24 November 2015


In China, so I’ve been told, you can buy Imperial Sung Dynasty ceramics on market stalls for a few pounds. Although they’re not authentic, they're indistinguishable from the real thing. The Chinese attitude to authorship and authenticity is based on respect for past masters and the belief that you can never do better than them. Chinese “faking” is the reverse of plagiarism, such humility that you pretend your work was done by somebody else.

The Royal Academy exhibition of Ai Weiwei raises questions about credit, authorship and execution. There's the photo of him dropping a Han dynasty vase, there are ancient vases crudely covered in house paint and Han vases ground to powder and put in jars. What is more valuable, the antique or its re-working by a great modern artist? Ai Weiwei is puzzled about why art is so valuable, but it's no more a mystery than why, during the tulip craze, a single bulb could sell for hundreds of guilders. The art market is created by authenticity and value attaches to the author. (I wrote about this in my post about Rothko’s vandalized picture.) There's a circular process in which someone who does good work is so feted that everything they do becomes good.

Charles Saatchi has been accused of thus inflating the value of artists to create a market for his collection. He replies that the value of artworks is what people pay for them. But aren't there hidden geniuses who couldn’t get that sort of money?  No, says Saatchi, genius is in such short supply that it's impossible to hide it.

Another question about authorship is raised by Ai's work Straight (pictured), an installation of straightened steel reinforcement rods that were collected from the Sichuan earthquake in which 69,000 people were killed, including 5,000 schoolchildren. Ai has exposed the official cover-up of the names of the victims and the corruption that produced flimsy buildings. Next to Straight is a film showing how he bought 90 tonnes of twisted bar from the earthquake site and how his team of workers laboriously straightened every piece in his factory studio.

Ai’s productivity is epic both in scale and quantity, but I want to see the names of the assistants who toil in his factory as well as those of the dead children. There was once a time when no film goer had heard of a Foley operator - now films credit the names of the last accountant and assistant hairdresser. I don't mind Ai's fame, but let's have credit for all the people who make it possible.

18 November 2015


I was at the Royal College of Art (RCA) last night for the first screening of this film about R.J. "Bob"Washington, an original and trail-blazing ceramist.

 In the senior common room of the RCA were a penetrating self-portrait of William Rothenstein, the reforming principal in the 1920s, a man who knew absolutely everybody and got the best artists to teach at the college; and Russell Spear's portrait of Robin Darwin, the post-war principal, who, in this picture, looked more like the managing director of ICI.

I knew about Bob Washington, but didn't really get to know his work until I started researching one of his teachers, Dora Billington. Bob studied ceramics under William Staite Murray at the RCA in the 1930s, and, as Bob says in the film, Murray was an inspiration but a useless teacher, so he went to Billington's evening classes at the Central School of Arts and Crafts. Amazingly, in Bob's archive there are his lecture notes on Billington's chemistry lectures, a unique insight into the way she taught then, which I saw due to the kindness of Bob's widow, Su Lupasco Washington.

When I visited Su, she showed me her large collection of Bob's work. He worked most of his life as a teacher and as an HMI for art education in Essex, but unlike many teachers, who subsume their careers in those of their students, Bob had a long and active retirement in which he returned to ceramics and did some of his best work.

What really appealed to me was his effective marriage of form and surface decoration, a hard thing to do, at which only the best ceramists succeed. His vessel forms are human, but he showed people that if you lay them on their side they also have the contours of landscape. In his later work, which he did in his seventies and eighties, there is more colour - often brilliant colour! And, as he insisted that he was an artist who happened to be a potter, he moved away from the vessel to plates and then to rectangular ceramic pictures. Clay wasn't a fetish, and he mixed many materials in his work, like ceramic fibre, which made his objects lighter.

In the film (which includes a lot of archive material shot on VHS before his death in 1997), Bob talks about going to the Crafts Centre in Covent Garden, to be told that his work was fine art, and then to the Redfern Gallery in Bond Street to be told that it was craft. In the end he just did what he wanted and didn't care about being pigeonholed.

