ART IN CLAY, HATFIELD

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I usually list my top ten potters from the annual ceramics festival at Hatfield, but this year I’m just posting a picture of a vase I bought from Susanne Lukács-Ringel. Her studio is in the south of Germany where she fires in a multi-chamber, wood-fuel kiln. The variegated surface on this beautiful faceted vase is created entirely by the flying wood ash, which volatilizes at high temperatures and then condenses on the pots, colouring them with random patterns from the minerals it carries.

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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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.

WEDGWOOD’S CREAMWARE

Wedgwood creamware 1773
Wedgwood creamware, “Frog Service”, 1773 (Victoria and Albert Museum)

Much of the history of European ceramics is the attempt to imitate Chinese porcelain. The Ottoman Turks covered buff clay with white slip and a clear glaze. The Moors brought opaque white tin glaze into Spain, from where it spread to Italy, the Netherlands, central Europe and England. Meanwhile, there were experiments in porcelain, adding products like crushed glass to clay. In 1693 a soft paste porcelain was invented at Rouen, and in 1708 a hard paste, closer to the Chinese original, at Meissen.

Wedgwood went in a different direction, aiming for a white earthenware, his experiments finally yielding a satisfactory cream-coloured body in the late 1760s.

I had known that creamware spelled the end of tin-glazed earthenware – Alan Caiger-Smith mentions it in Tin-glazed Earthenware – but I had not known exactly how Wedgwood displaced delftware until I read Robin Reilley’s Wedgwood biography.

Wedgwood could not export to France because the quality potteries were protected by the crown, but trade with the Netherlands was easier and creamware made rapid inroads there. His Dutch agent, Lamertus van Veldhuysen, introduced it to the upper class but had difficulty selling it to “the middle sort of people” because it was too expensive. The Delft potters recognised its superiority and tried to imitate it, some of them bankrupting themselves in the process. Wedgwood was unconcerned. When van Veldhuysen sent him a sample of creamware made by a potter called Zwenck, he said, “With regard to the quality of the body & glaze, they are so bad that we could not sell such pieces at 1 shilling a dozen.” Reilley comments that no Dutch manufacturer succeeded in copying creamware until the nineteenth century and that the Dutch have always been among Wedgwood’s best customers.

EMMANUEL COOPER

Emmanuel Cooper (from Online Ceramics)

Emmanuel Cooper, one of the leading figures in British studio pottery, died recently at the age of 73.  He was the founding editor of Ceramic Review in 1970 and continued editing it until 2010.  He was a writer, teacher and curator as well as a potter and served the Craft Potters Association and the Crafts Council.

I first met him in the late 1960s at the Fonthill Pottery in Finsbury Park.  Later he moved to Primrose Hill, where the Fonthill Pottery has a shop front in a good position.  The last time I passed it, the window showed recent pottery, work in progress and his motorbike. 
His pottery was urban and modernist, but functional rather than conceptual.  He became a fantastic innovator in brilliantly coloured glazes  with textured surfaces.
He was one of the potters I approached for advice and to ask if he would take me on as an assistant.  Although he couldn’t take on anyone at that time, he was one of the most helpful and encouraging potters I met. Later he was an external examiner at the University of Westminster when I studied ceramics at Harrow.  Our interviews there were more formal than our first one, but he was good at putting students at ease.  I was very critical of the work I showed.  Emmanuel didn’t tell me to relax my standards but reminded me that when one stops being self-critical it’s time to stop making.

A VISIT TO ST. QUENTIN LA POTERIE

Reindert Overduin in his studio with a student from CFA.

Saint Quentin la Poterie, a village near Nîmes with twenty-four pottery studios, has a long history as a pottery centre (tiles in the Pope’s Palace in Avignon were made there), but by 1970 all the traditional workshops had closed. Its revival is due largely to the energy and vision of Nicole Bouyala, its formidable mayor. Mme Bouyala, who held office from 1983 to 2001, encouraged potters to set up there, created the gallery Terra Viva, the European ceramics festival Terralha, a museum of ceramics and a Centre for Arts and Crafts Training (CFA), the only training centre for ceramics in the Gard or Hérault. The studios and shops along the pretty streets have turned St Quentin la Poterie into a village with a cosmopolitan population and the resources of a city, with national accreditation as a Ville et Métiers d’Art (arts and crafts town).

I visited the studios of four potters – Reindert Overduin, Denis Grazon, Agnès Alex and Marine Maudet – and asked them how they came to set up in Saint Quentin la Poterie.

Like all the potters in the village, Reindert Overduin is not local. He was born in Holland, where he went to art school, came to France for a holiday and liked it so much that he stayed. He visited St Quentin la Poterie, worked in Lilou Milcent Gallot’s studio for a day and decided to study ceramics seriously. He trained at CNIFOP, the National Centre for Training in the Ceramic Arts in Burgundy, from which many French ceramists have graduated. CNIFOP offers one-year modules that can be taken alone or combined into a longer course, plus numerous specialist short courses. After CNIFOP, Reindert returned to San Quentin la Poterie to work with Patrick Galtié, who has the largest workshop and the only one with permanent employees.

Denis Grazon made an even more sudden decision to become a ceramist. In 2002, when he was working in a Paris advertising agency, he took a holiday in the Périgord, saw some potters at work and the next day decided, “This is what I want to do!” Ten days later, he started work in his flat; three weeks later, he had built a wood-fired kiln and fired his first pots. “I didn’t have a clue what I was doing,” he said, “only a photo of a kiln, which I tried to copy.”

Denis Grazon with visitors to his studio, L’Age de Faire

He is still fascinated by kilns and firing. He has five gas and wood-fired kilns, including raku kilns, a fast-fire wood kiln and an open fire, low temperature kiln for the courses he runs in primitive firing – “Original pottery from the original kilns”. His studio is called L’Age de Faire, a pun on “making” and “iron age”.

Agnès Alex and Marine Maudet share a studio making work that differs from everything else made in St Quentin la Poterie, simple, white and austere.

In 2003, Agnès came from Paris to study at the CFA, then took an apprenticeship with Lilou Milcent Gallot, who has trained several of the potters here. Two years ago, before setting up, she had a show in Paris to see if her work would sell and was encouraged by the response. She and Marine were helped by the council to find premises for their studio. They like to progress slowly, ensuring that each step they take is well established before they move on to the next one – first their studio, then their shop, then their blog. They sell only from their shop now and will consider later whether to sell in Paris as well.

Les Souris Blanches: Agnès Alex and Marine Maude with some of their work in Limoges porcelain

At a Saturday night dance in the village, I spoke to Lilou Milcent Gallot, one of the first studio potters in St Quentin la Poterie. She told me that the future of ceramics is uncertain there. The potters are getting older and the success they have made of the village has pushed up property prices. The council is now promoting other activities. That evening in the market square, there was a pop-up bar, a raku demonstration and a Latin American accordion band. There was a mix of established locals and people who have chosen the relaxed pace of this Occitan village in preference to the pressures of the metropolis. The community spirit among the potters is well known and many more want to set up here, so hopefully it will survive and grow.