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 firstname.lastname@example.org.”
As my kiln is very big, I bought a tiny kiln like this for glaze tests. It’s even useful for small items, for example, when I had a commission for a bowl from St Albans Cathedral and didn’t want to wait till the big kiln was full.
I’ve been working furiously for shows over the summer, making use of both kilns, and the other day the little kiln mysteriously turned itself off in the middle of a firing and the big kiln went slow.
James Otter of Potclays, who made the small kiln, suggested numerous possible reasons for the failure, but none seemed to apply. Then, prompted by the fact that both kilns failed at once, he suggested voltage dip, a temporary reduction in the power supply. I’d never heard of voltage dip before and it’s not something that troubles the domestic consumer much, but firing the little kiln again and finding that everything was back to normal suggested that it was indeed the reason for its stalling in the first place, perhaps precipitated by heavy consumption during the heatwave
When we were in Glasgow last week, the scaffolding on the art school obscured most of the Mackintosh building but indicated that it would soon be re-opened, improved beyond its condition when fire struck in 2014. Now comes the shocking news that another fire has damaged the building, undoing most of the painstaking restoration of the last three years.
The cause of the fire in not known yet. The 2014 fire was caused by gases from a canister used in a student project. (The Harrow art school fire at the University of Westminster in 2007 was also said to be caused by the ignition of materials used in a student project.) Will there be funds for another restoration? I hope so: the Mackintosh building is Grade A listed and an important part of Scottish heritage.
Glasgow was one of the first British government art schools to teach pottery. In 1893 the school opened its Technical Art Studios, teaching stained glass, needlework, bookbinding, painting on china, and metalwork. The chairman of governors was James Fleming, a pottery manufaturer.
BBC Radio recently broadcast an edition of Hancock’s Half Hour from 1959, The Poetry Society. Hancock has joined a bunch of poets, the East Cheam Cultural Progressive Society.
Hancock: “We sit on the old cardboard tombstones round the plastic coffins…and we indulge in philosophical analysis. We formulate our plans for our Brave New World; Gladys takes it down in her notebook and when she’s filled it up we’re going to publish it. We’re calling it “A Thesis on the Reconciliation of Homo-Sapiens in Relationship with his Natural Destiny and the Theory of Selective Evolution”.
Sid: What else do you do?
Hancock: Well, during the day we pursue our various artistic sidelines, some of us make pots and jugs. Then there’s Adelaide, she’s very good on the raffia-mats. Then there’s Percy and his Welsh bedspreads. Some of us paint, and sculpt…and the rest of us lie in bed, thinking.
I was amused to hear that Galton and Simpson identified the crafts with pretentious pseudo intellectuals, just after journalists had coined the term “beatnik” for the Beat with beret and goatee beard playing the bongos. Were studio potters really like that? Mick Casson, one of the founders of the recently-formed Craftsmen Potters Association, had a beard, but he was pretty straightforward and down to earth. Pottery students at Goldsmiths under Richard Dunning in the 1950s looked quite conventional (below).
But I do remember in bourgeois Stanmore in the late 1950s a couple of artists with a shop selling their jewellery and pottery, who did look like members of the East Stanmore Cultural Progressive Society, with beard and sandals, long hair and wooden beads, whom I greatly admired, so I suppose the Hancock stereotype was based on something.
I mentioned Sophie Conran’s Pebble range of tableware in my last post and thought I’d say a bit more about it.
It has been a popular range over a long period and says a lot about attitudes to handmade and factory-made pottery. It is factory-made, but with its wonky shapes and ridges it looks as if it has been thrown on the wheel (except that each piece is identical and has a practical, clear glaze). As factory-made pottery it is good, and highly original, but if it had been made by hand it would be bad.
Factory pottery can imitate studio pottery, and in the 1960s Denby produced some excellent studio-type tableware which you can still find in perfect condition in charity shops. But handmade tableware has to aim for a degree of fineness and regularity even if it doesn’t try to look factory-made. There are potters who are happy to make very rough mugs and bowls, but they are few now. My practice is different and the way I put it is that if you aim at perfection your work will be imperfect, but if you aim at imperfection it will be rubbish.
I also mentioned that Pebble was designed by a studio potter, one I know well. He is not acknowledged and his fee bore no relation to the profits this range has generated.
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.
In my post on the Vase Mania that swept the country after the discovery of Pompeii and Herculaneum, I mentioned that, as the craze faded away, Wedgwood decided to go down market and to sell his vases more cheaply to the middle classes.
“The Great People have had these Vases in their Palaces long enough for them to be seen and admired to the Middling People,” he said, “which Class we know are vastly, I had almost said, infinitely superior, in numbers to the great, and although a great price was, I believe, at first necessary to make these vases esteemed Ornaments for Palaces, that reason no longer exists, and the middling people would probably buy quantities of them at a reduced price.”
Robin Reilly in his excellent biography explains that Wedgwood’s motives were more complex. Although he had become a hugely successful potter, he never seemed to have any money. Although the business made a profit, he was in debt, and a rumour was going around that he could not pay. He observed that if you lost money you could get it back, but if you lost reputation you would never recover. Up to that point he thought the remedy was better debt collection, but Reilley uncovered the fact that Wedgwood and his partner Tomas Bentley did not understand their business accounts. He was, in fact, under-capitalised, a common shortcoming in rapidly expanding enterprises. Reilley is an ideal biographer because, as well as being a historian, he was a senior manager at Wedgwood for twelve years.
With characteristic energy and resolve, Wedgwood set to analysing his costs, which he had never bothered about too much before. He virtually invented cost accounting and the production of cheaper vases was inspired as much by cost control and the need to improve cash flow as it was by changing fashion.