THE WILLIAM MORRIS SUSSEX CHAIR

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Woolley and Wallis are offering a set of four Morris & Co. Sussex chairs from the house of Emery Walker in their sale on 6 October (above) with an estimated price of £400 to £600. 

The Sussex range, based on traditional country furniture, was intended to be cheap and simple, very much in line with Morris’s principles. The V&A say that Morris used Sussex chairs himself in Red House and Kelmscott House. Burne-Jones had Sussex chairs in his studio and so did the sculptor Alfred Gilbert. Sussex chairs were bought for students’ rooms in Newnham College, which was decorated in Arts and Crafts style, and for galleries in the Fitzwilliam Museum. Other firms, notably Liberty & Co. and Heals, produced their own versions of the Sussex chair. Sussex chairs in various versions were made in very large numbers but they’re collectible and the sale estimate is reasonable.

In 1912 Morris & Co. were selling a Sussex chair for nine shillings and ninepence, which a skilled worker could buy after 13 hours work. Today a skilled worker – say a car auto worker – would have to work 10 hours to buy a chair in the Woolley and Wallis sale if the set sells for £600. 

William Morris’s struggles over pricing are well known, with his famous complaint about being forced to cater for the swinish luxury of the rich. I’ve written before about the difference in price between goods designed with a view to simplicity and cheapness (where form followed function), like the Isokon Donkey, and the price of modern reproductions (where meaning follows form). There’s also a reproduction of the Sussex chair by Nafisi Studio, who make a beautiful modern version in coloured lacquers (below), retailing at £1,375 – about 11 days’ work for a car auto worker. Far from the swinish luxury of the rich but not quite Ikea.

BERNARD LEACH

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Clara Grein

Bernard Leach’s A Potter’s Book, which has never been out of print in Britain since it was published in 1940, has been translated into Italian for the first time by Clara Grein. The long delay is explicable by Italy’s very different ceramic tradition, into which the Leach style of stoneware has made few inroads. I learned of Il Libro del Ceramista from British potter Terry Davies, who has been making stoneware pottery in Italy for many years.

Emmanuel Cooper’s biography of Leach refers to Leach’s admiration for Ruskin but I looked in vain for any reference to Bergson, whose whose anti-rationalism and philosophy of élan vital pervade A Potter’s Book. Leach regarded “vitality” as a virtue in pottery, talked of “the intuitive craftsman” and used “intellectual” as a term of disapprobation. This short quotation gives a flavour of his thinking:

Judgment in art cannot be other than intuitive and founded upon sense experience, on what Kawai calls ‘the body’. No process of reasoning can be a substitute for or widen the range of our intuitive knowledge. This does not mean that we cannot use our common sense in examining the qualities in a pot which give us its character, such as form, texture, decoration and glaze, for analytic reasoning is important enough as a support to intuition.

It’s hard to know whether Leach ever read Creative Evolution, the book in which Bergson expounded his idea of the vital spirit that drives evolution and that can be interpreted as the source of human creativity, but it was popular in the first half of the twentieth century, was widespread in artistic circles and (as Rachel Gotleib showed) was marshaled in service of the new ceramics.

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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CRAFT MENTORING

 

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I’m co-ordinating the mentoring programme of the Society of Designer Craftsmen, which we run to help our new young members develop their professional careers, and as I don’t believe in reinventing the wheel I’m talking to organisations that run similar programmes. I’ve always worked this way, believing that standards are raised by sharing good practice.

So I was surprised to find that a few publicly-funded bodies were unwilling to talk to me. Their curt replies mean I can only guess why they are so unco-operative and my conclusion is that, now that such bodies regard themselves as businesses, some treat what they do not as a public service but as a commodity, and they treat other organisations doing the same thing not as colleagues but as competitors.

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.”

IMITATING CRAFT

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Since my visit to Top Drawer, where I saw how artisanal goods are so on trend that manufacturers of consumer products are striving to make their things look hand-made, I’ve been on the lookout for other ceramic tableware like that and I went straight to Denby, who have been aware of the craft niche since the 1960s. Denby “Halo” (above) uses a complex streaked glaze similar to that used by studio potters.

The idea of making things that look like craft products raises the question, “What does a craft product look like?” I keep going back to David Pye, who is one of the few people to talk sense about making, and who said, “Workmanship of the better sort is called, in an honorific way, craftsmanship. Nobody, however, is prepared to say where craftsmanship ends and ordinary manufacture begins.” (The Nature and Art of Workmanship) He didn’t think the term “craft” was particularly useful and preferred to distinguish between two kinds of workmanship, the workmanship of risk and the workmanship of certainty. The use of machinery helped to produce the regular, finished and repeatable products of the latter kind, but he further questioned the distinction between hand work and machine work, since – as everyone has known for a long time – a machine is a tool driven by some motive force, and the difference between hand power, water, steam or electricity is not important. He concluded that it was impossible to tell by looking at something whether it is the work of a “craftsman” or not.

