18 January 2017

POP GO THE SIXTIES: THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG


The French filmmaker Jacques Demy was a contemporary of the Nouvelle Vague directors of the late 'fifties and early 'sixties, but whereas they made black-and-white films that expressed the existential pointlessness of life - like Godard’s amoral Breathless and Resnais’ baffling Last Year in Marienbad - Demy is famous for a colourful love story, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964).

Demy cast the 21-year-old Catherine Deneuve in her first star role, a love-struck teenager, Geneviève Emery, and Nino Castelnuevo as Guy, her boyfriend, a handsome car mechanic. Anne Vernon is Geneviève’s widowed mother, the owner of a pretty but unsuccessful umbrella shop, and Marc Michel is a sophisticated businessman, Mr Cassard. Mrs Emery tells Geneviève that she is too young to marry Guy and that he could not support her anyway. Guy receives his call-up papers and is posted to Algeria. Geneviève thinks she cannot bear his absence, and reveals to her mother that she is pregnant. Mr Cassard asks Mrs Emery for Geneviève's hand, and tells the girl politely, not even yet on tu-toi terms with her, that he will bring up her baby as his own. Geneviève succumbs, marries him and leaves Cherbourg. Guy returns from the Algerian war and, discovering that he has been abandoned, sinks into depression. He inherits money, pulls himself together, buys his own garage, and marries Madeleine (Ellen Farner) who has been in love with him from the start. On a winter’s day a smart car pulls up at the garage. It is Geneviève in a big fur coat with their little daughter. They say hello. “Do you want to see her?” asks Geneviève. “No,” says Guy. They part. Fin.

The most notable thing about the film is that the dialogue is not spoken but sung in its entirety, taking in classical, jazz and recitative styles in a score by Michel Legrand. The singers' voices are dubbed and so the real voices of the actors are never heard. The film is also notable for its colouration: saturated hues, pastel tones and dazzling colour contrasts. Sound and vision make it more than a musical, not quite an opera, something unique in cinema.

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg was successful and it has always been popular. It grossed $7.6 million, won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and was nominated for five Academy awards. It is admired by gay men in France for its colour, music, its tale of forbidden love and the sailors who seem to be in every outdoor scene. It has been so appropriated to gay culture that now entire books are devoted to the queer sub-text of Demy’s films.

It is, of course,delightfully escapist, but it is more than just a fairy tale or a lollipop. After all, it has a downbeat ending set in a petrol station. Not only has Guy’s elderly aunt died but so has Geneviève’s unaccountably young mother. Guy and Geneviève have each settled for a love of sorts, but they don’t go off into the sunset, they go off into winter snow.

Get your hankies ready, here are the last five minutes of the film.


The costumes for The Umbrellas of Cherbourg by Jaqueline Moreau are utterly chic. Bernard Evein, a fellow student of Demy’s from art school, was the set designer who repainted Cherbourg and chose violently patterned wallpapers for the interiors. They use colour to great decorative effect and also for dramatic meaning. In some shots there is intense colour saturation, in others a contrast between Geneviève’s girlish pastel clothes and her mother’s strong colours. In several there are striking clashes between the colour of clothes and the walls behind them, the clothes usually plain, the wallpapers in in big, bold patterns. In yet others the absence of colour is significant. Here are some stills illustrating Demy’s wonderful colouration.

The colours of Mrs Emery's costume and lipstick are echoed in the wallpaper. The reliable Mr Cassard dresses in black and grey.
Hats and gloves are de rigeur for a visit to the jeweller's. The colours here are pink, yellow, white, blue, grey and black.
Guy (centre) in Mr Aubin’s garage. At work there is no colour at all.
Guy changes for a date with Geneviève. His blue workaday shirt tones with his wallpaper, but his pink going-out shirt contrasts with it.
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg: Mrs Emery’s scarlet costume vibrates against her magenta wallpaper: her shop is a very different environment from Guy’s colourless workplace. The umbrellas are of every hue, but the only customer whom we ever see in the shop just wants a black one.
16-year-old Geneviève in girlish pink, widowed mother in mature red.
Geneviève, coming round to the idea of marrying Mr Cassard, begins to merge into the wallpaper.
After losing Geneviève, a miserable Guy goes to a brothel, the walls and the girl coloured an obvious scarlet.
Madeleine tells Guy his aunt has died. Guy is in his blue work shirt, Madeleine in a blue dress and cardigan against subdued blue and green.
A new start. Guy has bought the garage and proposes to Madeleine. He has on his pink shirt, Madeleine is in a bright orange dress against a bright orange wall, the first time we have seen these colours.

4 January 2017

ABSTRACT EXPRESSIONISM AND THE CIA

The Royal Academy’s exhibition of abstract expressionism, which just finished, was the first show dedicated to this important post-war art movement for a long time and it gathered many representative paintings by its leading exponents – Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still, Barnett Newman, Ad Reinhardt, Robert Motherwell, Arshile Gorky, Mark Tobey, Phillip Guston and Sam Francis. It’s an impressive undertaking because of the scale on which these painters worked  - most of Still’s canvasses, for example, are over ten feet tall.

