21 August 2017


Art in Clay, the pottery fair at Hatfield House, is one of the major events in the ceramics calendar and I have made it a habit to feature a few of my favourite exhibitors each year. It's difficult: there are almost two hundred and many of them are very good indeed, including some of the best in the country. I select those that appeal to me because of their craft and because they have something to say. Some are original but some refer to well-known pottery traditions. I also like to present contrasting work. This year I have included portraits of the artists as well, except in the first example, where the maker did not want her appearance to detract from her art.

Art in Clay is under new ownership, Andy and Di McInnes having sold the show to Valentine's Clay, but I found them in the organisers' tent, busy as ever. Valentine's have invested in a well-illustrated programme and the website has been revamped.


Chantal's ceramics (top) recall Malevitch's Suprematist paintings of a hundred years ago but I don't know if this is a conscious reference to the October Revolution because what we talked about was the way the coloured buttons on her pots can be jiggled about. She wants her ceramics to move and for the viewer to interact with them. Here is something original in pottery yet rooted in a familiar episode of Modernism. 


Jonathan asked to be photographed with a large dish that he's particularly proud of at the moment, this charger with a pomegranate pattern and round the rim the William Blake verse "He that binds to himself a joy does the wingéd life destroy."  Jonathan's pottery combines excellence in making, glazing and decoration. As you can see from the jugs on the shelf behind him, his shapes are elegant and well-balanced. He uses the method of reduced lustre, one of the most challenging, attempted by not more than a handful of potters in the UK. Jonathan works in the tradition of William de Morgan, Bernard Moore and William Burton, but whereas their potteries separated the work of designer, thrower, decorator and kiln operator, Jonathan is responsible for everything. I am pleased to see a modern potter keeping alive the tradition of the Art Pottery of c.1900, at which most studio potters turn up their noses.


David is helped unfailingly at these shows by his wife Laura, so I had to include her in the photo. David constructs his pots without a wheel. His most recent line is the spiraled pots you can see on the front of the bench. There is a Far Eastern influence in his work as shown, for example, by the Japanese-style shino glazes he uses on some of his pots. The carving puts one in mind of the perfect little Yi Xing teapots from the town of that name, also made without a wheel. Take a moment to look at David's stall, which is immaculately constructed and finished. He used to be an exhibition designer. The standard of stall dressing goes up along with the standard of pottery at top shows like this.

Three more potters tomorrow.

16 August 2017


George J. Cox  (1884-1946) was one of the first modern studio potters. He studied with Richard Lunn at the Royal College of Art. Lunn ran the first studio pottery course in Britain and wrote the earliest manual about pottery making. (Pottery, 2 Vols., 1903 and 1910) He regarded throwing as old fashioned and thought that making in moulds was more appropriate to the 20th century, but his students got the throwing bug.

Cox also wrote a manual of pottery making, Pottery for Artists Craftsmen and Teachers (1914), little different in scope from Lunn’s but with a hymn to throwing that became familiar among studio potters in the ensuing decades.

“The casting process, employed so extensively in commercial work,” said Cox, “is in its essence mechanical and therefore can never have the spontaneity or character of thrown work. ... The wheel is the true fountain head of all beautiful shapes, and the student who would become a potter cannot get ‘on the wheel’ too soon. Throwing, sometimes spinning, is the term applied to the making of shapes on the wheel. Interesting and really fine pots may be built or cast, but the ultimate appeal rests with the thrown shape.”

Cox had Romantic view of pottery – he was uninterested in science and thought it spoiled art. Lunn thought that technical advances in pottery manufacture had been achieved at the expense of artistic feeling, but he had more patience with ceramic formulas and recipes. Whereas Lunn was modern in his outlook, Cox was a medievalist. The frontispiece to his book showed a ridiculous picture of an imagined medieval potter at the wheel.

