L.S.LOWRY, ‘THE MILL GATES’

Lowry, Laurence Stephen, 1887-1976; The Mill Gates

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.

BILLINGTON MAIOLICA JUG

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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.

TONALÁ POTTERY

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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.

 

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CRAFT MENTORING

 

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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.

A S HANDOVER

I was demonstrating my painting of tin-glazed ceramics and noticed that one of my visitors was watching me keenly. Customers who are that interested are often evening-class potters.

“Hello. Do you make pottery yourself?”

“No, I make brushes.”

“Really? Who do you work for?”

“A S Handover.”

“What a coincidence. I always use your brushes.”

“I thought so. That’s a 2115, isn’t it?”

“Yes.”

“Blimey, I came out on my day off, and I can’t get away from work.”

IMITATING CRAFT

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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.

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THE JOHN BLACK COLLECTION

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Items from John Black’s important collection of Dutch and English Delft were sold by auction today following his death. The details are here.

I visited Dr Black with the Oxford Ceramics Group (of which he was president) in 2013, when handling pieces from his collection gave insights into the workshop practice of the old tin-glaze potters.

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For example, if you have seen a 17th century Delft dish in a museum you may have noticed three marks inside it, indicating that it was fired in a stack separated by three-pronged spurs. These dishes always have a narrow foot-ring, which gives an elegant finish to a fairly roughly made object; but seeing an old spur and having demonstrated to me how a dish fitted on top of it (above) made it clear that the reason for the small foot-ring was practical, not aesthetic. In the 17th century, as firing became more sophisticated, dishes were supported under their rims instead and the foot-ring could be made wider.

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The plate above is unusual in having been decorated in all five of the pigments available to potters at the time: iron brown, copper green, antimony yellow, cobalt blue and manganese purple. Manganese mixed with cobalt produces a good black. Decoration in one, two or three colours is almost universal, the design easier to conceive and manage, with stronger identity and clearer differentiation, than decoration in four or five colours, which is rare.

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The plate above (Netherlands, first quarter of the 17th century) caught my eye because the green in the balls is turquoise rather than the more yellowish green normally produced by copper in a lead tin glaze, which indicates that this plate was covered in an alkaline glaze. Alan Caiger-Smith, in Tin-Glaze Pottery in Europe and the Islamic World, reports the following Dutch glaze recipe from the mid-eighteenth century:

50 lb. dry sand
15 lb. potash
20 lb. soda
6 oz. manganese
Mixed, calcined, ground and sieved.

To this are added:
20 lb. lead
20 lb. tin
Calcined, and oxidized ground and sieved.

Such a glaze was 28 per cent alkaline (disregarding impurities), which would certainly have produced turquoise in the presence of copper oxide.

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The trouble with copper oxide is that it blurs and it is difficult to make a sharp mark with it. Such a quality can be exploited by the designer, but from about 1700 it was replaced with a crisp green made by mixing antimony yellow with cobalt blue, which made an olive green as in the plate above (1720-40).

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There were other insights, perhaps none so revealing as that offered by duplicated designs. In the example above, each plate is copied from the same pattern but they are different in treatment and interpretation. The painter on the left fills the space better and paints his motifs more decisively. In other examples the brushwork varies even more, between fluent and confident strokes and tight, awkward movements. It is clear that these Chinese-style decorations were often painted without understanding, almost as a set of meaningless abstract marks, and some of them look very odd indeed.

Dr Black had plates with bad faults in glaze or pigment and the fact that they had been sent to market at all tells you something about the economics of the potteries or the lack of supervision within them.

His little book British Tin Glazed Earthenware (2001) illustrates his collection.