31 July 2015

NO JOB TOO SMALL

How many times have you read that, only to be told by the company when you ask them to mend your doorbell, “Sorry, it’s too small to be economic”? Well, I found the perfect engineering firm for which it was true: no job really was too small.

My second hand Fitzwilliam potter’s wheel required a modification, just a block with two holes in it and two retaining bolts. In the old days, Mervyn Fitzwilliam (left), the designer and maker of this Rolls Royce of potters’ wheels, would have done the job for me, but sadly he died, too young, a couple of years ago. Then I found a little company that was willing to have a look at it. “We’re very busy, I’ve got someone just had a baby and two guys on holiday, but I’ll try and fit it in.”

They're at the blind end of a narrow lane, all the other buildings are Victorian cottages, you can hardly get your car down and wonder how the hell you’ll get out again. The factory is also old, small and crammed tight with machinery, swarf everywhere, odd shaped parts being cut, turned and drilled. Tinker, tailor, potter, engineer – stick to what you’re good at and do it well.

The boss told me to have a word with Peter.  Peter is about eighty and comes in two days a week. The younger guys wear t-shirts, Peter has a collar and tie and a long grey coat. He fiddles with the piece I have brought for him to copy, “Hm, that fits when it touches, I suppose", he says disapprovingly. I immediately have confidence that he will make a good job for me. “But I probably won’t be able to do it till next week.”  “Fine!” I say.

The next afternoon Peter phones to say that my job is finished. It's perfect, of course. The prototype was made of mild steel with a painted finish. I told him my part would be used in a wet environment, so he made it out of stainless steel.

I went to pay the boss. When I asked for a VAT receipt he gave me an old fashioned look. I explained that I couldn’t record it as a business expense if he didn’t.  “Ah,” he said, “You’re very naughty. I slipped it in for you and now you want the paperwork. In that case you should have issued a purchase order, then the book-keeper could deal with it properly.” He made an exception for me. What a wonderful combination of informality and bureaucracy.

30 July 2015

ROTHENSTEIN'S REVOLUTION

William Rothenstein (left) was principal of he Royal College of Art from 1920 to 1935. It's hard to believe it now, but when he took over, the RCA was a pretty poor art school and its reputation was low. Rothenstein revolutionized it. He thought it was stuck in an Arts-and-Crafts time warp, and although he had little time for the modern movement (he called Cézanne's followers "ces ânes", these asses) he wanted to bring the college up to date by hiring top artists who would have studios there and teach part time.

The the Arts and Crafts movement was the gateway to modernism and in sculpture it influenced the move away from modelling towards direct carving, as illustrated in Tate Britain's exhibition "Barbara Hepworth: Sculpture for a Modern World". (Hepworth and Henry Moore were RCA students under Rothenstein.) But in design it was overtaken by more forward looking movements. Rothenstein said,"It is important we should not fall behind the Continental industries, and the freshness of design, execution and subject matter which is characteristic of the best French, German and Austrian work has not been sufficiently encouraged and sought for at the College." The book accompanying the Hepworth exhibition has something about pottery at the RCA that I hadn't seen before. In 1920 Rothenstein was happy to go along withe the painted pottery taught there by Billington, and he wanted to help her by bringing in Alfred and Louise Powell as instructors; by 1924 he had discovered William Staite Murray, who was making big, sculptural vessels in a totally new way. One of Rothenstein's ideas for reform, as shown by a letter quoted in the book, was to bring together the woodwork and pottery studios. It didn't happen, but it was a good idea. When the Bauhaus-inspired Basic Design course was developed at the Central School of Arts and Crafts after the Second World War, that sort of cross fertilization really took off. Billington's pottery students there worked with sculptors William Turnbull  and Eduardo Paolozzi and the painter Alan Davie. Paolozzi, who had quite an influence in the pottery studio, was himself based in in the textile department.

