BERNARD LEACH

clara grein
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.

WILLIAM DE MORGAN IN MERTON

Given the popularity of de Morgan’s pottery for the last two generations, it’s surprising that the first modern biography wasn’t published until 1997, Mark Hamilton’s Rare Spirit.

Hamilton, a literary agent, is unusually interested in de Morgan’s novels and takes them seriously. (In a review of the book, Fiona MacCarthy declared herself unconvinced.)

There is a delightful account of de Morgan moving his workshop from Chelsea to Merton, written by one of his decorators Mr Bale:

When Mr. De Morgan was clearing out to go to Merton, it was a strange sight. He was always slapdash in those days, and couldn’t stand the thought of packing. He just sat on a chair and put a hammer through dishes worth £2.10s and £3.00, at the same time saying, ‘Go on boys help yourselves!’ which you may be quite sure we did.

This is a staggering thought, bearing in mind that the best de Morgan pots now fetch around £10,000.

WILLIAM AND EVELYN DE MORGAN

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I’ve been reading William de Morgan’s lively and enjoyable novel A Likely Story (1911), which justifies the occasional comparison with Dickens.

After a trade recession forced him to close his pottery business he made more from writing than he had ever made from art. His first novel, Joseph Vance, is probably his most read – Oxford University Press reissued it in the 1960s – and between 1906 and his death in 1917 he wrote eight more. His reputation waxed and waned. His books were popular in the USA. After his death his wonderful lustre pottery faded from view. The studio potters were sniffy about it and it was only in the 1960s that it was re-evaluated. Now no-one reads his books.

His sister-in-law Wilhelmina Stirling wrote a biography shortly after his death. The William de Morgan Foundation say she is the first source for information about the de Morgans and their Arts and Crafts circle, even if she is not always a reliable one. She treasured their work and kept their memory green for fifty years until her own death, when de Morgans’s pottery was coming back into fashion. Her collection then passed to the De Morgan Foundation.

The image above is one of William’s illustrations to his sister Mary’s fairy tales, which, says the de Morgan Foundation, “challenge the prevalent ideologies by subverting the traditional fairytale conventions and therefore also societal ones.”

There is one rather odd de Morgan publication, The Result of an Experiment (1909), a record of their exploration of automatic writing. William’s mother was a spiritualist and his sister Mary was said to have spirit communications with a dead sister, though she claimed her mother’s seances were staged. Although William and Evelyn were associated with progressive social causes they toyed with the occult and Jane Drawmer argues that Evelyn’s paintings combined ideas about evolutionary science with spiritualist notions.

MODERNISM IN ART SCHOOLS

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I have been trying to find out more about British art schools between the wars to see to what extent they were permeated by modernist ideas and to what extent they remained in thrall to the Arts and Crafts, which I talked about in my last post.

Stuart MacDonald, in The History and Philosophy of Art Education, says little about the art schools in the 1920s and 1930s, turning in those decades to theories of child art, but he does comment that the Arts and Crafts approach persisted until the Second World War.

The plate above, from Charles Holmes’s Arts & Crafts: A Review of the Work Executed by Students in the Leading Art Schools in Great Britain and Ireland, is typical of the work that was being done in 1916. The tiles were made by Reco Capey at Burslem Art School. This talented pupil did similar work for Doulton’s at the same time as he was a student there. Capey, who is perhaps best known for his designs for Yardley, was appointed chief instructor in design at the RCA in 1925, where he worked under the traditionalist E. W. Tristram for ten years.

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These items by Capey (above), sold at Christie’s in 2014 , show how decidedly he had left behind the Arts and Crafts in his professional life and how enthusiastically he embraced Art Deco. In an article “Design in Everyday Life”, which he wrote for the Journal of the Royal Society of Arts (23 February 1940), he expressed a firm commitment to modernist design (below). He was undoubtedly a modernist influence at the RCA, where he worked with Paul Nash. Capey’s and Nash’s appointments look very much like an attempt by Rothenstein to counterbalance Tristram’s medievalism.

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William Johnstone, a key figure in the modernisation of British art schools, says in his memoir, Points in Time, that, when he took over the Central School of Arts and Crafts after the war, the crafts were in his opinion too geared towards the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society “and not enough towards present day living”. He decided that John Farleigh, head of book production, was blocking change, got rid of him and appointed Jesse Collins in his place. Collins had taught book production part-time at the Central in the 1930s, where he was one of the few teachers aware of the Bauhaus. He helped Johnstone to introduce Bauhaus methods at Camberwell and also did so at the Central after the war.

