24 May 2016

CERAMICS OF VIETRI SUL MARE AND THE AMALFI COAST

Wall panel by Giovannino Carrano
“See Naples and die.” We almost did. As we were driving on the narrow twisting road on the beautiful Amalfi coast, a coach came round the bend in the middle of the road and hit our car. Franco, our driver, quickly swerved to the right, hitting a rock, and the coach sliced off the left hand side of his vehicle. No-one was hurt, but I don’t like to think too much about the odd half metre here or there.

Solimene showroom
The Solimene factory
We'd been to see Amalfi, Positano, Ravello and Sorrento. Maiolica has been made in this area for almost as long as in Tuscany, in a tradition that goes back to the Renaissance. In Vietri sul Mare, the main pottery centre of the Amalfi coast, the streets are lined with pottery shops and some of the factories and studios are very old. There's a thriving tourist trade but there are such quantities of pottery in the shops that you wonder who buys it all. The Solimene factory, housed in an extraordinary modernist building, has a vast showroom (from which, incidentally, one can see the pottery being glazed and decorated in the adjacent workshop), but only a fraction is sold to visitors and they export much of their produce.

Unfortunately, a lot of modern Italian art ceramics is trash and its tradition has been debased by commercialism. Much of the brushwork is sloppy, done by painters with little skill, and most of the pots are covered with a harsh, shiny, very opaque white glaze that uses zircon as an opacifier instead of the traditional tin. Tin is more sympathetic both to the painted colours and the underlying clay body but it’s very expensive. I have a Solimene pot made thirty years ago on which the glaze has a satin finish, is probably made with tin as well as zircon and is slightly translucent, revealing the pink clay body. Modern Solimene work is not so subtle.


 

Plates from the 1950s (unsigned) set into the wall of the Solimene
factory. The climate means they don't have to be frost-proof.

But among the trash there is gold, and of particular interest is the so-called German period of the 1920s and 30s in which immigrants from northern Europe gave an artistic impetus to Vietri ceramics that carried through to the 1950s and produced work of high quality. The ceramics of Vietri, in particular those of the German period, are much studied in Italy, attracting the attention of academics and forming the subject of conferences and books, but they are almost ignored in Britain.

In Vietri a lot of the work from this period has been mounted on the walls and so you can still see it. Solimene put several plates on the wall of their factory, built in the 1950s - the combination of copper green and black in the old Solimene plates is characteristic - and there are ceramic plaques in other parts of the town, including on defunct factories, and I’ve illustrated some of it here, including coloured wall tiles by the excellent Giovannino Carrano (top picture). On the Vietri seafront there are some large vessels used as street furniture, modern work of higher quality than the pottery in most of the shops, made by Lucio Liguori, whom we met by chance.

At Raito, a bus ride from Vietri, there’s a museum of ceramics which has a historical survey of the pottery of the Amalfi coast, with a collection from the German period. My advice to you, if you want to go there, is to get to Salerno by train and then ask a taxi to take you to the museum, because, on foot in the village, you may not find it. It’s a tribute to the people of Raito that everyone we asked knew exactly where it was, but the village is on a steep hill and you get up and down it by winding paths. When Google maps told us we were there, we were a hundred feet above it and couldn’t see how to get to it.

Lucio Liguori at work in his studio in Raito
One of Lucio's anchovy plates
Just as we were getting lost on a broken path covered in brambles, a man on a motor scooter shouted down from the road and asked us what we were looking for. “Il museo della ceramica.” “È chiuso, aperto domani” – it’s closed, open tomorrow. We clambered up to where he was waiting. He said he was a potter. I said I was a potter too. He introduced himself, Lucio Liguori, and took us to his studio where he works with his wife and nephew. It’s big, modern and enviably well equipped. Lucio was born in Vietri in 1958 and studied at the art school in Salerno. He learned pottery in several of the Vietri workshops, starting his own studio in 1988. He works in the local tradition, taking inspiration from the marine environment, with a fascination for anchovies. We bought a couple of plates from him with anchovy designs (pictured), with an interesting semi-opaque glaze which allows him to apply some decoration in white over the top – the traditional “bianco sopra bianco” technique of old maiolica.

