14 February 2017

MARY WONDRAUSCH

My obituary of Mary Wondrausch appears in the latest bulletin of the Craft Potters Association.


9 February 2017

BYARD ART

My ceramics will be on show at Byard Art in Cambridge, Breath of Fesh Air, 23 Feb - 19 Mar 2017.

4 February 2017

COLOUR PLANS


A bisque kiln is opened and several dozen pieces are lined up for glazing and decorating next week. They are for an order from Byard Art in Cambridge and will be painted with my "Wisteria" design in anticipation of the spring. Every potter prefers one part of the making to another, and I prefer glazing and decorating, so there will be an agreeable week in the studio, warmed by a new efficient heater.

But the spirit is restless and as I work with one design I am already thinking of the next. Here are tiles with stain tests, a supplier's catalogue of stains and a good crib, Colour Harmony. Development time is quite long, and it will probably be a year before my new range is launched.

3 February 2017

MY LATEST RANGE OF CERAMICS

This is a selection from my latest range of ceramics. Scroll down for a list of stockists and upcoming shows.

"White Arabesque". Curls of cobalt blue applied directly with a long sable brush.


"Parrot". The colours of this cheerful pattern are inspired by the brilliant plumage of macaws.


"Harlequin". Brilliant Naples yellow, dense black and the palest wash of blue make a sophisticated design recalling abstract expressionist painting and 'sixties textiles.

STOCKISTS AND SHOWS

The Art Shop and Chapel |8 Cross Street, Abergavenny, Monmouthshire, NP7 5EH

The Ropewalk | Maltkiln Road, Barton upon Humber, North Lincolnshire, DN18 5JT

Velvet Easel Gallery | 298 Portobello High Street, Edinburgh EH15 2AS

New Ashgate Gallery | Waggon Yard, Farnham, Surrey GU9 7PS

Charleston | Firle, Lewes, East Sussex BN8 6LL

Craft Centre and Design Gallery | The Headrow, Leeds, West Yorkshire, LS1 3AB

Cecilia Colman Gallery | 67 St Johns Wood High Street, London NW8 7NL

Frivoli Gallery | 7a Devonshire Road, London, W4 2EU

Green Gallery | Ballamenoch, Buchlyvie, Stirlingshire FK8 3NX

Montpellier Gallery | 8 Chapel Street, Stratford-upon-Avon CV37 3EP

St Ives Society of Artists | Norway Square, St Ives, Cornwall, TR26 1NA 

Harlequin Gallery | 6 Bath Place,Taunton, Somerset TA1 4ER

Walford Mill Crafts | Stone Lane, Wimborne, Dorset, BH21 1NL

Easter Art and Craft Show | 15 – 16 April 2017 | Village Hall, High Street, Redbourn AL3 7LW

Art in Clay | 18 - 20 August 2017, 10 - 5.30, 5.00 on Sunday | Hatfield House, Hertfordshire AL9 5NQ

28 January 2017

COTSWOLD POTTERIES: PLEASANT ENVIRONMENT AND PEASANT TRADITION

Muriel Tudor-Jones, Campden Pottery, 1972. Courtesy of Chipping Campden History Society

A find in a charity shop opens the door to a world. A little preserve pot I bought for £3.50 in the shop of the Hospice of St Francis revealed to me a group of unrecorded studio potteries in the Cotswolds, little connected to art schools and making pots in the country tradition.

I bought the pot just because it was nice, obviously made by hand and decorated deftly with slip. The method of slip method was described in my recent post about Mary Wondrausch, the potter who brought slipware back into prominence. Slipware, she said, is lead-glazed earthenware decorated with coloured “slip”, which is clay mixed with water. 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 pot (below) was practical too, just the right size to bring jam to the table, and with a shiny glaze that made washing up easy.

Found in a charity shop.

I had no idea who made it or where it came from so I asked on Facebook. John Jelfs, an experienced potter who runs the Cotswold Pottery, told me it was made down the road from him in the Broadway Pottery in the 1960s.