12 July 2015

DORA BILLINGTON: FROM ARTS AND CRAFTS TO STUDIO POTTERY

My article on Dora Billington, "From Arts and Crafts to Studio Pottery", has just been published in Interpreting Ceramics - you can read the full text by clicking the link here.

It traces her career before 1945, in particular her years at the Royal College of Art as a student and teacher and her innovations in teaching pottery at the Central School of Arts and Crafts before the Second World War. In the critical decade of the 1920s, the teaching of pottery in British art schools was revolutionized and she was part of the revolution.

In 1920, students were being taught pottery decorating in the style of Persian, Iznik and Italian maiolica. Alfred and Louise Powell, who hand-painted pottery for Wedgwood in a tight, floriated style (above, left), influenced Billington at the RCA, and pottery teaching at the Central was led by one of their studio assistants. In 1920, the principal of the RCA, William Rothenstein, wanted to bring in the Powells to teach pottery painting; but by 1925 he had taken a complete change of tack and wanted to propel the RCA forward by appointing the hottest property in studio pottery, William Staite Murray, who was making monumental, Chinese- inspired stoneware (above, right). Billington was pushed out of the RCA to make way for him, but at the Central, she quickly introduced his type of pottery, installing a high-temperature kiln and inviting him to teach classes there as well. By the early 1930s, Central students were all making the new stoneware, and decorated pottery in the Persian, Turkish and Italian styles was out of the window.

7 July 2015

HATFIELD ART IN CLAY, 2015

We had good weather and a happy weekend at Art in Clay at Hatfield House. In the brief lull before returning to work, here's a few things that caught my eye from exhibitors who stood out from the traditional potters.

One of Vilas Silverton's Zen rogues (left, top) was featured on the show ticket. I liked them and I liked Vilas. He breaks the rules and he's an artist who happens to work in clay rather than a potter, sometimes like Richard Slee, whom some of his work (above) reminds me of.

Student work, unconstrained by the need to sell, is always interesting. From Cardiff, Sarah Statham did good things with tiles, with oblique, inconsequential images. Joanna Simmonds made faceted porcelain mountains (left, middle). Cardiff is one of the good ceramics departments that hasn't been closed. There was also innovative and cheeky work by students of Central Saint Martins: the pots with boobs were disapproved of. Central St Martins trains students to be industrial designers, but those who exhibited at Art in Clay wanted to be makers.

Independent schools have the resources to set up pottery studios that state schools don't, and Chris Sutherland, artist in residence at Bishop's Stortford College, brought an excellent group of A-level work, much of which is of degree standard.

Barry Stedman's ceramics become increasingly painterly with an assured use of colour (left, bottom), not always evident in ceramic art.

2 July 2015

WHO WAS DORA BILLINGTON?

As readers of this blog will know, I admire the potter Dora Billington, who admired pottery from all over the world – Persia, China, Italy, Stoke-on-Trent – and not just the small range of oriental ceramics in the Leach canon. (She’s on the right in the picture.) Billington was a dedicated teacher and an indomitable student of pottery, and in her time probably knew as much about it as anyone. “The Art of the Potter” crammed a lot into a small space and for decades it was the best book on the subject. She was commissioned by Oxford University Press to write the articles on pottery and tiles for their junior encyclopaedia. She gave expert advice on pottery fragments discovered in the pre-dynastic Egyptian cemeteries at Armant. In 1948 she joined W. B. Honey, the V&A’s keeper of ceramics, for an early TV programme about pottery.

But who was she? There are no papers, diaries or archives. There are a few letters – for example in the Bernard Leach archive and the archive of the Royal College of Art (RCA) – but they’re professional and impersonal. Her books were like that too. She was a woman of firm opinions but she put nothing of herself into her writing. She’s typical of many women artists, important in their time but leaving no trace. I wanted to know something about her as a person.

