28 July 2014


Differences between teachers and school inspectors are not new.  The Stoke-on-Trent art schools got a pasting from government inspectors at the end of the First World War, but the principal, Stanley Thorogood, was proud of their achievements in difficult circumstances and was fizzing with ideas for the future.

Hanley, one of the six towns of the North Staffordshire Potteries, first opened its art school in 1847. Burslem opened in 1853. Smaller schools in the other towns amalgamated with Hanley and Burslem in 1910. They were part of the national system of art education, providing artisans with basic drawing and modelling skills. Only the most persistent student could follow its syllabus through its 22 levels; most went through only two or three. Originality and creativity were actively discouraged. At the pinnacle of this system was the National Art Training School in South Kensington, later the Royal College of Art (RCA)

Remarkably, the Potteries art schools did not teach much pottery until the second decade of the 20th century. Craft education was the responsibility of employers, and the art schools gave only a basic training. From about 1900, the Arts and Crafts Movement brought about reform, introducing a more practical education requiring familiarity with materials. Birmingham was famous for it, the London County Council's Technical Education Committee, under the leadership of Sidney Webb, set up the Central School of Arts and Crafts, and Camberwell Borough Council set up the Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts. The RCA, largely under the influence of Walter Crane, followed suit in 1900. Crane lasted only a year as principal: the RCA was controlled by central government and he couldn't bear the red tape.

Arts and Crafts designers were not unanimous. C.R.Ashbee thought art schools were pretty much a waste of time and that the crafts should be learned in guild-type workshops. Lewis Day, one of the more commercially successful designers, thought it was not necessary to be familiar with every medium and that it was preferable to teach pure design principles.

Whatever the most progressive way of teaching design, Hanley Art School lagged behind. Its 1908 prospectus lists its art courses as: freehand and brush drawing; plant drawing; model, architectural and mechanical drawing; geometrical and perspective drawing; painting in oil, tempera and watercolours; pottery painting, designing, modelling; moulding and casting and wood carving; and art metalwork. It also offered studies in decorative design as applied to manufactures, and lectures on the theory, history and practice of art.

In 1908, there were courses in pottery moulding, modelling and casting and pottery painting, but throwing and turning were not taught. Despite Hanley and Burslem being the main art school in the Potteries, their teaching of ceramics was deplorable. Although students at Burslem were capable of producing nice but hackneyed tile designs in the style of Kate Greenaway (above), an inspection of 1919 found the Schools were "without any practical teaching equipment on a scale adequate for either specialised training or research in throwing, turning, mould making, moulding, stamping and the firing of industrial art pottery. At Hanley, no making machine of any kind exists in the School, while at Burslem and London Road the hand-driven throwing and turning machines are obsolete for teaching and experimental purposes".

Thorogood wrote in 1916 that "It is to the credit of the Stoke educational authorities that they have, as far as it is possible under present conditions, endeavoured to more thoroughly concentrate their energies on the direct needs of the pottery industry. An Art Advisory Committee has been formed, including manufacturers and technical experts, and the whole art work of the borough, including the five schools of art, is now under the supervision of a Superintendent of Art Instruction."

Graded courses of study had been drawn up for pottery decorators and designers, tile draughtsmen and designers, pottery modellers and designers, pottery engravers, pottery litho artists and designers and pottery enamellers and gilders.

Thorogood wrote: "To illustrate one important class directly beneficial to the industry, reference must be made to the works executed by enamellers and gilders (girls only), ages from thirteen to sixteen years. These particular students take a three years' course, based on their industrial requirements, which includes drawing of ornament (freehand), painting from plants, geometrical setting of pattern on ware, direct brush-drawing on pottery with pottery colours, and shading of a technical nature also on pottery ware. Their diploma is granted for direct and expert draughtsmanship as demanded by the industry, and herein lies the crux of the whole system of training. Their course of study has been carefully thought out for them and adapted to meet their special requirements, and not made to fit in, as in the past, to meet the established ordinary school of art curriculum and examinations. The instructors are technical experts who are engaged in a factory and who have received an art education in the schools. "