Cox ran a pottery at Mortlake for a few years, making Chinese Sung dynasty inspired vases with interesting textured monochrome glazes (below). In 1914, he went the USA and became a pottery teacher. In the 1930s, he was professor of art at the University of California.  He died in 1946.

Two vases by George J. Cox, c. 1914

Cox’s illustrations to his pottery book are beautifully drawn and charming in their own right. Here are two more from the chapter about throwing.

15 August 2017


Greenham Common demonstrators, 1985

The Imperial War Museum, whose remit has changed in the last decade to make it a museum of war and peace, now has an exhibition, "People Power: Fighting for Peace", about protest and pacifism from the first world war to the Syria conflict.  It displays rare archive material, including the diaries of conscientious objectors, banners and even the bolt cutters used by the Greenham women in the 1980s. Closes 28 August.

The obvious answer to the question, “How do you dress for a demonstration?” is, “Wear something comfortable that you don’t mind getting dirty in. It may rain, you may have to sleep on the floor and you may be beaten up by jingoes." But that’s not the right answer because even on demos there is fashion.

The pacifists of the first world war, as Hugh pointed out to me, were vulnerable to attack because they looked like librarians in their baggy suits and horn-rimmed spectacles. The Greenham women, who besieged the RAF base at Greenham Common in Berkshire from 1981 to 2000, (above) were wonderfully colourful adverts for Kaffe Fassett knitwear. The Ban the Bomb protesters of the 1960s appropriated naval duffel coats and beards.

The Wethersfield Six, 1961

But the group in this photo (above) defy expectation. They are the Wethersfield Six, a group of anti-nuclear protestors about to go to court, where they will be sentenced to imprisonment.  They are Anne Randle (not one of the accused), Michael Randle, Pat Pottle, Trevor Hatton, Helen Allegranza, Ian Dixon and Terence Chandler.

They were leaders of the Committee of 100, who broke away from the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament for a campaign of civil disobedience. Their figurehead was the philosopher Bertrand Russell, 89, who joined sit-down protests and was also sent to prison. The first sit-downs mobilized tens of thousands of people and emboldened the Committee’s anarchist leaders in the winter of 1961 to plan a break in at the Wethersfield military airbase  and a sit-down in front of the planes. Up to that point the authorities had been fairly relaxed about the demos, though there had been some rough handling in the arrests. Now they sat up and brought the serious charge of conspiracy and incitement to breach the Official Secrets Act against the Six. The walk-on was a failure and alienated public opinion. The imprisonment of the organisers ended the campaign as a serious force. Eighteen months later Russell quietly resigned.

Here, dressed for the judge, the Six have eschewed duffel coats for ties and polished shoes. But Helen Allegranza stands out from the others with her court shoes, clutch bag, hat and white gloves. The chaps got eighteen months, Allegranza got twelve.

Randle and Pottle helped to spring the Soviet spy George Blake from jail during a later sentence. Allegranza committed suicide in prison. In the late sixties, I shared a flat with Ian Dixon, a neat, respectable, high-minded man. When I bought my first house, Terry Chandler rewired it for me. He was scruffy and disorganised, didn’t drive and dragged his tools by public transport.

12 August 2017


These new ceramics will be on sale at Hatfield Art in Clay, 18th, 19th & 20th August 2017, Hatfield House, Hertfordshire, AL9 5NQ.

11 August 2017


When I was at the William Morris Gallery yesterday to see their exhibition about the Walthamstow School of Art, I learned something about its origins. The picture above shows its founders, left to right: Walter Spradbery (1889-1969), Frank Brangwyn (1867-1956), and Arthur Heygate Mackmurdo (1851-1942), Brangwyn's mentor. It was taken on Brangwyn's seventy-second birthday at his home in  Ditchling.

Spradbery did posters for London Transport, which you can see in the link. Mackmurdo was a key figure in the Arts and Crafts movement, knew Ruskin well and accompanied him on a tour of Italy in 1874. His book cover for Wren’s City Churches (1883) is regarded as the seminal image of Art Nouveau.