Clyfford Still, PH-1123
These paintings have more meaning than a lot of representational works. They weren't just pattern making. The artists were notable for their intensity and high seriousness. The content of the representational pop-art that succeeded it was slight in comparison – the two movements illustrated Clement Greenberg’s distinction between avant-garde and kitsch, though pop art undermined it as well. There were psychological, political and religious depths to abstract expressionism. Rothko and de Kooning were in their way deeply troubled individuals and their work expressed their visions and anxieties.

Mark Rothko, Yellow Band

I've included images of paintings I like, but their huge size makes reproduction pretty pointless. You can’t get what they were about unless you are, as Pollock said of his way of creating, inside the paintings.

The story of how the CIA backed abstract expressionism is now well known. The CIA thought – correctly – that the movement illustrated the personal and artistic freedoms that existed in the West in contrast to the sycophantic art of Russia. But the CIA knew that modern art was controversial and that the politicians were unlikely to approve of their operation, so they funded it covertly. “The New American Painting”, an exhibition that travelled around the world,  was privately sponsored, but the sponsor’s money came from the CIA.

Franz Kline,  Andrus

I wonder if the CIA evaluated their campaign? Abstract expressionism would have developed without them, although it may not have had quite as much exposure. Did the CIA persuade a single left-leaning artist who looked at Pollock, Rothko or Newman that life in the free world was better than in the Soviet Union? It’s hard to imagine the New York avant garde having any doubts. In 1956 Khrushchev denounced Stalin’s crimes and the Soviet invasion of Hungary put paid to any illusions about the superiority of Communism. Altogether, the CIA sponsorship of abstract expressionism may have been expensive and unnecessary.

Rest After Battle (1955)

27 December 2016

MARY WONDRAUSCH 1923-2016

Mary Wondrausch, dressed for her OBE ceremony, 2000.

Mary Wondrausch, the great English potter, died yesterday. Three years ago, aged 90, she stopped taking her medicines. She said, "I feel there's something wrong with a society that's being kept alive when there aren't enough young people to support all these old people." She was always strong-minded. I bought a pot from her twenty years ago and asked, "Shall I make out the cheque to Mary Wond-rush?" She replied haughtily, "The name is Vund-rowsh."

Wondrausch was born in Chelsea and trained as a painter. She was married three times and had three children by her last husband, a Polish architect. She worked as a cook, a painter and a teacher before turning to pottery in her forties. Teaching art in a boy’s prep school in the 1960s, she became dissatisfied with her role and began to question art itself. She attended Farnham art school to study ceramics and worked slowly through the early “ash-glaze and Leach syndrome”, but gradually began to find the slipware pots she saw on continental holidays more sympathetic.


Then she discovered Ronald Cooper’s book Slipware Dishes,1650-1850 and visited the Glaisher collection in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, which has a quantity of traditional English pottery. She fell in love with English 17th century slipware. “I had painted in watercolours,” she said “and the challenge of slip-decorated earthenware was, in a sense, similar. Each mark that you make is irremediable, and there are no kiln accidents to soften or enhance the decoration and glaze.” By contrast, the Leach style of pottery had come to feel unsatisfactory to her because of its over-dependence on kiln effects.


In 1975, after a few years of practice, she set up her own pottery workshop in Godalming, moving it to her house “Brickfields” in 1984. She sent pictures of her best work to The Times and her career suddenly took off with an order for a thousand ashtrays, all hand lettered. Assisted by Dilla Davis, she worked twelve hours a day to fulfil the order, staggering to the pub at the end of each session for a large whisky with Guinness chasers.

In the Queen’s Sliver Jubilee Year, 1977, she sold commemorative wares to Liberty and Harrods. At the same time she was trying to find direct markets, acting completely against the pottery mainstream. Commissioned commemorative wares became the backbone of her craft.


Her inspiration came largely from motifs in ceramics. “I find that I get absolutely no direct inspiration from nature, despite the fact that I live in a beautiful rural situation and am surrounded by nesting birds and blossoms.”

Wondrausch became the doyenne of slipware pottery in England, a fluent practitioner of the art and its most knowledgeable historian, with an enviable collection of country pottery and slides of slipware work from all around Europe.  She was an articulate and compelling lecturer.

Let her describe what slipware is.

“What is meant by ‘slipware’? It sounds like skating or sliding, not like pottery, and many people seem to be unclear about the meaning of this term.  First, it is lead-glazed earthenware. … Secondly, the pots are decorated with coloured ‘slip’ before they are fired in the kiln. Slip is clay mixed with water. … It has a thin, batter-like consistency and is usually of a contrasting colour to the body clay; for example, white on a red clay. … All work that is earthenware and decorated in any way with slips before firing is slipware.” The main methods are trailing a line of slip through a fine tube, scratching through a slip of one colour to make a line of a contrasting colour by revealing the clay beneath, or painting.