Thorogoood envisaged reforms in the system of training the craftsman. "With the new well-equipped Pottery Science School now established in the Borough under Dr. Mellor, it is to be hoped that we are at the beginning of a new era in the history of the potting industry. The time has arrived to provide the missing link as far as the training of certain types of pottery art students is concerned, by bringing the technical and artistic sides of the industry into closer relationship. Art students recognize the extreme importance of technical knowledge, and the scientist pays us the compliment of acknowledging that it is the design and pattern that sells the work. In support of this argument and necessity of art students receiving a certain amount of technical knowledge, it should be pointed out that many of our best students become decorating or pottery managers involving a very wide field of knowledge. It seems incredible that more advantage is not taken of the endless scope provided by the potting industry. Take the case of the thrower, turner, mould-maker, etc., would it not be to the ultimate advantage of the industry if classes were instituted to provide both technical and artistic training for these particular types of craftsmen? All the latest types of machinery might be congregated together, including a collection of the finest shapes procurable. At the same time a certain amount of technical knowledge, including the composition and properties of materials, their treatment, firing, etc., might be given to meet their immediate requirements. We should thus produce craftsmen saturated with a true knowledge of the beauty of line and form, together with a clear understanding of the limitations of their material. Their field of vision would be broadened, and so lead to a versatility of ideas, and enable the worker to meet the ever-changing fashions demanded by the vagaries of the human mind."

The inspectors were not impressed. "Perhaps the most noticeable feature common to the Schools was an atmosphere of depression", they said; "of failure and disappointment. Teaching methods, for the most part, were lacking in the inspiring motives so essential for success. These things, together with the apparent inability of members of the teaching staff to bring themselves into contact with the practical needs and developments of the local industries, cannot but hamper the Schools in achieving the distinction of directing the development of an art which means life to the borough. There was poor provision of kilns and too much dependence on the goodwill of manufacturers. "Paintresses attend in numbers", said the inspectors, "and they are proficient but their training is conservative and monotonous."

In summary the inspectors' judgment, allowing for the adverse conditions created by the war, was that the effort to provide practical technological instruction was "feeble and inadequate".

Board of Education, Report of Inspection of Stoke on Trent Schools of Art, 1919.
Charles Holme (ed.), Arts and Crafts. A Review of the Work Executed by Students in the Leading Art Schools, The Studio, 1916

18 July 2014


Last night I went to the launch exhibition accompanying the three-day conference on Ceramics and the Expanded Field at the University of Westminster, which runs from 17-19 July.  It's part of a major research project by the Ceramics Research Group, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. The conference is subtitled: Museum as Context, Creation and Authorship, Process and Material, Audience Engagement.

My image shows an intervention by Clare Twomey, a British artist who constructs large-scale installations, sculpture and site-specific works from clay.  She has exhibited at Tate, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Crafts Council and the Museum of Modern Art in Kyoto-Japan. An interesting aspect of her practice is her collaboration with industry, including Royal Crown Derby, Emerys minerals and Wedgwood.

This installation comprises a large bounded space in which a performer casts objects from slip (liquid clay) in plaster moulds. The objects are small kitsch figures with which the performer populates the space in a manner she chooses.  Her performance is poised and balletic.  She does not respond to questioning.  If you talk to her, the exhibition attendants ask you to stop.

Twomey's work, Piece by Piece, refers to the quest for perfection through iteration and the relationship between audience and exhibit. The focus on slip casting figures recalls 18th century soft-paste porcelain, in which thousands of figures were cast and which did achieve a sort of perfection. Twomey's are relatively simple.  Although they are made in multipart moulds, they come out whole.  In the most virtuoso works of potteries like Chelsea (left), figures were so complicated that they had to be assembled from several cast parts. Twomey's work is about the process, but the there is little finishing and the figures are fairly rough. This sort of conscious reflexivity, in which the work is about itself, is normal in academic ceramics. The unconscious Chelsea figure was not about anything.

Raising the question of art's relation to the audience is hazardous, as the Yellowist outrage on Rothko's Black on Maroon demonstrated.  Here, it seems, the relationship is looking.

Craft pottery went through a phase in which the work had to be designed, made, fired and sold by the maker (and if he didn't sell it, it had to be used by the maker as well).  That was a departure from Arts and Crafts practice, in which a separation between conception and making was normal, if problematic: William Morris did not print all his wallpapers and William de Morgan did not paint all his pots.

What was problematic for Morris was that he advocated an economy in which things were made by autonomous workers, while his factory was not like that, and he said it could not be like that until after the revolution. The separation of designing from making also became problematic in Arts and Crafts practice as familiarity with materials became increasingly important .

Twomey's work is post-craft and in it the relation between conception and execution is different from that in the Arts and Crafts Movement. In neither is the maker the artist, but here the artist doesn't just employ the maker but, because the work of art is the maker, she employs the work of art itself.  In early craft, the maker was employed to make the object; in this post-craft work the maker is the object you are looking at. In "Piece by Piece", the objectification and silencing of the worker reproduces the worst employment practices of capitalist society.

7 July 2014