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.

ROGER FRY, BERNARD LEACH AND WEDGWOOD

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Roger Fry occupies a noteworthy position in 20th-century decorative arts, and pottery in particular.  He tried to make pottery himself, not very successfully, attending classes at Camberwell School of Art. His formalist conception of art helped to establish the new studio pottery of W.B.Dalton, Charles Vyse, Bernard Leach and William Staite Murray. He recognised the genius of Josiah Wedgwood but ultimately dismissed his work as retrograde, as I found from his interesting review of an exhibition of Wedgwood china published in The Athenaeum in 1905. (Reproduced in A Roger Fry Reader.)

Writing about Flaxman’s recently-discovered wax models from which Wedgwood’s relief figure were cast, Fry says:

They all show extraordinary technical skill, and are marked by a cold excellence and negative perfection. … [I]t gives one an idea of the shrewd intelligence and resource of the man who accomplished what hardly anyone else has – the feat of making a commercial success of fine-art pottery. As pottery, Wedgwood’s work is beyond praise, though it probably contributed to the final destruction of the art, as an art, in England, since it set a standard of mechanical perfection which to this day prevents the trade from accepting any work in which the natural beauties of the material are not carefully obliterated by mechanical means. In fact. Wedgwood destroyed the craftsman’s tradition by substituting the artist turned craftsman for the craftsman turned artist by experience and natural aptitude.

1905 was the high-water mark of the Arts and Crafts movement and Fry’s views are typical, though he had little time for the moralising representatives of the movement. In this evaluation of Wedgwood and his successors, he forms a bridge between the Arts and Crafts movement and the studio potters. Leach’s evaluation of Wedgwood thirty-five years later in Towards a Standard was similar but harsher and less sensitive to cultural and artistic context:

The small establishments of the Tofts and other slipware potters were succeeded by the factories of the Wedgwoods and the Spodes, and in a short space of time the standard of craftsmanship, which had been built up by the labour of centuries, the intimate feeling for material and form, and the common, homely, almost family workshop life had given way to specialization and the inevitable development of mass production.

THE ARTS AND CRAFTS EXHIBITION SOCIETY

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I have been looking at the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society catalogue for their 1935 exhibition, which shows the Society (which gave its name to the Arts and Crafts movement and had doubts about the propriety of machine-made goods) flirting with design for mass production.

It was a small step but a significant one. William Morris’s ambivalence about machinery had hardened into outright opposition and in the 20th century the craftsman evolved from a generalist with a wide range of abilities (usually based on architecture), who sometimes contracted the execution of his work to a tradesman, into a specialist, frequently working alone and controlling every stage of production.

Pevsner argued that the lead in design in the 20th century passed from the Arts and Crafts to pioneer modernists like Adolf Loos, Peter Behrens, Josef Hoffman, the Deutsche Werkbund and the Bauhaus, and by the 1930s, some design thinkers doubted that there was much room for the crafts. Gropius, in a lecture he gave in England in 1934, argued that their future lay not in production but in “research work for industrial production and in speculative developments in laboratory workshops where the preparatory work of evolving and perfecting new type-forms will be done.” Herbert Read took a similar view in Art and Industry.

These ideas became so widespread that craftspeople were either persuaded by them or understood the need to engage with them. Among potters, even two of the most craft-based were briefly enchanted by them, Bernard Leach toying with the idea setting up a small factory and Michael Cardew trying to design for Stoke-on-Trent. John Farleigh, who was on the modernising wing of the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society, responded to this current of thought by declaring to members that “We are in a machine age, and to ignore it is to ignore life as it is lived today,” but he contended that craft objects that could be reproduced by machine would be better if craftsmen supervised their manufacture, proposing a larger role for the craftsman in industry than that indicated by Gropius and Read.

farleigh black girl

In 1935 the Society included in its exhibition a section devoted to design for Mass Production, stating that the artist-craftsman “is admirably fitted to design for ‘batch-production’, ‘quantity-production’ or ‘mass-production’ in industry”. It led with Farleigh’s wood engravings for Bernard Shaw’s Adventures of the Black Girl in Search of God (above) and the exhibit was dominated by design for print, with lettering by Edward Johnston, Noel Rooke, Grailey Hewett and Alfred Firbank. There was some furniture by Romney Green and Gordon Russell, some printed fabrics by Heals, and some pottery designed for Doulton by Reco Capey. This was a hardly a major departure from hand-work. Ambrose Heal was a staunch supporter of the crafts and a member of the Society, and Doulton’s was an art pottery rather than a manufacturer of tableware. There was no evidence of any serious engagement by the Society with industry or any real interest in industrial design. Nevertheless, it was too much for some members. Leach was in the opposing faction and resigned. Staite Murray agreed with him that the Society’s policy of encouraging design for industry would “subvert the object of the Society to preserve the Crafts.”

