THE CRAFTS STUDY CENTRE

Dora Billington with students at the Central School of Arts and Crafts, 1950s.

The Crafts Study Centre in Farnham, part of the University of the Creative Arts, houses a valuable collection and archive of British crafts from the early 20th century, including a very full Bernard Leach archive. For several years I’ve been planning an exhibition there about the potter Dora Billington, who was a leading ceramic educator until the 1960s. I’ve been greatly helped by the Centre’s chairperson, Alison Britton, its director, Simon Olding and curator Greta Bertram, and after delays due to Covid the exhibition was scheduled for autumn this year.

Unfortunately the University has become a victim of Long Covid. After its activities were curtailed in 2020 and 2021, it’s returning to normal but in a weakened state and with several compromised organs. One of them is the Crafts Study Centre, which has ben forced to cancel the Dora Billington exhibition.

Here in its place are pictures of some Billington pottery.

BERNARD LEACH: LIFE & WORK

Covid and Christmas gave me the chance to catch up on reading and after Fiona MacCarthy’s life of William Morris, I’ve finally got round to Emmanuel Cooper’s biography, Bernard Leach: Life and Work.

As a man with no doubts about his own importance, Leach (1887-1979) left a large archive, which makes the work of the biographer easy, though Cooper may have been blessed with too much material and remains too close to the sources. In contrast to Leach, Dora Billington, another major studio potter of the period, left nothing. As Leach dominated the pottery studio world, so she dominated pottery in the art schools. She was in a better position to leave an archive than he was. He was peripatetic, had an emotionally turbulent life and was always in search of funds; she remained at the Central School of Arts and Crafts and lived in the same house with one companion for thirty years. The absence of a Billington archive suggests that her papers were destroyed, probably on her instructions.

Leach’s first wife, Muriel, said that no man was ever more in need of a religion than he was. Pottery was a religion for him. He thought that Beauty was to be found in the Absolute. Industry had no soul and bad pottery was “dead”. He could never accept that his work was simply a style that he preferred: he had to believe that it reflected a universal, unvariable and absolute standard that all pottery should measure up to, and damn it if it didn’t. He was brought up a Catholic and was educated by Jesuits. When doubts crept in, he became a follower of a charlatan called Alfred Westharp, who combined polygamy with the Montessori method of education. Westharp conveniently persuaded Leach that his discontent with monogamy was spiritually significant and that he would never develop as an artist if he didn’t follow his sexual urges.

Later, under the influence of Mark Tobey, Leach adopted the Baha’i faith. His employees at the pottery had to attend daily prayer meetings. He stood on a soap box in St Ives harbour to preach on the evils of modern life, which, by the 1950s, included not only industry but also cinema, chewing gum and Music While You Work.

Leach’s mission was to bring together East and West. In Japan he sold pottery based on the English vernacular tradition and he introduced Japanese potters to the clay handle instead of the traditional bamboo handle. He and his colleagues, Soetsu Yanagi and Shoji Hamada, encouraged a Japanese reading of Ruskin and Morris. But as he was so opposed to the values of the West it’s hard to see what he brought to the East – unlike, for example, Charlotte Perriand, whose design was inspired by Japan but who remained a significant Western designer.

Leach made successful tours of the United States, which challenged him because he couldn’t understand a country with diverse traditions and a love of innovation. Cooper is frank about his aloofness and dogmatism in America, but for all that he was often open to new experiences in the arts, society and nature. Most remarkable was his warm response to the designers Charles and Ray Eames, who, despite their collection of folk art, represented the antithesis of Leach’s values. He wanted to produce a small number of things for a discerning élite: their objective, in their memorable phrase, was getting the best to the greatest number of people for the least.

There’s nothing surprising about a man developing odd ideas but it is suprising that Leach’s odd ideas gained so much traction. He and Hamada irrupted from Japan into England in 1920 and worked in disregard of other art potters. There were broadly speaking three groups: Leach and his small band; the late followers of the Arts and Crafts movement, like Alfred and Louise Powell; and the figurative potters like Charles Vyse and Gwendolen Parnell, who were untouched by Orientalism, had little interest in the vernacular and didn’t share Leach’s aesthetic of simplicity, modesty and utility.

