AMERICAN POTTERY PIONEERS

As I’ve discovered the work of early studio potters in the USA, I’ve come to realise that our account of studio pottery in the UK is parochial and that we have not acknowledged the innovations of the Americans, who were well in advance of us. British accounts nod to French potters, such as Chaplet and Bigot, but they ignore Charles Binns and Taxile Doat.

So I’ve been pleased to spend some time at the Met in New York looking at the superb Robert A. Ellison collection of American Art Pottery.

My picture shows a case of vessels with crystalline glazes made at the University City Pottery, Missouri around 1912-13, an early course for art potters. In the foreground is a double gourd by Doat. The large vase and the tall bottle on the right were also made there at about the same time. Doat began his career at Sèvres and was one of the first American studio potters. The term “studio pottery” is actually American, already in use at the time these subtle and beautiful pots were made.

The picture below shows Doat (far right) and his colleagues in 1910 at the City University Pottery.

At that date in the UK there was no such glaze experimentation in British art schools, except for W. B. Dalton’s private investigations at Camberwell, which were not shared with the pottery students there.

CRAFT MENTORING

 

Eliot-Payne

 

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.

WINCHESTER CATHEDRAL

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In Winchester I looked in at the Cathedral, which, in the bicentenary of Ruskin’s birth, made me think of The Nature of Gothic.

Ruskin said that Gothic ornament was made by uneducated men who were allowed to do the best they could without direction, and because it was the expression of free labour it was bound to be rough and imperfect. The 19th century demanded perfection and accuracy and made workmen into slaves because that could only be achieved if they were told exactly what to do and weren’t allowed to be inventive.

I couldn’t see how this applied to Winchester. The stone carving is accurate and regular and the workmen were not free to work as they pleased and to invent as they worked.

Ruskin’s dislike of factories was understandable in the conditions of the mid-19th century, but he mythologised pre-industrial work and created false antinomies between supposedly rough pre-industrial workmanship and smooth modern workmanship

TOWARDS A STANDARD

The art and industry movement of the thirties wanted to integrate artists into industry, improve the standard of consumer goods, democratise art and improve public taste. There was a strong interest in education, and Frank Pick, who was one of the leading figures of the Council for Art and Industry, used his influence to nudge the Royal College of Arts towards the teaching of industrial design and hastened the resignation of William Rothenstein as principal.

I said earlier that this movement for design reform and education reform was able to push forward on all fronts like this – on the industrial front, persuading manufacturers that their products needed to be better designed, and on the consumer front, dissuading shoppers from buying badly-designed objects – because of its belief in objective standards of beauty and the spiritual potential of good design.

This commitment to objective artistic standards answered a question that had puzzled me: Why, if poor design was supposed to be a brake on sales was it necessary to educate the consumer in good design?

Another puzzle had been an influential essay written at the end of the 1930s by Bernard Leach, Towards a Standard. Towards a Standard is the opening chapter of Leach’s A Potter’s Book, which has been in print since 1940 and which has shaped the thinking of generations of potters. It expresses an anti-industrial philosophy as severe as anything in Ruskin and I read it as a restatement of the Arts and Crafts philosophy. Leach was active in the rearguard of the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society, utterly opposing its engagement with industry, and he resigned over its acceptance of items designed for manufacturing in its 1938 exhibition.

Leach took an anti-intellectual line in his essay, in fact an irrationalist line, in which I read the ideas of Bergson, although I don’t have any direct evidence that Leach had read Bergson. But Bergson’s influence was great in the interwar years and the frequency of terms like “vitality” in art criticism and in Leach’s writing, come from him indirectly if not directly.

Leach thought pottery could help to regenerate a civilisation marred by industry and ravaged by war and political conflict. The standard that potters were supposed to follow was absolute and unchanging, was not personal taste and was most certainly not a matter of consumer preference.

Thus in the modernist culture of the Council for Art and Industry and the anti-modernist aesthetic of A Potter’s Book, there is the same crusade to establish an absolute standard for artists and a mission among a benighted public who don’t appreciate “good design” or what they ought to have in their homes.

TOP DRAWER

I was at  Top Drawer today. The trend in tableware is to artisan style, pottery. These bowls are by Nkuku, fairly typical of what’s on show there, though though the insides are rather brighter than the dominant earth colours.

These bowls are not thrown on the wheel but they’re made to look as if they are. There’s a strong desire among consumers for things that are handmade, or at least that look as if they’re handmade. Some of Nkuku’s ceramics are made in Vietnam and are much cheaper than anything an English artisan can produce.

FITNESS FOR PURPOSE

The functionalist idea of fitness for purpose was an important part of Frank Pick’s view of design. (See my previous post.) Michael Saler says the phrase comes from Ruskin, but I haven’t been able to find it. If anyone has a reference, I’d be pleased if you could share it with me.

From Google ngram it seems that “fitness for purpose” had scant mentions until the 1920s, then a few until 2006, when usage shot up exponentially following its popularisation by British home secretary John Reid. Its main use isn’t in design at all and it appears a lot in consumer and contract law. And its first use may be in Pugin rather than Ruskin.

On page 1 of Contrasts he says, “It will be readily admitted that the great test of Architectural beauty is the fitness of the design to the purpose for which it is intended, and that the style of a building should so correspond with its use that the spectator may at once perceive the purpose for which it was erected.”