30 May 2017


Ceramics by Rebecca Appleby

The Craft Potters Association (CPA), the leading UK body for art ceramics, selects professional members twice a year. It's interesting to see the artists they're choosing at the moment. This month they accepted applications from Rebecca Appleby, Emily-Kriste Wilcox, Adela Powell, Paula Downing, Peter Bodenham, Ali Tomlin and Sue Hannah.

Formed in 1958, the CPA was once the redoubt of studio pottery that was brown, rough and to be used in the kitchen. Since then it's become more inclusive and, although you can still get useful tableware at the CPA's shop opposite the British Museum, they're now welcoming more fine artists in clay.

The CPA selects makers who demonstrate mastery of their craft and who are making a contribution to the ceramic art. The applicants I've spoken to tell me that the selectors don't say much about the reason for their choice. From their decisions this month (below), you can see the excellent and original work being made by contemporary potters.

Emily-Kriste Wilcox

Adela Powell

Paula Downing

Peter Bodenham

Ali Tomlin

Sue Hannah

29 May 2017


Old roses

Now the roses are coming into bloom after a cold, dry Spring and I'll try to get to the Gardens of the Rose before they close. All I've been able to find out from the local paper is that the Royal National Rose Society has been put into administration, and I suppose the administrators will soon have to decide whether they can make more money by closing the gardens or letting them stay open.

I live in a 1950s house and I was tempted to make a period garden with a square lawn bordered by modern roses, alternate red and yellow, like "Peace" and "Papa Meilland". In the end I went for informal varieties, like "Nevada", "Albertine" and "Rambling Rector".

New rose "Peace" (1935)
New rose "Papa Meilland" (1963)

Although "informal" means "inclined to shed petals", the old roses do look good as cut flowers, especially in a celadon vase (top of post).

23 May 2017


The Royal National Rose Society, the oldest specialist plant society in the world, announced recently that it had run out of money and had gone into administration. The feather in its cap, the glorious Gardens of the Rose (above) at its HQ in St Albans, Hertfordshire, will probably close.

The Gardens of the Rose is a living encyclopaedia of roses as well as a pleasant place for a quiet afternoon out. I’ve been  several times and I’ve bought roses there as well – after seeing the inspiring displays it’s hard to come away empty handed.

I grew up with a garden full of roses. My father was a member of the Rose Society, which used to send members a quarterly journal and the rose annual, a hardback book of a hundred and fifty pages stuffed with colour plates and articles about new cultivars and the problems of rose growing.

Gardening fashions change. My father’s garden was full of hybrid-tea roses, a type developed in the late 19th century, known for its large, rather stiff, long-lasting blossoms. To produce these blooms, the rose grower had to prune the shrub regularly every year. There are two kinds of pruners: axe-man and wimp; my father was an axe-man. About forty years ago, gardeners began to move away from the hybrid-teas to old shrub roses – lax bushes that didn’t require much pruning, with loose, soft-coloured blossoms. Some of them are very old: Rosa Mundi is medieval in origin.

Hybrid tea rose

The informal old roses are now more fashionable

A few years ago, the Rose Society did a trial of different kinds of pruning to see which produced the best display of blooms. I think they compared the careful pruning of the experienced gardener, going over with a hedge trimmer and doing nothing, and they found that the traditional method of the experienced gardener didn't make much difference. Which shows that long-established practices may be based on authority rather than observation.

It’s been obvious for some time that the Rose Society is in trouble. They were looking after only part of the garden and some of it was overgrown with weeds. I liked their simple, old-fashioned tea room, but it wasn't the sort of thing to attract new visitors and it needed to be modernised. There was a slight air of hopelessness about the place. Their website is down and their last Twitter post wished everyone a Merry Christmas.

18 May 2017


When the Labour manifesto was leaked, the Conservatives lost no time in saying that Jeremy Corbyn wanted to take Britain back to the 1970s. BBC radio did an interview about seventies culture in which the interviewee said that for him the highlight of the decade was Bob Marley. Well, that was about the culture, but on balance the oil price hike and the following economic crisis might be thought more important.

