17 December 2013


Contemporary Ceramics, the gallery opposite the British Museum, has a new show of work by Jill Fanshawe-Kato (above).  It's long overdue.  Fanshawe-Kato has been making this elegantly decorated stoneware for a long time but unaccountably has only just been accepted as (or has only just applied to be) a member of the Craft Potters Association (CPA), which owns the gallery.

A couple of years ago, when the rent at their old gallery became prohibitive, the CPA made the bold decision to take these premises in Great Russell Street and the decision has paid off.  They are much more visible than they used to be at the top of Carnaby Street and that has made modern craft ceramics more visible as well.  It's a beautiful gallery and the building houses the offices of the CPA and of Ceramic Review into the bargain. Marta Donaghy, who ran the old gallery, continues to choose and display the exhibits well. If you haven't seen Contemporary Ceramics, do call in the next time you are in London.

16 December 2013


I led my post about the Mallams auction of 20th century studio pottery with a picture of a pretty teapot by Rosemary Wren with a nice decoration over tin-glaze.  It sold for £50, a remarkably low price.  Items by Lucie Rie, not surprisingly, fetched bids in the thousands and those by Leach, Hamada, Cardew and Staite-Murray in the hundreds. Cardew made tin-glazed pottery for a while and a teapot without a lid in this medium sold for £45. Mallams say this was a trial piece that misfired, but Cardew's reputation is high and the piece has a good provenance, so it's reasonable to conclude that the low price reflects the low esteem in which tin-glaze generally is held by collectors of studio pottery in Britain. Alan Caiger-Smith's work is the exception and this superb 25cm high albarello (left) with a reduced lustre decoration sold for £240. Tin-glazed figurines also fetched better prices than the tin-glazed teapots.

Tin-glaze is still thought well of in Italy and Spain where it is made in large quantities, but the prejudice against it in Britain can't be attributed to the absence of any tradition here.  In the 17th century we had many good tin-glaze potters and decorators. Josiah Wedgwood developed a white clay body that displaced tin-glazed tableware, but the main reason why studio pottery connoisseurs don't like it is because of the dominance in the post-war decades of rough stoneware.  That cultural moment was complex because it was at the same time anti-modern in its regard for rural tradition and modernist in its preference for functionality and simple undecorated forms, and yet many of the stoneware potters - not least Hamada, Leach and Cardew - were superb decorators. Leach and Cardew both experimented in tin-glaze, but not for long and few collectors like it much.

9 December 2013


The picture shows the piece I'm currently exhibiting in the Eastern Approaches exhibition at the UH Galleries in St Albans, Large Vessel, which received the St Albans Museums and Galleries Trust Prize, 2013. As with all my current work it's thrown and altered.  It takes a long time to construct the oval but the decoration is rapid. The materials and methods are in the tradition of maiolica but the motifs are a long way from Italian maiolica, which is full of flora, fauna, portraits and historical representations.  If my decoration follows any tradition it's the calligraphic decoration of middle eastern art, and I'm am happy for it to be called arabesque. The Trust's representative said that for her Large Vessel connected the present to the Roman past of St Albans, which was something I'd never thought of myself, but I've spent a long time looking at the collection of Roman ceramics in Verulamium museum and I have some pieces of Roman pottery in my studio. The more immediate influences are 50s textiles and abstract expressionism.

Eastern Approaches is an initiative of the University of Hertfordshire, who have been running it for thirteen years. Entries are from the eastern region (the counties of Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire, Essex, Cambridgeshire, Norfolk and Suffolk) and the curators at the opening this year admitted ambitions to make it an international show. That's good. Unfortunately there are no online images of the fifty or so entries so I can't link to them.  They are in 2 and 3 dimensions and include sound and video installations.  I particularly liked Fallen, a timely piece that represented  every name of those from the St Albans parish who died in the first world war, as recorded on street plaques.  The artist embroidered the initials of the fallen on handkerchiefs and made a pristine white pile of them. I also liked Mr McCreery's Shop, a model of a little old fashioned, derelict shop. There was simple wit in Lead Balloon and you wondered why no-one had ever made one before. A piece with ceramic heads mounted high on the wall on a red shelf reminded me of both Edmund de Waal and Christie Brown, two of my teachers at the University of Westminster.

There's a lot of music in St Albans (the Cathedral choir is one of the best) but the visual arts have always lacked a focal point.  The University of Hertfordshire has teamed up with the St Albans Museums and Galleries Trust to promote a new museum space and art gallery in the centre of town. The Trust has a Lottery grant so it will become a reality in a few years and - with an international show in it - it will put St Albans on the artistic map.

4 December 2013


Mallams are holding an auction on Thursday, 12 December, 2013, The Design Age: International Studio Ceramics & Decorative Arts and Modern British & Continental Art, including a lot of 20th century studio pottery, some of it classic, by artists such as Bernard Leach, David Leach, Shoji Hamada, Michael Cardew, Katherine Pleydell-Bouveries, Ruth Duckworth and Lucie Rie. The illustration above is of a teapot by Rosemary Wren, whose mother Denise set up her studio in 1920 during what might be called the pre-history of studio pottery.There is also work by living potters, including  Eric James Mellon, Robin Welch,Carol McNicoll, Tekeshi Yasuda, Phil Rogers and Chris Keenan.  The expected prices of many pieces is very reasonable, much of it under £100.

From pre-history there are rare pieces by William Staite-Murray from his days at the Yeoman Pottery, which he set up during the First World War, and some by George Cox, another early pioneer. Cox was the author of an early manual on craft pottery, Pottery for Artists, Craftsmen and Teachers (1914), that anticipated the Anglo-Oriental style.  According to Paul Rice, Cox was influenced by the 1910 exhibition of Chinese art at Burlington House, which brought Sung dynasty pottery to public attention and had an immediate and profound influence on taste. Cox worked with high temperature glazes at a time when most art potters worked at low temperatures.  His approach was intuitive; he insisted that pottery was an art and refrained from giving scientific information: “To the artist craftsman, for whom chiefly this book is intended, a little scientific knowledge is a dangerous thing; for that reason no great stress is laid on formulas and analysis. Unless thoroughly understood they are a hindrance rather than an aid.”  This was a departure from earlier books for craft potters, which were thoroughly technical.

Outside the world of studio pottery, Mallams are showing ceramics by Christopher Dresser made for Mintons in the 1880s, (left) well worth looking at. Dresser took the Arts and Crafts dislike of purposeless ornamentation to the point where his designs anticipated modernism. From the 1930s there are some modernist ceramics by Keith Murray for Wedgwood, in which he eschews surface  decoration entirely.

The attraction of auctions is that I come across not only pieces like the early Cox and Staite-Murray pots but also work by artists who are entirely new to me.  In the Mallam's catalogue I liked the little tin-glazed figures by Richard and Susan Parkinson, full of Festival of Britain whimsy, and probably for that reason expected to fetch a fairly high price.