16 February 2018

DENISE WREN AND THE KNOX GUILD

Denise Wren and a student packing a kiln, c.1926

Kingston Museum, Surrey, has an exhibition of rarely-seen work by Denise Wren and the Knox Guild. Wren (1891-1979) was a founder of the Craft Potters Association (CPA), the leading British group of studio potters, and was well-known among older potters, but the Kingston Museum displays work from her archive that reveals her as a significant designer in several other media as well. Little has been written about her, so this is a valuable show.

HOPE FOR BEAUTY
Kingston Museum,
Wheatfield Way
Kingston upon Thames
KT1 2PS
Until 7 April 2018
Closed Mondays
020 8547 5006
kingston.museum@rbk.kingston.gov.uk

This is her own account of her life, written in her seventies:

"Came to England from Australia in 1900. Trained Kingston School of Art under Archibald Knox 1907-11. Set up workshop within Knox Guild of Design & Craft at 24 Market Place, Kingston-upon-Thames 1911. Designed 'a potters' house', Potter's Croft, built with her husband Henry Wren (d.1947) and her two brothers in 1919. Whilst building she and her husband founded the Oxshott Pottery. Together they organised the Artist Craftsman exhibition at Central Hall, Westminster 1923-37, wrote Handcraft Pottery (1927), Fingerbuilt Pottery (Pitman), books on basketry and raffia and innumerable articles; ran short courses at Oxshott, supplied plans for small coke-fired kilns and sold pots continuously, exhibiting at e.g. British Empire Exhibitions 1923-4, Chelsea and the Rose Show. More recently exhibited with daughter Rosemary at Berkeley Galleries 1960's, also Commonwealth Institute; continuously supported CPA - particularly concerned with its early development. Work V&A and other collections. Before the war, made earthenware with coloured glazes; since, stoneware and saltglazed pots and some hundreds of smoked biscuit elephants."

Plate by Denise Wren, c.1920, with Art Nouveau design

Wren was one of the pioneers of studio pottery in Britain. It is interesting to note the women who played an important role in its early days: Dora Lunn, Dora Billington, Stella Crofts, Nell Vyse, Nora Braden and Katherine Pleydell Bouverie. Most of Billington's students in the 1920s and 1930s, so far as they can be identified, were women.* Bernard Leach's brand dominance in studio pottery from the 1940s to the 1970s tended to obscure the role of women.

Design for a brooch

Design for a pewter teapot

We are fortunate that Wren never threw anything away. Her archive contains designs for fabrics, jewellery, silver, pewter and posters as well as pottery. Her designs in the 1910s and 1920s were strongly influenced by Archibald Knox's Art Nouveau and Celtic motifs. In the 1950s she had commercial success designing fabrics for Tootal.


Archibald Knox (1864-1933) designed extensively for Liberty's and was a charismatic teacher at Kingston art school. His methods were not approved of by the school inspectors, who it appears were still wedded to the drawing syllabus of the old government art schools, and he resigned suddenly in 1911. Wren and some other students also resigned in protest and formed the Knox Guild in honour of him.

Denise Wren, square pot with incised deer and "stormy sunset glaze", 1930s.

Denise Wren, George and the Dragon, 1920s.

Salt-glazed jug by Denise Wren. She exhibited her innovative glazes at the Craft Potters Association.

The Guild's principles as applied to pottery were: "A piece of pottery is as much of a work of art as a picture. Therefore each of the pieces shown has been made by the designer. Each is the only one of its particular pattern."  It has to be said that Wren's early pottery was clumsy and badly made, but that applies to many of the early studio potters. Her application of Celtic and Art Nouveau patterns was original and unique. She achieved interesting glaze effects. In the 1950s, she and her daughter introduced salt-glazing to studio pottery, where is is now widely used. The little animal figures that she made towards the end of her career were artistically and commercially successful.

* Cayley Robinson, Gertrude Cohen, Annie Maule, Rachel Marshall, Winifrid Williams, Deborah Harding, Stella Crofts, Nora Braden , Sybil Finnemore, Zema Haworth, Olive Jones, Enid Marx, Ada Mason, Sylvia Fox-Strangways, Katherine Pleydell-Bouverie, Elsie Currie, Miss F. Maggs, Nora Stranaghan, Miss D. S. Bell, Mary R. Brace, Miss J. Williams, Constance Dunn, Mrs R. N. Tagore, Norah Godlee, Doreen Goodchild, Ursula Mommens, Rosemary Dugdale-Bradley, Dorothy Morton, Helen Pincombe, Joan Crossley-Holland and Eleanor Whittall. 


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