I have been trying to date these two vases that I was given recently, and which I’m passing on to public collections.
Their provenance is good but they’re hard to date because they were given by the artist to the previous owner some time after they were made, but how long after we don’t know. They are signed on the bottom in the same way as dated pots made in the late 1930s, and my hunch, based on the clear Oriental influence, via Bernard Leach, and their heavy potting, is that is when they were made. Billington exhibited a stoneware vase with the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society in 1938, but, exasperatingly, the catalogue does not describe it.
As part of the London Design Festival, I’m exhibiting with London Potters at In Design@Battersea, in Battersea Power Station. Part of the riverside, where we are, has already been transformed, elsewhere it’s one of the largest building sites in London.
Grosvenor Arch, Circus West Village, Battersea Power Station, London SW1 8AH. Underground: Sloane Square. Easy pedestrian access from Chelsea Bridge.
I learned today of the death of Murray Fieldhouse, an important figure in post-war studio pottery who edited the magazine Pottery Quarterly, the first periodical on the subject, which came out irregularly from the mid-1950s to the early 1980s. He was also one of the founder members of the Craft Potters Association.
Murray was born in 1925, and after an unconventional wartime national service, when he became a pacifist, he alighted on the crafts as a way of living out his Utopian and anti-establishment ideals. The choice of pottery came later. He served an apprenticeship with Harry Davis in Cornwall, who was also an anti-establishment Utopian, but more austere in his habits than Murray, who was well-known for his enjoyment of life.
In the 1950s, Murray ran Pendley Manor, an education centre in Hertfordshire to which he invited most of the top names in studio pottery to demonstrate. When I was researching the life of Dora Billington, he gave me some photos of her demonstrating there.
Pottery Quarterly in its early days contained reviews of everything that was happening in British pottery and it is an important record of the period, but Murray was a fierce advocate of the Leach style of pottery and his reviews of exhibitions by potters who didn’t follow it became harsher over the years. Nevertheless, he was a close friend of William Newland, who was not in the Leach circle and didn’t like his artistic dominance.
Another of Murray’s initiatives was the Dacorum and Chiltern Potters Guild, of which he remained honorary president until 2009, when he retired and the job passed to Mervyn Fitzwilliam.
The owner of two Dora Billington vases has given them to me because she is moving house and has no room for them. They are signed and of good provenance. They are important pieces because there is little studio pottery by Billington still extant and none that I know of this size. The grey vase is 27 cm high, the black one 26 cm.
They are hard to date, though further investigation of the signature may give a clue. Billington started making high-fired stoneware in the late 1920s and probably donated these pieces in the 1950s or 1960s. They are heavily potted, and so may be early works.
I plan to give them to a museum in due course. I am curating an exhibition at the Crafts Study Centre about Billington’s life and work, to be opened in 2020, and these noble vases will be exhibited there.
BBC Radio recently broadcast an edition of Hancock’s Half Hour from 1959, The Poetry Society. Hancock has joined a bunch of poets, the East Cheam Cultural Progressive Society.
Hancock: “We sit on the old cardboard tombstones round the plastic coffins…and we indulge in philosophical analysis. We formulate our plans for our Brave New World; Gladys takes it down in her notebook and when she’s filled it up we’re going to publish it. We’re calling it “A Thesis on the Reconciliation of Homo-Sapiens in Relationship with his Natural Destiny and the Theory of Selective Evolution”.
Sid: What else do you do?
Hancock: Well, during the day we pursue our various artistic sidelines, some of us make pots and jugs. Then there’s Adelaide, she’s very good on the raffia-mats. Then there’s Percy and his Welsh bedspreads. Some of us paint, and sculpt…and the rest of us lie in bed, thinking.
I was amused to hear that Galton and Simpson identified the crafts with pretentious pseudo intellectuals, just after journalists had coined the term “beatnik” for the Beat with beret and goatee beard playing the bongos. Were studio potters really like that? Mick Casson, one of the founders of the recently-formed Craftsmen Potters Association, had a beard, but he was pretty straightforward and down to earth. Pottery students at Goldsmiths under Richard Dunning in the 1950s looked quite conventional (below).
But I do remember in bourgeois Stanmore in the late 1950s a couple of artists with a shop selling their jewellery and pottery, who did look like members of the East Stanmore Cultural Progressive Society, with beard and sandals, long hair and wooden beads, whom I greatly admired, so I suppose the Hancock stereotype was based on something.
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.
I went to see the Fitzwilliam exhibition Things of Beauty Growing: British Studio Pottery for the second time.
One of the changes that has taken place in studio pottery in the years since I first became interested in it is that it has become a topic of academic study, a fact regretted by the more downright potters, but a development that has put it into its proper artistic and historical context. We have come a long way from the early books, which simply listed the author’s favourite potters. Oliver Watson’s survey of the Victoria and Albert Museum’s collection (1990) was the first dispassionate account, and Jeffrey Jones’s Studio Pottery in Britain (2007) established a scholarly discourse. Glenn Adamson, Martina Droth and Simon Olding, the curators of this exhibition, develop that discourse.
The individual art pot dominates this show, but there is a small section devoted to tea-sets and coffee-sets, including sets by Leach, Lucie Rie (above), Ruth Duckworth (a very 1950s-style collection made before she turned to sculpture), an abysmally bad coffee-set by Roger Fry, and high-quality factory-made sets designed by Susie Cooper and Keith Murray, the architect-trained designer whose modernist shapes were manufactured by Wedgwood. The latter call into question the studio potter’s insistence at the time that factory-made pottery was bad and meretricious.
The exhibits of tableware point to the dialogue that took place on and off between the crafts and industry between the 1920s and the 1970s, and the discussions in the crafts about whether the craftsman had a contribution to make to manufacturing. It was inconclusive, rarely productive and sometimes acrimonious. It is not explained in the exhibition but it is discussed in an essay by Tanya Harrod in the accompanying book.
In the the post-war decades potters became preoccupied with repetition throwing. Some vaguely imagined that craft pottery might replace factory-made pottery and potters like Harry Davis, those at Briglin, and Leach’s young assistants mass-produced by hand. But by the end of the ‘sixties, government realised that the crafts had little to offer industry and passed responsibility for them from the Board of Trade (where it had rested since the 1920s) to the Department of Education.
By the 1980s, the market for hand-made tableware was in decline and studio potters had aligned themselves with the arts rather than industry. Now few think studio pottery has much to say about manufacturing, though a notable exception is Sophie Conran’s popular “Pebble” range, which has a deliberately hand-made look and was in fact designed for her by British studio potter.