2 July 2015

WHO WAS DORA BILLINGTON?

As readers of this blog will know, I admire the potter Dora Billington, who admired pottery from all over the world – Persia, China, Italy, Stoke-on-Trent – and not just the small range of oriental ceramics in the Leach canon. (She’s on the right in the picture.) Billington was a dedicated teacher and an indomitable student of pottery, and in her time probably knew as much about it as anyone. “The Art of the Potter” crammed a lot into a small space and for decades it was the best book on the subject. She was commissioned by Oxford University Press to write the articles on pottery and tiles for their junior encyclopaedia. She gave expert advice on pottery fragments discovered in the pre-dynastic Egyptian cemeteries at Armant. In 1948 she joined W. B. Honey, the V&A’s keeper of ceramics, for an early TV programme about pottery.

But who was she? There are no papers, diaries or archives. There are a few letters – for example in the Bernard Leach archive and the archive of the Royal College of Art (RCA) – but they’re professional and impersonal. Her books were like that too. She was a woman of firm opinions but she put nothing of herself into her writing. She’s typical of many women artists, important in their time but leaving no trace. I wanted to know something about her as a person.

The first clue I got was from a niece, who asked me “Do you know about her friend?” Her friend was Catherine Brock, also an artist, with whom she lived from 1912, when she came from Stoke-on-Trent to London on a scholarship to the RCA, until Catherine’s death in 1944. Catherine left everything to her. In the holiday snap above, taken in about 1940, Catherine is in the centre and the cheerful, confident-looking man on the left is Gilbert Harding Green, Dora’s colleague and friend, whom everyone called HG. There’s a fourth person, the one who took the snap; I’ll come to him in a minute.

On the first page of a commonplace book Dora wrote out Shakespeare’s Sonnet 30, which clearly expresses her feelings about Catherine’s death:

When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste:
Then can I drown an eye, unused to flow,
For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night,
And weep afresh love’s long since cancelled woe,
And moan the expense of many a vanished sight:
Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,
And heavily from woe to woe tell o’er
The sad account of fore-bemoanèd moan,
Which I new pay as if not paid before.
But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restored and sorrows end.

When Dora met HG in the late thirties her family were relieved that she’d found a man friend at last; but HG was gay and the person behind the camera above must have been his partner. That year, HG, his friend, Dora and Catherine went on holiday together, probably posing as two heterosexual couples for respectability’s sake. HG and Dora took many holidays together -  she died in 1968 shortly after returning from a holiday with him in Sorrento. In the end, her relationship with HG confused her family because they didn’t know quite what it was.

Dora converted to Roman Catholicism early in life, perhaps in the slipstream of the Catholic literary revival. Her work in the 1920s  included a stained glass of St Joan and a mosaic of St Catherine of Siena, and, although the saints are revered by Protestants as well, her interest in them is significant. Joan of Arc, a famously powerful woman, had recently been canonized, and Catherine is an obvious namesake. Bernard Moore, the art potter from whom she learned about ceramic decoration, was a Catholic; among her colleagues at the Central School of Arts and Crafts the silversmith M.C. Oliver and the calligrapher Irene Wellington were Catholics; and although the advocates of eastern spirituality among the studio potters had the loudest voices, there were several Catholic potters – David Leach, Ray Finch, Kenneth Clark and Ann Wynn Reeves.

Of Catherine Brock we know even less than Dora. They had the same background, Stoke-on-Trent families connected to the pottery industry, and they probably met at Hanley art school. Catherine trained at the Slade and there’s a painting by her of the young Dora (drawn with affection but not very good), and that’s about it.

Dora died in 1968 and left nearly everything to HG, but there’s almost nothing left. Was there attrition with each subsequent bequest until her papers fell into the hands of people who had never heard of her? Or did Dora herself destroy everything personal? It’s possible: a devout Catholic in a lesbian relationship in an intolerant era might well have wanted to keep her life private.

But don’t jump to conclusions. According to HG, Dora was in love with the sculptor John Skeaping, or had a relationship with him that didn’t work out. Skeaping came to teach at the Central in 1931, the year he separated from Barbara Hepworth.  In 1934 he married Morwenna Ward. But there’s no correspondence with Dora in the Skeaping archive and this tale of HG’s is a will o’ the wisp.

30 June 2015

FREDDIE'S RESTAURANT HELPS PUT renaissance: ST ALBANS ON THE MAP



Last night I went to Freddie's restaurant to help raise funds for renaissance: ST ALBANS, the arts initiative I mentioned in my last blog post. St Albans council and the museums trust want to convert the old town hall into a museum and gallery space and make it a major visitor destination.

