THOMAS BEVINGTON

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The South Kensington Museum in its early days had a Chamber of Horrors that showed bad design as an object lesson to contrast with the good design in the other galleries – there’s still a case in the V&A today with a selection from the Chamber of Horrors. Because museums preserve the best, we can easily forget or we simply don’t know why they are the best and what was the worst. William de Morgan’s pottery, for example, has become so representative of pottery of the period that we have no idea how bad some of the products of Stoke-on-Trent could be. I came across some while looking through Pottery Gazette the other day, this advert (above) showing some gloriously awful designs by Thomas Bevington of Hanley, made in 1890.

Bevington came from a prolific pottery family who were in business in Hanley for most of the 19th century. He described himself as a “Manufacturer of Novelties in Fancy China, combining the Useful and Ornamental in Raised Flower Goods, consisting of Flower Baskets, Vases, Centre-pieces, Table Ornaments and Artistic China of every description”.

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Bevington ignored the rules set down by design reformers like Henry Cole, Owen Jones and William Morris. His forms were over-ornate and impractical; he used representational decoration that was three dimensional rather than flat; his “Raised Flower Goods” (below) used modeled flowers and imitation mosses; and his pottery was pretty ugly.

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But he appears to have been successful, appealing to a public who enjoyed his Novelties in Fancy China and didn’t care a fig about good design. The picture is of a Bevington piece that appeared on Ebay, and it’s not the only one, which shows that people still buy his pottery and like it.

ROGER FRY, BERNARD LEACH AND WEDGWOOD

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Roger Fry occupies a noteworthy position in 20th-century decorative arts, and pottery in particular.  He tried to make pottery himself, not very successfully, attending classes at Camberwell School of Art. His formalist conception of art helped to establish the new studio pottery of W.B.Dalton, Charles Vyse, Bernard Leach and William Staite Murray. He recognised the genius of Josiah Wedgwood but ultimately dismissed his work as retrograde, as I found from his interesting review of an exhibition of Wedgwood china published in The Athenaeum in 1905. (Reproduced in A Roger Fry Reader.)

Writing about Flaxman’s recently-discovered wax models from which Wedgwood’s relief figure were cast, Fry says:

They all show extraordinary technical skill, and are marked by a cold excellence and negative perfection. … [I]t gives one an idea of the shrewd intelligence and resource of the man who accomplished what hardly anyone else has – the feat of making a commercial success of fine-art pottery. As pottery, Wedgwood’s work is beyond praise, though it probably contributed to the final destruction of the art, as an art, in England, since it set a standard of mechanical perfection which to this day prevents the trade from accepting any work in which the natural beauties of the material are not carefully obliterated by mechanical means. In fact. Wedgwood destroyed the craftsman’s tradition by substituting the artist turned craftsman for the craftsman turned artist by experience and natural aptitude.

1905 was the high-water mark of the Arts and Crafts movement and Fry’s views are typical, though he had little time for the moralising representatives of the movement. In this evaluation of Wedgwood and his successors, he forms a bridge between the Arts and Crafts movement and the studio potters. Leach’s evaluation of Wedgwood thirty-five years later in Towards a Standard was similar but harsher and less sensitive to cultural and artistic context:

The small establishments of the Tofts and other slipware potters were succeeded by the factories of the Wedgwoods and the Spodes, and in a short space of time the standard of craftsmanship, which had been built up by the labour of centuries, the intimate feeling for material and form, and the common, homely, almost family workshop life had given way to specialization and the inevitable development of mass production.

ROBIN WELCH

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I was sad to hear of the death of Robin Welch, one of the finest studio potters in Britain. In recent years he exhibited at Art in Clay, Hatfield, and I looked forward to chatting to him in his regular place at the show and buying some of his pots.