But let's remain flippant for a moment.

Was the seventies the worst decade in the 20th century for clothes? You would have to look hard in other decades for anything as horrible as these, which fail miserably in their attempt to tame the sixties for non-hippies.

I haven't included any photos of fashions from Biba, the clothes shop in Kensington, London, run by Barbara Hulanicki. Biba was absolute seventies, but Hulanicki was a fine designer, and her clothes are nothing like those above. I think they still look good. Note, by the way, that these models don't smile.

Twiggy in Biba

17 May 2017


On the way out of Tate Modern I was stopped by a market researcher who asked me about my visit. What was its purpose, out of a list of twenty? As I'd been invited to see the Giacometti exhibition by an old friend, I ticked "To spend time with family and friends". I also ticked "To improve my knowledge of art."

My knowledge of art was improved by seeing that it took Giacometti thirty years to get into his stride and that those standing/walking figures were influenced by ancient Egyptian art (above). Giacometti was stuck in Switzerland during the war, prevented from returning to his studio in France by the Vichy regime. He worked in a flat and made a virtue of necessity by making sculptures a few centimetres tall (below).

His star rose after the Second World War. Like the young Buffet, he was taken up as an Existentialist artist, responding to the agony, isolationism and futility of existence. (Existentialist art criticism is easy as long as the colours aren't too bright.)

Cartier-Bresson captured him perfectly (below).

15 May 2017


Tile panel in the Poynter Room (Photo: V&A Museum)
The big show on at the moment in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, is Pink Floyd. There were long queues on Saturday when I went there and tickets were sold out by two in the afternoon. But a museum like the V&A - well, there is no museum quite like the V&A - is an exhibit in itself, and there's a lot to see in the structure and decoration of the building.

I usually look in at the Poynter Room, one of the three restaurant spaces on the north side of the building - the others are the Morris Room and the Gamble Room. They're all interesting, but I particularly like the Poynter Room because of its tin-glazed tiles that tell you something of the early history of pottery teaching.

The Poynter Room, originally called the Grill Room, was designed by Edward Poynter, the director of the National Art Training School (NAT), which shared the building with the museum in the 1860s. The Grill Room was planned then and opened in 1871. (For a history, click here.)

The Grill Room, an early engraving.
The tiled decoration, which goes round the room from floor to ceiling, depicts the months and the seasons, painted mainly in blue and white in Delft style. Poynter made detailed scaled drawings of the scheme (one of which was on show in Room 125 the other day) but the execution was by women students of the NAT. The training they received was a rare departure from the rigid academic syllabus dominated by drawing and copying which was intended to instil knowledge of good precedents and an understanding of the principles of design. Practical work was almost unknown and was only introduced at the end of the century when Arts and Crafts practitioners began to take over art school teaching. The decoration of these tile was virtually the first pottery teaching in a British art school. The fact that the Poynter room is unchanged from 1870 enables us to see the results of this experiment in detail and honours the women students.

Edward Poynter, design for "Autumn" (V&A)

The tiles were made by Mintons and decorated in South Kensington. The Graphic Magazine wrote up the class and included a picture of it (below).  We know the names of these women: they were Amy E. Black, Miss Walker, Miss Judd, Miss Earle, Miss Hall and Miss Cambridge, who were all paid at the rate of 6d an hour, except Amy Black who received 9d.

The intention of this programme was to qualify ladies for respectable employment. The relationship between the NAT and Mintons continued after the work on the restaurant was completed, and Mintons opened an Art Pottery Studio in  Kensington to provide jobs for the graduates. (I've written about it here.) The studio was not only a huge success, it encouraged a craze for amateur pottery-painting that lasted until the end of the century.

