting in the 1930s, though her interest began earlier. She said she was influenced by what she learned from her father’s paper-making business, and at the RCA she failed to get her diploma from the painting school because her work was thought to be too vulgar. Kalman, a Hungarian emigré, began after the war, collecting mainly untutored paintings of the late 18th and early 19th century, usually rural, often of favourite animals, sometimes unintentionally funny. The Marx-Lambert collection includes print ephemera, scrapbooks, valentine’s cards, paper peepshows, children’s books, ceramics, corn dollies and toys and, from the period after the war, vanishing crafts. Deeply unfashionable at the time, these items could be picked up for pennies in junk shops.

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Marx’s, Lambert’s and Kalman’s collecting coincided with the relaxing of the severe modernist contempt for anything traditional, un-functional or Victorian. Marx and Lambert’s When Victoria Began to Reign was published in 1937 and English Popular Art in 1951. 1951 was a significant date for folk art and Victoriana. Barbara Jones’s exhibition Black Eyes and Lemonade, a Festival of Britain event about English popular and traditional art, was put on at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1951, and her book, The Unsophisticated Arts – about fairground decoration, tattoos, seaside architecture and funeral ornaments – came out in 1952. (For long hard to find, there is a new edition.)

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This interest in the vernacular and the curious mitigated the modernism of the Festival of Britain, which stimulated interest in the period of the Great Exhibition a hundred years earlier. The Festival Funfair at Battersea featured Rowland Emett’s whimsical and nostalgic “Far Tottering and Oyster Creek Railway“. And so, full circle – Emett’s railways were a feature of the automata exhibition at Compton Verney.

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BUT IS IT ART? BUT IS IT COPYRIGHT?

A small argument has broken out on Wikipedia about whether a photo of a soup bowl can be included. The bowl (above) was one of the St Ives Pottery’s range of standard wares, introduced in the 1940s by Bernard Leach and his son David to provide an income stream for the business. Making standard ware was how generations of potters learned their trade in the much-coveted Leach pottery apprenticeships. Someone on Wikipedia said that the photo was a breach of copyright and that it had to be removed. Like all artists, I’m concerned to protect my intellectual property but I don’t know much about copyright law, and the law as it applies here is complex.

The Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 (section 62) says that an artist has copyright in a work of “artistic craftsmanship” and that such work can’t be copied and that a photo of it taken without the artist’s consent is a breach of copyright. An exemption is made for works of artistic craftsmanship displayed in public places, but the pot in this this photo is in the photographer’s private collection, not in a public place, and, odd as it may seem, that means that the exemption in section 62 doesn’t apply, and so, it is argued, the photo breaches the copyright of the artist. There is another exemption for “fair dealing” where copying is done for the purposes of private study, non-commercial research, criticism, review or comment on current events. Whether this covers Wikipedia or not is a question I leave to the copyright lawyers, but Wikipedia errs on the side of caution and removes anything doubtful.

A more important question, however, is whether the bowl is a work of artistic craftsmanship. These bowls were made in large quantities and over the years thousands of identical objects were produced. It is an example of mass production by hand in which the distinction between “craft” and “manufacture” is blurred. In the Wikipedia discussion, someone said it was not mass production but “limited repeat production by hand”, which implies that work made by hand cannot be mass production, but that is doubtful. The place where hand production ends and machine production begins is hard to define, and so is the place where a tool becomes a machine. Bernard Leach wanted to avoid machine production in his pottery and used foot-driven potter’s wheel, but it’s arguable that a kick-wheel is a machine and not a tool even if it is not steam-driven or electrically-driven. The argument that mass production is not possible without steam-driven or electrically-driven machinery, as opposed to human-driven machinery is also hard to sustain. Although such machinery facilitates mass production and turns out more than can be made by hand, hand workers are also capable of mass production. Country potters working on kick wheels could make hundreds of flower pots in a day and the Delft tile makers, who worked without machines of any kind, are estimated to have made eight hundred million tiles in two hundred years. Where does mass production begin? With a hundred pots a day, five hundred or five thousand? There is certainly a case to be made that the Leach pottery apprentices were engaged in small-scale mass production.