Robin was born in in 1936 and studied at Nuneaton and Penzance schools of art, receiving his NDD in sculpture and ceramics in 1953. He spent time at the Leach pottery in St Ives and he told me that, when he began exhibiting, Leach didn’t like his work (which some might take as a commendation). From 1956 he did his national service with the 2nd Battalion Parachute Regiment, taking the opportunity in the Middle East to visit peasant potteries. He then went on to do a postgraduate course in ceramics at the Central School of Arts and Crafts.

The Central was led in the post-war years by William Johnstone, who had moved it away from the arts and crafts (it later changed its name to the Central School of Art and Design) and introduced a design training based on the Bauhaus system and a collegiate style of teaching which exposed students to a variety of disciplines. Ceramics students were aware of the new American painting and in Cornwall Robin himself had already been inspired  by Terry Frost, John Tunnard and Barbara Tribe. They were taught by William Turnbull, Alan Davie and Eduardo Paolozzi (who, typically, was based in the textile department). Ceramics was led by Gilbert Harding Green, a man of wide culture who encouraged innovation, assisted by William Newland, Nicholas Vergette, Ian Auld, Dan Arbeid, Kenneth Clark and Gillian Lowndes.

After leaving the Central, Robin set up in London and got his first break from Henry Rothschild, who gave him £100 and carte blanche to make pots to be sold at the Primavera gallery. He spent three years in Australia, establishing a pottery with Ian Sprague, and returned to England in 1965 to set up the pottery at Stradbroke, Suffolk, where he worked until his death. At Stradbroke he launched high-volume production with half a dozen assistants, using industrial machinery which he’d been taught to use in Stoke-on-Trent. He spent twenty years in this sort of work, selling kitchen ware in interior design stores, but from the 1980s he made large, individual pieces like the one shown in the picture, for which he’s now better known.

A nice pamphlet about him, full of photos, Robin Welch – A Life, was produced by his granddaughter for a school project, but Robin told me he was sorry that no-one had wanted to write a full biography. Perhaps someone will now.

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.

CERAMICS CO-OP, BERMONDSEY

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I visited Anna and Tatiana Baskakova (above) at the Ceramics Studio Co-op in Bermondsey on Wednesday to find out about their enterprise to support emerging potters. Although it’s their brainchild, the studio is a worker’s co-operative, owned and run by the artists who work in it, committed to the values of “self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equality, equity and solidarity.”

They provide studio space for amateur and professional ceramists, run classes and offer a kiln firing service. Since The Great Pottery Throwdown there’s been plenty of demand for pottery classes and workshops. The co-op has eight resident artists including Anna and Tatiana. They started with a loan in 2014 , which they paid off this year, and they’ve had an Arts Council grant for kilns, but otherwise the co-op is a business and its expenses are covered by users’ fees. And being in an industrial area they can scavenge bits of kit from local skips – their tubs and buckets (which potters can never have too many of) were all got that way.

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The Ceramics Studio Co-op is the new face of pottery training, offering flexible learning and open access studios. I wrote earlier about Turning Earth Studios and there’s also Clay College Stoke, formed by potters who were concerned about the potential loss of skills. These well-equipped ventures are emerging as university courses close, local authority classes price themselves out of the market and schools discontinue pottery under the pressure of exams and the national curriculum. They represent the growing enthusiasm for artisanal products and making by hand and a reaction to the retreat from the haptic to the screen. There was a recent article about lack of dexterity in surgical students who had had too much screen time, and an art teacher told me that new students didn’t know how to hold a pencil, didn’t think they had to draw and thought that it was enough to download pictures from the internet.

The Co-op, Turning Earth and Clay College are making pottery more accessible and I expect their success to generate more initiatives elsewhere. When I looked for training forty years ago it was difficult to find and quite rigid. There were a few potters offering apprenticeships, but they didn’t pay enough for the apprentice to live on, and there were a few degree and diploma courses. As the Craftmen Potters Association wrote at the time:

Anyone wishing to develop pottery skills to a professional standard has two choices: to enter a workshop direct as a trainee assistant, or to follow an art school course with a strong bias towards craft pottery. Many potters and students favour a combination of the two – a preliminary art school training followed by a period of workshop practice.