Between the wars, pottery at the Central had been taught by Maggie Hindshaw and her strong-minded assistant Dora Billington, who was actually the driving force behind the course. Hindshaw had worked in Alfred and Louise Powell’s London studio and her work never strayed far from their their orbit. Billington had worked in a similar style, but when she encountered the pottery of William Staite Murray and Bernard Leach in the 1920s, she appears to have undergone a Damascene conversion and by the early 1930s decorated earthenware at the Central had been replaced by bold, simple forms whose appeal derived from glazes and kiln accidents rather than brush work. Studio pottery’s relationship to modernism is complex and ambivalent and although its formal properties are easily described in modernist terms – plain, simple, functional, uncluttered, honest, direct – its ideology, largely the creation of Bernard Leach, was anti-modern, anti-industrial and anti-intellectual.

The complexities of the period are illustrated by the fact that many of the figures in this narrative were at once modernist and associated with the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society. Capey, Farleigh and Billington were all its presidents in their time, and Johnstone, despite his disparagement of the Society, collaborated with it and was made an honorary member. Ideologists of modernism, of the stripe of Adolf Loos, Wells Coates and Herbert Read, might be inclined to declare modernism to be not a style but a principle (to adapt a phrase of Pugin’s), but for most artists the opposite was the case. Change in style comes from the accumulation of innumerable influences, adaptations, imitations and alliances. It is unsurprising that artists and teachers in the 1920s and 1930s changed their styles and their way of working, but the change in art schools was slow and gradual.

CHERYL BUCKLEY

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“Gloria Lustre” designed by Gordon Forsyth, c.1925.

Cheryl Buckley’s Designing Modern Britain advances the persuasive idea, now well established in design history, that there were several modernisms and not merely the modernism of the International Style and the Bauhaus. Among these modernisms were the Georgian revival and the modern labour-saving home with its Tudorbethan exterior. But Buckley, I think, overstates the degree to which the different strands of design moved in parallel and in the same direction, especially in the art schools.

She describes the Stoke-on-Trent schools, which were led in the 1930s by the successful designer Gordon Forsyth, as one of the strands of this diverse modernism, and also Alfred and Louise Powell’s designs for Wedgwood. But unless you apply the term “modernism” to every contemporary happening, and minimise differences of style and appearance, these trends were far from of modernist.

The Powells were in the long tail of the Arts and Crafts movement, which continued until 1945, and they were connected to it both through their designs and their social philosophy. Describing their work for Wedgwood as “mass-produced”, as Buckley does, is wide of the mark. Their designs were traditional, they revived the dying craft techniques of hand-decoration and they shunned the mass-produced method of transfer printing that was used by the makers of cheap pottery like A & G Meakin.

Forsyth is more difficult to classify. His designs for pottery were similar to the Powells, even down to the successful use of lustre (above), and they were very much in the Arts and Crafts tradition. But he was sympathetic to modern production methods. In his review of 20th Century Ceramics (1936) he asserted, “A wholly artificial gulf has been created between the studio potter and the large-scale manufacturer. Sometimes studio pottery is dismissed as being ineffective ‘Art and Crafty’ productions, technically defective. This is in the main wholly erroneous and unjust criticism of studio potters, but it is equally erroneous for studio potters to think that all manufacturers are Philistines and only concerned with commercial and technical success.” Nevertheless his survey is heavy on art pottery and and light on mass production.

Buckley says that there were art schools in Britain in the 1920s that were modernist in approach if not in name. This is an interesting assertion, but if there were such schools I haven’t come across them yet. The Arts and Crafts influence came to bear on the art schools from the 1880s and it wasn’t fully felt until the early 1900s. Charles Holmes’s illustrated review of art schools in 1916 showed them to be totally Arts and Crafts in their approach – the title of his book is actually Arts and Crafts. In the 1920s William Rothenstein at the RCA hired E. W. Tristram, a deep-dyed medievalist, to replace the Arts and Crafts practitioner Anning Bell as head of design. Admittedly he also hired William Staite Murray as pottery instructor, and Staite Murray’s ceramics were praised by arch-modernist Herbert Read; but Staite Murray was wedded to craft techniques and opposed the admission to the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society of designers for industry. The Stoke-on-Trent art schools were certainly, as Buckley says, keen to cement their links with modern manufacturers, but they were not modernist in outlook, and in 1919 government inspectors had judged their efforts to provide technical instruction to be “feeble and inadequate”.

In the 1920s and 1930s design was still broadly conceived as surface decoration, and the main focus of design reformers was improving the appearance and tastefulness of consumer goods. The design profession was in its infancy and it didn’t grow up until the 1950s. The recognition of “other modernisms” is a useful corrective to the self-serving narrative of modernists, but the art schools before the war were not modernist in any meaningful sense

ROGER FRY AND STUDIO POTTERY

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Cheryl Buckley’s Designing Modern Britain throws, what is to me, new light on Roger Fry’s contribution to the development of studio pottery in Britain.

