3 May 2013

THE DIFFICULT ART: BRITISH TIN-GLAZED POTTERY SINCE 1900

A Crafts Council survey in 2004 estimated that there are about 6,000 professional  potters in Britain. In 1950 there were probably fewer than 200.  There was a brief period in the 1950s and 1960s when demand for studio pottery outstripped supply and when Harrow Art School started its studio pottery course to increase the number of production potters who could make domestic wares quickly.  Most of these wares were stoneware. Bernard Leach had exerted a powerful influence, partly through A Potter's Book and partly through his apprentice system.

In the 1950s a few potters swam against the stream and made tin-glazed earthenware. The most notable were Alan Caiger-Smith at the Aldermaston Pottery, William Newland, Margaret Hine and Nicholas Vergette (known as “The Bayswater Three”),  Eileen Lewenstein and Brigitte Appleby at the Briglin Pottery, and Jack and Walter Cole at the Rye Pottery.  All except the Coles had trained with Dora Billington at the Central School of Arts and Crafts, and Walter Cole had studied sculpture there and had come into contact with her in the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society. Billington, who was a skilled exponent of decorating on tin-glaze, encouraged the younger English potters and wrote an article in The Studio in 1953 praising them and arguing that there was too much dull brown pottery and that there was room for more colourful work, including tin-glaze, in the European tradition.  The Bayswater Three secured lucrative interior design contracts decorating coffee bars, scores of which had sprung up in the 1950s offering a place where young people could meet without buying alcohol or an expensive meal. Aldermaston, Briglin and Rye were production potteries and the potters who worked there made a living without having to teach.

Despite this strong counter-current, tin-glazed earthenware has never really caught on in Britain in the way that  high-fired stoneware or slipware has and it's disregarded by most studio potters and aficionados. William Newland called tin-glaze potters “the softies”. Out of the Craft Potters Association’s 350 members, only ten per cent work in earthenware and only one per cent in tin-glazed earthenware.  Daphne Carnegy, a British tin-glaze potter, says in her book Tin Glazed Earthenware that it has always been regarded as a bit twee by British potters.

As a result of this attitude only about fifty British studio potters have ever worked in the medium of tin-glaze, most of whom are no longer doing so. When I exhibit in pottery fairs I am invariably the only tin-glaze potter.

It's a difficult medium.  Everything on the surface remains visible after the firing and mistakes cannot be covered up.  You can't pretend they are happy accidents, the unpredictable but delightful gifts of the fire.  The glaze has to be put on with  care because it's viscous and hardly moves at its maturing temperature, essential so as not to disturb what is painted over it, but easily disfigured by runs.  In this it differs from many stoneware glazes, into which the pot can be dipped roughly in the knowledge that any patches will  appear as pleasant variation.  Because earthenware  remains porous, the bottom of a tin-glazed pot should not be left unglazed, which means gently placing it on little pointed stilts in the kiln. Decoration requires a good design sense, skilled handling of the brush and a sense of colour as well.  Although some stoneware potters are good with the brush and make superb designs some cannot draw and try to get way with meaningless splashes.Ironically, it's the two artists who are most closely associated with rough, country-style pottery, Bernard Leach and Michael Cardew, who were the most fluent decorators.  From modern potters I would single out Phil Rogers’ direct and simple surface decorations. Pottery connoisseurs, like all fans, want those they admire to keep doing the same thing and they are often unwilling to look at anything new. The tin-glaze potter, in my experience, is most appreciated by people who know little about studio pottery and are free from its prejudices.

Here is a list of British studio potters who have worked in tin-glaze in the 20th and 21st centuries, inlcuding a couple who work in stonware rather than earthenware.  It's not complete and I'd be glad to know of anyone I've missed out.

‡ Brigitte Appleby and Eileen Lewenstein (Briglin Pottery)
‡ Alan Baxter
‡ Sylph Bayer
Quentin Bell
‡ Vanessa Bell
+‡ Julian Bellmont
   Rob Bibby
‡ Dora Billington
   Carlo Brisco and Edward Dunn (Reptile)
+‡ Alan Caiger-Smith
+‡ Nick Caiger-Smith
+‡ Edgar Camden
   Daphne Carnegy
‡ Michael Casson
‡ Walter Cole and Jack Cole (Rye Pottery)
+‡ Harriet Coleridge
    Marshall Colman (illustrated above)
‡ David Constantine White
   Kim Donaldson
‡ Adam Dworski
+‡ Geoffrey Eastop
   Anthony Edmondson and Di Edmonds (Tydd pottery)
‡ Duncan Grant
   Morgen Hall
*+ Mo Hamid
+ Andrew Hazelden
   John Hinchcliffe and Wendy Barber
‡ Margaret Hine
   Liza Katzenstein
   Kate King
Phyllis Keyes
‡ David Leach
‡ Dora Lunn
  Agalis Manessi
+ Myra McDonnell
*+ Lawrence McGowan
   Roger Mulley
William Newland
+‡ Judith Partridge
+‡ Simon Rich
   Kate Scott
+ Jason Shackleton
* Owen Thorpe
‡ Marianne de Trey
‡ Nicholas Vergette
+ Ursula Waechter
   Alan Wallwork
+ Nicola Werner

+ worked at the Aldermaston Pottery
* works in stoneware
‡ retired, deceased or no longer working in tin glaze

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