31 March 2016


This year we celebrate the centenary of the lettering designed for the London underground by Edward Johnston, a letter without serifs made for fast reading on station signage. It's one of the classic typefaces, still in use today in a modified form. It was developed further by Johnston's pupil Eric Gill into the famous Gill Sans type, known to everyone from the old orange-back Penguin books (pictured).

Johnston's influence is remarkable because he was a retiring man and notorious for his slowness. His courses at the Royal College of Art and the Central School of Arts and Crafts (now Central St Martins) took students through the letter forms so thoroughly that he didn't get to the end of the alphabet. His influence went beyond calligraphy to everyday handwiting and he influenced other arts as well. The calligraphic approach to design can be applied to needlework and pottery too. Among his students were Louise Powell and Dora Billington, both of whom made important contributions to the decoration of ceramics - and both of whom were embroiderers as well.

Decoration by Louise Powell for Wedgwood
Louise Powell and her husband Alfred Powell brought the Arts and Crafts approach to pottery into the Wedgwood company, where they were firm advocates of freehand decorating rather than stenciling and stamping, which they thought demoralized the decorators. They supervised decorating in Wedgwood's Stoke-on-Trent factory and had a studio in London as well, in Red Lion Square, where, with a couple of assistants, they decorated Wedgwood wares.

Vase by Alan Caiger Smith
Louise's work shows the influence of Johnston's calligraphy. Billington's early work does too, and she continued to advocate a calligraphic approach to decorating into the 1960s, recommending the decisive application of designs with a long, flexible brush. One of Billington's pupils was Alan Caiger Smith, whose work was decorated with a soft, chisel-shaped brush producing  a surface design redolent of Arabic calligraphy. Alan Caiger Smith taught Judith Partridge and I worked in Judith's studio in the 1970s. I like Johnston's railway type and I'm pleased to have a link to him through one of my teachers
_______________________________________________CLICK HERE FOR NEWS OF UPCOMING EVENTS

30 March 2016



25 March 2016


William Morris, the great 19th century volcano
William Morris was born on 24 March, 1834. Happy birthday to the great 19th century designer and social reformer. He had volcanic energy and was one of the most famous men of his age. He did so much that it was said that he died of being William Morris.

 The extraordinary thing about him - the William Morris thing - was that he combined a huge passion for design and making with a passion for poetry and for social revolution. Visual artists are often poor with words, writers sometimes have no visual sense, and many people wedded to politics are philistines. William Morris had it all.

It wasn't always easy. In the 1880s, when he became committed to the overthrow of capitalism, he left his design business to others while he demonstrated, propagandized, made speeches and organised the Socialist League.

His legacy is both artistic and political. His designs soon became popular and they have remained so. By the time of his death in 1896, every artistic household and institution had Morris wallpaper, Morris fabric and Morris furniture, and for pottery they went to his friend William de Morgan. Morris & Co. continued until the second world war and when they closed their designs were bought and stayed in production. Now, for his birthday, the excellent Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge has brought out a range of horrible William Morris merchandise (pictured), printing his fabric patterns on cups and plastic trays.

Although Morris's patterns were popular, his political ideas were not.  Few of his fans could reconcile the Daisy, Hyacinth, Chrysanthemum and Strawberry Thief designs with revolutionary socialism, and after his death the politics became separated from the style. Well they might, because there is no real connection. Of course, the essence of the Arts and Crafts Movement was the idea that the art of an epoch was an expression of its moral condition and that the factory system was bound to produce poorly-made and ugly things. But design reform progressed apace under capitalism and social reform went forward on another path.

Fitzwilliam Museum: exit through the gift shop
Morris's insistence on the hand-made was also wrong-headed. Thorstein Veblen, in The Theory of the Leisure Class, written shortly after Morris's death, reckoned that if the workman was to maintain even the standard of living he had in 1899, and if he was to make everything by hand, he would have to work 200 hours a week. (There are 168 hours in a week.) Advances in design and quality of manufacture were brought about by revolutionizing the Arts and Crafts philosophy and adapting it to mass production. As those great designers Charles and Ray Eames put it in 1950, "The objective is the simple thing of getting the best to the greatest number of people for the least."

I've written here about Morris's rules for potters, which are unnecessarily prescriptive - everything must be made on the wheel, no turning on the lathe, no "excessive neatness", no printing on pottery, etc, etc. Here's an artistic project for you: make some good ceramics by hand, breaking every William Morris rule. That's ironic. But pretending to celebrate William Morris, without any thought of Arts and Crafts principles, as the Fitzwilliam has done, is the worst sort of marketing, parting fools from their money, and is unworthy of the Museum.

21 March 2016


Studio potters had a good time after the Second World War. During the war, factory-made ceramics were plain and undecorated because the government considered decoration to be a waste of resources. In peacetime, customers looked for something new and different to put on their table, and for a generation good potters found it hard to keep up with demand. There were fewer potters then, perhaps a hundred in Britain; according to a 2004 Crafts Council survey there were about 6,000.

Bull by William Newland, exhibited at Charing Cross
At the time, government thought the crafts had a role to play in the economy and support for the crafts was the responsibility of the Board of Trade. By the mid-sixties it became evident that there was little dialogue between craft and industry, and in the seventies responsibility for crafts passed to the department of education. Pottery was now art, not manufacture.