Brangwyn was largely self-taught and served as an apprentice to Morris & Co in the 1880s. He worked in a  range of media - painting, drawing, murals, prints and ceramics and designs for furniture, carpets, interiors and stained glass. He has been described as a jack of all trades but he was elected RA. He described his work as 'a mission to decorate life'.

The museum was set up with much of Brangwyn's and Mackmurdo's personal collections. Brangwyn made a large donation to the borough of Walthamstow in 1936, including significant works by the Pre-Raphaelites and his own oils, mural designs, prints and watercolours.

The picture below, taken at the gallery, is of pottery Brangwyn designed for Doulton to be decorated by their staff with freedom to vary the pattern. It's the sort of cross between studio pottery and factory pottery that I find interesting because it permits people of modest means to buy things that have hand-made individuality.

About ten years ago, fears were expressed that the gallery might close, but in 2011-12 the local council refurbished it with help from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the friends of the gallery and numerous charities and donors.  It won the Art Fund award in 2103.

10 August 2017


Peter Blake, Self Portrait with Badges (1961). Tate Gallery

The William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow has come forward half a century from the Arts and Crafts movement to tell the story Walthamstow school of art in its glory days in the late ‘fifties and early ‘sixties - one of those conjunctures of the right teachers, the right students, the right place and the right educational environment that made something great. They call the show “Be Magnificent”. On till 10 September.

Out of it came some of the most influential creatives of the 1950s and 60s, when class barriers were breaking down in art, fashion, music and film. Among the talent were musician Ian Dury, filmmakers Ken Russell and Peter Greenaway and fashion designers Celia Birtwell, Marion Foale and Sally Tuffin.

The gallery says, “This incredible era at the School has never been explored or researched in depth, despite the fact that all the leading players cite their time in Walthamstow as key to their later development. For the first time, the early work of these influential artists and designers will be brought together in one exhibition, to show how it was in the art schools of post-war Britain, rather than the universities, that the benefits of a free, universal secondary education were most evident.”

It was the era of the NDD, the National Diploma in Design introduced into art schools after the Second World War. Until that time you could still hear the last gasp of the Arts and Crafts movement. After came Basic Design, a multi-media training for artists derived from the Bauhaus, industrial design, commercial art and fashion studies. The NDD insisted on “objective drawing” and in most art schools students who drew like Picasso or cartooned were penalised. But some were independent and encouraged innovation. Walthamstow was one of them.

The school thrived under Stuart Ray, who became its principal in 1951. He took personal responsibility for selecting staff and he interviewed every student. He believed that talent could not develop unless it was nurtured and hired skilled teachers who were also practicing artists. His team included Peter Blake, Derek Boshier, Joe Tilson, Olywn Bowey, Margaret Green, Ken Howard and Fred Cuming.

Blake started at Walthamstow in 1961 and was joined by Boshier in 1963. They had come from the Royal College of Art where they pioneered Pop Art. Walthamstow became a Pop Art hub. There was little difference in age between the students and some of their teachers. Peter Blake never arrived before 11, usually with a hangover, and went straight to The Bell, where he usually found his students. Instead of telling them to get back to their classes, he bought them a drink and taught them there.

One of the remarkable works to come from Walthamstow is The Invitation Card by Bill Jacklin, which he made in response to his father’s post-traumatic stress disorder from the First World War, displaying mechanical soldiers in various stages of breakdown. He made it at home and it was too big to take to the college, so Blake, Boshier and Tilson gave their critique in his bedroom.

Bill Jacklin, The Invitation Card (1963)

In the early sixties Walthamstow was one of the best schools of art in the country. The Royal College of Art admitted more students from Walthamstow than from anywhere else. But a perverse outcome of the Coldstream reforms was that accreditation for the new Diploma in Art and Design was witheld from many well-regarded school, including Walthamstow. The new system favoured standardisation and academic content and could not accommodate Walthamstow's quirky hands-on teaching methods with pub tutorials and bedroom crits. Unable to compete with London art schools offering DipAD courses, Walthamstow’s glory days were over.