The golden age of English slipware was the 17th and 18th centuries, then it faded away. Wondrausch thought there were two reasons for its cessation. “First, changes in fashion: there was a swing to the classical mode (for example Wedgwood’s Etruria ware) far removed from the ebullient style that Charles II brought with him from France in the 1660s. Second, slip trailing is a very difficult medium and needs not only great skill but also the right workshop conditions, which did not somehow suit the incoming technology.”


She collected not only slipware but, magpie-like, all sorts of pretty and curious things, which she illustrated in Brickfields, the biography of her house: pottery, kitchen implements, rugs and tapestries. She was a cook, a gardener and a forager. “In the early spring, I am out with my basket picking the wild greens – all when the leaves are small. Hogweed, ground elder, dead nettle, sorrel, wild garlic, dock and dandelions. Rinse and cook for about eight minutes then serve with lots of butter and black pepper.”

She was a Fellow of the Craft Potters Association and has work in the Victoria and Albert Museum. In 2000, at the age of 76, she was awarded the OBE for services to art. She dressed with panache for the ceremony (top), in scarlet and magenta, with sandals, and a papier mâché hat based on one of her plates.

You can here Mary Wondrausch talking at length about her interesting life in the British Library Sound Archive, available online here.

23 December 2016

101 DALMATIONS: HAVE YOURSELF A DRAB LITTLE CHRISTMAS


In the 1950s subdued colours were preferred. British Standard colours were called things like “Camouflage Beige”, “NATO Green”, “Light Aircraft Grey” and “Very Dark Drab”.  They were a remnant of the war but were put to good effect by architects and designers until the explosion of bright colours in the sixties. Even "101 Dalmations", released in 1961, was drawn in drab colours and so it is one of Disney's most stylish films.


When Roger meets Anita in the park for the first time, he is wearing a brown jacket, olive-grey trousers and dusty plum-coloured jumper. Anita's coat is a nameless grey and they are outlined against a grey sky. Even at the end of the adventure when Pongo and Perdita and the puppies are saved and come home for Christmas, it's a Christmas in Camouflage Beige and lovely designer's drab.



21 December 2016

DORA BILLINGTON: POTTER, NEEDLEWOMAN, MYSTERY

Dora Billington, a photo taken for The Art of the Potter, 1937
Dora Billington (1890-1968) was one of the most important British studio potters of the 20th century, but she is better known for the people she taught than for her own work. Among her students were Alan Caiger-Smith, William Newland, Margaret Hine, Kenneth Clark, Ann Wynne-Reeves, Gordon Baldwin, Quentin Bell, Katherine Pleydell-Bouverie, Stella Crofts, Ursula Mommens, Ray Finch, Ruth Duckworth and Valentinos Charalambous.

Julian Stair observed, "History has not been kind to Dora Billington. Her strength lay in the diversity of her contribution to studio pottery. But it was perhaps seen as a weakness that her creative output as a potter and designer, author and critic, as President of the Arts and Crafts Society and as a teacher is difficult to categorise."

STUDENT
Dora Billington was born in Stoke-on-Trent, studied at Hanley School of Art and worked for the art potter Bernard Moore. She trained at the Royal College of Art. In 1919, she started teaching at the Central School of Arts and Crafts, where she built up the pottery department, retiring in 1955. She did not share the hostility to factory-made pottery fostered by other studio potters. "Because I grew up with industry," she said,"I have the feeling that pottery, whether mass-produced or studio pottery, is one thing."

Ginger jar, decorated by Dora Billington for Bernard Moore, 1910-1912

She decorated this ginger jar (above) for Bernard Moore. She said that the work his studio was limited in outlook but that his decorators had to be able to paint a pot rapidly, "which meant using the brush quickly; and such a training in the rapid use of the brush was was invaluable." This piece shows assurance and maturity in an artist in her early twenties, and her painted decoration was always good. Moore was famous for his flambé glazes, and like William de Morgan before him did much research into glazes. Of her time in Moore's studio she said, "There I got my first insight into studio pottery, and for that experience I have always been grateful to Bernard Moore."

At the Royal College of Art she was placed in the design school under W.R.Lethaby (1857-1931), a major figure in the later Arts and Crafts movement. She studied embroidery under Grace Christie (c.1872-1953), a great art embroiderer of equal importance to May Morris, and lettering under Edward Johnston (1872-1944), who, despite his famous type design for London Transport, remained an Arts and Crafts calligrapher. She then specialised in pottery, which was taught by Richard Lunn (1840-1915), who taught casting in moulds and surface decoration. His course at the RCA was the first in a British art school where students could carry out all the processes of making, drying, firing biscuit, decorating, glazing and firing glazed ware.

NEEDLEWOMAN
Billington was an accomplished needlewoman and her needlework is every bit as good as her pottery - possibly even better. The first work she exhibited at the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society in 1916, the year she graduated from the RCA, was embroidery which she showed alongside Mrs Christie.

"The Park", Dora Billington, c.1914.
 Illustration from Samplers and Stitches by Grace Christie

She made this embroidery "The Park" (above) as student piece. She treasured it and on her death in 1968 left it to her friend and colleague Gilbert Harding Green ("HG"). The photo comes from Mrs Christie’s book Samplers and Stitches (c. 1920). Her use of Billington’s sampler in her encyclopedic guide, and the fact that she invited Billington to exhibit with her at the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society, shows how highly Mrs Christie regarded this talented student.