Broadway was one of many good potteries that were never recorded in the histories of studio pottery because they fall outside the studio pottery canon established by Muriel Rose, Paul Rice and Oliver Watson. Anyway, with the best will in the world, there are too many for all of them to be mentioned.

The Cotswolds is a popular place for studio potteries. Since the war about twenty have been set up in an area about 20 miles square roughly bounded by Worcester, Banbury, Oxford and Stroud, not including those making transfer-printed pottery and “have-a-go” pottery-painting shops. More than half the studio potteries were set up between 1960 and 1979. Here is a map showing where they are (or were – several of them have closed).

The Cotswolds: 17 potteries in 20 miles

There were two waves. The earlier studios formed before 1968 – Winchcombe, Taena, Coldstone, Broadway, Snake, Campden, Evenlode and Deddington – were traditional in method and conservative in style. The potters trained with other potters rather than at art school. The more recent ones – Bell, Hook Norton, Cotswold, Hookshouse, Anne James, Whichford, Conderton, Annie Hewett, Landsdown and Peter Garrard - were set up by art school graduates and their work is more innovative.

The first wave all worked in slipware, although Winchcombe later went over to stoneware. They were like old country potteries even though they made for tourists rather than farmers. They are absent not only from the general histories but also from Mary Wondrausch’s, Victoria and Michael Eden’s and John Matthieson’s books on slipware pottery, which the authors thought had died out in Britain until artist potters brought it back in the last quarter of the twentieth century. But while the Cotswold slipware makers are not well recorded, there is a trade in their pottery among collectors and it is now visible on the internet.

Edwin Beer Fishley (centre, with white beard): the studio potters' ideal potter

The educated founders of the studio pottery movement, particularly Bernard Leach and Michael Cardew, admired the country potters. Their ideal was Edwin Beer Fishley, the old Devon potter. Cardew was told by a traditional potter, “It’s a foolish idea for someone like you to try to be a potter. It’s too hard for a gentleman.” Cardew tried to prove him wrong by making slipware pots in the country tradition, but he never quite ceased to be a gentleman. Sidney Tustin, the working-class boy who came to assist him, was never allowed to make big pots, a task Cardew reserved for himself. Ray Finch, who was also a gentleman, called Cardew “Michael”, but the other assistants at Winchcombe called him “Sir”.

The studio potters were now bound to be artists not peasants. Dora Billington, who taught studio potters for forty years at the Royal College of Art and the Central School of Arts and Crafts, put it like this: “The studio potter today is not and cannot be just a peasant potter; books, museums, travel have brought to his notice the pottery of all ages and places, widening his knowledge and experience, and bringing the eclecticism inescapable to our generation. No longer are the established standards accepted without question.” But the rural location of the Cotswold slipware potteries, their absence (Winchcombe aside) from written history and their inheritance of traditional techniques link them to the country potters erroneously described as “peasants”. The Cotswolds does not have a strong pottery tradition like Devon and West Yorkshire and the influence of country pottery came at a distance, from studio potters who were aware of slipware and imported its methods. They all sprang ultimately from Winchcombe.

Winchcombe slipware dish in the country tradition

The attraction of the Cotswolds to studio potters came from its pleasant environment and the Arts and Crafts tradition established in the early 20th century by the settlement in the area of  Ernest GimsonErnest and Sidney BarnsleyAlfred and Louise Powell  and C.R.Ashbee, all to some degree inspired by utopian ideas.

The drift to the Cotswolds was part of a wider disillusionment with urban, and particularly suburban, life. Although the Arts and Crafts movement was mainly an urban phenomenon, its ideals were rustic, and William Morris’s opinion that “God made the country, man made the town and the Devil made the suburbs” won wide assent. To some degree the incomers constructed rural life according to backward-looking preconceptions. In the early 20th century, the Cotswolds, for all its beauty, was a depressed industrial area. As Tanya Harrod notes, “The emptiness and relative poverty of the Cotswolds enabled creative men and women both to reinvent the countryside and, with the confidence of Empire builders, even to teach its inhabitants how to be country folk.” Cardew and Finch, both Londoners, reinvented the country pottery.