Since it is difficult to tell from an object’s appearance whether it was made by a “craftsman” or was “manufactured”, the craftsman look can be easily produced under factory conditions.  In case there’s any doubt, the mugs below, by potter Chris Keenan, are handmade and look similar to the pottery made in Denby’s factory.

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CERAMICS CO-OP, BERMONDSEY

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I visited Anna and Tatiana Baskakova (above) at the Ceramics Studio Co-op in Bermondsey on Wednesday to find out about their enterprise to support emerging potters. Although it’s their brainchild, the studio is a worker’s co-operative, owned and run by the artists who work in it, committed to the values of “self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equality, equity and solidarity.”

They provide studio space for amateur and professional ceramists, run classes and offer a kiln firing service. Since The Great Pottery Throwdown there’s been plenty of demand for pottery classes and workshops. The co-op has eight resident artists including Anna and Tatiana. They started with a loan in 2014 , which they paid off this year, and they’ve had an Arts Council grant for kilns, but otherwise the co-op is a business and its expenses are covered by users’ fees. And being in an industrial area they can scavenge bits of kit from local skips – their tubs and buckets (which potters can never have too many of) were all got that way.

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The Ceramics Studio Co-op is the new face of pottery training, offering flexible learning and open access studios. I wrote earlier about Turning Earth Studios and there’s also Clay College Stoke, formed by potters who were concerned about the potential loss of skills. These well-equipped ventures are emerging as university courses close, local authority classes price themselves out of the market and schools discontinue pottery under the pressure of exams and the national curriculum. They represent the growing enthusiasm for artisanal products and making by hand and a reaction to the retreat from the haptic to the screen. There was a recent article about lack of dexterity in surgical students who had had too much screen time, and an art teacher told me that new students didn’t know how to hold a pencil, didn’t think they had to draw and thought that it was enough to download pictures from the internet.

The Co-op, Turning Earth and Clay College are making pottery more accessible and I expect their success to generate more initiatives elsewhere. When I looked for training forty years ago it was difficult to find and quite rigid. There were a few potters offering apprenticeships, but they didn’t pay enough for the apprentice to live on, and there were a few degree and diploma courses. As the Craftmen Potters Association wrote at the time:

Anyone wishing to develop pottery skills to a professional standard has two choices: to enter a workshop direct as a trainee assistant, or to follow an art school course with a strong bias towards craft pottery. Many potters and students favour a combination of the two – a preliminary art school training followed by a period of workshop practice.

It was a huge leap from a leisure class to this sort of training and required a big commitment of time and money. The new ceramics training is more adaptable and responsive to the trainee’s needs. At the Ceramics Studio Co-op you can do a leisure class for fun, a more specialized course, or take studio space and progress to professional practice.

Ceramics Studio Co-op
Unit 17C
Juno Enterprise Centre
Juno Way
New Cross
London
SE14 5RW

020 8691 6421

LONDON DESIGN FESTIVAL

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As part of the London Design Festival, I’m exhibiting with London Potters at In Design@Battersea, in Battersea Power Station. Part of the riverside, where we are, has already been transformed, elsewhere it’s one of the largest building sites in London.

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My new work on show, In Design@Battersea

Grosvenor Arch, Circus West Village, Battersea Power Station, London SW1 8AH. Underground: Sloane Square. Easy pedestrian access from Chelsea Bridge.

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In Design@Battersea opening

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Grosvenor Arch

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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SOCIETY OF DESIGNER CRAFTSMEN (2)

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I’m delivering ceramics like this (above) this morning to “Hand of the Maker”, the Society of Designer Craftsmen‘s annual members’ exhibition, to be held this year for the first time at Chelsea College of Arts in John Islip Street, opposite Tate Britain. It opens on Friday, 13 July, and continues until 21 July.

I’m taking the opportunity to post a message from the SDC’s website about the refurbishment of our gallery and workspace in Rivington Street, a project that I’ve been involved with as a Trustee of the Society. I’ll continue to post news about the plan as it advances.

Fundraising for a Sustainable Future
“In our 130th year, the Society of Designer Craftsmen is excited to be working with Elliot Payne Architects to ensure the Society continues to be the success it is today. To help secure our future, we are currently fundraising to refurbish our headquarters in London’s vibrant Shoreditch to provide a members gallery for public exhibitions and creative spaces where members can meet clients and take part in workshops. If you wish to support us in this venture please contact chair@societyofdesignercraftsmen.org.uk.”