As I said, you'll be hard put to find much about this pottery from English writers, but I've ordered a couple of Italian books, Ceramica vietrese 1924-1954: Il periodo Tedesco - Gli anni cinquanta by Giorgio Napolitano (The Ceramics of Vietri 1924-1954: The German Period to the Fifties) and Valerio Tarraroli's Italian Art Ceramics 1900-1950, which has been translated into English, so I hope to post more later.

23 April 2016

NOTHING IS GOING PEAR-SHAPED

A pear. Familiar image. Simple shape. Would make a nice design - slightly assymetrical, bit of texture, can do things with the stalk and leaf. Off we go!

I've spent a day making designs on my ceramics based on the pear. But can I make a pear shape? Just about not quite to drive me crazy.

What is it with the pear shape?

It has to be asymmetrical, but not wonky. The narrow part must be not too narrow, must have a blunt top, one side of the top is slightly higher than the other, must be in the right ratio to the wide part.  The bottom part, the wide part is not exactly round, it's slightly flattened. The pear shape is very subtle, and if you fluctuate slightly it doesn't look right at all, and may not look like a pear.

Am I being very literal and precise here? Not at all. I can make a literal drawing easily with a pencil, but my painting technique uses a flat wash of yellow and a quick brush outline in a darker colour, and it's that fluent line, capturing the pearness of the pear that is so difficult to do. The great Chinese painter Qi Baishi said that his calligraphic style of drawing with a soft brush had to be like and unlike the thing he painted, had to capture its spirit without being literal. I notice that Chinese pears, as painted by Qi are round and not pear shaped.
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7 April 2016

THE BUSINESS OF ART

Business is an art, but art is a business. Most artists are unbusinesslike and there are few Damian Hirsts around. But some gallery owners are just as unbusinesslike, and I've just become the victim of one.

Galleries work on an interesting business model. Nearly all take artists' work on sale or return, which means, in effect, that they're borrowing from the artist instead of the bank. Even established artists have to lend to the galleries in this way, taking the risk off the gallery and bearing it themselves. The system suggest that the galleries are undercapitalised and lack confidence in the work they're selling. If the system works, it doesn't matter, but sometimes it goes horribly wrong.

One of the galleries I've been dealing with for two years has gone bust owing me money. The owner vaguely promises to pay some time in the distant future and claims to have no money.  That's funny: they have my money. When I leave my work on sale or return, it remains mine until it's sold. The gallery never owns it; they sell it for me, for which I pay them commission. The proceeds of sale also belong to me and not the gallery. So when a gallery owner says they have no money, what they mean is not that they've spent all their money, but that they've spent all mine.

In this case it's the result of muddle, not malice.  Everyone who dealt with this gallery said the owner didn't know what they had and what they'd sold. One artist said when it came to payment, their work was muddled with another artist's work. Another was paid twice.

So what should one do in such a situation? Artists are not only unbusinesslike, they're nice, and some of this gallery's creditors are willing to give the owner an infinite amount of time to pay. I can't afford to do that. I'm not so nice and I'm pursuing them for my money. Artists are willing to lend to galleries because the system depends on good personal relations. When trust breaks down, the artist is disinclined to have sympathy for the gallery owner.

PS. 19 April 2016
When I told the gallery I was going to court, they paid immediately.
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31 March 2016

EDWARD JOHNSTON, CALLIGRAPHER

This year we celebrate the centenary of the lettering designed for the London underground by Edward Johnston, a letter without serifs made for fast reading on station signage. It's one of the classic typefaces, still in use today in a modified form. It was developed further by Johnston's pupil Eric Gill into the famous Gill Sans type, known to everyone from the old orange-back Penguin books (pictured).

