ART POTTERY (2)

Thinking about Robin Emmerson’s article which I mentioned in my last post, in which he said that Art Pottery emerged from the anti-utilitarian Aesthetic Movement, I realised that studio pottery in the 1920s was also anti-utilitarian. Bernard Leach exhibited a teapot at the Beaux Arts Gallery in 1933 (illustrated by Jeffrey Jones in his big survey of 20th-century studio pottery). Roger Fry made some amateurish cups and saucers for the Omega Workshops. Dora Lunn, another potter of the period, also tried tableware, but it didn’t sell. These were the exceptions. Studio pottery was not meant for use – and there’s a story that when someone complained to Leach that his teapots didn’t pour well, he said they weren’t meant for making tea in. The other big beast of studio pottery in the 1920s, William Staite Murray, made vases as fine art. Much of the studio pottery of the inter-war years was figurines.

After the Second World War studio pottery took a different turn, with an emphasis on useful wares. Winchcombe Pottery had a huge contract from Cranks, the vegetarian restaurant, much of it fulfilled by Sidney Tustin at considerable personal cost, and Tustin said a machine should have made the pots, not a man. Harry Davis, one of the fastest studio throwers (who were nowhere near as skilled as the Stoke-on-Trent throwers) was deeply committed to the idea of tableware made by hand. There was a proliferation of potteries of varying quality turning out cups and saucers and plates and bowls in large quantities. Why did studio pottery take that direction?

Jeffrey Jones doesn’t really answer the question, but he passes on Harry Davis’s interesting obervations. Davis was one of the few people to recognise the upper-class origins of studio pottery. Although they talked about the virtues of a craft economy, studio potters lacked the organisational ability to create it. Michael Cardew, a gentleman-potter who was only interested in making pots, delegated the loathsome business side to Sidney Tustin and Elijah Comfort. Studio pottery continued the upper-class dislike of trade that had driven the Arts and Crafts movement.

By the 1950s, when utilitarian pottery began to be made in quantity, the design critiques of William Morris and Henry Cole had become irrelevant. The design profession had come to maturity and the critiques had been taken to heart by manufacturers. The best pottery manufacturers, like Wedgwood, had for decades been making beautiful and practical pottery, such as that designed by Keith Murray or decorated by Eric Ravilious (illustrated), that was arguably superior to studio pottery. The training of every art student was shaped by the Bauhaus.

So what could account for a turn to utility when it was least needed? I got some idea when I spoke to the studio potter Murray Fieldhouse (1925-2018) a few years ago. Murray was a passionate advocate of the Leach style of pottery. He explained to me that after the war many potters like him became pacifists, even though they’d been in the armed forces. He wanted to create an alternative society and he looked for a craft he could create it through.  He served his apprenticeship with Harry Davis, who had similar utopian leanings. The idea was that society could be changed by getting out of the factory and into the workshop, preferably run democratically or by craftsmen working alone. The art was secondary, and it’s interesting to see from Murray’s Pottery Quarterly magazine, which he edited from the 1950s to the 1980s, that he had equal disdain for industry, the design profession and fine art.

WILLIAM STAITE MURRAY

staite-murray

I have been reading Julian Stair’s thesis on critical writing about English studio pottery, 1910 – 1940, which foregrounds Roger Fry’s formative influence in the first three decades of the 20th century, something that was not mentioned in 20th-century accounts of studio pottery and which is only now being realised, largely due to Stair’s research. In the early years of the studio pottery movement there was a wary rivalry between William Staite Murray, who was the star of studio pottery in the 1920s, and Bernard Leach, who until 1920 worked in Japan. What I didn’t realise, and what Stair explains, is there was a change of gear in the 1930s when Leach’s reputation rose and studio pottery turned from exhibition pieces towards utility, inspired by a late resurgence of the Arts and Crafts philosophy that Leach followed.  In the 1930s, Stair discovered, reviews of Staite Murry’s exhibitions became more critical and eventually petered out completely.

Although Staite Murray is still recognised as a major pioneer, auction values of his pots (above) are not as high as might be thought. In MAAK’s latest online sale, expected prices range between £250 and £800, while recent work by living potters is expected to raise much more, for example, Daniel Reynolds: £800 – £1200, Sarah Scampton: £1,200 – £1,500, Tanya Gomez: £800 – £1,100, Sarah Flynn: £1,200 – £1,800, and Edmund de Waal: £2,500 – £3,500