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.
The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (DNB) is filling the gaps in its coverage of notable women and pottery is benefitting from the addition. I have been asked to write entries for Mary Wondrausch and Dora Billington.
Mary Wondrausch, who died in 2016, is well known to studio potters, especially those who are interested in slipware. She was important in its revival and wrote about it in a scholarly way (Mary Wondrausch on Slipware, A & C Black, 2001). Dora Billington (1890-1968), the most significant studio pottery educator in the 20th century, is less well known, even though some of her most eminent students (Alan Caiger-Smith, Gordon Baldwin and Anne Wynn-Reeves) are still alive. She began teaching pottery in the style of Alfred and Louise Powell but in the 1920s she responded immediately to the new pottery of Staite Murray and Bernard Leach. Her most important contribution came after the Second World War when studio pottery seemed to be full of second-rate Leach imitators. Taking her inspiration from the European tradition, she-encouraged new ways of making, notably the tin-glazed pottery of Caiger Smith, Wynn-Reeves and William Newland, and the sculptural ceramics of Baldwin and Gillian Lowndes. Her Technique of Pottery (1962) is still worth reading.
Perhaps there are other entries that could be written on women potters. The DNB has articles on Katherine Pleydell-Bouverie, Lucie Rie and Gillian Lowndes, but nothing at the moment on Louise Powell, Nell Vyse, Dora Lunn, Stella Crofts, Nora Braden, Ursula Mommens or Helen Pincombe.
Much of the history of European ceramics is the attempt to imitate Chinese porcelain. The Ottoman Turks covered buff clay with white slip and a clear glaze. The Moors brought opaque white tin glaze into Spain, from where it spread to Italy, the Netherlands, central Europe and England. Meanwhile, there were experiments in porcelain, adding products like crushed glass to clay. In 1693 a soft paste porcelain was invented at Rouen, and in 1708 a hard paste, closer to the Chinese original, at Meissen.
Wedgwood went in a different direction, aiming for a white earthenware, his experiments finally yielding a satisfactory cream-coloured body in the late 1760s.
I had known that creamware spelled the end of tin-glazed earthenware – Alan Caiger-Smith mentions it in Tin-glazed Earthenware – but I had not known exactly how Wedgwood displaced delftware until I read Robin Reilley’s Wedgwood biography.
Wedgwood could not export to France because the quality potteries were protected by the crown, but trade with the Netherlands was easier and creamware made rapid inroads there. His Dutch agent, Lamertus van Veldhuysen, introduced it to the upper class but had difficulty selling it to “the middle sort of people” because it was too expensive. The Delft potters recognised its superiority and tried to imitate it, some of them bankrupting themselves in the process. Wedgwood was unconcerned. When van Veldhuysen sent him a sample of creamware made by a potter called Zwenck, he said, “With regard to the quality of the body & glaze, they are so bad that we could not sell such pieces at 1 shilling a dozen.” Reilley comments that no Dutch manufacturer succeeded in copying creamware until the nineteenth century and that the Dutch have always been among Wedgwood’s best customers.
I met John Pollex at the opening of his exhibition of slipware at the Contemporary Ceramics Centre a couple of weeks ago. There is till time to see his show before it closes on 21 April. Contemporary Ceramics opened its airy exhibition space opposite the British Museum last year and Pollex’s brightly coloured pots have been displayed there to good effect. Pollex began making slipware thirty years ago, starting with traditional work in white, brown and black. At the pre-exhibition talk he showed slides of jugs he did in the style of the old Devon harvest jugs. On one he had written “Pollex me fecit”, “Pollex made me” in Latin, which is a nice joke because “pollex” is Latin for thumb.
After working in this way for a few years, he saw an exhibition of work by Howard Hodgkin and had a sort of Damascene conversion. He is one of the few slipware potters to use brilliant colour. Mary Wandrausch, the doyenne of slipware potters, who is familiar with the entire European tradition, has added blues and yellows. But Pollex makes brilliant and dazzling works without any reference to tradition. The only other slipware potter I know who works like this is Barry Stedman, some of whose work is also on display at Contemporary Ceramics.
John Pollex – New Ceramics Contemporary Ceramics Centre 63 Great Russell Street London WC1B 3BF Until 21 April 2012 Subscribe to my newsletter