Johnston's influence is remarkable because he was a retiring man and notorious for his slowness. His courses at the Royal College of Art and the Central School of Arts and Crafts (now Central St Martins) took students through the letter forms so thoroughly that he didn't get to the end of the alphabet. His influence went beyond calligraphy to everyday handwiting and he influenced other arts as well. The calligraphic approach to design can be applied to needlework and pottery too. Among his students were Louise Powell and Dora Billington, both of whom made important contributions to the decoration of ceramics - and both of whom were embroiderers as well.

Decoration by Louise Powell for Wedgwood
Louise Powell and her husband Alfred Powell brought the Arts and Crafts approach to pottery into the Wedgwood company, where they were firm advocates of freehand decorating rather than stenciling and stamping, which they thought demoralized the decorators. They supervised decorating in Wedgwood's Stoke-on-Trent factory and had a studio in London as well, in Red Lion Square, where, with a couple of assistants, they decorated Wedgwood wares.

Vase by Alan Caiger Smith
Louise's work shows the influence of Johnston's calligraphy. Billington's early work does too, and she continued to advocate a calligraphic approach to decorating into the 1960s, recommending the decisive application of designs with a long, flexible brush. One of Billington's pupils was Alan Caiger Smith, whose work was decorated with a soft, chisel-shaped brush producing  a surface design redolent of Arabic calligraphy. Alan Caiger Smith taught Judith Partridge and I worked in Judith's studio in the 1970s. I like Johnston's railway type and I'm pleased to have a link to him through one of my teachers
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30 March 2016

WELCOME TO MY SPRING STUDIO SALE


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25 March 2016

HAPPY BIRTHDAY, WILLIAM MORRIS

William Morris, the great 19th century volcano
William Morris was born on 24 March, 1834. Happy birthday to the great 19th century designer and social reformer. He had volcanic energy and was one of the most famous men of his age. He did so much that it was said that he died of being William Morris.

 The extraordinary thing about him - the William Morris thing - was that he combined a huge passion for design and making with a passion for poetry and for social revolution. Visual artists are often poor with words, writers sometimes have no visual sense, and many people wedded to politics are philistines. William Morris had it all.

It wasn't always easy. In the 1880s, when he became committed to the overthrow of capitalism, he left his design business to others while he demonstrated, propagandized, made speeches and organised the Socialist League.

His legacy is both artistic and political. His designs soon became popular and they have remained so. By the time of his death in 1896, every artistic household and institution had Morris wallpaper, Morris fabric and Morris furniture, and for pottery they went to his friend William de Morgan. Morris & Co. continued until the second world war and when they closed their designs were bought and stayed in production. Now, for his birthday, the excellent Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge has brought out a range of horrible William Morris merchandise (pictured), printing his fabric patterns on cups and plastic trays.

Although Morris's patterns were popular, his political ideas were not.  Few of his fans could reconcile the Daisy, Hyacinth, Chrysanthemum and Strawberry Thief designs with revolutionary socialism, and after his death the politics became separated from the style. Well they might, because there is no real connection. Of course, the essence of the Arts and Crafts Movement was the idea that the art of an epoch was an expression of its moral condition and that the factory system was bound to produce poorly-made and ugly things. But design reform progressed apace under capitalism and social reform went forward on another path.

Fitzwilliam Museum: exit through the gift shop
Morris's insistence on the hand-made was also wrong-headed. Thorstein Veblen, in The Theory of the Leisure Class, written shortly after Morris's death, reckoned that if the workman was to maintain even the standard of living he had in 1899, and if he was to make everything by hand, he would have to work 200 hours a week. (There are 168 hours in a week.) Advances in design and quality of manufacture were brought about by revolutionizing the Arts and Crafts philosophy and adapting it to mass production. As those great designers Charles and Ray Eames put it in 1950, "The objective is the simple thing of getting the best to the greatest number of people for the least."