I knew that Fry had personally tried his hand at pottery (not very successfully), and that his formalist art theories helped to shape the studio pottery aesthetic. Fry’s importance to studio pottery is increasingly recognised: Jeffrey Jones mentions him in Studio Pottery (2005) and Julian Stair devotes several pages to him in Things of Beauty Growing (2017). But Buckley has very interesting information about the way that Fry’s coverage of ceramics in The Burlington Magazine, which he edited from 1910 -1919, foreshadowed the new ceramics.

Fry published articles on Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Peruvian and African pottery. He wrote that the art of the East “presents the hope of discovering a more spiritual, more expressive idea of design.” The image above is from “Ancient Peruvian Pottery”, an article by C.H.Read of the British Museum (April 1910). Other significant contributors were George Eumorphopolos, whose exhibition of T’ang and Sung pottery in 1910 increased interest in oriental ceramics in Britain, and Bernard Rackham, keeper of ceramics at the V&A, an early connoisseur of studio pottery. Buckley reports that, during Fry’s tenure, early Chinese ceramics were often written about and that the journal had covered them from as early as 1903.

HERBERT READ’S ‘ART AND INDUSTRY’

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Herbert Read’s book Art and lndustry, which I’ve been reading, was a major influence in the interwar debate that constructed the notion of “good design”. Read had worked at the Victoria and Albert Museum in the 1920s and was professor of fine art at Edinburgh university and editor of The Burlington Magazine in the early 1930s. It was during that decade that he published his best-known books, Art Now (1933), Art and Society (1937) and Art and Industry (1934).

His ideas about design are underpinned by an aesthetic theory similar to Roger Fry’s and Clive Bell’s formalism. In Art and Industry he divides art into humanist art, by which he means European pictorial art and ornamentation from the Renaissance onward, and formal art, which is pure shape and colour without content or reference. He fiercely deprecates ornament in similar terms to Adolf Loos, says little about humanist art and is strongly biased in favour of abstract art.

According to Read, formal beauty in art, nature or everyday objects, is either rational or intuitive. Rational beauty consists in conformity to rules of harmony and proportion, which were understood in the Renaissance but which have deeper and more ancient roots and which are to be found in nature. Read does not explain why proportions found in nature should be beautiful and others not. Intuitive beauty is that which deviates in some way from strict rules of harmony but which is recognised in an unconscious process that is not fully understood and cannot easily be explained. Apart from a few comments, Read does not explain it.

Objects that possess intuitive formal beauty can be illustrated, and Read has many such illustrations in his book, but this quality cannot be “rationalised” (to use his term). It can, however, be identified by noting what persons of taste recognise as beautiful. For example, he shows an ancient Greek drinking bowl and a Sung dynasty vase, and says that, although the former conforms to rules of proportion and the latter deviates from it, those who know about this kind of thing have no doubt that the Sung vase is better. Read implies that there is an aesthetic elite who possess the ability to intuitively recognise formal beauty, and although he says that the average man is capable of it, one suspects that Read thinks the average man must submit to the guidance of the elite. Read does not explain in what way the discerning person differs from the undiscerning, except in the objects he chooses. Read thus follows the same circular route as Fry and Bell: formal beauty is that which produces a response in people whose discernment can be identified by the objects they they choose. This kind of elitism may have been formed in his career as a curator at the V&A. Today it is clear that his argument is a way of defining cultural capital.

Like other writers of the period, Read appeared to believe that beauty is a quality of objects, like colour, that can be perceived, and that is not just a matter of personal preference. That implies that aesthetic appreciation is a cognitive ability and that those that lack it have a defect like colour-blindness. Read thinks that, by and large, the British manufacturing class lack it, and he expresses disdain for their supposed philistinism.

British manufacturers produce inferior goods, says Read, not only because they cannot tell the good from the bad, but also because they are motivated by purely commercial considerations. Because their goods are inferior, they have to demand tariffs to protect them from better-designed Continental goods, but Read does not really explain why the Continental capitalist produces better goods than his British counterpart, or why, if well-designed goods sell better than badly-designed goods, the profit motive does not generate better design. Because of this perceived incapacity in the British manufacturing elite, Read is compelled to advocate a cultural elite who have the ability to intuit formal beauty and, if who if they were given half a chance, could reform industry.

Like so many writers on art with a programme or manifesto, Read is immensely irritating. Although he was interested in mass production and took a left-wing position in politics, his ideas are snobbish and elitist. He talks about the “average man”, but is uninterested in what he likes (in contrast to pioneering curators of popular art, Barbara Jones and Enid Marx). He has a psychological theory of aesthetics and leans on a sketchy Freudianism, but cites no psychological research. Had any been done at that date? The new discipline of neuro-aesthetics is now making it possible to understand what is happening in the brain when people respond to art works and it may even be able to help designers and manufacturers.