ALAN CAIGER-SMITH

I learned the other day of the death of Alan Caiger-Smith, an outstanding potter who revived the art of tin glaze and who became an important scholar of the tin glaze tradition.
Caiger-Smith was born in Buenos Aires in 1930. He studied at Camberwell Art School of Art and read history at King’s College, Cambridge. Inspired by French painted pottery in his mother’s kitchen, he enrolled in pottery evening classes at the Central School of Arts and Crafts under Dora Billington. His aims were unformed at the time, but when he told Billington of his interest in decoration she said, “Then you want to do tin glaze,” which he had never even heard of.

In 2013 I interviewed him about his time at the Central and his memories of Billington. His recall was sharp and he was a brilliant raconteur. The Central in around 1950 was an old building filled with ex-servicemen and young girls, known to the students as The Central School of Tarts and Drafts. Billington had taken on an old Yorkshire country thrower, Richard Bateson, whom Caiger-Smith found to be endlessly patient and helpful, though preferring to give advice outside the classroom where he could have a sly smoke at the same time.

Caiger-Smith warmed to his work, coming to the evening class earlier and earlier, eventually arriving at 8.30 a.m. William Johnstone, the college principal, called him in and instructed him to stop doing that, but Billington, who spotted his potential, took him aside and advised him to quietly ignore Johnstone.

By this date Billington was over sixty. One of Caiger-Smith’s colleagues, a student who frequently got drunk at lunchtime, stood at the back of the class sniggering as his prim old teacher showed them how to pull a handle by stroking and squeezing a sausage of clay. She looked up and said sharply, “Yes, Mr B— , it is phallic. Now sober up and pay attention and you may learn something.”

Caiger Smith remained grateful to Billington for her teaching and encouragement. Tin glaze was so out of fashion that the college technician (who I think at the time was Ian Auld) refused to fire his work and he had to smuggle it into the back of the kiln.

As it happened, his Aldermaston Pottery stuck a chord and his work was soon in demand. Last year, Jane White, published an account of Alan Caiger-Smith and the Legacy of the Aldermaston Pottery that traced the assistants who had worked with him there. Alan spoke at the book launch at the Ashmolean with Tim Wilson, an expert in maiolica, whom he had consulted during his historical researches and who also consulted him.

Tin-Glaze Pottery, published in 1973, was a rare thing, combining deep scholarship with practical understanding, and in my view it’s the standard account of the subject.

In a search for a real red pigment, Caiger-Smith rediscovered the technique of reduced lustre glaze (picture, top) after long experiment and many failures. His reduced lustre pottery is among his most beautiful work and is now very collectable. As an indication of how well-respected he became, he was honoured by the town of Gubbio, which had brought Italian lustre to the peak of refinement in the 16th century.

JAMES TOWER

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I caught up with the centenary exhibition of James Tower’s work at the Victoria Gallery, Bath, by chance after seeing a tweet and went to see it at the weekend. There’s a good collection of his ceramics, which I knew about, and his paintings, drawings and sculpture, which I didn’t.

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His shapes and marks show the influence of his childhood by the sea on the Isle of Sheppey. “This is a landscape of long silent marshes,” he said, “Where the sky seems to dominate the grey-green distance. There are few trees or hills. The forms that engage the eye are the small ones of the beach and the tidal wave. Shells, particularly the bivalves, oyster, mussel and razor shell. The flattened fish of the estuary, plaice, flounder and ray.”

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He studied at the Royal Academy and the Slade, then, training to be a teacher at the Institute of Education in 1949, he came under the influence of the potter William Newland and decided that ceramics offered a better means of artistic expression. He attended the Central School of Arts and Crafts part-time under Dora Billington, which gave him excellent technical instruction, though it was, in his view, aesthetically conservative.

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The Central encouraged a wide range of ceramic expression at the time. The artist-potters, Margaret Hine and Maggie Angus Berkowitz, were Tower’s contemporaries, while more traditional tableware was being made by John Solly, Innes Reich and Doreen Lambert. Tower regarded clay as a medium of exploration and was never a potter, though he later ran the pottery department at Corsham.

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His worked derived from vernacular European pottery and Picasso’s ceramics, which were so startling when they were first shown in Britain, but he quickly went beyond both, creating intriguing conversations between monochrome surface and organic form.

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PUGLIESE BAROQUE 4: BRINDISI


I had to visit the little town of Grottaglie, which has fifty traditional pottery workshops making a mixture of ornamental ceramics and tableware. It amazes me that these artisan businesses survive in Italy’s prosperous modern economy and that so much tableware is still made by hand, thrown on the wheel.

From Grottaglie we intended to travel by bus to Ostuni. It took two hours to find out where the bus departed from (the hotel receptionist apologised that “Everything is complicated in Italy”) and when we found the place, the bus didn’t come after a two-hour wait. So we opted for the easier trip by train to Brindisi, air conditioned as well – my British readers need to be informed that in late September it is 30 degrees in Puglia.

Brindisi had been almost written off by our guide book, which warned us that parts of it were “seedy”, and I expected little from a major seaport. But it has considerable interest and history in its pleasant waterfront, with the naval base and warships that you can watch through the security barrier, the fine Duomo, the little ancient basilica of St John, and the two ancient columns that marked the end of the Appian way (only one remains in the city, the other was donated to Lecce). It was also reputedly the place of Virgil’s death (below).