In the 1970’s, it was merged into North East London Polytechnic (NELP), now the University of East London. I worked in NELP’s publicity department from 1971-72 and knew some of the lecturers in what had become the department of art and design. Stuart Ray had been demoted to deputy head and the stars of the school had left.

Ian Dury, by the way, failed his NDD (below).

31 July 2017


In every generation craftspeople discover that they can't make a living making things by hand. William Morris was unusual in running a successful business, but C.R.Ashbee, after heroic efforts to set up a craft community in the Cotswolds, eventually gave up in the early years of the 20th century, undermined by competition from machine made goods on one side and on the other by the amateurs who undercut him, and William de Morgan had to close his pottery after years of experimentation that had brought him technical and artistic success but financial failure. De Morgan made a decent living afterwards as a novelist. He may not have been very businesslike in his pottery, self-deprecatingly describing himself as not organised but "demorganised". Bernard Leach survived for many years with the assistance of patrons and then with the help of book royalties, and more than once expressed the view that the craftsman should receive some sort of public subsidy. Teaching, of course, has always been a mainstay.

In the early days, the days of Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement, the artistic crafts expressed an upper-class prejudice against trade but also a popular reaction against machinery and the factory system, the ugliness of mass produced goods and dreadful working conditions. It was honestly believed that Britain could get back to an imagined existence of hand-crafted manufacture. Only since the 1970s have craft makers and public agencies  frankly recognised the crafts as an artistic activity producing luxuries rather than everyday goods. The transition was marked by the transfer of government responsibility for crafts from the Board of Trade to the Department of Education (now Department for Digital, Culture Media and Sport).

Graham Wallas, the Fabian Society co-founder of the London School of Economics, poured cold water on Morris's utopia. In his book The Great Society, he said:
"Once, while I listened to him lecturing, I made a rough calculation that the citizens of his commonwealth, in order to produce by the methods he advocated the quantity of beautiful and delicious things which they were to enjoy, would have to work about two hundred hours a week. It was only the same fact looked at from another point of view which made it impossible for any of Morris's workmen, or indeed for anyone at all whose income was near the present English average, to buy the products either of Morris's workshop at Merton or of his Kelmscott Press."

Thorstein Veblen, although an admirer of Morris, described the Kelmscott Press from an economic point of view as "ridiculous". Noting that printers were returning to “'old-style', and other more or less obsolete styles of type which are less legible and give a cruder appearance to the page than the 'modern',” he wrote of Morris's books that -
"Here we have a somewhat cruder type, printed on hand-laid, deckeledged paper, with excessive margins and uncut leaves, with bindings of a painstaking crudeness and elaborate ineptitude. The Kelmscott Press reduced the matter to an absurdity — as seen from the point of view of brute serviceability alone — by issuing books for modern use, edited with the obsolete spelling, printed in black-letter, and bound in limp vellum fitted with thongs. As a further characteristic feature which fixes the economic place of artistic book-making, there is the fact that these more elegant books are, at their best, printed in limited editions. A limited edition is in effect a guarantee — somewhat crude, it is true — that this book is scarce and that it therefore is costly and lends pecuniary distinction to its consumer."

23 July 2017


19 July 2017


My recent posts were about putting handles on cups and turning bowls, each of which made use of the appropriate technology. I went on to cups and saucers, which were thrown on the wheel and then turned, and as I was making them I started to wonder if was using the correct method.

Throwing gets to potters: they enjoy it, for many of them it was the fascination of throwing that drew them into pottery in the first place, and however much they do it there will always be the challenge of doing it better. I make on the wheel partly because it is quick, partly because I like it, but partly because a sort of inertia prevents me from investing time and money in a different way of working. Slip casting, even though I know the rudiments, would entail a steep learning curve and because it has its own aesthetic it would call for a revision of my range.