The tile-painting class at South Kensington. The Graphic, 26 February 1870

So next time you're in the V&A, take your meal in the Poynter Room, admire the tiles and raise a a cup of tea to Poynter, to Mintons and to Misses Black, Walker, Judd, Earle, Hall and Cambridge.

13 May 2017


When I was a student on the Harrow pottery course, we went to the British Museum to examine several ceramic pieces at close quarters. In the picture above, taken ten years ago, Professor Nigel Wood and student Chris Sutherland are handling a white porcelain miniature garden, a plum tree in a rectangular bowl, made in Dehua, Fujian province, China, in the early Qing dynasty (1644-1911).

It’s part of the British Museum’s collection donated by P. J .Donnelly, who amassed hundreds of pieces of Dehua porcelain, known in the West as blanc de Chine.  The British Museum now has the largest collection of blanc de Chine in the UK.

These miniature gardens are called penjing (the Chinese version of bonsai) and the plum blossom in China is one of the “three friends of winter”, the others being pine and bamboo.  They can still be found together in Chinese gardens.

The object is 23 cm high, 9 cm wide and 7 cm deep.  It was made to be viewed from one side: it has a front and a back, the back with less detail than the front, and is quite flat in section.  It appears to have been made as a unique piece, i.e. not cast or moulded.  The twigs, blossoms and buds are very finely made and some of the ends of the twigs have broken off.  Although a convincing representation of penjing, it has been cleverly made so that the almost-vertical branches don’t sag or deform in the kiln.

There’s a variation in colour on the surface of the object, some areas being darker than others.  This may have been caused by kiln smoke or by a fire in Donnelly’s house, which destroyed part of his collection.

The penjing is exhibited in a case of objects from “the miniature world”, which includes small carved gourds, brush-stands, tiny cages for crickets and similar objects which may have been found on the scholar’s table, for use, contemplation and admiration.  It’s a charming and delicate object, glowing white, worthy of contemplation.  The explanatory card in the case quotes lines from the Tang poet Li Bai (701-962), replete with Taoist references.

The Chinese scholar class was a creation of the imperial administration, which recruited by competitive examination based on Chinese classical literature.  The civil servant was likely to be posted far from home and to have wearisome duties for which his studies did not prepare him.  He could turn from this uncongenial work to contemplate nature, collect beautiful objects and display his good taste. The relative cultural value of works of art was set out in manuals of taste, which were also consulted by uneducated merchants who might aspire to culture.  The growing of penjing was a pastime that even scholars of limited means could pursue, to imagine places they were unable to visit and to raise their spirits.

The British Museum piece is dated between 1725 and 1775. Donnelly suggests that penjing from a later period were made for a more humble and less admiring market than that of the Chinese scholar gentleman.  “The smaller trees,” he says, “(about 9 in. [23 cm.] high) in rectangular or round tubs are more familiar objects, and are much later.  Between the wars they came to Europe in barrels of sawdust.  You felt among the sawdust and drew them out, hoping to find one unscathed, which was the case surprisingly often, so effective was the protection offered by this packing.” (P. J. Donnelly, Blanc de Chine, Faber and Faber, 1969)

The Dehua kilns were very conservative, and in London's Chinatown today you can buy, for under £100, modern Dehua guanyin figures virtually indistinguishable from those made in the 1700s. During the Cultural Revolution they were forced to adapt, and started making figures of Mao Tse-Tung. These are now thought to be kitsch, and you can buy them too.

10 May 2017


In twenty years, Dutch Elm disease (DED) changed the English landscape that it had taken centuries to make. The elm tree was big, rough and rugged. A specimen tree could grow to 45 metres. Now, fifty years after DED, only a few protected colonies remain. Those who never saw it won't miss it, but those who knew it feel there's something missing from their countryside.

I grew up on the margin of London, and as child learned the names of trees. Elms fringed our school and I became familiar with their corky bark and their asymmetrical saw-toothed leaves.