The fundraiser was Freddie's idea - he's left in the picture above - and he deserves thanks for it. Councillor Annie Brewster (centre) is the project champion, and brings to it energy and enthusiasm. She's just given Freddie a copy of the new city map. The fundraising target is £1.75 million.  That's not a lot for a prosperous place like St Albans, and one of the project team told me he was confident that we could hit it and start building next year.

26 June 2015

renaissance: ST ALBANS - A NEW GALLERY AND MUSEUM FOR THE CITY


St Albans, where I live, is a historic city popular with tourists. It has Ancient British, Roman and Saxon foundations. It has a rich musical life, ranging from the International Organ Festival to acoustic performers in local pubs - in fact it seems that nearly every pub has a music night.

But the visual arts are not so well served. For many years we've had an art gallery run by the University of Hertfordshire; the Verulamium Museum presents our Roman heritage; and the St Albans City Museum has a range of locally themed events.

Now the local council and the St Albans Museums Museums and Galleries Trust have a bold plan to turn the grand Palladian town hall, the focal point of the city, into a combined museums and arts venue. They call the project renaissance: St Albans.

I'm up for it.

We deserve a venue like this and so do our visitors. You can get to St Albans from central London in half an hour, and he who is bored with London often likes to spend a relaxed day here.

Our old town hall is Grade II Listed but it's shabby, under-used and needs investment. The project will cost £7.75 million. It's received lottery money and will submit its Round 2 application to the Heritage Lottery Fund in August. Subject to funding, work will start next year and the museum and gallery (left) is expected to open in late 2017.

I'm putting in my two penn'orth. On Monday I'm going to the fundraising dinner at Freddie’s Restaurant: June 29 @ 6:30 pm - 10:00 pm. There's still time to book. Contact Verulamium Museum 01727 751810 for details.

16 June 2015

NEW WORK AT "ART IN CLAY"

Marshall Colman ceramics 2015

Here straight from the kiln are three vases that I'll be exhibiting at Art in Clay, Hatfield, from 3-5 July. Full details here. They are a selection of three of my current patterns: Parrot, Blue Arabesque, and Harlequin.  I'll be showing vases, jugs, mugs and covered jars in these patterns.  More pictures soon - I have more glazing and decorating to do and two kilns to fire before Hatfield.

For pottery geeks, my pottery is tin-glazed earthenware. The clay is one part red terracotta to three parts white earthenware, which fires to a warm pink. Bisque firing is to 1085 deg.C and glaze firing to 1060 deg.C.  This reverses the usual method in studio pottery, which is to fire bisque at a lower temperature than glaze, and is like the method used in industry. It suits me for two reasons: I glaze with tongs and they mark soft bisque; and it ensures a good glaze fit without crazing. My glaze is a lead borosilicate tin glaze, based on a recipe from my teacher Daphne Carnegy. After many years of experimentation, my firing cycle is fast to 700 deg. then 50 deg. an hour to maturity. I fire in an electric kiln with a computerized controller, but I check with cones (above left) because a pyrometer gives only a rough approximation of what's happening and there can be a significant difference in heat between the top and bottom of my large kiln. There's always a lot of fiddling with controls and vents at the end of the firing to make sure everything is perfect. (Of course, it never is, but that's what you have to aim for.) The colours are a mix of metal oxides and prepared ceramic stains. These are the colours I've used on these three vases:

  • red - high temperature red
  • yellow - Naples yellow + lemon yellow
  • blue - cobalt + copper oxides
  • turquoise - copper oxide + turquoise
  • black - cobalt + manganese oxides.


14 June 2015

CERAMICS IN STORE

Every museum and art gallery has dozens of pieces of work in store, and some have most of their collection tucked away, but curators are always pleased to bring them out for anyone seriously interested. Last week I went with the Craft Potters Association to Buckinghamshire County Council's store of studio pottery in Halton, where Mel Czapski, the collections officer for art and ceramics, introduced us to their collection.

On the table you can see, at the top, a large lustre bowl by Sutton Taylor being admired by one of our party, and, following clockwise, a stoneware jar by Michael Cardew, an oblong dish by Ray Finch, an oval dish by William Newland, in the centre and out of focus a white vessel by Ruth Duckworth, a black jar by Delan Cookson and a conical bowl with painted decoration  by Staite Murray. The county council have listed and illustrated the entire collection of over 300 pieces here.

The collection is difficult to find, in the middle of RAF Halton, a huge military camp, in an anonymous old school building unhelpfully labelled "Resource Centre". It wasn't until I was inside and warmly welcomed by Mel that I knew I was in the right place.