So what became of "The Park"? It is lost. HG died thirty years ago and the inheritor of his estate has also died. I tracked down one of HG's friends and asked if he knew where "The Park" was? He said he recognized it from the photograph but had no idea what had become of it. It is unlikely that anyone connected with HG would have thrown away such a beautiful piece of work, so it may be languishing in an attic somewhere.

"A Woman of Fasion, 1914", sampler by Dora Billington. (Private collection)

Billington kept interested in textiles all her life and made this sampler (above) for fun. It is nicely designed, with due consideration for form, colour and the traditional vocabulary of embroidery stiches. It demonstrates a variety of motifs, almost as a demonstration piece for students, but to my knowledge she never taught textiles. There are witty and personal touches such as the picture of her house and the address, 13 Uxbridge Road, Kingston on Thames. The "Woman of Fashion 1914" in the centre gives focus to the design but it is curious. Why did she choose the fashion of 1914 in a sampler done in the 1930s? It was the year war broke out, the year she started studying under Lethaby, the year she embroidered "The Park". It's hard to know if it signifies anything as her life is so poorly documented.

Costermonger, needlework by Frances Richards

The traditional style of the sampler points up a paradox in Billington's personality: she is well-known for encouraging innovation in ceramics and going against the prevailing orthodoxy but there is little innovation in her own work. She respected innovation in needlework and in 1955 wrote an appreciative article on "Contemporary Needlework Pictures" in The Studio, reviewing work by Constance Howard, Frances Richards (above), Margaret Trehearne and Jean Stubbings. With characteristic openness she observed, "Some people appear to be slightly uneasy about embroidered pictures. 'I like them , but I am not sure that I ought to,' is a remark not infrequently heard, and which springs from the feeling that textiles, and stitching, should always be applied to something practical - a cope, a dress, or a seat chair, but not a picture. The same critics probably also feel that every pot should have a practical use, and their point of view cannot be lightly dismissed; but may we not, occasionally, take pleasure in things that are completely and unashamedly nonpractrical - provided, of course, that they justify their existence for other reasons."

TEACHER
Billington taught pottery at the RCA after Richard Lunn's death in 1915 and gradually made changes in the course, introducing throwing on the wheel (which Lunn could not do) and installing a high-temperature kiln. When William Rothenstein arrived as Principal in 1920, one of his first tasks was to persuade the government to fund Billington's ambitious expansion plans. In 1919 she began her long association with the Central School of Arts and Crafts, where she taught until about 1960.

Billington was an assiduous student, and, even while employed as a teacher at the RCA and the Central she was taking drawing lessons at the Slade under Henry Tonks. Tonks was an autocrat whose method of drawing, strictly enforced, was to represent form by light, graded shading, exemplified in the early work of gifted students like Stanley Spencer. The discipline of the Slade could not but have benefited Billington, but the Slade method was inapplicable to ceramic decoration. She used a calligraphic line perfectly suited to the medium, and if any of her teachers influenced her in this direction it was Edward Johnston rather than Tonks.

Tin glaze decoration by Dora Billington. (Private collection)

Her decoration on tin glaze is good, some of it including elegant lettering. On this charming maiolica plate (above), the drawing of the cockerel is lively and convincing. The lettering is remarkable and reveals her debt to Johnston very clearly. It demonstrates the potential she had to establish herself as an artist, which she subsumed almost completely in her teaching, enabling other people to shine where she might have done herself.

Enamel overglaze decoration by Dora Billington. (V&A Museum, London)

There are several pieces of pottery in the Victoria and Albert Museum that she decorated in overglaze enamels (above), where she is arguably the equal of famous decorators like Susie Cooper and Jessie Tait.

DISMISSED
In 1925 Rothenstein appointed William Staite Murray as head of pottery at the RCA. Staite Murray asked Bernard Leach to help him out with teaching techniques he wasn't familiar with and Leach, living in Cornwall, said he would prefer to have the job for several months a year. Staite Murray said there was no money for two teachers and that he personally couldn't afford to vacate his post for Leach for part of the year. Misunderstanding ensued and relations soured. The contretemps has come to be known as "The London Affair".

Dora Billington was a third party in the London Affair. She had been pottery instructor at the RCA until Staite Murray’s appointment and left before he took up his post. By that time she had been teaching at the RCA for ten years. Why did she leave?

Billington explained it many years later: "When Professor Rothenstein became Principal of the College, he felt that the junior staff should not stay beyond a certain number of years, and we were all informed that we should not be kept on." That is not really convincing. Rothenstein became principal in 1920 and Billington remained for another five years. Her RCA course won an award at the Paris Expo of 1925. She was 35, not exactly "junior".