I've written here about Morris's rules for potters, which are unnecessarily prescriptive - everything must be made on the wheel, no turning on the lathe, no "excessive neatness", no printing on pottery, etc, etc. Here's an artistic project for you: make some good ceramics by hand, breaking every William Morris rule. That's ironic. But pretending to celebrate William Morris, without any thought of Arts and Crafts principles, as the Fitzwilliam has done, is the worst sort of marketing, parting fools from their money, and is unworthy of the Museum.
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21 March 2016

A WINDOW INTO POTTERY ON THE LONDON UNDERGROUND


Studio potters had a good time after the Second World War. During the war, factory-made ceramics were plain and undecorated because the government considered decoration to be a waste of resources. In peacetime, customers looked for something new and different to put on their table, and for a generation good potters found it hard to keep up with demand. There were fewer potters then, perhaps a hundred in Britain; according to a 2004 Crafts Council survey there were about 6,000.

Bull by William Newland, exhibited at Charing Cross
At the time, government thought the crafts had a role to play in the economy and support for the crafts was the responsibility of the Board of Trade. By the mid-sixties it became evident that there was little dialogue between craft and industry, and in the seventies responsibility for crafts passed to the department of education. Pottery was now art, not manufacture.

Studio potters had been well represented in the 1951 Festival of Britain and a year later there was a curious exhibition, Ceramics in the Home, in Charing Cross underground station of all places, sponsored by The Observer newspaper. The exhibition featured on the front page in October 1952, with the two photos at the top of this post prominently displayed.

“In the booking-office vestibule of the 'Underground' station at Charing Cross, two figures peer through a porthole at Nicholas Vergette fashioning the lip of a pot. He is one of the artist-potters who demonstrate daily in The Observer exhibition 'Ceramics in the Home.' The decorative Minoan Bulls are made by William Newland.  The exhibitions will be open throughout October on weekdays from 11 a.m. to 7.30 p.m. Contemporary British pottery, ornamental as well as useful, is shown in a decorated setting. Demonstrations at the potter’s wheel may be seen from 3.40 to 4.45 p.m. and from 5.30 to 6.45 p.m.”

Margaret Hine and William Newland, 1952
I saw one of Newland’s Minoan bulls (pictured), similar if not identical to the one in the photo, in a private collection. Newland and his wife Margaret Hine had visited Andalucía in 1949, and I think I see a Spanish influence in this bull.

Newland recalls that the exhibitors at Charing Cross included Hans Coper, Lucie Rie, Nicolas Vergette, himself and Hine – a strong representation of potters associated with the Central School of Arts and Crafts, where ceramics was under the control of Dora Billington and her assistant Gilbert Harding Green. There was a strong influence of Picasso, whose ceramics had been seen for the first time in London a couple of years earlier.

The Pottery and Glass journal were sniffy about the exhibition, which they thought should have shown Stoke-on-Trent pottery instead. They dismissed studio pottery as the work of amateurs: “Let the hobby potter exhibit his work by all means, but do not delude the public into thinking that he represents modern British pottery.”

Studio potters had no more sympathy for Stoke-on-Trent than Stoke had for them. Billington was sending her students for a term of work experience in the North Staffordshire Potteries, but not much stuck, and a potter like David Queensberry, who really wanted to work with industry, had to leave the Central and study with Robert Baker at the industrially oriented Royal College of Art.
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5 March 2016

CADMIUM YELLOW NOT BANNED BY EU

"Cadmium yellow not banned by EU." That's an even less exciting headline than "Small earthquake: few hurt. " But for artists it's significant.

Cadmium is a toxic metal and an environmental hazard. In 2013, Sweden proposed to the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) to prohibit its sale in artists' paints in the EU and to prohibit the use of such paints. Artists were up in arms. Brushes and palettes to the barricades! For cadmium produces an intense yellow and art would be insipid without it.