It was a huge leap from a leisure class to this sort of training and required a big commitment of time and money. The new ceramics training is more adaptable and responsive to the trainee’s needs. At the Ceramics Studio Co-op you can do a leisure class for fun, a more specialized course, or take studio space and progress to professional practice.

Ceramics Studio Co-op
Unit 17C
Juno Enterprise Centre
Juno Way
New Cross
London
SE14 5RW

020 8691 6421

SOPHIE CONRAN TABLEWARE

I mentioned Sophie Conran’s Pebble range of tableware in my last post and thought I’d say a bit more about it.

It has been a popular range over a long period and says a lot about attitudes to handmade and factory-made pottery. It is factory-made, but with its wonky shapes and ridges it looks as if it has been thrown on the wheel (except that each piece is identical and has a practical, clear glaze). As factory-made pottery it is good, and highly original, but if it had been made by hand it would be bad.

Factory pottery can imitate studio pottery, and in the 1960s Denby produced some excellent studio-type tableware which you can still find in perfect condition in charity shops. But handmade tableware has to aim for a degree of fineness and regularity even if it doesn’t try to look factory-made. There are potters who are happy to make very rough mugs and bowls, but they are few now. My practice is different and the way I put it is that if you aim at perfection your work will be imperfect, but if you aim at imperfection it will be rubbish.

I also mentioned that Pebble was designed by a studio potter, one I know well. He is not acknowledged and his fee bore no relation to the profits this range has generated.

THINGS OF BEAUTY GROWING

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Lucie Rie tableware. (Estate of Lucie Rie)

I went to see the Fitzwilliam exhibition Things of Beauty Growing: British Studio Pottery for the second time.

One of the changes that has taken place in studio pottery in the years since I first became interested in it is that it has become a topic of academic study, a fact regretted by the more downright potters, but a development that has put it into its proper artistic and historical context. We have come a long way from the early books, which simply listed the author’s favourite potters. Oliver Watson’s survey of the Victoria and Albert Museum’s collection (1990) was the first dispassionate account, and Jeffrey Jones’s Studio Pottery in Britain (2007) established a scholarly discourse. Glenn Adamson, Martina Droth and Simon Olding, the curators of this exhibition, develop that discourse.

The individual art pot dominates this show, but there is a small section devoted to tea-sets and coffee-sets, including sets by Leach, Lucie Rie (above), Ruth Duckworth (a very 1950s-style collection made before she turned to sculpture), an abysmally bad coffee-set by Roger Fry, and high-quality factory-made sets designed by Susie Cooper and Keith Murray, the architect-trained designer whose modernist shapes were manufactured by Wedgwood. The latter call into question the studio potter’s insistence at the time that factory-made pottery was bad and meretricious.

The exhibits of tableware point to the dialogue that took place on and off between the crafts and industry between the 1920s and the 1970s, and the discussions in the crafts about whether the craftsman had a contribution to make to manufacturing. It was inconclusive, rarely productive and sometimes acrimonious. It is not explained in the exhibition but it is discussed in an essay by Tanya Harrod in the accompanying book.

In the the post-war decades potters became preoccupied with repetition throwing. Some vaguely imagined that craft pottery might replace factory-made pottery and potters like Harry Davis, those at Briglin, and Leach’s young assistants mass-produced by hand. But by the end of the ‘sixties, government realised that the crafts had little to offer industry and passed responsibility for them from the Board of Trade (where it had rested since the 1920s) to the Department of Education.

By the 1980s, the market for hand-made tableware was in decline and studio potters had aligned themselves with the arts rather than industry. Now few think studio pottery has much to say about manufacturing, though a notable exception is Sophie Conran’s popular “Pebble” range, which has a deliberately hand-made look and was in fact designed for her by British studio potter.