Rothenstein had been brought in to to make major changes and to build up the College's reputation, which was in the doldrums. He raised the status of painting in the College and brought in practicing artists of high standing who would teach part-time while they continued their own creative work. Staite Murray was an ideal candidate. He was the most famous potter in Britain, eight years older than Billington and far better at promoting himself. I suspect that Rothenstein sacked Billington but put a diplomatic gloss on it.

Billington was a much better teacher than Staite Murray but Rothenstein wanted professional artists and not professional teachers. Staite Murray said that he "taught by not teaching". His aim was not to instruct but to "create an atmosphere". He may have created an atmosphere but he was seldom in it and many of his students received no instruction at all and some did not see him for weeks on end. When Robert Baker took over ceramics at the RCA after the war he found a locked room full of equipment that had been put there to stop students using it. Many had to take evening classes at the Central with Billington to learn how to actually make and glaze pots.

MAIOLICA
After the Second World War, during which ceramic decoration in factories had been banned in order to conserve resources, there was a hunger for cheerful things, and Billington encouraged surface decoration in her class at the Central School of Arts and Crafts, especially on tin glaze. Alan Caiger-Smith, who became the pre-eminent exponent of tin glaze in Britain, took evening classes under Billington. William Newland, Margaret Hine and Nicholas Vergette, variously students, teachers and technicians at the Central, also worked in tin glaze, making modeled figures, one-off pieces and panels and displays for the new coffee bars. She championed their work, calling it "The New Look in British Pottery". She considered that it was "more in tune with current ideas in house decorations and design generally."

In The Technique of Pottery she mentioned tin glaze only to give technical information, but in The Art of the Potter, which is a historical survey, she had more to say: “The decoration of early Italian maiolica clearly shows its eastern origins, but by the fifteenth century all foreign influence had disappeared. Once the technique became familiar, flat, abstract patterns no longer satisfied and the decoration became entirely Italian, three dimensional and pictorial. In fact, the maiolica painter attempted the same pictorial subjects as were used for wall decorations. The potter was rarely, if ever, the painter, and in time there was a tendency to regard pottery shapes, especially dishes, merely as grounds for elaborate pictures.” But what did she think of that sort of pottery? She was invariably dispassionate and objective and was reluctant to intrude her views.

In her notes for a series of lectures on the history of pottery at the Central there are intimate touches that you don’t find in The Art of the Potter. I particularly like the introduction to her lecture on Italian maiolica, in which she acknowledged the low esteem in which which it was held:
“Tonight we are going to consider the wares of Italy, mostly tin glazed and all highly decorated, and you are probably already feeling bored. ‘Those elaborately painted dishes; those pictures on plates! Could anything be more awful.' They are just about as far from contemporary taste as anything could be. Potters no more want to emulate an Urbino dish than do painters wish to produce a Tintoretto. Let us at least be honest and admit that we certainly couldn’t if we would. To quote Mr. Arthur Lane in another context, ‘Us in our decrepitude they mock.’”
She was thinking not only of the taste of potters but also of taste in interior design, which she kept abreast of. She wrote about contemporary Scandinavian tableware and contemporary embroidery as well as contemporary studio pottery and furnished her house in a contemporary style.

MYSTERY
But who was Dora Billington? There are no papers, diaries or archives. There are a few letters 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.

HG, Catherine Brock and Dora Billington, c.1940

The first clue I got to her personal life 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 to London on a scholarship to the RCA, until Brock's death in 1944. Brock left everything to her. In the holiday snap above, taken in about 1940, Brock is in the centre and the cheerful, confident-looking man on the left is HG. There’s a fourth person, the one who took the snap; I’ll come to him in a minute.

When Billington 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, Billington and Catherine Brock went on holiday together, probably posing as two heterosexual couples for the sake of respectability. HG and Billington 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.

Billington 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 of Catherine Brock. Several of her colleagues were Catholics: Bernard Moore, the art potter from whom she learned about ceramic decoration, the silversmith M.C. Oliver and the calligrapher Irene Wellington; and although the advocates of eastern spirituality among the studio potters had the loudest voices, there were also Catholic potters  – David Leach, Ray Finch, Kenneth Clark and Ann Wynn Reeves.

Of Catherine Brock we know even less than Billington. 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.

Billington left nearly everything she owned to HG, but almost nothing can be traced. Was there attrition with each subsequent bequest until her papers were thrown away by people who had never heard of her? Or did she herself destroy everything personal, or perhaps instruct HG to do so? 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. It has been suggested to me that, according to HG, Billington 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 it's not possible to confirm this rumour: there’s no correspondence with Billington in the Skeaping archive and this tale of HG’s is a will o’ the wisp. Her personal life remains a mystery.

MORE ABOUT DORA BILLINGTON
You can read more about Dora Billington in my article on her early career, "From Arts and Crafts to Studio Pottery", in Interpreting Ceramics here.

20 December 2016

"CRAFTSMANSHIP ALONE IS NOT ENOUGH"

Stephanie Buttle, Central St Matins
That's the title of an upcoming exhibition at Central St Martins (University of the Arts London) next year. It surveys the history of the ceramics course there - now one of the few ceramics BAs left in Britain. It has an illustrious history, led in the mid-20th century by Dora Billington and, after she retired, by her deputy Gilbert Harding Green, who was just as innovative in his teaching.

