During our weekend in Sheffield we visited the Graves Gallery, who have recently added Grayson Perry’s Comfort Blanket (2014) to their collection.
He describes his tapestry as “A portrait of Britain to wrap yourself up in, a giant banknote of things we live, and love to hate.”
The makers of the tapestry are not acknowledged in the museum’s notes, an annoying habit of artists and galleries who depend so much on craftsmen.
|Plates from Wedgwood’s “Butterfly Bloom” range|
Butterfly Bloom celebrates and recapitulates Wedgwood’s 250-year history, taking elements of traditional transfer-printed designs and, in effect, quoting them on contemporary products by arranging fragments of them asymmetrically. It’s a clever trick, remaining well within the range of what is acceptable to the customers of this venerable company. As Wedgwood says, it is “Perfect for that indulgent little oasis of calm in a hectic schedule, or for sociable gatherings with friends.”
The design introduces into mainstream manufacture a device that has been used by the ceramic artist Paul Scott for over twenty years. Scott uses traditional transfer-printed North Staffordshire pottery to make social and artistic comments. Well-established designs, like Willow Pattern and Spode’s Italian, that had become redolent of vicars’ tea parties and everything nice, have been subverted by Scott, who reproduces them precisely but with small alterations – for example, by putting wind turbines in a cottage landscape, or showing the Spode Works with a “Closed” sign on the gate.
|Paul Scott, “After Bypass”|
|Paul Scott, “Cocklepickers”|
Transfer printing was first used in the mid-18th century as a way of putting engraved designs on to pottery. When Scott’s book on Ceramics and Print came out in 1994, the technique was confined to industrial manufacture and few studio potters used it. Since then, there has been an explosion in printing on ceramics by artists, probably the best-known of whom is Grayson Perry, who combines sprigging, sgraffito, underglaze printing and transfers on his complex decorated surfaces.
Now, the subversion of transfer printing has itself become such a cliché that it can be reversed into the industry to produce Wedgwood’s charming and inoffensive Butterfly Bloom.
Here is an article Grayson Perry wrote in Ceramic Review a few years back.
“A ceramics centre in North Devon? Why not go the whole hog and put up signs saying ‘You are now entering “Leach Country”?’ After all, we’ve got Bronte Country and Hardy Country. A Potter’s Book should be made into a TV mini-series with Colin Firth as Bernard Leach.
“Pottery has been trying to shake of the smock of those kickwheel wurzels for more than a generation. Most good functional ware now seems to owe more to Philippe Starck than Michael Cardew and the arty farty ceramists all want to be Rachel Whiteread or Gilbert and George, not Barbara Hepworth.
“If you stick the centre down in that caravan traffic-jam called the West Country, nobody but grockles and trainspotters will ever visit the place. If we have to have an institution that is defined by its material like some medieval tradesman’s guild, then bung it somewhere in the middle.
“I’m sure all those ‘liddle’ potteries tucked away in Windchime-upon-Jostick churning out sub-Keeler and owls would benefit from exposure to Islington Man, but most pot-knockers live in lovely towns. I for one do not want to traipse out into overrated Devon countryside to avail myself of the Carpal Tunnel Syndrome seminar. Even Essex has more thatched cottages in one village than the entire West Country, so why not plonk the centre in Castle Hedingham.
“I have always needed a reason to go to Birmingham. Why not a disused council tower block in Britain’s second city? The centre could provide some of the following invaluable services:
“Pot recycling: Bring along all those god-awful pots, i.e. 99% of them that clog the nation’s shelves. Make space for good work and supply a profitable hardcore business.
“Careers advice: This could just consist of a sign saying, ‘Don’t become a potter we’ve got enough, go and do something useful.’
“Self-help group: For potters addicted to rabbiting on about firing cycles and their home-made pug-mill. Hopeless cases could sit in a room boring on until, after several days of trading tips with other technical know-alls, they might run out of things to say.
“For the public, we could jazz up pottery’s dreary old evening class and beard image with a few theme park style rides. They could have names like The Whirler, Slab Roller and Quartz Inversion Point.
“If this centre ever gets off the ground, please let it not become another place for families to drive to on a Sunday afternoon; whisking round the exhibits in ten minutes, half an hour in the shop buying Lucie Rie tea towels, Hans Coper fridge magnets and Philip Eglin scented candles, then an hour trying to swallow dry carob cake served on half inch thick ‘real clay’ crockery that cools tea to room temperature in thirty seconds. Outside the kids playing on a huge fibreglass harvest jug. It’s enough to make we want to throw.”
The Bideford pottery centre was never built.