6 June 2015

NELL VYSE, POTTER AND COMMUNIST

This picture came up on e-Bay recently, from the London Illustrated News, May 1922, a reproduction of a painting by W.R.S.Stott. The caption reads, “The revival of the potter’s art: at the kiln. The principal “Revivalist” in the picture – which the artist names “The Revivalists” – is Mr. Charles Vyse, the well-known potter.  He is seen at work beside his kiln on his pottery figures, which were shown at the Collector’s Gallery in Sloane Street.  Mr. Stott’s picture was exhibited in last year’s Royal Academy.” The tall, aristocratic-looking woman on the right is Nell Vyse.

Charles Vyse (1882– 1971) was an early studio potter who made a good living with his wife Nell Vyse (1892-1967) in the 1920s and 1930s, producing the sort of figurines shown in this picture and illustrated left, but they also had a very different line of work making innovative pottery in the Sung Chinese style. The Vyses lived in Chelsea, neighbours of W.R.S.Stott and of George Eumorphopolos, an important collector of Chinese ceramics and a formative influence on British studio pottery. Stott’s picture is reproduced in colour in Terence Cartlidge’s book on the Vyses.

When this picture was painted, pottery figurines were very popular and were made as much by art potters as by factories. Figurative ceramists like the Vyses, Gwendoline Parnell, Stella Crofts and Wilfrid Norton exhibited with Leach, Staite Murray and Cardew into the 1930s, although by the outbreak of war figurative pottery had gone out of fashion.

Charles remained an artist all his life, but Nell Vyse had a more extraordinary career. She joined the Communist Party in 1934. Her marriage to Charles ended after a political argument and she subsequently formed a relationship with leading Communist Joe Bent and moved to Southwark, south London, where she became a tenants’ and pensioners’ leader and stood as a Communist candidate for the local council. As she lived until 1967, she is still within living memory, but her political career, both as Suffragette and Communist, is barely documented. Typical of women artists, she is usually appended to accounts of her husband and her contribution is obscured, despite the fact that her knowledge of glazes  was indispensable to the pottery.

A fascinating gap in ceramic history, but a career that falls into two different halves like this also raises the question, "How is Nell Vyse to be regarded, as an artist or a political agitator?" In histories of pottery her political career is generally shrugged off and she is too local to figure in political histories. Unlike William Morris or Diego de Rivera, who were artists and political activists simultaneously, Nell Vyse seems to have entirely given up art for politics, perhaps because she thought art trivial, and by the early 1960s she was presenting herself in TV interviews (pictured) merely as "pensioner Mrs Nell Vyse". A full account of her has to treat her artistic and political lives equally seriously. _______________________________________________
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