The Cotswold slipware potters moved from one workshop to another, so the potteries are connected. Chris Harries worked at Winchcombe from 1948-51, then he set up Coldstone in 1953. Dieter Kunzemann worked with him until 1967, then he set up Evenlode. Muriel Tudor-Jones worked at Coldstone, went to Broadway in 1959 and set up Campden in 1963. Jo Berryman went from Coldstone to Campden and set up at Deddington in 1967. Taena, set up in 1948, was rather out of the mainstream. They were a Christian community and pottery, made by Lewis “Loo” Groves and Margaret Leach, was only one of their activities. Peter Brown, the sole potter at Snake Pottery, was also out of the mainstream. He was self-taught and is better known for his novel Smallcreep's Day.

Preserve pot by Sid Tustin, Winchcombe. The prototype of the Cotswold pottery preserve pot.

The influence of Winchcombe is seen clearly in the dishes of Coldstone and Evenlode and the preserve pots of Broadway, Campden and Deddington. Chris Harries’s wheatear decoration was continued by Dieter Kunzemann, Jo Berryman and James Brooke. These were potteries in which conservation rather than innovation was the important thing.

A mug by Peter Brown. Based on C17th slipware, these mugs had a moulded frog inside.  

John Harlow, an assistant at Coldstone, described it.

“The Coldstone Pottery, Ascott-under-Wychwood near Woodstock, is where I really learned to make pots in production sequences. The clay was two parts St Thomas's and one part local yellow clay which gave the fired pieces a mellow pink body colour rather than the stark terracotta of Stoke red clays. It was all slipware, so there was a high attrition rate through collapse of greenware. Coldstone was characterised by crossed-wheatear decoration and what Chris Harries used to call 'matchstick' as on this bowl. Both difficult to do well. The glazes were lead-bisilicate transparent and Chris kept his recipes in a safe! Coldstone was an idyllic place and something to which I aspired. It was watching the thrower, Dieter Kunzemann, who preceded my time there which turned me on to wanting to be a potter.”

Coldstone baking dish

Chris Harries came to pottery in middle age after working as an accountant. He and his daughter Dinah were dish-makers. The throwers at Coldstone were Gordon Plahn (1955-6), John Shelley (1956), Muriel Tudor-Jones (1957-60), Dieter Kunzemann (1957-68), Jean Halstead (1960-3), Jo Berryman (1964-5), John Harlow, David Goldsmith, Hugh Allan, Michael Dixon and James Brook. There were local helpers as well: Mrs Tait and Mrs Shirley, who packed the big kiln, Mrs Tucker, who made dishes, Harold Shayler, who pugged the clay, and Mr McKnight, the packer. (Ceramic Review, No. 158, March/April 1996, p. 9) Harries's ambition may have been satisfied by the mention of him in a history of the old country potteries alongside such characters as Fishley Holland, Isaac Button and George Curtis.

Mug by Dieter Kunzemann with his characteristic wheatear motif.

The Ascot Grapevine, a local community magazine, published this picture of the Coldstone kiln under construction by Eric Moss, a local builder, in about 1952. It is a large updraught kiln characteristic of English country potteries and untypical of studio potteries.

Coldstone kiln under construction, 1952.

Broadway worked from 1959 to 1969 making slipware under the direction of A.E.Wheeler about whom nothing is known – who he was, where he learned pottery and where he went after winding up the business. Broadway appears to have specialised in little pots like the one that started me on this quest. From the marks on my honey pot, it appears to have been made in a mould. Muriel Tudor-Jones and Jo Berryman worked there.