The inside of the Duomo has a refreshing simplicity after the extreme richness of the churches of Lecce, but the outside was beautifully lit at night (top). And we liked the frontage of Santa Teresa, glimpsed through olive trees as the cloud bubbled up before a thunderstorm (below).

BILLINGTON MAIOLICA JUG

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I went yesterday to see this Dora Billington jug in the Manchester Art Gallery. I saw it there about twenty years ago but it has not been on display for several years and I had to go down into the store to look at it. It made an impression on me when I first saw it and it was the starting point of my interest in Billington because it showed her mastery of maiolica, a technique not widely practiced by British  potters and not held in high esteem by collectors of British studio pottery. From this interest came a determination to bring her work to to wider notice and this jug will be shown in an exhibition of her work that I am organising at the Crafts Study Centre, Farnham, next year.

The jug, about 30cm high, was made in 1942. Billington said that she turned to art to escape the anxieties of war. Much of the Central School of Arts and Crafts, where she had taught for over twenty years, had been evacuated and the building in Southampton Row was damaged by bombardment. In those conditions she made this beautiful and life-affirming piece of pottery – one of her best. The calligraphic brush work is absolutely characteristic. She had trained in calligraphy with Edward Johnston at the Royal College of Art and had worked part-time as a decorator for Bernard Moore when she was a student, so this sort of loose, free decoration became second nature to he. It was a great pleasure to see it again.

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.”

THE JOHN BLACK COLLECTION

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Items from John Black’s important collection of Dutch and English Delft were sold by auction today following his death. The details are here.

I visited Dr Black with the Oxford Ceramics Group (of which he was president) in 2013, when handling pieces from his collection gave insights into the workshop practice of the old tin-glaze potters.

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For example, if you have seen a 17th century Delft dish in a museum you may have noticed three marks inside it, indicating that it was fired in a stack separated by three-pronged spurs. These dishes always have a narrow foot-ring, which gives an elegant finish to a fairly roughly made object; but seeing an old spur and having demonstrated to me how a dish fitted on top of it (above) made it clear that the reason for the small foot-ring was practical, not aesthetic. In the 17th century, as firing became more sophisticated, dishes were supported under their rims instead and the foot-ring could be made wider.

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The plate above is unusual in having been decorated in all five of the pigments available to potters at the time: iron brown, copper green, antimony yellow, cobalt blue and manganese purple. Manganese mixed with cobalt produces a good black. Decoration in one, two or three colours is almost universal, the design easier to conceive and manage, with stronger identity and clearer differentiation, than decoration in four or five colours, which is rare.

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The plate above (Netherlands, first quarter of the 17th century) caught my eye because the green in the balls is turquoise rather than the more yellowish green normally produced by copper in a lead tin glaze, which indicates that this plate was covered in an alkaline glaze. Alan Caiger-Smith, in Tin-Glaze Pottery in Europe and the Islamic World, reports the following Dutch glaze recipe from the mid-eighteenth century:

50 lb. dry sand
15 lb. potash
20 lb. soda
6 oz. manganese
Mixed, calcined, ground and sieved.

To this are added:
20 lb. lead
20 lb. tin
Calcined, and oxidized ground and sieved.

Such a glaze was 28 per cent alkaline (disregarding impurities), which would certainly have produced turquoise in the presence of copper oxide.

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The trouble with copper oxide is that it blurs and it is difficult to make a sharp mark with it. Such a quality can be exploited by the designer, but from about 1700 it was replaced with a crisp green made by mixing antimony yellow with cobalt blue, which made an olive green as in the plate above (1720-40).

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There were other insights, perhaps none so revealing as that offered by duplicated designs. In the example above, each plate is copied from the same pattern but they are different in treatment and interpretation. The painter on the left fills the space better and paints his motifs more decisively. In other examples the brushwork varies even more, between fluent and confident strokes and tight, awkward movements. It is clear that these Chinese-style decorations were often painted without understanding, almost as a set of meaningless abstract marks, and some of them look very odd indeed.

Dr Black had plates with bad faults in glaze or pigment and the fact that they had been sent to market at all tells you something about the economics of the potteries or the lack of supervision within them.

His little book British Tin Glazed Earthenware (2001) illustrates his collection.

RYE POTTERY

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Tidying up my papers, I came across this old postcard, which I’d picked up at Gary Grant’s shop in Arlington Street behind Sadler’s Wells. The shop has been closed for many years, but I liked to pop in when I was going to the theatre to look at his excellent collection of mid-century pottery, especially his collection of Rye Pottery. These are Rye butter dishes.

The Rye Pottery was set up by Wally and Jack Cole and thrived after the war, capturing in their bright, whimsical ceramics the spirit of he Festival of Britain. They made tin-glazed tableware and decorative figures, which were very much of the time. The same spirit was expressed in the contemporary pottery of the Bayswater Three, William Newland, Margaret Hine and Nicholas Vergette, who made a good living decorating the interiors of coffee bars. This sort of pottery ran against the Leach current of Chinese-inspired stoneware. Newland found Leach’s dominance irritating but the Coles just got on with it. Their pottery still exists in Rye, still making tin-glazed wares.

Walter studied at the Central School of Arts and Crafts in the 1930s, when Dora Billington was teaching there and at a time when she was making exquisite tin-glazed ceramics, and he was subsequently a member of the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society, of which she was a leading member. Rye was a rare example of a commercially successful craft pottery. Kenneth Clark and Ann Wynn-Reeves ran a similarly successful enterprise, concentrating on tiles but also making use of decorated tin-glaze; and they were also graduates of the Central pottery course.