Leach’s style was slow to catch on. Some, like the Marxist Henry Bergen and William Slater, the managing director of the Dartington Trust, were unafraid to interrogate his vague ideas, but after the war there was an avalanche of interest. That is partly explained by Leach’s unshakable self-confidence, his talent for publicity and A Potter’s Book, but there have been many confident self-publicists without a following. Murray Fieldhouse, an enthusiastic follower, I think explained it. He told me that after the war a lot of people were looking for a new way of life and that the crafts seemed to offer it. He and several others who went for this way of life were pacifists like Leach. The Leach idea of a small pottery in the country, in the shadow of the atom bomb, away from the rat race, seemed to fit the bill. If oriental religion could be added to the mix, so much the better.

JESSAMINE BRAY

I have written before about Jessamine Bray, one of the two young women who ran the Dulwich Pottery in the 1920s and 1930s. The figurative potters have become so unfashionable that even relatives can tell you nothing. Thus, when I contacted a great-nephew of Gwendolen Parnell, the doyenne of the figurative potters, I found that he’d never even heard of her. Jessamine Bray fared a little better. Her great nephew told me that he knew that she was a potter but it wasn’t something she talked about. But when in her old age he took up pottery as a hobby, she dug out her old glaze materials and passed them on to him.

The picture is a portrait of Bray made by her partner in the Dulwich Pottery, Sybil V. Williams in 1935, sold by Woolley and Wallis a few years ago.

STUDIO POTTERY FIGURINES

Studio pottery figurines were popular in Britain in the 1920s and were exhibited in galleries alongside the new abstract pottery of William Staite Murray and Bernard Leach, but they fell out of favour and their absence from histories of studio pottery was total, as if they had been airbrushed out.

Now that the scope of pottery is broader, however, they are coming back into view. A few years ago Paul Hughes wrote a detailed biography of Stella Crofts, with catalogue raisonée. And, looking for more information, I came cross the website of Robert Prescott-Walker’s Polka Dot Antiques, who show figurines by Molly Mitchell-Smith, Marion Morris, Gwendolen Parnell, Jessamine Bray, Sybil V. Wiliams, Anne Potts, William Ruscoe, J. Palin Thorley and Charles Vyse. The picture shows a very nice figurine by Bray and Williams from their Dulwich Pottery.

“PRACTICAL POTTERY AND CERAMICS” by KENNETH CLARK

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Student drawings by Eileen Nesbit.

Kenneth Clark’s Practical Pottery and Ceramics, published in 1964, was one of the first  modern manuals for pottery students. It was based on the ceramics course at the Central School of Arts and Crafts, in Southampton Row, where Clark had taught for several years, and it was one of a trio of books available in the decades after the war, along with Bernard Leach’s A Potter’s Book (1940) and Dora Billington’s The Technique of Pottery (1962). Billington led the course at the Central and taught there for over thirty years, and her book was also based on its syllabus.

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Student exercises by Gillian Lowndes.

For some reason, Clark’s book has been overlooked and is not mentioned in books on studio pottery, including two recent scholarly studies, Jeffrey Jones’s Studio Pottery in Britain 1900 – 2005 and Things of Beauty Growing: British Studio Pottery, edited by Glenn Adamson, Martina Droth and Simon Olding.

Practical Pottery and Ceramics was written when the Anglo-Oriental orthodoxy of Bernard Leach was at its height and it represented the opposite pole of studio pottery, centred on Southampton Row. It gives a valuable insight into the very different approach being followed there by the head of department, Gilbert Harding Green, and his team – Clark, Gordon Baldwin, William Newland, Ian Auld, Ruth Duckworth and Richard Bateson.

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Student work from the Central School of Art and Crafts.

Clark acknowledged the “sound tradition” that had been established by Leach and his followers, for whom truth to materials was of prime importance, but he looked forward to that tradition being extended to meet the needs and conditions of the present. He welcomed the influence of Picasso (whose foray into pottery Leach had dismissed out of hand):

During this period of change Picasso with his daring, invention, colour-sense and imagination, shattered and shocked the traditional potters with his experiments in ceramics. While his approach was obviously more that of the painter, he added fresh life and a new direction to ceramics, and from his activities stemmed many schools of thought and expression which flowed in the ‘fifties. Ceramists found that their values needed drastic revision, while at the same time they endeavoured to retain an openness of mind an integrity in the use of their materials.

