ST ALBANS CATHEDRAL

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I was pleased to be asked by the flower arrangers of St Albans Cathedral to make a bowl for the Lady Chapel in memory of one of their members, and today I went to see how they had used it. Cascades of white flowers under the statue of the Madonna almost obscure it (above), but you can just see it there.

I went through the Cathedral, took pictures of some familiar things, and saw some things I hadn’t noticed before.

The flowers are always wonderful.

The guide told me that the Shrine of St Alban (below) contained the saint’s shoulder blade, donated by Cologne Cathedral in 2002. The bones had been taken to Rome in 429, then went to Cologne at the time of the Great Schism.
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The site of the original tomb, the holy grail of archaeologists, is unknown and sceptical historians think St Alban may have been invented to control English heretics, but my guide didn’t agree.

The carved figures and capitals are in good condition and I wondered how they escaped the Puritan iconoclasm. “They didn’t,” said my guide, “They are 19th century restorations.”

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I knew the medieval wall paintings in the Norman arches, but there was a smaller painting in one of the chapels that I hadn’t seen before.

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Votive candles and personal prayers.

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.”

 

 

VOLTAGE DIP

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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

SOPHIE CONRAN TABLEWARE

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.

TURNING

Readers of this blog will know that I have been thinking a lot about how I turn my pottery after throwing it on the wheel. Thrown pots often need the foot to be cleaned up and shaped afterwards, and the way potters do it is to let the pot harden off a bit (the jargon is, till leather-hard), turn it upside down on the revolving wheel and trim it with a sharp tool. Flat items – plates and bowls – must be finished like this. Taller objects – cups and jugs – don’t have to be, but the effect of turning is more elegant than leaving the base as it comes off the wheel.

Most studio potters are ambivalent about turning. In the early days of studio pottery (the 1920s to the 1980s) there was a mystique about throwing, which was considered to impart “vitality” to the pot, and there were reservations about turning, whose effect was thought to be “mechanical”. Those ideas came in part from the reaction against industrial pottery, but they were also influenced by Bergson’s anti-rational, vitalist philosophy, which was was hugely popular in the second and third decades of the 20th century and which made “vital” the vogue word in art and art-criticism. Bergson is not mentioned in Emmanuel Cooper’s biography of Bernard Leach, but Leach’s colleague and mentor, Soetsu Yanagi, was certainly influenced by Bergson and it is clear from Leach’s writing that he was too.

The practice in Stoke of Trent from the late 18th century onward was to get the rough shape of the pot on the wheel, then to hand it over to the turner, who imparted the outside profile on a vertical lathe. This process was described well by George Myatt, an old thrower interviewed by Gordon Elliott, and it is illustrated in the 1935 film (top), which shows an amazingly proficient thrower forming a rough shape in under ten seconds, which is then put in a plaster mould and then turned on a lathe.

In the Stoke-on-Trent production process, the work of the turner was more important in making the final shape, and therefore contributing to its saleability, than that of the thrower, and I guess that he was more highly skilled therefore more highly paid.

My preference for throwing over turning, and that of most studio potters, comes partly from the fact that throwing is easier than turning. Good turning is immensely difficult. The skill of the craftsman in industry was, I believe, superior to that of the studio potter, and understandably so, because there was specialisation in the industry and everyone concentrated on his trade.

 

GIFFIN GRIP

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The picture shows a vase I’ve turned in my new Giffin Grip. What a great piece of kit! How did I manage without one for so long?

Other potters I consulted before buying one were divided between those who advocated traditional methods for holding the pot (three blobs of clay or a clay chuck) and those who said the Giffin Grip was useful. It’s an expensive bit of kit, but I don’t regret buying it and it will soon pay for itself.

The Giffin Grip is beautifully engineered and makes turning pots of differing sizes an easy task. The instructions are clear and operation is simple. Setting up took about an hour and getting ready for a turning session takes three minutes.

For turning the odd bowl, three blobs of clay will do, but for repetition work, where time is important, this device is a huge leap forward. It is quick and easy to place and remove the pot and, unlike wet clay, does not leave a mark on the outside. Placing pots over chucks can also leave marks inside, and in the past I have spent a long time forming the chuck and then drying it with a heat gun.

I have to confess I dislike turning but I have decided to turn foot rings on hollow ware (mugs and vases) for a more elegant finish. The Giffin Grip makes it a more agreeable job.

Such a beautifully designed tool is useful for both the amateur and professional potter. For the amateur it makes centering easier and for the professional it increases productivity. I suspect that some of the opposition to it comes from potters who think their craft should be difficult, but my motto is “Work smart, don’t work hard”.

ALCHEMY IN THE CERAMICS STUDIO

I’m testing new glazes. I make small samples, using just 30 gm of dry matter, to which I add about 5% of stains. In these quantities, the measurement of stains has to be accurate to a hundredth of a gram. I have these great little scales, the little oblong thing in the middle of the picture, probably more widely used for weighing heroin than glaze stain, but perfect for the job.

I put the glaze samples on t-shaped tiles, suitably labelled, like the one on the left of the picture. After the tiles come out of the kiln, the bases are snapped off and they’re mounted on an A4 board. The best of the tests is made into a large batch of glaze.

I’m looking for a good yellow glaze to go inside tableware. The outside will be a matt grey, which is being tested at the same time.

This is the scientific side of ceramics, which I enjoy as much as the artistic side – but not more so. A colleague makes pottery only so that he can write reports about his glaze experiments. For me the experiment is only a means to an end.

Some potters can’t be bothered with this approach. I talked to Gordon Baldwin about his student days under Dora Billington, who was good on ceramic chemistry and who developed a range of glazes for her class at the Central School of Arts and Crafts. Gordon admitted he wasn’t a good student. “I didn’t have the right personality for that diligent testing,” he told me. “My idea was more like that of an alchemist, stir it together see what you’ve got and put a pinch more in it.” That approach worked well for him. Different potters, different personalities, different approaches.