Quietly and without much fuss, the artists have had their day. After careful evaluation by ECHA's Committee for Risk Assessment and Committee for Socioeconomic Analysis, the European Commission has decided that the presence of cadmium in artists' paints does not present an unacceptable risk to human health. "Accordingly, the restriction procedure initiated by Sweden is terminated."

As it happens, I'm not affected, because the yellow I use in my ceramics is based on praseodymium and lead antimoniate.  Lead antimoniate is the Naples Yellow beloved of the old masters, a rich egg-yolk yellow. In ceramics there's nothing quite like it. I've experimented with other stains, which are a lot cheaper, but they don't satisfy me .

Praeseodymium is not toxic, but lead antimoniate is deadly and Naples Yellow has been made for a long time from chromium titanate instead. Potters' suppliers don't sell it at all, but despite its extreme toxicity it's available as an artist's pigment from Cornelissen, the old artists' supplier in Great Russell Street, London (pictured), and as far as I know the government of Sweden has  not asked for it to be banned.

The first thing I was taught at college, in Prof. Nigel Wood's lecture on ceramic toxicology, was, "Everything you use in ceramics will kill you if you don't use it properly," so I have strict safety procedures in my studio. Despite Naples Yellow, I'm going to be around for a while. _______________________________________________
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1 March 2016

ANISH KAPOOR BUYS EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS TO VANTABLACK, THE WORLD'S BLACKEST MATERIAL

Artists have been getting heated about a story that Sir Anish Kapoor has bought the exclusive rights to the world's blackest material, a pigment called Vantablack that absorbs 99.9% of incoming radiation. It's an odd story.

Christian Furr  told The Mail on Sunday, "I've never heard of an artist monopolising a material. Using pure black in an artwork grounds it. All the best artists have had a thing for pure black – Turner, Manet, Goya. This black is like dynamite in the art world. We should be able to use it. It isn't right that it belongs to one man."

That's debatable. Vantablack is a commercial product and the makers, a research company called Surrey NanoSystems, are entitled to recoup their development costs and sell it for as much as they can.

Early work on the material was done by the National Physical Laboratory and similar materials have been used on the Stealth fighter plane. Governments have deep pockets and selling into the defence market might have been a good choice for the Surrey University spin off company.

In 2013, Ben Jenson of Surrey NanoSystems said, “We are now scaling up production to meet the requirements of our first customers in the defence and space sectors, and have already delivered our first orders. Our strategy includes both the provision of a sub-contract coating service from our own UK facility, and the formation of technology transfer agreements with various international partners.”

No mention of artists, but Kapoor, who has made creative use of pigments in his art, showed an early interest in the material and Surrey NanoSystems have confirmed that now only he can use it. I find that astonishing, but not because I share Christian Furr's utopian idea that companies should give away their intellectual property to artists. After all, artists are justly annoyed if their copyright is infringed and get fed up with charities asking them to work for nothing. What I find astonishing is that Kapoor has outbid every industry and government. Perhaps the paint was over hyped and despite the makers' early leads it wasn't much use for anything. Kapoor is worth £680 million and must have paid a large sum for the rights, at least six figures. That's a good deal for a small R&D company.
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23 February 2016

NEW FLORAL DESIGN


"Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness", and the fruits of autumn have dramatic shapes and colours for the designer, more varied than those of blossoms. I'm developing a range of floral designs, so the first things I went to for ideas were the seed heads of garden flowers - in this case, the spiky form of teasel and the pods and berries of Iris foetidissima. It's one of the less dramatic irises, its flower nothing to speak of, but the green oval pods split open to reveal bright orange berries. (As its name suggests, it doesn't smell very nice either, and it's commonly called Stinking Gladwyn.  Who was the unfortunate Gladwyn, I wonder?)

Here you can see the progression from drawings of the pods in a vase to the finished design.




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