Most of the Museum of Applied Arts in Budapest is closed for a long-overdue refurbishment, so I was deprived of one of my regular pleasures on a trip to the city last week. Instead I visited the home of the founding director, György Ráth, (above) which contains his personal collection and some museum exhibits. The museum is noted for its Art Nouveau collection – the second director, János Radisics, made extensive acquisitions at the 1900 Paris World Exhibition – and Art Nouveau objects are well represented in the Ráth villa. They were also displaying contemporary Art Nouveau-inspired glass by Agnés Smetana, (below) whose work was new to me.
Ráth collected studio pottery from England, France and Denmark by brilliant experimenters in stoneware and lustre glazes, some of whom were unfamiliar to me – Harry Nixon of Royal Doulton, William Howson Taylor of the Ruskin Pottery, Valdemar Englehardt of the Royal Danish Porcelain Company, Albert Heinecke of the Königliche Porzellan-Munufaktur, Pierre Clément Massier, Alexandre Bigot and Max Leuger – as well as several dazzling pieces by Vilmos Zsolnay and by Jenő Farkaházy-Fischer of Herend.
The grand feu potters made great technical and artistic innovations in a short time – all the pieces illustrated here were made between 1895 and 1906 – but much of their technique was lost in the 20th century. Alan Caiger-Smith gives a uniquely good though short account of this period in Lustre Pottery.
Sir Barnett Stross was a medical adviser to the Potters’ Union, active in the prevention of silicosis, the potter’s lung disease, and was an MP from 1945 – 1966. He was serving the Hanley constituency while I was was a student at Keele University, which he’d helped to set up. At about that time he donated his art collection to the University.
Among the collection was Lowry’s The Mill Gates (1923) (above), which Stross must have picked up while Lowry was still cheap. In 1964, my first year at Keele, the university was lending paintings from the collection for students to put in their study bedrooms. I chose The Mill Gates.
At some point it became too precious to lend and it’s now kept securely locked away. I’m glad I had the opportunity to hang it above my bed and to study it at close quarters for a term before it became so valuable. I think I’ll ask to see it again next time I visit Keele.
I went yesterday to see this Dora Billington jug in the Manchester Art Gallery. I saw it there about twenty years ago but it has not been on display for several years and I had to go down into the store to look at it. It made an impression on me when I first saw it and it was the starting point of my interest in Billington because it showed her mastery of maiolica, a technique not widely practiced by British potters and not held in high esteem by collectors of British studio pottery. From this interest came a determination to bring her work to to wider notice and this jug will be shown in an exhibition of her work that I am organising at the Crafts Study Centre, Farnham, next year.
The jug, about 30cm high, was made in 1942. Billington said that she turned to art to escape the anxieties of war. Much of the Central School of Arts and Crafts, where she had taught for over twenty years, had been evacuated and the building in Southampton Row was damaged by bombardment. In those conditions she made this beautiful and life-affirming piece of pottery – one of her best. The calligraphic brush work is absolutely characteristic. She had trained in calligraphy with Edward Johnston at the Royal College of Art and had worked part-time as a decorator for Bernard Moore when she was a student, so this sort of loose, free decoration became second nature to he. It was a great pleasure to see it again.
I’m not a collector but sometimes I see something I like, and then I learn something new. I bought this pottery bird in a charity shop. I thought it had been made in continental Europe but after having it a few years I discovered it was Mexican, made in Tonalá, where handicrafts is the major industry (below) and where pottery has been made from pre-Hispanic times. The clay is burnished and not glazed and the brushwork is very delicate. The shape is particularly nice – other Tonalá birds are not as pretty.
I’m co-ordinating the mentoring programme of the Society of Designer Craftsmen, which we run to help our new young members develop their professional careers, and as I don’t believe in reinventing the wheel I’m talking to organisations that run similar programmes. I’ve always worked this way, believing that standards are raised by sharing good practice.
So I was surprised to find that a few publicly-funded bodies were unwilling to talk to me. Their curt replies mean I can only guess why they are so unco-operative and my conclusion is that, now that such bodies regard themselves as businesses, some treat what they do not as a public service but as a commodity, and they treat other organisations doing the same thing not as colleagues but as competitors.
Since my visit to Top Drawer, where I saw how artisanal goods are so on trend that manufacturers of consumer products are striving to make their things look hand-made, I’ve been on the lookout for other ceramic tableware like that and I went straight to Denby, who have been aware of the craft niche since the 1960s. Denby “Halo” (above) uses a complex streaked glaze similar to that used by studio potters.
The idea of making things that look like craft products raises the question, “What does a craft product look like?” I keep going back to David Pye, who is one of the few people to talk sense about making, and who said, “Workmanship of the better sort is called, in an honorific way, craftsmanship. Nobody, however, is prepared to say where craftsmanship ends and ordinary manufacture begins.” (The Nature and Art of Workmanship) He didn’t think the term “craft” was particularly useful and preferred to distinguish between two kinds of workmanship, the workmanship of risk and the workmanship of certainty. The use of machinery helped to produce the regular, finished and repeatable products of the latter kind, but he further questioned the distinction between hand work and machine work, since – as everyone has known for a long time – a machine is a tool driven by some motive force, and the difference between hand power, water, steam or electricity is not important. He concluded that it was impossible to tell by looking at something whether it is the work of a “craftsman” or not.
Since it is difficult to tell from an object’s appearance whether it was made by a “craftsman” or was “manufactured”, the craftsman look can be easily produced under factory conditions. In case there’s any doubt, the mugs below, by potter Chris Keenan, are handmade and look similar to the pottery made in Denby’s factory.