The first clue I got was from a niece, who asked me “Do you know about her friend?” Her friend was Catherine Brock, also an artist, with whom she lived from 1912, when she came from Stoke-on-Trent to London on a scholarship to the RCA, until Catherine’s death in 1944. Catherine left everything to her. In the holiday snap above, taken in about 1940, Catherine is in the centre and the cheerful, confident-looking man on the left is Gilbert Harding Green, Dora’s colleague and friend, whom everyone called HG. There’s a fourth person, the one who took the snap; I’ll come to him in a minute.

On the first page of a commonplace book Dora wrote out Shakespeare’s Sonnet 30, which clearly expresses her feelings about Catherine’s death:

When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste:
Then can I drown an eye, unused to flow,
For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night,
And weep afresh love’s long since cancelled woe,
And moan the expense of many a vanished sight:
Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,
And heavily from woe to woe tell o’er
The sad account of fore-bemoanèd moan,
Which I new pay as if not paid before.
But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restored and sorrows end.

When Dora met HG in the late thirties her family were relieved that she’d found a man friend at last; but HG was gay and the person behind the camera above must have been his partner. That year, HG, his friend, Dora and Catherine went on holiday together, probably posing as two heterosexual couples for respectability’s sake. HG and Dora took many holidays together -  she died in 1968 shortly after returning from a holiday with him in Sorrento. In the end, her relationship with HG confused her family because they didn’t know quite what it was.

Dora converted to Roman Catholicism early in life, perhaps in the slipstream of the Catholic literary revival. Her work in the 1920s  included a stained glass of St Joan and a mosaic of St Catherine of Siena, and, although the saints are revered by Protestants as well, her interest in them is significant. Joan of Arc, a famously powerful woman, had recently been canonized, and Catherine is an obvious namesake. Bernard Moore, the art potter from whom she learned about ceramic decoration, was a Catholic; among her colleagues at the Central School of Arts and Crafts the silversmith M.C. Oliver and the calligrapher Irene Wellington were Catholics; and although the advocates of eastern spirituality among the studio potters had the loudest voices, there were several Catholic potters – David Leach, Ray Finch, Kenneth Clark and Ann Wynn Reeves.

Of Catherine Brock we know even less than Dora. They had the same background, Stoke-on-Trent families connected to the pottery industry, and they probably met at Hanley art school. Catherine trained at the Slade and there’s a painting by her of the young Dora (drawn with affection but not very good), and that’s about it.

Dora died in 1968 and left nearly everything to HG, but there’s almost nothing left. Was there attrition with each subsequent bequest until her papers fell into the hands of people who had never heard of her? Or did Dora herself destroy everything personal? It’s possible: a devout Catholic in a lesbian relationship in an intolerant era might well have wanted to keep her life private.

But don’t jump to conclusions. According to HG, Dora was in love with the sculptor John Skeaping, or had a relationship with him that didn’t work out. Skeaping came to teach at the Central in 1931, the year he separated from Barbara Hepworth.  In 1934 he married Morwenna Ward. But there’s no correspondence with Dora in the Skeaping archive and this tale of HG’s is a will o’ the wisp.

30 June 2015

FREDDIE'S RESTAURANT HELPS PUT renaissance: ST ALBANS ON THE MAP



Last night I went to Freddie's restaurant to help raise funds for renaissance: ST ALBANS, the arts initiative I mentioned in my last blog post. St Albans council and the museums trust want to convert the old town hall into a museum and gallery space and make it a major visitor destination.

The fundraiser was Freddie's idea - he's left in the picture above - and he deserves thanks for it. Councillor Annie Brewster (centre) is the project champion, and brings to it energy and enthusiasm. She's just given Freddie a copy of the new city map. The fundraising target is £1.75 million.  That's not a lot for a prosperous place like St Albans, and one of the project team told me he was confident that we could hit it and start building next year.

26 June 2015

renaissance: ST ALBANS - A NEW GALLERY AND MUSEUM FOR THE CITY


St Albans, where I live, is a historic city popular with tourists. It has Ancient British, Roman and Saxon foundations. It has a rich musical life, ranging from the International Organ Festival to acoustic performers in local pubs - in fact it seems that nearly every pub has a music night.