Studio potters had been well represented in the 1951 Festival of Britain and a year later there was a curious exhibition, Ceramics in the Home, in Charing Cross underground station of all places, sponsored by The Observer newspaper. The exhibition featured on the front page in October 1952, with the two photos at the top of this post prominently displayed.

“In the booking-office vestibule of the 'Underground' station at Charing Cross, two figures peer through a porthole at Nicholas Vergette fashioning the lip of a pot. He is one of the artist-potters who demonstrate daily in The Observer exhibition 'Ceramics in the Home.' The decorative Minoan Bulls are made by William Newland.  The exhibitions will be open throughout October on weekdays from 11 a.m. to 7.30 p.m. Contemporary British pottery, ornamental as well as useful, is shown in a decorated setting. Demonstrations at the potter’s wheel may be seen from 3.40 to 4.45 p.m. and from 5.30 to 6.45 p.m.”

Margaret Hine and William Newland, 1952
I saw one of Newland’s Minoan bulls (pictured), similar if not identical to the one in the photo, in a private collection. Newland and his wife Margaret Hine had visited Andalucía in 1949, and I think I see a Spanish influence in this bull.

Newland recalls that the exhibitors at Charing Cross included Hans Coper, Lucie Rie, Nicolas Vergette, himself and Hine – a strong representation of potters associated with the Central School of Arts and Crafts, where ceramics was under the control of Dora Billington and her assistant Gilbert Harding Green. There was a strong influence of Picasso, whose ceramics had been seen for the first time in London a couple of years earlier.

The Pottery and Glass journal were sniffy about the exhibition, which they thought should have shown Stoke-on-Trent pottery instead. They dismissed studio pottery as the work of amateurs: “Let the hobby potter exhibit his work by all means, but do not delude the public into thinking that he represents modern British pottery.”

Studio potters had no more sympathy for Stoke-on-Trent than Stoke had for them. Billington was sending her students for a term of work experience in the North Staffordshire Potteries, but not much stuck, and a potter like David Queensberry, who really wanted to work with industry, had to leave the Central and study with Robert Baker at the industrially oriented Royal College of Art.

5 March 2016


"Cadmium yellow not banned by EU." That's an even less exciting headline than "Small earthquake: few hurt. " But for artists it's significant.

Cadmium is a toxic metal and an environmental hazard. In 2013, Sweden proposed to the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) to prohibit its sale in artists' paints in the EU and to prohibit the use of such paints. Artists were up in arms. Brushes and palettes to the barricades! For cadmium produces an intense yellow and art would be insipid without it.

Quietly and without much fuss, the artists have had their day. After careful evaluation by ECHA's Committee for Risk Assessment and Committee for Socioeconomic Analysis, the European Commission has decided that the presence of cadmium in artists' paints does not present an unacceptable risk to human health. "Accordingly, the restriction procedure initiated by Sweden is terminated."

As it happens, I'm not affected, because the yellow I use in my ceramics is based on praseodymium and lead antimoniate.  Lead antimoniate is the Naples Yellow beloved of the old masters, a rich egg-yolk yellow. In ceramics there's nothing quite like it. I've experimented with other stains, which are a lot cheaper, but they don't satisfy me .

Praeseodymium is not toxic, but lead antimoniate is deadly and Naples Yellow has been made for a long time from chromium titanate instead. Potters' suppliers don't sell it at all, but despite its extreme toxicity it's available as an artist's pigment from Cornelissen, the old artists' supplier in Great Russell Street, London (pictured), and as far as I know the government of Sweden has  not asked for it to be banned.

The first thing I was taught at college, in Prof. Nigel Wood's lecture on ceramic toxicology, was, "Everything you use in ceramics will kill you if you don't use it properly," so I have strict safety procedures in my studio. Despite Naples Yellow, I'm going to be around for a while. _______________________________________________

1 March 2016


Artists have been getting heated about a story that Sir Anish Kapoor has bought the exclusive rights to the world's blackest material, a pigment called Vantablack that absorbs 99.9% of incoming radiation. It's an odd story.

Christian Furr  told The Mail on Sunday, "I've never heard of an artist monopolising a material. Using pure black in an artwork grounds it. All the best artists have had a thing for pure black – Turner, Manet, Goya. This black is like dynamite in the art world. We should be able to use it. It isn't right that it belongs to one man."

That's debatable. Vantablack is a commercial product and the makers, a research company called Surrey NanoSystems, are entitled to recoup their development costs and sell it for as much as they can.

Early work on the material was done by the National Physical Laboratory and similar materials have been used on the Stealth fighter plane. Governments have deep pockets and selling into the defence market might have been a good choice for the Surrey University spin off company.

In 2013, Ben Jenson of Surrey NanoSystems said, “We are now scaling up production to meet the requirements of our first customers in the defence and space sectors, and have already delivered our first orders. Our strategy includes both the provision of a sub-contract coating service from our own UK facility, and the formation of technology transfer agreements with various international partners.”

No mention of artists, but Kapoor, who has made creative use of pigments in his art, showed an early interest in the material and Surrey NanoSystems have confirmed that now only he can use it. I find that astonishing, but not because I share Christian Furr's utopian idea that companies should give away their intellectual property to artists. After all, artists are justly annoyed if their copyright is infringed and get fed up with charities asking them to work for nothing. What I find astonishing is that Kapoor has outbid every industry and government. Perhaps the paint was over hyped and despite the makers' early leads it wasn't much use for anything. Kapoor is worth £680 million and must have paid a large sum for the rights, at least six figures. That's a good deal for a small R&D company.