Central St Martins, which moved into old industrial warehouses a few years ago, seeded a new quarter of London, on what had been derelict railway lands for seventy-five years. It's an exciting place to visit. The campus extends to the British Library and the newly-founded Crick Institute of life sciences. There are plenty of bars and restaurants, and for those on a limited budget, I can recommend the student canteen at the Central.

The exhibition is described like this:
Ceramics has been taught at Central Saint Martins for over 100 years. In 1919 Dora Billington instituted the first taught curriculum at the then Central School of Arts and Crafts, moving the subject on from classes in china painting and decoration to one of the most important courses in the country by 1955. Today it is one of the two remaining ceramic specialist degree courses in the country, and the only one with an emphasis on design.

Billington embraced the idea of industry in opposition to the “dilettantism” she believed her contemporaries, such as Bernard Leach, stood for. This position, uniting art and industry, has framed ceramics at Central Saint Martins ever since. Mixing together work by alumni and current staff and students, Craftsmanship Alone is Not Enough celebrates this rich history, demonstrating how the course continues its role as leader in material and design education now and onwards into the next 100 years.

The exhibition will reflect the embodied practice of working with ceramics, with an active studio built in the gallery space as the setting for demonstrations and live clay firings, igniting imaginations with the possibilities of clay. 
Here's a link to the full description with opening times and details of how to get there. 

19 December 2016

THE BEGINNING AND END OF THE POTTERY PAINTING CRAZE

William S. Coleman, The Potter's Daughter
Just as pottery cafes are popular today, with children's parties and the like, pottery painting was a popular hobby in the late 19th century and it became a veritable craze.

It was sparked off by Mintons, who set up a London Art Pottery Studio in 1870 under the direction of the painter William Stephen Coleman. Coleman specialised in exotic pictures of half-naked girls, like The Potter's Daughter (above), although for Minton's he developed a series of naturalistic transfer printed illustrations of flowers and birds. The aim of Minton's Studio was to give employment to young women trained at the nearby National Art Training School (later the Royal College of Art).

The extract below comes from an article in The Times about the Studio. It indicates that pottery painters in the Studio recognised that their art was different from painting on paper or canvas. Minton’s products are favourably compared with those of Sèvres, for whereas at Sèvres the pottery paintings "give light and shade and the illusion of distance and relief", at South Kensington "it is maintained that pure decoration should only form a pattern on the surface. These are nothing more than the principles of the old Italian majolica painting, and nearly the whole art practiced in the studio is in imitation of this or of the Japanese school, which also, though not entirely, deals in purely superficial decoration."


The Studio burned down in 1875 and it wasn't replaced, but by then the craze was well established. It was especially popular with ladies, for whom it was an acceptable recreation and rather more demanding than sewing or embroidery.

To feed the craze, the retailers Howell and James put on annual exhibitions with prizes in the west end of London, There were "how-to-do-it" books, often recognising that the hobbyist didn't know either how to paint or what to paint and so including patterns with detailed instructions on colour and treatment; and there were artists' suppliers, like Lechertier and Barbe, who sold handy sets of materials for the beginner at very high prices (the cheapest set cost what a shop worker earned in a month).

A plate entered in Howell and James' pottery painting competition, 1887

Many pottery painters in industry, though by no means all, were women and so the amateur lady and the professional were ranged along a spectrum and might move from the "amateur" room to the "artist" room at Howell and James's big annual exhibition, rather as the evening class tyro and the full-time studio potter are ranged along a spectrum today. Studio pottery arguably occupies a similar place in modern culture to pottery painting in the 1880s and there are historical links between them . (The subject of pottery painting is covered in Cheryl Buckley's Potters and Paintresses and Moira Vincentelli's The Gendered Vessel.)

Painting was big in the pottery syllabus of the art schools of the period, taught by, among others, John Sparkes at the Lambeth Art School, Richard Lunn at the Royal College of Art and Alfred Powell at the Central School of Arts and Crafts. Painting for the pottery industry was later important in the Burslem and Hanley art schools.


The dominant style of pottery painting was naturalistic, sentimental and often incredibly sickly. Although the artistic ladies were influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement, they appear to have been completely ignorant of Arts and Crafts design principles.

The pottery painting craze drew forth many articles from the press from the 1870s to the 1890s. Below is one that was published in The Leicester Chronicle and The Bristol Mercury on 7 June 1879, in “The Ladies Column” by "Penelope". "Penelope" reviews the fourth annual exhibition of painted china at Howell and James, who exhibited 1,350 pieces by lady amateurs and professional artists. “Penelope” is particularly interested in the potential for genteel employment offered by pottery painting at a time when ladies were not supposed to work but when many ladies did not have enough to live on.