The exhibition of British Art in Industry in 1935 talked of a “struggle for supremacy” between machine methods that made possible cheap goods and hand craftsmanship that could give goods individuality and character. The “art and industry debate” that persisted throughout the 1930s was never resolved and was brought to an end by the war, when craft production became an impermissible luxury. By 1944, two-thirds of Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society members were said to be designing for industry.

DISAPPEARING TALENT

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Few artists make a living from art and many give up completely. Looking in the archive of Central Saint Martin’s art school I found several talented ceramics students who never practiced after graduating. I was looking for photos of work done by students of Dora Billington to show in the exhibition I’m curating at the Crafts Study Cente and Ruthin Craft Craft Centre at the end of the year.

In the early 1950s some students made work with an eye to mass production and others made pieces intended as individual works of art. Ines Reich made the elegant teapot above with a transfer decoration for her diploma exam in 1951, with a  contemporary Festival of Britain feel, but she appears to have disappeared without trace thereafter.

Doreen Lambert made this well-considered dinner service (below) for her diploma show in 1954 but she had a career in teaching rather than design. She kept it all her life and it sold only after her death, when it came up at auction at Roseberry’s in 2014.

doreen lambert degree show work

The Central was famous in the ‘fifties as a counter-current to the conservative Leach style of studio pottery, and this fine collection (below), exhibited by Helen Sadar in 1959, is typical of the sort of ceramics that were being explored then. She also disappeared without trace.

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ROBIN WELCH

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I was sad to hear of the death of Robin Welch, one of the finest studio potters in Britain. In recent years he exhibited at Art in Clay, Hatfield, and I looked forward to chatting to him in his regular place at the show and buying some of his pots.

Robin was born in in 1936 and studied at Nuneaton and Penzance schools of art, receiving his NDD in sculpture and ceramics in 1953. He spent time at the Leach pottery in St Ives and he told me that, when he began exhibiting, Leach didn’t like his work (which some might take as a commendation). From 1956 he did his national service with the 2nd Battalion Parachute Regiment, taking the opportunity in the Middle East to visit peasant potteries. He then went on to do a postgraduate course in ceramics at the Central School of Arts and Crafts.

The Central was led in the post-war years by William Johnstone, who had moved it away from the arts and crafts (it later changed its name to the Central School of Art and Design) and introduced a design training based on the Bauhaus system and a collegiate style of teaching which exposed students to a variety of disciplines. Ceramics students were aware of the new American painting and in Cornwall Robin himself had already been inspired  by Terry Frost, John Tunnard and Barbara Tribe. They were taught by William Turnbull, Alan Davie and Eduardo Paolozzi (who, typically, was based in the textile department). Ceramics was led by Gilbert Harding Green, a man of wide culture who encouraged innovation, assisted by William Newland, Nicholas Vergette, Ian Auld, Dan Arbeid, Kenneth Clark and Gillian Lowndes.

After leaving the Central, Robin set up in London and got his first break from Henry Rothschild, who gave him £100 and carte blanche to make pots to be sold at the Primavera gallery. He spent three years in Australia, establishing a pottery with Ian Sprague, and returned to England in 1965 to set up the pottery at Stradbroke, Suffolk, where he worked until his death. At Stradbroke he launched high-volume production with half a dozen assistants, using industrial machinery which he’d been taught to use in Stoke-on-Trent. He spent twenty years in this sort of work, selling kitchen ware in interior design stores, but from the 1980s he made large, individual pieces like the one shown in the picture, for which he’s now better known.

A nice pamphlet about him, full of photos, Robin Welch – A Life, was produced by his granddaughter for a school project, but Robin told me he was sorry that no-one had wanted to write a full biography. Perhaps someone will now.

MICHAEL CARDEW

I viewed the upcoming auction of items at Woolley and Wallis yesterday, dominated by two large collections of Martinware, which were introduced to members of the Decorative Arts Society by Dr Christopher Jordan.

There are also many lots of 20th century studio pottery, including some good examples of work by Michael Cardew. I suppose it’s because many potters were production throwers that there are numerous examples of their work around, but I was still surprised at the low guide prices for some of the items. This group of five Cardew pots, for example, is expected to sell for £120 – £180 for the lot.