4 November 2009


Margaret Hine and William Newland, 1952

The first book on pottery I ever read was Practical Pottery and Ceramics by Kenneth Clark (Studio Books, 1964) – not Kenneth Clark the art critic, and not Kenneth Clark the Tory politician, but Kenneth Clark of the Kenneth Clark pottery, which did architectural commissions as well as tableware and was not shy of using industrial methods. His book is still a good introduction to the methods of studio pottery, if you can get it.

Clark described the impact on ceramics in the 'fifties of Picasso. "During this period of change, Picasso with his daring, invention, colour-sense and imagination, shattered and shocked the traditionalist potters with his experiments in ceramics. He added fresh life and new direction to ceramics." Picasso had taken up ceramics in his sixties, going into a traditional pottery at Vallauris in the south of France that worked in tin glaze and turning pottery to his own uses and doing things with clay that the potters said could not be done. There was a good exhibition of Picasso's ceramics at the Royal Academy, London, and MOMA, New York, about ten years ago, well illustrated in the catalogue, Picasso – Painter and Sculptor in Clay (Royal Academy of Arts, 1998).

One of the potters influenced by Picasso was William Newland (1919-1998), who worked in tin-glaze in post-war London, at a time when it was unfashionable. He was inspired by the pottery of the Mediterranean rather than that of the orient.

William Newland was born in New Zealand and came to England after military service in the Second World War. He studied painting at the Chelsea School of Art and in 1948 went to the Central School of Arts and Craft (now Central St. Martin's) to study pottery under Dora Billington. For thirty years he taught teachers at the Institute of Education, where everyone doing primary education had to do art, and many did pottery. He had a varied career as a potter, working in tin-glaze, slipware and earthenware, making thrown pottery, hand-built and press-moulded animals, tiles and wall decorations. His animals sold well. From an early association with coffee-bars in the 'fifties, he got a lot of architectural commissions, many for coffee bars and restaurants.

The ceramic tradition of the Mediterranean – which can be taken to include Italy, Greece, Turkey, the Levant, Spain, north Africa and the south of France – is different in technique and feeling from that of the orient. The brightly coloured wares of the Mediterranean, whether for display or for use, have sunny associations (particularly reinforced when they are seen during summer holidays) that I want my work to have.

Newland said, "I like to be happy," and he liked to make happy pottery. His tin-glaze work is jolly and his animals are amusing. He used the words "oomph" and "élan" to describe what he was aiming at. He says that "oomph" was a vogue word in the early 50s, meant to describe a vital, swelling form in pottery, like the shape of crocus.

Like Clark, Newland did architectural commissions working with his associates Margaret Hine and Nicholas Vergette in their Bayswater studio. They were known as "The Bayswater Three". They did a lot of interiors and facades for coffee bars, which were a new thing in Britain in the 'fifties. It's said that British troops in Italy brought back a taste for good coffee that they'd learned in the war.

The first coffee bar, the Moka, was opened by the Italian film star, Gina Lollobrigida, in 1953. Newland said that the 'fifties coffee bars were the first places young people could go to and sit in without having to spend a lot of money or getting thrown out. He said proudly that he and his colleagues had a social effect by working for them, and he thought that hospitals, doctors' waiting rooms and places like that should have beautiful things in them that cheered people up.

Newland's inspiration for maiolica came from a visit he made to Malaga in 1949 and from Picasso's ceramics, which were exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1950, though he had known about this sort of work from his art education.

The Bayswater Three were essentially decorative artists, working partly for direct sale but also as part of interior design and architectural teams. They were part of a small current in British pottery going against the Anglo-oriental current. Virtually the only others were Alan Caiger-Smith, Kenneth Clark, Dora Billington and Walter and John Cole at Rye.

Picasso's influence was unwelcome to some. People like Newland were dubbed "Picassoettes". Bernard Leach, who was working in the Anglo-oriental tradition, acknowledged Picasso as a painter but said he made bad pots and that his influence on pottery had been disastrous. In 1958 there was an exhibition at Goldsmiths College called "From Prehistory to Picasso". At the same time there was an exhibition of Leach's work at the Primavera Gallery, then still in London. The Daily Telegraph reviewed them together, giving more prominence to Picasso and Newland than to Leach, who was shown in a little photo at the bottom of the page.

Newland referred to this article in an interview. He pointed to it and said, "There's a Mexican figure at the top, there's my bull, photographed and reproduced, there's a Margaret Hine pigeon, and right down at the bottom you've got Bernard Leach painting a little pot, and Leach saw this and called us all the Picassoettes. I don't know whether it was to deride us or be funny or, what the hell, but it is true, one was fantastically Picassoesque."

Actually, the influence of Picasso was far from disastrous. Newland recorded that the Picasso exhibition in 1950 encouraged many students at the Institute of Education to do pottery.

Another influence on the work of the Picassoettes should be noted: the 1951 Festival of Britain. The Festival of Britain was instigated by the post-war Labour government to raise morale and to celebrate British industry, landscape and design. It made an important contribution to post-war design. For example, there is extant London council housing that was built to coincide with it and exhibited as part of it, and the careers of Robin and Lucienne Day were helped by it. But compared with the other European centres of post-war modernism, like Milan and Stockholm, the Festival of Britain was rather frivolous, including folk art and the comical automata of Roland Emmett. Whimsy became a characteristic of early 'fifties design, and it arguably continued into the 'sixties, right up to Sergeant Pepper, and you can see it in the work of the Picassoettes. Personally, I like this whimsy, expressing the optimism that came in with the end of the war and an English anti-intellectualism, and I think you can see it in the work of Newland, who seems to have been an unserious man.