The article is most interesting for its opinion of the quality of contemporary china painting. Not surprisingly, in a branch of art expanding so rapidly and a show that exhibited everything entered, its quality was mixed and it is obvious that many exhibitors had neither inspiration nor ability. "Penelope" puts it more politely than that, but her meaning is plain:
"I find that a great many people who have had no training, and can only just draw a little in a school-girl sort of way, without any great love of art or knowledge of composition, think that they can paint on china, and that have only to get a box of colours and a white plate to produce a great effect. In this they are entirely mistaken, China painting is a branch of art which requires special study and direction, after the facility for drawing has been acquired. The best artists will, of course, make the best china painters, and I do not recommend anyone to attempt it until they have gone through a careful course of study, and are pretty sure as to their correctness of outline in drawing, either form the living human form, or from nature herself, as seen in growing trees and flowers. This once achieved, the subsequent study for the special work of painting on china is simply technical, and can be accomplished in a short time.”
She recommends schools that will provide the proper training and a book, Amateur Pottery and Glass Painter by Campbell Hancock. Hancock’s book was one of the earliest on the subject, others coming out fairly regularly for the next thirty years. He came from a long line of Staffordshire potters and applied his expertise for the benefit of keen hobbyists and aspiring professionals:
"Here is surely a more profitable occupation for our young ladies than the endless production of the piles of needlework to which at present their talents are too often exclusively confined. Moreover, pottery painting affords a profitable resource for those whose circumstances necessitate their making some contribution to the household expenses.”
Many ladies with a passion for pottery painting not only could not paint but had no idea what to paint:
“’What shall I paint’ is the first question asked by the tyro,” said Hancock. “To this the answer is — Let the first essays be made in monochrome on the glaze — that is to say, with one colour heightened by one or two others. Photographs of casts or bas-reliefs afford good copies for this purpose; there are also now photographs of flowers to be obtained at many of the best photographers' shops, which are eminently suitable for the beginner's first lessons.”
Probably with them in mind as well as the professional, William Morris set out his principles of pottery making in The Lesser Arts (1877). His ideas are familiar, though he is far too prescriptive for the post-modern mind, e.g. a complete ban on moulding and printing and an insistence on roughness. Nevertheless, it's interesting to read the passage again:
"First. No vessel should be fashioned by being pressed into a mould that can be made by throwing on the wheel, or otherwise by hand.
"Second. All vessels should be finished on the wheel, not turned in a lathe, as is now the custom. How can you expect to have good workmen when they know that whatever surface their hands may put on the work will be taken off by a machine?
"Third. It follows, as a corollary to the last point, that we must not demand excessive neatness in pottery, and this more especially in cheap wares. Workmanlike finish is necessary, but finish to be workmanlike must always be in proportion to the kind of work. What we get in pottery at present is mechanical finish, not workmanlike, and is as easy to do as the other is hard: one is a matter of a manager's system, the other comes of constant thought and trouble on the part of the men, who by that time are artists, as we call them.
"Fourth. As to the surface decoration on pottery, it is clear it must never be printed; for the rest, it would take more than an hour to go even very briefly into the matter of painting on pottery; but one rule we have for a guide, and whatever we do if we abide by it, we are quite sure to go wrong if we reject it: and it is common to all the lesser arts. Think of your material. Don't paint anything on pottery save what can be painted only on pottery, if you do, it is clear that, however good a draughtsman you may be, you do not care about that special art. You can't suppose that the Greek wall-painting was anything like their painting on pottery; there is plenty of evidence to show that it was not. Or take another example from the Persian art; it is easy for those conversant with it to tell from an outline tracing of a design whether it was done for pottery-painting or for other work.
"Fifth. Finally, when you have asked for these qualities from the potters, and even in a very friendly way boycotted them a little till you get them, you will of course be prepared to pay a great deal more for your pottery than you do now, even for the rough work you may have to take. I'm sure that won't hurt you; we shall only have less and break less, and our incomes will still be the same."
The craze spread to the USA. There Charles F. Binns, who has a good claim to be called the father of studio pottery, encouraged enthusiasts to work in clay and not just to decorate glazed blanks.

Charles F. Binns, the father of studio pottery.
"The wave of interest and even enthusiasm for handicraft which is sweeping through the land" he wrote in 1906, "has touched in its passage almost every one of the applied arts in so far as they are capable of being handled by an individual who is not equipped with many tools or endowed with the skill to use them. In this enthusiasm and even endeavor there is danger."
"This feeling has caused china-painting to give place to pottery-making. The former consisted in buying finished china and painting upon it with ready prepared colors using, probably, some published design or drawing. Some of the work done under these conditions was, and is, good, even excellent, but it is executed by persons who are artists through and through and who would do well in any medium. The fact remains that the bulk of the work was copying of the poorest quality. During the last three or four years the quality of this production has much improved. Many of the weakest have abandoned the occupation of china-painting and those who have held on to it have purified their work through the pain of practice. ...
"When, however, the attempt is made to work in the clay itself, liberty is found. Not immediate success, necessarily. In fact success can only be secured through long and arduous training, but liberty has a different source. It springs from the consciousness of honest effort."
By the start of the 20th century, the philosophy of William Morris had thoroughly pervaded the art schools in Britain. It revolutionized the Royal College of Art. By 1900, a cohort of teachers associated with the Art Workers Guild had introduced for the first time direct working in materials, rather than the production of detailed drawings that were to then be farmed out to artisan makers. Richard Lunn was among them. Although he taught pottery painting, his course was the first in Britain where students could made, fire and glaze their work themselves. He also ran a course at the Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts, where Alfred Hopkins was appointed to teach throwing pottery on the wheel, the first thrower in any art school. In the same year, 1916, William Askew was appointed to teach throwing at the Central School of Arts and Crafts.

