12 June 2017

RICHARD LUNN: FIRST POTTERY TEACHER AT THE ROYAL COLLEGE OF ART


As ceramics course are closing in British universities and as a band of experienced potters are opening Clay College, Stoke, to train a new generation, it’s a good time to remember Richard Lunn, the first pottery teacher. Lunn ran the pottery course started by the Royal College of Art in 1901, the first in any art school. His role in the history of ceramic education is known but the details of his life have not been recorded.

The government art schools in the 19th century were intended to teach the principles of design to workmen in in industry. They had a rigorous syllabus of drawing and copying approved models, and practical crafts were not taught. Creativity and originality were discouraged. The pinnacle of the system was the National Art Training School in South Kensington, which changed its name to the Royal College of Art in 1898. (The Royal Academy and private art schools were outside this system.)

NEW ART SCHOOLS

The system was sterile and it never did what it was supposed to do. The standard of design in manufacture was patchy. Many graduates became art teachers rather than designers and several of the women students followed classes as a leisure activity. The real impetus to reform came from outside the system, from artists of the Arts and Crafts Movement, who were associated with new, practical art schools founded by local authorities. The first was the Birmingham School of Arts and Crafts (1885), followed by the Central School of Arts and Crafts (1896) and the Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts (1898)

Walter Crane became head of the Royal College of Art in 1898 and tried to introduce a more craft-based curriculum, but he was defeated by the bureaucracy of the Board of Education and resigned after a year. His successor, Augustus Spencer, brought in members of the Art Workers' Guild as professors: W.R.Lethaby to head design, Beresford Pite, architecture, Edward Lantieri, sculpture, and Gerald Moira, painting. Richard Lunn, the college’s first instructor of pottery, was not a member of the AWG and came from a background of industry and teaching.

Lunn’s course was the first where students could make, glaze, decorate and fire their own pottery from start to finish. Lambeth art school, under the direction of John Sparkes, developed a fruitful arrangement with Doulton's, but the ceramics classes there concentrated on decoration and omitted many ceramic processes. Even the art schools in the North Staffordshire Potteries didn’t provide a complete curriculum. Practical training was the job of the pottery employers. Twenty years after Lunn initiated his programme at the RCA, the Board of Education wrote a damning report on the inadequacies of the pottery teaching at Hanley Art School. Lunn was the pioneer.

DECORATED POTTERY

The RCA prospectus described his course: “The object of this class is to illustrate in a simple and inexpensive manner principles and facts relating to the making and decorating of Pottery – enabling students to design, make shapes, and decorate them, with a knowledge of the requirements of this important industry.” We can get some insight into what Lunn taught by his book Pottery (two volumes, Chapman & Hall, 1903 and 1910), which includes photos posed by students in the studios in South Kensington.

RCA pottery students, c.1910. Note the Iznik and Italian maiolica examples on the shelf.

Lunn’s syllabus included tile-making, mould-making, use of the jigger and jolley, glazing, decorating, and firing bisque, glaze and enamel kilns. Lunn could not throw on the wheel and throwing was not taught. A picture of him taken in his studio at the RCA shows him surrounded by plaster moulds. On the walls are pictures of Persian, Iznik and Italian maiolica, which he also illustrated in his book. This decorated pottery was the inspiration for his course and the kind that his students made.


Work made by Lunn's students at the RCA.

MODELLER ON THE CERAMIC STAIRCASE

Richard Lunn was born in 1840 in Bromley, Kent. At the age of 17 he was an art student in Sheffield. His first occupation was as a silver engraver in the city. He moved to London in his mid-twenties to study at the National Art Training School, where he assisted as a modeller on the ceramic staircase at South Kensington, now part of the Victoria and Albert Museum. The decoration of the V&A was one of the few opportunities for art students to gain practical experience. After the completion of the ceramic staircase, women students painted the tiles in the Poynter Room to Edward Poynter’s designs. The Tiles and Architectural Ceramics Society says of the ceramics staircase, designed by Frank H. Moody, that it includes “some of the finest products of British nineteenth century ceramic design, installed to display the possibilities of contemporary building materials.”

The ceramic staircase, V&A Museum

By 1874 Lunn was back in Sheffield, teaching modelling at Sheffield School of Art. He appears to have been popular with his students: after a period of illness they presented him with Turner’s Liber Studiorun and Viollet le Duc’s Dictionnaire du Mobiler Français, “and a valuable timepiece, as a practical expression of their pleasure at his return to their midst.” (The Cabinet Maker and Art Furnisher, 1880) In 1881 there were differences between Lunn and the headmaster and Lunn was dismissed for reasons that he was unable to ascertain. On his departure from Sheffield his students gave him a presentation dinner.

In 1882, now in his early forties, he was appointed art director of Royal Crown Derby, apparently without any prior experience in the pottery trade, and presumably because of his wide artistic experience. He designed a dinner service for presentation to Gladstone by the Derby Liberals, each piece decorated with a Derbyshire view. In receiving the dinner service, Gladstone said, “I think those are entirely mistaken who consider your production merely as a branch of industry, or a branch of skilled industry. It is likewise a branch of art, in which the principles of fine art are applied to industrial purposes."


After seven years he struck out on his own, taking over the Cockpit Hill China Works. I can’t find anything about this pottery or its products, and it’s hard to say whether it was a success or not, but his daughter Dora remarked that he was not business-like. Lunn was interested in pottery as an art, taught it as such and regarded himself as an artist.

In around 1900, aged 60, he took up the new post of pottery instructor at the RCA. From 1908 he also taught pottery at Camberwell, where he was assisted by an experienced thrower, Alfred Hopkins.

JOHN ADAMS AND DORA BILLINGTON

Although Lunn was liked by his students, he had a difficult personality. His dismissal from Sheffield indicates irreconcilable differences with his principal, and at the RCA he had a petty row with his student John Adams, later of Poole Pottery. Adams had learned the technique of lustre when he was working for Bernard Moore and submitted lustre ware that he had fired in the Potteries. Lunn was furious about his not using the RCA kiln and went over the head of the principal to complain direct to the Board of Education. The bemused Board officials asked Adams for his comments and Adams replied robustly that Lunn was incapable of teaching lustre decoration and knew nothing about it, and that Adams had to go elsewhere to pursue his studies. Adams was a very accomplished student who had won awards for his ceramics even before he was at the RCA and Lunn may have been jealous of him. Lunn’s other eminent student at the RCA, Dora Billington, barely mentioned him.

Apart from the question of lustre ware, and despite his long experience, there are indications that Lunn’s pottery teaching was inadequate. One reviewer of his book thought his methods were outmoded. In his final years, his daughter Dora was afraid that he would be dismissed because of his age. In Lunn’s defence, Dora said that at the RCA “it was very difficult to secure the requisite equipment and to get the authorities to recognise pottery as an important subject in the educational sense.” (Dora Lunn, A Potter’s Pot Pourri, typescript)

He died aged 75, still in harness. His Camberwell class was taken over by Alfred Hopkins. His RCA class was taken over by his students Adams and Billington; then, when Adams left for South Africa, Billington, aged 25, ran it alone.

Out of Lunn’s two courses came some of the early studio potters, including Adams, Billington and William Staite Murray, and a cohort of pottery teachers who were appointed to new posts in other art schools. Partly due to Lunn's work, we know that by 1925 pottery had been added to the curriculum of colleges at Battersea, Clapham, Putney, Leeds, Glasgow, Swansea, Woolwich and Brighton.
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