A fine specimen of English elm. (Know Your Broadleaves, HMSO, 1975)

Herbert Edlin of the Forestry Commission described the English elm in 1968, before DED had taken hold:
“The English elm has a magnificent habit of growth, which cannot be matched elsewhere; it adds an individual note to the landscape of England’s vales. The trunk is stout and erect, growing far taller than any associated tree, and from it there extend great billowing clouds of foliage, borne on distinct branch groups. Growth is rapid, and elms are rightly planted, preserved or encourage ed to grow from suckers along the hedgerows as a profitable source of timber. Records for height are 141 feet [43 metres] and for girth 25 feet [7.6 metres], though today no tree taller than 122 feet [37.2 metres] can be found, this stands at Youngsbury near Ware in Hertfordshire.”

In Sylva Britannica, Jacob Strutt (1784-1867) placed elms second in precedence only to oaks. Of the ancient elm in the village of Crawley (above) he reflects that it is -
“an inexhaustible source of pleasure to the train of village children who cluster like bees around it; trying their infant strength and courage in climbing its mimic precipices, whilst their parents recall, in their pastimes, the feelings of their own childhood; when, like them, they disported under the same boughs.” 
Crawley is now under the Gatwick flight path.

The Wych elm is quite different from the English elm. There are many hybrids, including the Dutch elm. The disease is not named after the Dutch elm but after the country where it was identified; it particularly affects the English elm. The tendency to hybridise means that there are local forms, given names like Huntingdon elm and Cornish elm. A confusing tree.

The English elm produces few fertile seeds and propagates by suckers, from which most in our landscape have been cultivated; they are local clones of a local variety. Few elms are truly wild. Both the appearance of the elm and its place in the landscape are products of human activity. Landscape is not natural, it is stage managed and carefully constructed.

It makes a noble subject for the landscape painter. Cuyp’s River Landscape (top picture) shows a clump of half a dozen elms and cattle resting in their shade. (National Gallery).

Constable loved and studied English elms. His painting of Dedham Lock and Mill (V&A) (below) shows them in all their roughness, irregularity and grandeur.

Paul Nash, for whom the landscape was numinous and full of significance, was bound to paint An Avenue of Elms (below).

What made me think of elms in the landscape were the remnants of elms all around us. DED kills the crown but not its roots. Except for the Wych elm, which reproduces only by seed, they throw up suckers that continue until they're knocked back by the disease. They rarely die completely and the rootstock survives. I keep a lookout for them, and in my home town of St Albans there are several hedges and small trees.

Elms growing to 11 metres (centre of picture), Lady Spencer Grove, St Albans

Elm leaves and trunk, Lady Spencer Grove, St Albans 
Elm cropped to make a useful hedge, King Harry Lane, St Albans

Oliver Watson, the ecologist, takes an unsentimental and scientific view of trees. He wrote to The Times after the Great Storm of 1987 to tell people that it wasn’t such a tragedy because it culled the weakest trees. To those who complain about their favourite wood being coppiced, he says that woods were planted as crops and that the end of economic coppicing means they're not being properly managed. He says that there have been repeated waves of DED throughout history and the trees have eventually acquired immunity. That will happen again, though it may take centuries.

1 May 2017


The Museum of Applied Arts in Budapest have added an interesting touch to their current exhibition about Marcel Breuer and his colleagues: they have reproduced their business cards. Breuer’s comes from his time in London, although he spent much of his life in the United States. You would never guess from the conventional copperplate that he was a modernist designer.

The other designers are Lajos Kozma, Gyula Kaesz, Farkas Molnár, József Fischer, Virgil Bierbauer, Zsusza Kovács  and László Wágner. The cards also advertise the museum on the back.

It was nice to take away these souvenirs. There was a leaflet but no catalogue. Hungarian art galleries do not have our partiality for big, expensive catalogues. The corollary is that they do not mind you taking photos, of which copyright-crazy museums in the UK have such a phobia. In Edinburgh a few years ago an officious gallery guard stopped me from drawing, and then he stopped me from taking notes as well, at which point I complained to the gallery management.