As well as recording the techniques, methods and exercises being taught at the Central in the sxities, the book is invaluable for its illustrations of work by contemporary students, graduates and teachers – Eileen Nesbit (“a student”), Alan Caiger-Smith, Ann Wynn Reeves, Gillian Lowndes, Robin Welch, Ruth Duckworth, Gordon Baldwin, William Newland, James Tower, Nicholas Vergette, Kenneth Clark himself and several less well-known students who are, nevertheless, fully credited.

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Ceramic sculpture by Ruth Duckworth and Gordon Baldwin, teachers at the Central.

A personal footnote. My A-level art teacher, Connie Passfield, bought the book when it came out and lent it to me. It was my first practical introduction to pottery. I left school that year and forgot to give it back. That’s the copy these illustrations are from.

“THE THINGS WE SEE”

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In the late 1940s and early 50s, during the era of post-war reconstruction, Penguin Books published an attractive, well-illustrated, large-format series called The Things We See, setting out the principles of good design in an attempt to raise visual literacy. There were volumes on Houses, Furniture, Pottery and Glass, Public Transport, Gardens and Ships. The introductory volume was called Indoors and Out, by Alan Jarvis, Director of Information at the Council of Industrial Design (CoID).

The Things we See was descended from the South Kensington museum’s Chamber of Horrors through the Arts and Crafts movement and the art-and-industry debates of the 1930s. Alan Jarvis’s volume, although illustrated with contemporary designs like a factory-built house and an Underground station on the Piccadilly line, expresses ideas about design, taste and industry familiar since Ruskin’s day. He said that the degradation and shabbiness of the built environment resulted from public indifference to the way things look and from liking the wrong things. This had a tinge of immorality about it. When someone said to Henry Cole that people’s tastes varied, he replied, “I think to act on the principle of ‘every one to his taste’ would be as mischievous as ‘every one to his morals’.” The sentiment persisted.

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Jarvis said that modern housing is wrong because the Englishman has modelled it on the castle instead of designing at an appropriate scale. He disdained the suburb and the Tudorbethan house (as all design reformers did), but by the late 1940s anti-suburb snobbery had clothed itself in democratic ideals: “Just as manorial rights, feudal economics and a rigid system of social castes are inappropriate to a modern industrial democracy,” said Jarvis, “so are the architectural forms which we still copy.” It was a precept of the good-design movement that one material should not imitate another and that previous styles should never be copied, but the Georgian Revival had played into Jarvis’s thinking and he held up the Georgian house as a model of elegance and restraint.

He compared good and bad taste in design with good and bad taste in food and drew interesting parallels between, on one hand, a modern bedroom and a wholemeal loaf, and, on the other, a bad-taste bedroom and a plate of sticky iced cakes.

There are Arts-and-Crafts attitudes throughout. Industry bred a new type of man detached from the land and confined to the factory. Modern transport systems spoiled the town and the countryside. Mass production debased the quality of goods and suppressed individuality. There is only a grudging acceptance that mass production brought cheaper commodities and no recognition of the value of predictability and reliability.

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Jarvis held out Frederic Gibberd’s modest and democratic factory-built steel house (above) as the hope for future design. It had harmonious proportions and no ornamentation other than the integral patterns of brick, roof tiles and fluted panels. It was simple and practical and did not refer to the past or have any connotations or extraneous meaning.

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He viewed decoration and ornament with suspicion. He acknowledged the human urge to decorate and admitted that it had to be indulged if we were not to go down the route of “crude or second-hand satisfactions, with a synthetic taste in visual things, like a taste for soups and custard made of powder.” There was the predictable worry about vulgarity and a reminder of Adolf Loos in Jarvis’s horror of tattooing.

At the same time as this Penguin series came out, Barbara Jones, in The Unsophisticated Arts and the exhibition Black Eyes and Lemonade, was recording and celebrating vulgar and popular art including tattooing, fairground painting, confectionery and funerary art, at the start of an anti-design movement that accepted demotic taste and even democratic bad taste.

BERNARD LEACH

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Clara Grein

Bernard Leach’s A Potter’s Book, which has never been out of print in Britain since it was published in 1940, has been translated into Italian for the first time by Clara Grein. The long delay is explicable by Italy’s very different ceramic tradition, into which the Leach style of stoneware has made few inroads. I learned of Il Libro del Ceramista from British potter Terry Davies, who has been making stoneware pottery in Italy for many years.