But what about saucers? They are troublesome. A small plate is thrown on a batt and left to stiffen overnight; then a well for the cup is cut into the surface, the saucer is wired off the bat, turned over, placed in a chuck and the foot-ring is cut into the base. The clay has to be soft enough to cut cleanly; too dry and it cannot be done well or fast enough. But a thin saucer - which is what I want, not a great thick lump - distorts when it's finished and lifted off the chuck.

The appropriate technology for this type of thing is a jigger and jolly machine, shown in use in the video above. Alas, this lovely piece of kit is impractical for me: no room and an outlay of several thousand pounds. Patience and perseverance will have to do for now.

14 July 2017


The condition of the clay has to be just right for turning, not too wet and not too dry. I am waiting for these little bowls to harden off so I am writing about it before I do it. The usual description of the correct clay condition is "leather hard", which doesn't communicate much. "Cheese hard" is also used, but what sort of cheese? A sort of old, mature cheddar, I'd say. The clay must not flake or crumble when it's cut with the turning tool, and it must not stick.

So what exactly is "turning"?  A shape is made by throwing soft clay on the wheel, but you can't shape the bottom like that. You have to let it harden, turn it over, spin the wheel and trim it with the sort of tools you see in the top right of the picture above. In the process, a narrow foot-ring is cut into the base, which allows the item to stand on a flat surface without wobbling and also allows a narrow band of glaze to be rubbed off before placing in the kiln so that the pot doesn't stick to the kiln shelf when the glaze melts. Otherwise, the base has to be supported on pointed stilts in the kiln. I only turn bowls and plates, though some potters turn tall shapes like mugs and vases. I suppose I should, but I'm rather lazy and it's not absolutely necessary.

For this purpose studio potter turn the pot upside down on the wheel, though the pottery industry, when it still shapes pots this way, uses a horizontal lathe. When throwing was the common method of making in the industry, the thrower was only concerned with shaping the inside of the pot, which he did with the aid of throwing ribs, and the outside was formed by the turner. William Morris and the early studio potters scorned turning of this sort, but that was one of their many irrational prejudices.

Here are some old potters' ribs made from slate, used by potters at Minton's in the 1930s.

I got them from an old potter who used to work for Minton's. The process is described in more detail in an earlier blog post here.

When you are turning a run of bowls the same size, you want to form a hump of clay on the wheel head that's the same shape as the inside so that each one can be popped on and off quickly. This is called a "chuck". The chuck doesn't want to stick to the inside of the bowl, so it mustn't be wet. If you want to use it straight away after throwing it, dry it with a blow torch. For a large single item, centre it on the wheel head and hold it in place with three dabs of soft clay.

Assess the thickness of the base by putting the bowl on a flat surface, placing a stick across the top and measuring the distance from rim to inside bottom and rim to surface and then subtract. The thickness to leave after turning should be roughly that of the wall of the bowl - mine are 5mm to 7mm depending on size. Look at the inside bottom and judge the width of the foot-ring according to practical and aesthetic criteria.

The procedure is to first cut the outside of the foot ring and shape down to the rim of the bowl, and only when that's done shape the inside of the foot ring. The bowl is spun rapidly and the turning tool is brought gently into contact with the surface to cut away excess clay. Have a file by your side and keep the tool sharp - clay will blunt it quickly. The height and shape of the foot-ring is a matter of aesthetic judgement (I don't like a high footring or one that splays out or turns in excessively) but the thickness should echo the thickness of the rim. It is common for beginners to cut a wide foot ring with a square section, which looks crude. The edge of the foot ring should either be chamfered on both edges or rounded off. A small delicate item can have a very small foot ring, as on this saucer that I made. The foot ring was glazed in this case, so the saucer was supported on stilts, whose marks are clearly seen.

Here they are all done.