James Brooke continued to use Kunzemann's motif when he set up his own pottery in York

Muriel Tudor-Jones Set up Campden in 1963, making pottery like that of Broadway, but she introduced coloured slips. Her first artistic occupation was silk painting, then from 1947 she worked in several potteries, including Harry Davis’s Crowan Pottery in Cornwall. Davis was noted for the speed and accuracy of his throwing and his dislike of artistic posing. Coldstone and Broadway, where she also worked, were equally down to earth potteries.

Mug by Muriel Tudor-Jones, Campden Pottery. She introduced a wider range of colours.

Cotswold Life featured Campden in a 1972 article. “It is a delight to come across a shop where true craftsmanship prevails and an honest attempt to make a worthy product is not sacrificed to time and motion,” they wrote. “Just such a place can be found in the Cotswold country town of Chipping Campden. At Campden Pottery hand thrown slip-ware is made by Miss Muriel Tudor-Jones and her staff in full view of those who come to buy.”

Jo Berryman wrote this lively reminiscence of life in the pottery:

“I worked for Muriel for two years before starting a pottery in Deddington, Oxfordshire. Before working at Chipping Campden, I was trained at Coldstone pottery in Ascott-under-Wychwood and Muriel had previously worked there too. Coldstone made traditional slipped earthenware but Broadway pottery and Campden used coloured slips – blue, dark and light green, “mink” and iron red decorated with white slip.

Dish by Jo Berryman, Deddington Pottery. Courtesy of the artist.

“Campden Pottery also had a shop where we sold many different crafts - chairs, wooden toys, jewellery, some fabrics and baskets. At the rear of the shop up some steps Muriel could be seen throwing pots on a wheel. The rest of us were in a workshop at the back where the kilns were. Many of the thrown pots were decorated while still on the wheel with thick brushed slip and slip trailed. I was trained as a thrower but also made moulded dishes sometimes. There was a lady called Jill, I think, who made dishes and who learned to throw after I left, Jean who came occasionally, and Mr Mayo who pugged the clay. The shop was run by Mrs Hart. It was a lovely place to work and we all got on well together. There was one other character at the pottery: an elderly lady gave us a parrot named Jomo who sat in his cage and kept us all entertained. He had a large vocabulary – no swear words – and an hysterical laugh. Great fun.

“After Muriel retired the pottery and house and flat were sold, which was a pity as there was no one able to take it on.

“I took on her way of decorating pots on the wheel when I made hundreds of honey pots at Deddington for a gentleman who kept bees. It certainly speeded up the decorating process of a big order. Muriel taught me a lot and I was so lucky to have got the job and to live in such a lovely place.”

Honey pots were also a staple of the Evenlode Pottery, and for several years they were able to keep their heads above water by selling as many as they could make to a honey importer. Coldstone, Campden and Evenlode closed when their owners retired. Broadway was wound up. Taena still exists, making slipware in the Cotswold tradition. Jo Berryman moved on from Deddington and continues to make pottery in Hampshire. Winchcombe continues under the direction of Michael Finch, Ray's son, making what Ray liked to call useful pottery.
____

THANKS to John Jelfs of the Cotswold Pottery, who identified my little pot and gave me useful information about the potteries; to Jo Berryman, who gave me her reminiscences of Broadway, Campden and Deddington potteries; to Dinah Kunzemann who wrote to me about Evenlode; to the Chipping Campden History Society, who sent me copies of documents in their archive, including the photo of Muriel Tudor-Jones; and to Margaret Brampton, who reminded me of Snake Pottery.

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 ten 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. 
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 clashes with it.

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, her mother in mature red.

Geneviève, coming round to the idea of marrying Mr Cassard, 
begins to blend into the wallpaper. 

After losing Geneviève, a miserable Guy goes to a brothel, 
the walls and the girl coloured an obvious red.

Madeleine tells Guy his aunt has died. Guy is in his blue work shirt, 
Madeleine in a blue blouse 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 (complementary in colour to her blue blouse) against a bright orange wall. 
It is the first time we have seen this colour.

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

There is more about modern slipware pottery 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.