But the visual arts are not so well served. For many years we've had an art gallery run by the University of Hertfordshire; the Verulamium Museum presents our Roman heritage; and the St Albans City Museum has a range of locally themed events.

Now the local council and the St Albans Museums Museums and Galleries Trust have a bold plan to turn the grand Palladian town hall, the focal point of the city, into a combined museums and arts venue. They call the project renaissance: St Albans.

I'm up for it.

We deserve a venue like this and so do our visitors. You can get to St Albans from central London in half an hour, and he who is bored with London often likes to spend a relaxed day here.

Our old town hall is Grade II Listed but it's shabby, under-used and needs investment. The project will cost £7.75 million. It's received lottery money and will submit its Round 2 application to the Heritage Lottery Fund in August. Subject to funding, work will start next year and the museum and gallery (left) is expected to open in late 2017.

I'm putting in my two penn'orth. On Monday I'm going to the fundraising dinner at Freddie’s Restaurant: June 29 @ 6:30 pm - 10:00 pm. There's still time to book. Contact Verulamium Museum 01727 751810 for details.

16 June 2015

NEW WORK AT "ART IN CLAY"

Marshall Colman ceramics 2015

Here straight from the kiln are three vases that I'll be exhibiting at Art in Clay, Hatfield, from 3-5 July. Full details here. They are a selection of three of my current patterns: Parrot, Blue Arabesque, and Harlequin.  I'll be showing vases, jugs, mugs and covered jars in these patterns.  More pictures soon - I have more glazing and decorating to do and two kilns to fire before Hatfield.

For pottery geeks, my pottery is tin-glazed earthenware. The clay is one part red terracotta to three parts white earthenware, which fires to a warm pink. Bisque firing is to 1085 deg.C and glaze firing to 1060 deg.C.  This reverses the usual method in studio pottery, which is to fire bisque at a lower temperature than glaze, and is like the method used in industry. It suits me for two reasons: I glaze with tongs and they mark soft bisque; and it ensures a good glaze fit without crazing. My glaze is a lead borosilicate tin glaze, based on a recipe from my teacher Daphne Carnegy. After many years of experimentation, my firing cycle is fast to 700 deg. then 50 deg. an hour to maturity. I fire in an electric kiln with a computerized controller, but I check with cones (above left) because a pyrometer gives only a rough approximation of what's happening and there can be a significant difference in heat between the top and bottom of my large kiln. There's always a lot of fiddling with controls and vents at the end of the firing to make sure everything is perfect. (Of course, it never is, but that's what you have to aim for.) The colours are a mix of metal oxides and prepared ceramic stains. These are the colours I've used on these three vases:

  • red - high temperature red
  • yellow - Naples yellow + lemon yellow
  • blue - cobalt + copper oxides
  • turquoise - copper oxide + turquoise
  • black - cobalt + manganese oxides.


14 June 2015

CERAMICS IN STORE

Every museum and art gallery has dozens of pieces of work in store, and some have most of their collection tucked away, but curators are always pleased to bring them out for anyone seriously interested. Last week I went with the Craft Potters Association to Buckinghamshire County Council's store of studio pottery in Halton, where Mel Czapski, the collections officer for art and ceramics, introduced us to their collection.

On the table you can see, at the top, a large lustre bowl by Sutton Taylor being admired by one of our party, and, following clockwise, a stoneware jar by Michael Cardew, an oblong dish by Ray Finch, an oval dish by William Newland, in the centre and out of focus a white vessel by Ruth Duckworth, a black jar by Delan Cookson and a conical bowl with painted decoration  by Staite Murray. The county council have listed and illustrated the entire collection of over 300 pieces here.

The collection is difficult to find, in the middle of RAF Halton, a huge military camp, in an anonymous old school building unhelpfully labelled "Resource Centre". It wasn't until I was inside and warmly welcomed by Mel that I knew I was in the right place.