The collection dates from the 1960s when then curator, Christopher Gowing, decided to buy current studio pottery for display and for circulation to schools. In those days a bowl by Lucie Rie could be picked up for £3. An older member of our party said he was only earning £6 a week then - but a Rie pot now would cost £3,000. In the post-war decades it was common for local authorities to buy pottery to send round schools. The most active were the West Riding of Yorkshire, Leicestershire and Hertfordshire. Pottery was a particularly tactile art form that children could relate to directly and without prejudice or fear, and it was part of the school curriculum. At the London Institute of Education, where William Newland worked, all art teachers had to do pottery. Newland said that in the fifties and sixties he had a thousand students who wanted to pot. No longer, and it's not much taught in schools either. So the county collections now have a different function, as a resource for specialists and pottery aficionados.

School pottery has been squeezed by the national curriculum, cost cutting, health-and-safety and lack of knowledge among teachers. The decline of school pottery is part of a general trend away from materials-based teaching and it's consistent with the elevation of concept over material in the visual arts generally - which perhaps can't even be called "visual" any more. But these collections remain in out of the way places for anyone who wants to see them, with curators who know about them and who are enthusiastic about ceramics.

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 had been a Suffragette and 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 (below) 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 merely as "pensioner Mrs Nell Vyse". A full account of her has to treat her artistic and political lives equally seriously.

4 June 2015

QUALITY CONTROL: 10 CONTEMPORARY POTTERS

Here's something quite random and personal: ten contemporary potters that I like. Although I have a practical interest in painted pottery, not all of them decorate their work, and although I work in earthenware, most of them work in stoneware or porcelain. Their work is different but it's united (apart from the fact that they're British) by elegance, refined finish, mastery of their medium and rigorous quality control.

From left to right, top to bottom they are:

James and Tilla Waters | Sue Paraskeva

Chris Keenan | Daphne Carnegy

Walter Keeler | Bridget Drakeford

Laurence McGowan | Tony Laverick

Sara Moorhouse | Andrea Walsh

31 May 2015

THE UNITY OF THE ARTS

The unity of the arts was a key idea of the Arts and Crafts movement, which was concerned especially to raise the status of crafts and the craftsman. The difficulties of this idea were evident from the beginning, when the elevation of the crafts was being achieved by the denigration of fine art. William Morris was scathing about much of the art of his time, which he thought effete and decadent. It also led to ridiculous overstatements, such as Lethaby’s assertion that a work of art was a well-made boot.

It’s not an idea we hear much about today, when postmodern art has evolved into something very different from painting and sculpture and when the crafts themselves have become more akin to fine arts than boots. Many people, familiar with easel painting and even enthusiastic about 20th century modernism, are simply bewildered by postmodernism. There's no unity of the arts and there probably never was. The arts, or things called "art", are members of a large family, within which some distant relations have nothing in common with one another, e.g. Mark Wallinger's Sleeper (top), a pair of boots by Lobb (above) and  Alma-Tadema's Roses of Heliogabalus (below).

28 May 2015

STRAWBERRY THIEVES


I went to the open day at Nunhead cemetery a couple of weeks ago.  Nunhead is one of the Magnificent Seven, the grand 19th century London cemeteries built by private companies and patronised during the heyday of top-hatted, Victorian funerary monuments, now neglected, overgrown, and perfect for film sets.

There was nothing funereal about Nunhead on 16 May, a sunny day and good for family outings among the tombstones and ivy.  There was an array of stalls run by local societies (top left) and plenty of tea and cake. Typical of London, which in the election the previous week had shown itself to be one of the most left-wing parts of Britain, there were many radical campaigning groups in evidence and in the ruins of the old chapel I found a socialist choir, Strawberry Thieves (bottom left). On their red tee-shirts you may be able to see a motif from William Morris’s Strawberry Thief textile, illustrated at the top of this post.

Morris was a romantic socialist.  Although in his fighting years in the 1880s he declared himself a Marxist, socialism in those days tended to be vague and lifestyle. There were more big ideas and Merrie England entertainments than actual policies. When Morris was asked why he didn’t run Morris & Co. on socialist lines, he said it would be pointless before the Revolution. His utopia, in which marriage and crime were unknown, was called Nowhere.

Morris still has descendants on the left, energetic in their opposition to the Conservative government but outside the political mainstream. They call themselves things like Strawberry Thieves and the News from Nowhere Club, small lights in a bad, dark world

23 May 2015

POTTERY THROWERS OF STOKE-ON-TRENT

I bought a pottery wheel and several other items from an old potter who is retiring, and among them were these slate throwers’ ribs from Minton’s, the factory where he used to work.