Bernard Leach admired country potters and tried to reproduce some of the conditions of their workshops at St Ives. His apprentices practiced repetition throwing and were given shapes to make in large quantities, and the lidded bowl in question was almost certainly made in that way. It is a work of craftsmanship, but in what sense can it be said to be a work of artistic craftmanship, which connotes inventiveness, creativity and originality – the qualities of the individual, one-off pieces made in the St Ives Pottery by Bernard Leach and Shoji Hamada and impressed with their personal marks? There is a certain degree of inventiveness and creativity in the design, but not a great deal of originality, but the output of the employees and apprentices of the pottery show none of those qualities.

The law protects intellectual property in artistic crafts, but not in crafts as such – so not, for example, a thatched roof.  In artistic craftsmanship there has to be

  • A conscious intention to produce a work of art
  • A real artistic or aesthetic quality
  • A sufficient degree of craftsmanship and artistry (existing simultaneously)

Considering the conditions of production in the St Ives Pottery under which this bowl was made, it is arguable that there was no intention to produce a work of art even if it has real artistic quality and a high degree of craftsmanship. As I said, I don’t know much about copyright law and lawyers might argue differently, but in my opinion the bowl is just a bowl and anyone can take a photo of it.

RUSKIN AND THE CULT OF ROUGHNESS IN STUDIO POTTERY

John Ruskin: Workmen must be free to produce imperfect art.

Studio pottery was created partly by narratives that set out its history, listed its key figures and promoted its values. Bernard Leach, the father of British studio pottery, was its leading narrator, but his admirers also played an important part.

Muriel Rose’s book Artist Potters in England (1954) was a short text but was highly influential, not least in its omissions. In fact, she omitted nearly every artist potter in England. She highlighted Leach, Shoji Hamada, Michael Cardew, Nora Braden, Katherine Pleydell Bouverie, William Staite Murray, Sam Haile, Henry Hammond, Lucie Rie and Hans Coper and her book created the canon of studio pottery. But she omitted all the figurative ceramists (like Charles and Nell Vyse, Stella Crofts and Gwendoline Parnell) and all those who excelled at decoration (like Bernard Moore, Alfred Powell and Louise Powell). The history of art pottery until about 1930 was, in fact, mainly the history of figurative and decorated pottery, and it was only from the 1930s that the stoneware of Leach and Staite Murray, based on form and the texture of high temperature feldspathic glazes, began to define British art pottery. In constructing her narrative, Rose chose only those who were seen to prefigure her chosen subject and simply disregarded everyone else. Although she wrote when decorated tin-glazed studio pottery was at its most popular, she ignored that as well, making no mention of those who did it best: William Newland, Margaret Hine, Nicholas Vergette and James Tower – those who created what Dora Billington called “The New Look in British Pottery”.

By these omissions certain values were asserted: Pottery should be designed and made by the same person, or by a few people. It should be made in a workshop with little power-driven machinery. It should be formed on the potter’s wheel, preferably from clay dug and prepared hand. The studio of an educated, middle class potter should be run with an eye on the unsophisticated maker of flowerpots and his counterpart in Japan. Art pottery should comprise useful vessels, usually round and usually brown or grey. (Their usefulness was not finely calibrated and there were anachronisms like cider jars and oddities like wine goblets.) It should be rough and quickly made, often with a gritty base that would sit well on scrubbed pine but not on polished mahogany. The values were those of high minded simple living. The physical difficulties of this way of making were thought to make better potters as well as better pots.

 

A jug from the Leach Pottery: not on the polished table, please.

Oliver Watson described this sort of pottery as “the ethical pot”. Watson, who was head of Ceramics at the Victoria and Albert Museum from 1979 to 2005, was one of the first to write objectively about studio pottery and to distance himself from its dogmas. His account of studio pottery, based on the V&A’s collection, is the most lucid and perceptive introduction to the subject. More recently, Jeffrey Jones, at the University of Cardiff, has written a longer text, which locates studio pottery in its artistic and intellectual context, referring to its dialogue with modernism. These critical narratives of studio pottery emerged as its practices became more varied and dextrous.