The collection dates from the 1960s when then curator, Christopher Gowing, decided to buy current studio pottery for display and for circulation to schools. In those days a bowl by Lucie Rie could be picked up for £3. An older member of our party said he was only earning £6 a week then - but a Rie pot now would cost £3,000. In the post-war decades it was common for local authorities to buy pottery to send round schools. The most active were the West Riding of Yorkshire, Leicestershire and Hertfordshire. Pottery was a particularly tactile art form that children could relate to directly and without prejudice or fear, and it was part of the school curriculum. At the London Institute of Education, where William Newland worked, all art teachers had to do pottery. Newland said that in the fifties and sixties he had a thousand students who wanted to pot. No longer, and it's not much taught in schools either. So the county collections now have a different function, as a resource for specialists and pottery aficionados.

School pottery has been squeezed by the national curriculum, cost cutting, health-and-safety and lack of knowledge among teachers. The decline of school pottery is part of a general trend away from materials-based teaching and it's consistent with the elevation of concept over material in the visual arts generally - which perhaps can't even be called "visual" any more. But these collections remain in out of the way places for anyone who wants to see them, with curators who know about them and who are enthusiastic about ceramics.

6 June 2015

NELL VYSE, POTTER AND COMMUNIST

This picture came up on e-Bay recently, from the London Illustrated News, May 1922, a reproduction of a painting by W.R.S.Stott. The caption reads, “The revival of the potter’s art: at the kiln. The principal “Revivalist” in the picture – which the artist names “The Revivalists” – is Mr. Charles Vyse, the well-known potter.  He is seen at work beside his kiln on his pottery figures, which were shown at the Collector’s Gallery in Sloane Street.  Mr. Stott’s picture was exhibited in last year’s Royal Academy.” The tall, aristocratic-looking woman on the right is Nell Vyse.

Charles Vyse (1882– 1971) was an early studio potter who made a good living with his wife Nell Vyse (1892-1967) in the 1920s and 1930s, producing the sort of figurines shown in this picture and illustrated left, but they also had a very different line of work making innovative pottery in the Sung Chinese style. The Vyses lived in Chelsea, neighbours of W.R.S.Stott and of George Eumorphopolos, an important collector of Chinese ceramics and a formative influence on British studio pottery. Stott’s picture is reproduced in colour in Terence Cartlidge’s book on the Vyses.

When this picture was painted, pottery figurines were very popular and were made as much by art potters as by factories. Figurative ceramists like the Vyses, Gwendoline Parnell, Stella Crofts and Wilfrid Norton exhibited with Leach, Staite Murray and Cardew into the 1930s, although by the outbreak of war figurative pottery had gone out of fashion.

Charles remained an artist all his life, but Nell Vyse had a more extraordinary career. She had been a Suffragette and joined the Communist Party in 1934. Her marriage to Charles ended after a political argument and she subsequently formed a relationship with leading Communist Joe Bent (below) and moved to Southwark, south London, where she became a tenants’ and pensioners’ leader and stood as a Communist candidate for the local council. As she lived until 1967, she is still within living memory, but her political career, both as Suffragette and Communist, is barely documented. Typical of women artists, she is usually appended to accounts of her husband and her contribution is obscured, despite the fact that her knowledge of glazes  was indispensable to the pottery.

A fascinating gap in ceramic history, but a career that falls into two different halves like this also raises the question, "How is Nell Vyse to be regarded, as an artist or a political agitator?" In histories of pottery her political career is generally shrugged off and she is too local to figure in political histories. Unlike William Morris or Diego de Rivera, who were artists and political activists simultaneously, Nell Vyse seems to have entirely given up art for politics, perhaps because she thought art trivial, and by the early 1960s she was presenting herself in TV interviews merely as "pensioner Mrs Nell Vyse". A full account of her has to treat her artistic and political lives equally seriously.