Richard Lunn in his studio at the Royal College of Art, c.1910


18 December 2016

SEE MY COMPLETE RANGE OF TABLEWARE


I've re-launched my website to show the complete range of patterns made in my studio. Do pop over an have a look.

Inspired by autumn berries, this spare design is painted in grey and two tones of red. An elegant pattern with a Japanese feel.



15 December 2016

NOTES ON SEVILLE'S CERAMIC TRADITION

An interesting feature of all the notes that you will see about Spanish pottery is that there's no mention of tin glaze.  That's because virtually all pottery made in Spain is tin glaze and drawing attention to the fact is like drawing attention to the fact that it's made of clay. So take it as read that all the pots and tiles shown here are tin glazed.

LEBRILLOS: POTTERY BASINS MADE IN TRIANA



This is a large 19th century basin, about 60cm in diameter, from Seville, which was used in the kitchen. It's typical of the basins (or lebrillos) made in the Triana district at that time, vigorously painted on tin glaze in blue, green, yellow and black with a characteristic border and a motif in the centre, either a bird, an animal  a portrait or an abstract pattern. Triana is the area of Seville where the potters have worked for centuries. The dish is made from a pale buff clay, of which there were abundant deposits in Seville and which was the foundation of its ceramic industry, dating to Roman times and still flourishing.  The dish is from the collection of Laura Salcines, who has an excellent shop, Populart, at 4 Passaje de Vila, near the cathedral in Seville.  Mrs Salcines has produced a book about her collection of Sevillian azulejos (tiles) but has made only one copy. As Mrs Salcines doesn't speak English and I don't speak Spanish, I couldn't be sure exactly what this superb piece of pottery was used for, but it had something to do with pork.

THE COLLECION CARRANZA

There's a good historical review of ceramics in the Alcazar Real, the Collecion Carranza, covering the 15th to 19th centuries, with examples of Renaissance, Baroque and Rococo pottery and the azulejos made in Triana, including some fine early religious tile paintings, a genre still in production, made to commission from churches throughout Spain.  The notes to the exhibition, in English as well as Spanish are good.

The Carranza collection call the age of baroque tiles the Golden Age, which is moot. A common view outside Spain, especially among artist potters, is that the Hispano Moresque period (from the 12th to the 15th centuries) is the golden age of Spanish pottery and that there was a steady decline thereafter. Curators and academics, for example, Alice Wilson Frothingham, tend to take a broader view, but potters are more interested in vessels, and Spain has lavished much of its ceramic effort on tiles.

The motivation for the tile makers was often religious, and artistic considerations were secondary, so the quality of the drawing is sometimes poor. But but the limitations of the medium - a few colours and the impossibility of correcting what is painted on the glaze - result in simplicity and directness.  That, and the fact that the colours do not fade or darken like paint means that Spain has a wealth of street art, some of it outside churches and some in mundane places, on buildings now used as flats or corner shops, as in the example of St Augustine, below, who appears between the two balconies on the first floor.



The Collecion say that "During the Baroque period, streets and squares were invaded by numerous examples of religious imagery. In Seville, the tiles reproducing images for devotion became a type of holy painting for exteriors with evident advantages for their preservation. The facades of churches, convents, houses and hospitals, in addition to the religious murals located at many different points throughout the city, fulfilled the task of extending religion to exterior spaces and served as a backdrop for rituals encouraged by the Catholic Church."

They have documented hundreds of azulejos, mainly religious, in Spain's churches and other public places, covering a period of over 500 years. It records an essentially conservative art, almost a folk art except that the painters are professionals and specialists in tile painting.

TILES IN THE ALCAZAR REAL

The Alcazar Real, a UNESCO world heritage site, has a small museum of ceramics from the Collecion and a large chapel whose walls are covered in tiles painted with arabesques, bouquets and grotesque figures. These wall paintings, from about 1600, are different from Hispano Moresque painting but they're just as good in their own way. The colours are rich, dominated here by Naples yellow, and the drawing is fluent.  Modern tile work (for example the panels in the Plaza de España done in 1929 with the benefit of a much wider range of colours) is often stilted.  Here are a few panels of the quasi-human figures in the Alcazar chapel.



OUR LADY OF SEVILLE


The Virgin Mary,"Nuestra Señora", Our Lady, is a contant in Spanish Catholicism, especially in the south. In the bars of Triana you will see pictures on the walls of footballers, bullfighters and Nuestra Señora, all apparently venerated in the same way. The church shop of Santa Ana is like a football supporter's shop where you can buy posters and postcards of the Virgin's image in the church, shirts and other memorabilia.