Throwers, who form pots on a rapidly spinning wheel, use these ribs to impart shape and a smooth surface to them. In Stoke-on-Trent the thrower was mainly concerned with the inside shape, and the usual practice was to take the pot when it was firm enough to handle and to impart the outside shape on a lathe.

In Hanley Museum there's a picture of a thrower, George Myatt, at work at Lockett’s in 1932, with his wife as his assistant, and on the wall behind him there's a large collection of throwing ribs (below).


In the 1970s Myatt was interviewed by Dr Gordon W.Elliott, who asked him to explain what a rib was.

G.M. The rib is a piece of slate, school slates were always the best, made to represent the inside of the article. They were filed exactly to shape the inside of the article, and the thrower held the rib in his left hand and made it smooth inside. The thrower finished the inside of the article, and the turner shaped the outside. The rib made it that the inside was finished.

G.W.E. Did you make your own ribs?

G.M. Yes, we all made our own ribs because ribs are like pens. It's very rare that you can use another man's ribs, very rare.

G.W.E. Is this why so many were inscribed with the thrower's, or at least, maker's name?

G.M. Yes, you will find some of mine and some that I left at Wedgwood that have got my name on them.

G.W.E. Was this so that other people wouldn't take them? 

G.M. It was just that you liked to think that if you had a good rib you'd put your name on it. There was one glorious rib that I had at Lockett's. It was one of very few ribs that I could use straight away, and it had been made by a man name Jess Amison. On the back of it said "William so and so, born so and so, died so and so. He was a good and generous master."

G.W.E. So you actually used that rib for your throwing at Wedgwood's?

 G.M. I did and it's at Wedgwood's now. I wish I'd never left it there.

G.W.E. So what was the usual number of ribs for a thrower to have?

G.M. You had a rib for everything you made. I'd got hundreds. You'll find that at the back of that picture there's a wall of 'em. You'd got everything egg cups, vases, mortars, every mortal thing that you made, you had a rib for it.

G.W.E. Were the slate ribs preferred to ribs in pottery? I mention this because some that I have seen were actually made from fragments of plates.

G.M. That was before they had any kind of refined slate. They'd even make them from roofing tiles at one time. I had quite a few of those made of earthenware. Yes, quite a lot in the early 19th century were made of earthenware. They were plates that had been trimmed off and made perfect. You had to soak them before they could be used otherwise they stuck to the clay as it went round.


My Minton ribs date from the 1930s, the same date as George Myatt’s picture, and they give me a physical connection to the old throwers of Stoke-on-Trent. Two of them have the thrower's name on them: S. Lawley. One - the second from the left in my top picture - formed chocolate cups for Tiffany’s of New York. To me it looks like an outside profile, not an inside one - in my picture it's upside down in relation to the cup (left) so that you can see S. Lawley's name on it.

Minton’s were one of the old pottery firms that went through mergers before winding up and disappearing completely. They had a grand history and produced top-class work over a long period. After the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, they recruited Louis Solon from Sevres, who was responsible for some of their finest work.

By the 1930s much pottery in Stoke-on-Trent was cast in moulds, but throwers were still employed. In this film from 1935 about the making of silver jubilee mugs, a thrower starts the process by forming a rough pot on the wheel. It's then dropped into a mould and shaped in a jolleying machine. In this case, the thrower doesn’t have to work precisely but he has to work at speed. He has a helper who forms the ball of clay for him and lifts the pot off the wheel; he centres the clay, opens it out, pulls it up and cuts it off, all in seven seconds. That’s 480 cups an hour - over 3,000 a day if he can keep it up that long.


Stoke-on-Trent throwers were faster and better than studio potters. As a child, I was fascinated by the BBC TV interval film of the potter’s wheel, which may have sparked my interest in pottery, but looking at it again recently I realised that the potter, George Aubertin of the Compton Potter's Art Guild, was actually a rather bad thrower. More recently, at the exhibition Anarchy and Beauty: William Morris and his Legacy, I saw a film of Bernard Leach throwing and was surprised to see how slow he was, although a bit of a show off. Leach’s best pupil, Michael Cardew, also appears in this film to be slow and laboured.



The Stoke-on-Trent throwers and the studio potters had little to do with one another. In the 1970s George Myatt was completely unaware of studio pottery. His comment on the decline of his trade was, “Today I think there’s only about four or five throwers in England.” Actually, there were hundreds, but he could run rings round them all.

Paul Atterbury and Maureen Batkin, The Dictionary of Mintons, ACC Art Books, 1999
Gordon Elliott, Potters, Leek: Chernet Valley Books, 2004 
Fiona MacCarthy, Anarchy & Beauty: William Morris and his Legacy, London: National Portrait Gallery, 2014