J.M.Keynes said that “Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually slaves of some defunct economist.” In this context we can say that practical craftsmen were slaves of John Ruskin. He propounded the virtues of roughness in “The Nature of Gothic”. His ideas migrated to Japan and returned to England with Leach and Shoji Hamada in the 1920s. By the 1960s, every un-intellectual hippy potter embraced them without knowing it.

“The Nature of Gothic” was a chapter in The Stones of Venice in which Ruskin asserted that all Gothic architecture had more or less of savageness, changefulness, naturalism, grotesqueness, rigidity and redundancy. It was from Ruskin’s doctrine of savageness that came the aesthetic of roughness in pottery and its association with social criticism.

The term Gothic, said Ruskin, was first applied as a term of abuse to the architecture of northern Europe to denote its sternness and rudeness, but there was no shame in that. Let us watch the man of the North as he works, he says, as, “with rough strength and unhurried stroke, he smites an uncouth animation out of the rocks which he has torn from among the moss of the moorland, and heaves into the darkened air the pile of iron buttresses and rugged wall, instinct with work of an imagination as wild and wayward as the northern sea; creatures of ungainly shape and rigid limb, but full of wolfish life; fierce as the winds that beat, and changeful as the clouds that shade them.”

The savagery of this work was not merely the expression of landscape and climate but also indicated religious principle. In Gothic we find the Christian recognition of the value of every soul but also of its limitations in its Fallen state. In the execution of Gothic ornament the uneducated man, with all his shortcomings, has been allowed to do the best he can, without subjection to the direction of a higher intellect. As the expression of a free man, the work, for all its roughness and imperfection, has value. The contemporary mind, on the other hand, desires perfection and accuracy in work and is surrounded by highly finished artifacts. This high finish is the product of servile labour, for a workman can achieve it only if he is told exactly what to do. If he is given freedom he will err. The desire for a high degree of accuracy degrades the operative into a machine, and the systematic degradation of the worker in modern industry has generated destructive revolt and an outcry against wealth and nobility. The revolt is not the result of men’s being commanded by others but of their being turned into machines by the factory system with its division of labour and its demand for high finish.

The remedy is healthy and ennobling labour, which is done according to these principles:

  • Never encourage the manufacture of any article not absolutely necessary, in the production of which Invention has no share.
  • Never demand an exact finish for its own sake, but only for some practical or noble end.
  • Never encourage imitation or copying of any kind, except for the sake of preserving records of great works.

All work, except the manufacture of necessities, should be inventive, even work done by rough and uneducated men. We cannot expect an exact finish from uneducated men except under instruction, and that makes them slaves.When they are doing exact work, they cannot be inventive and when they are inventive they cannot do exact work. Society should accept their invention even if it is imperfect, and that means forgoing refinement.

Ruskin’s persuasiveness comes from majestic rhetoric rather than from evidence, and for these odd assertions he produces no evidence at all. Observation suggests that the capacity to produce exact work is unrelated to education, inventiveness or satisfaction in employment. Uninventive people who do refined work may be happy to do it and may be proud of it, and much highly-finished work was done by independent artisans who invented their own designs. And, as David Pye observed in The Nature and Art of Workmanship, Ruskin exempted the manufacture of necessities from his principles of ennobling labour, which makes them irrelevant to most economic activity.

“The Nature of Gothic” became, in effect, the manifesto of the Arts and Crafts movement and Ruskin’s ideas about the moral significance of art, his condemnation of industrial civilisation and his ideas of how goods should be produced shaped the romantic socialism of William Morris, Walter Crane, C.R.Ashbee and W.R.Lethaby. Yet no practical policies can be derived from it.

Ruskin and his Arts and Crafts followers never understood the contradiction between the craft economy and cheap well made goods for everyone. Labour-intensive craft processes produce expensive goods and Graham Wallas estimated that if society was organised on the basis of Arts and Crafts style workshops, rather than industrial manufacturing, everyone would have to work 200 hours a week in order to keep up their current standard of living. “It was only the same fact looked at from another point of view which made it impossible for any of Morris’s workmen, or indeed for anyone at all whose income was near the present English average, to buy the products either of Morris’s workshop at Merton or of his Kelmscott Press.”

 

Ruskin by way of Japan: Soetsu Yanagi, Bernard Leach,
Rudy Autio, Peter Voulkos, and Shoji Hamada.

