SEASIDE MORRIS DANCING

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I’m working on a series of drawings of Morris dancers in English seaside resorts. I’ve been fascinated by this tradition for years, particularly Border Morris because of the way its dress updates a tradition with punk elements and random collections of ornamentation. (The dancer below had sausages in her hat.) And I connect the dancers with the seaside because that’s where I’ve come across them, like modern end-of- the-pier shows.

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Border Morris goes in for weird dress and violent dancing, which involve shouting  and striking sticks together, and some dancers introduce modern instruments like saxophones and electric guitars. Like all traditions, this one is curated, continually re-invented, altered and embellished.

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But Border Morris (unlike the bells-and-hankies type of Morris dancing from the Cotswolds) has become embroiled in controversy because its traditional dance requires black face, which, with the dancers’ penchant for sunglasses, makes their performance look even more malevolent. A Border Morris side in black face was recently stopped from performing in Birmingham, the first time they have been challenged. The bemused response of the dancers is to say that black face has nothing to do with racism and originated in the need of dancers to disguise themselves. But others have said that this story is repeated from an assertion by Cecil Sharpe without evidence, and that there is evidence to the contrary of the co-incidence of black face Morris with black face minstrel shows, and of 19th century dancers talking of “going niggering”. Compared with Cotswold Morris, Border Morris has a sinister back story which its supporters are unaware of. I expect that in a rapidly changing climate it will have to re-invent itself again.

The English seaside resort also has an uncomfortable history. It has been in decline for fifty years and seaside towns are among the most socially deprived in the country, but there is also a steep social gradient on the coast – between, say, chic Deal and squalid Margate.

 

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.”

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 horizontal 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.