Emmanuel Cooper’s biography of Leach refers to Leach’s admiration for Ruskin but I looked in vain for any reference to Bergson, whose whose anti-rationalism and philosophy of élan vital pervade A Potter’s Book. Leach regarded “vitality” as a virtue in pottery, talked of “the intuitive craftsman” and used “intellectual” as a term of disapprobation. This short quotation gives a flavour of his thinking:

Judgment in art cannot be other than intuitive and founded upon sense experience, on what Kawai calls ‘the body’. No process of reasoning can be a substitute for or widen the range of our intuitive knowledge. This does not mean that we cannot use our common sense in examining the qualities in a pot which give us its character, such as form, texture, decoration and glaze, for analytic reasoning is important enough as a support to intuition.

It’s hard to know whether Leach ever read Creative Evolution, the book in which Bergson expounded his idea of the vital spirit that drives evolution and that can be interpreted as the source of human creativity, but it was popular in the first half of the twentieth century, was widespread in artistic circles and (as Rachel Gotleib showed) was marshaled in service of the new ceramics.

RICHARD BATESON

Richard Bateson at the Central School of Arts and Crafts. (From Dora Billington, ‘The Technique of Pottery’)

Lee Cartledge of Bentham Pottery has written a fascinating article about Richard Bateson, an old country potter from Burton-in-Lonsdale, North Yorkshire, who in later life taught students at the Royal College of Art and The Central School of Arts and Crafts. Lee has sent me the manuscript to look at and has kindly allowed me to quote from it and use some of the photos.

Richard Bateson is a legendary character, having taught potters like Gordon Baldwin, Alan Caiger Smith and William Newland, all of whom remembered him with affection. Mary Wondrausch interviewed him for her book On Slipware when he was in his nineties and noted his excellent recall and clarity of expression.

Lee first encountered Bateson in 1977 when a stranger came into the pottery with his grandchildren to asked if he might show them what he used to do for a living. Within a few minutes of sitting down at the wheel, it became apparent that this was an astoundingly good thrower. Lee later got to know Bateson and his family well.

Bateson was born in 1894 and started work at 13 in the Waterside Pottery, which was owned by his father and uncle. Waterside specialised in stoneware bottles, for which there was high demand. His father was a thrower but his uncle never seemed to do any work except counting bottles. He was a man of so few words that he was incapable of negotiating and just dropped the price until he got the contract. As a result the potters had to work harder than they ought to have done. Business was booming in the early 20th century but the demand on the throwers was onerous. Two men were required to produce 3,000 bottles a week, which meant using 700 tons of clay a year. Lee comments that at Bentham Pottery today they get through 4 tons a year.

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Richard Bateson at Waterside Pottery, 1907, in the centre of the front row holding a bottle. His father, Harry is on the left. (Photo: Lancaster Guardian)

But in the 1920s demand began to fall as stone bottles went out of fashion, and during the depression the Waterside pottery went down to three days a week. It closed in 1933.

Bateson then then bought Bridge End Pottery, where, working alone with a boy, he made terracotta pots and some decorated wares. Between them they did everything from mining the clay to marketing the finished pots. Despite his humble occupation, Bateson was invited by the Council for Art and Industry to display his work at the International Exhibition of Art and Technology in Modern Life in Paris. (Which, by the way, illustrates how anchored in craft the Council for Art and Industry remained.)

The International Exhibition of 1937 with the Soviet pavilion on the right.

The second world war brought big changes to Bateson’s life. The RCA had evacuated to Ambleside, about 30 miles from Burton, and Helen Pincombe, the acting head of ceramics, discovered Bridge End Pottery and got her students to use its facilities, thus introducing Bateson to teaching, which he took to very readily.

He closed his pottery at the end of the war and shortly after joined Pincombe at the RCA to teach throwing, and it was probably through Pincombe that he met her friend Dora Billington at the Central School of Arts and Crafts, where he became such a notable fixture. Alan Caiger Smith recalled a roguish and engaging teacher, always encouraging, often looking for an excuse for a smoke and with liking for the female students. 

Bateson ended up running the pottery course at Wimbledon Art School but as he had no qualifications he was compelled to retire in the late 1950s. He continued to teach informally. There was no shortage of amateur potters and former students who were pleased to employ him. In 1960, he set up a small pottery at Assington, near Ipswich, mainly for teaching. In 1965, aged 71, he retired to Yorkshire, where he lived until his death, aged 98.