Ruskin was read by Bernard Leach and his Japanese friends, notably by Soetsu Yanagi, the main begetter of Mingei, the Japanese folk craft movement. Yanagi had become concerned about the effects of industrialisation on Japanese life and tradition. It is said that Leach introduced him to Morris, from whom he found his way to Ruskin, although Ruskin had been read in Japan since the 1880s. Yanagi insisted that his ideas were original and that the concepts of Mingei were entirely Japanese, but he took much from Morris, including the ideas of the art of the common people, the value of ordinary household objects and the unknown craftsman, wedding them to the Zen idea of wabi-sabi, the aesthetic of modesty, naturalness, roughness, impermanence, sadness and imperfection.

Mingei celebrated the commonplace, practical crafts of the people. Yanagi’s valorisation of the ordinary excluded expensive things or those made in very small numbers, which distinguished him from Ruskin, who wrote of cathedrals and gold, from Morris and Co., who made decorated furniture and tapestries for the rich, and even from the early studio potters, who exhibited in art galleries at high prices. Yanagi’s ideas about the sources of artistic inspiration and beauty are also subtly different from those of Morris and Ruskin: Morris and Ruskin valued the craftsman’s potential for conscious creativity, whose exercise gave him happiness in his work, while Yanagi spoke of divine power as the source of beauty; a recent critic, Idekawa Naoki, described Yanagi’s idea of the craftsman as that of a human machine creating beauty unconsciously through labour-intensive, repetitive work.

Leach returned to England in 1920 wanting to unite the best of East and west. He acknowledged his debt to Ruskin: “I thought of Ruskin as my father,” he wrote. The ideas of Mingei were highlighted in the influential conference on the crafts at Dartington Hall in 1952 at which Leach, Yanagi and Hamada were key speakers. From Ruskin’s ideas on savagery, refracted through the Arts and Crafts movement, Mingei and Bernard Leach’s practice, came the cult of roughness in studio pottery. Leach’s practice followed almost to the letter Morris principals of pottery making, as laid out in his talk The Lesser Arts (1877): no moulds, no lathe-turning, no excessive neatness or mechanical finish, no printed decoration – and the customer must be prepared to pay a high price.

Morris’s ideas about the avoidance of “mechanical finish” comes straight from Ruskin: that excessive neatness is something demanded by managers and that it demeans workers; but that “workmanlike finish” allows the worker to be an artist. “Mechanical finish” is similarly abhorred in the Leach school of pottery, which makes a virtue of roughness. And the high price confirms what Wallas said about the Arts-and-Crafts workman being unable to buy his own products.

 

Savage beauty: a Japanese tea bowl by Lisa Hammond.

Among current work done under the Ruskin//Mingei/Leach rubric I would single out for praise that of Lisa Hammond and Phil Rogers, which skilfully demonstrate wabi-sabi. But among lesser potters the cult of roughness can be and sometimes is used to justify incompetence and philistinism.David Pye argues that neither refined work nor rough work – in his terminology, “regulated” and “free” – is better than the other. He warns against spurious craftsmanship, which, in recognising that mass production can more easily produce regulated products than hand-making, “will take to a sort of travesty of rough workmanship: rough for the sake of roughness instead of rough for the sake of speed.” Rough work, says Pye,  is produced when it has to be done quickly, but the good workman is  always “trying to regulate the work in every way that care and dexterity will allow consistent with speed.”To aim for roughness, when it is not necessary, because the work does not have to be produced quickly, is playing at craft, like Marie Antoinette’s playing the peasant. Studio potters generally work slowly – they certainly throw on the wheel more slowly than the Stoke-on-Trent potters did – and they have no need to work quickly because they are producing works of art; therefore they have no need to make rough work. If the craftsman aims for perfection he can be sure that his work will be imperfect, but if he aims for imperfection it is likely to be bad.

Muriel Rose, Artist Potters in England
John Ruskin, The Nature of Gothic
William Morris, The Lesser Arts
David Pye, The Nature and Art of Workmanship
Emmanuel Cooper, Bernard Leach
Yuko Kikuchi, “A Japanese William Morris: Yanagi Soetsu and Mingei Theory”