There's a reasonable selection of Bob's work on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum, but this maverick artist deserves to be better known and more widely exhibited. The film will be posted on Vimeo in due course, and when it is I'll add the link.

16 November 2015


A bad workman always blames his tools - but good work is impossible without the right tools. As you continue in your work, you become attached to certain things, and some, I have found, make possible a huge leap forward.  Here are ten.

Sod's Law says that anything that can go wrong will go wrong, but there's also Sod's Second Law: before you can do anything you have to do something else. Preparation is essential, and without well-prepared clay it's hard to make anything well - and the clay has to be mixed and kneaded. Doing it by hand is pretty back-breaking, and my most useful tool is a Rohde pug mill. It’s German and designed from first principles, unlike the Staffordshire pug mills, which have remained unchanged for God knows how long and are grossly inferior.

Made of brass or aluminium, these will check the shape and smooth the side of pots on the wheel.  The traditional profile was used to check the inside of a vessel by throwers of Stoke on Trent, after which the turner would place it on a horizontal lathe for trimming. You can still see this method of working in the Wedgwood factory in Barlaston, Staffs. I have made several, but I particularly like one made by Kevin Millward, which is very versatile.

Flat, shallow vessels have to have their bases trimmed by running a sharp tool over them. There are several shapes and sizes, but this one does just about everything, with its sharp point to shape up the most uneven parts, its flat side for dealing with larger areas and its round back. It needs to be kept sharp, so I'm grateful for my...

Amazingly cheap and effective, it puts a good edge on tools, cleans up the knackered blades of old screwdrivers, will sharpen a pencil when I can't find a knife.

Little sponge on a stick for cleaning up tight corners.

For testing glazes and colours between firings in the big kiln. I bought it from a school, which, typically, had stopped teaching pottery. It takes as long to heat up as the big kiln but it cools in twelve hours instead of thirty-six because the walls are thinner. Occasionally a customer wants just one mug in a pattern I don't have in stock - good for that too.

These little ones, bought for a fiver, hold rigid, are accurate and good for checking the width of foot rings when turning.  Unfortunately made of mild steel, so they rust.

A rigid gauge-post is essential for throwing regular shapes. The pointer is set at the top level of your pot; you can have more if you want to measure different diameters elsewhere. I bought one with heavy base and a rubber pointer, both absolutely useless because they move, which defeats the object, so I’ve completely re-engineered it. I got rid of the base and replaced the steel rod with a brass one, which is bolted firmly to the back of my wheel, and I replaced the flexible pointer with a wooden one.

Things are always being assembled and disassembled in my studio, and for speed of working a power driver can’t be matched.

What did we do before plastic sheeting?  Used wet sacking.  I’m old enough to remember it – it was horrible. To prevent assembled pots  from cracking (because different parts are drying at different rates) they're wrapped until “equalised” (i.e., the parts have a similar amount of moisture in them and are all drying at the same rate). If you ever wondered if plastic sheeting really is biodegradable, I can tell you it is. After about ten years, my biodegradable black bin liners are beginning to fall apart.

You may have noticed that I didn’t include a wheel or my big kiln.  Although I use one, a wheel isn’t necessary for ceramics, there are several other ways of making. Big kiln, yes; but it’s little things like the grinding wheel and the power driver that give me the most pleasure.

6 November 2015


In recent years the Leach Pottery in St. Ives, Cornwall, has been run by a trust as a museum and a workshop for potters, and they have revived the idea of standard ware, which was the backbone and the daily bread of Bernard Leach's pottery after the second world war. A stream of apprentices and trainees went through the Leach pottery, latterly cutting their teeth on standard ware.

In the early 1970s I was living in Cornwall, struggling to set up my own pottery in the unromantic town of Camborne, part of the Cornwall That Nobody Knows, one of the inland working towns that offer little to tourists. The main industry of Camborne wasn't fishing, farming or tin mining, but the manufacturing of compressed air machinery at Holman's.

Naturally, I looked in at the Leach Pottery, but I never met Bernard Leach because causal visitors weren't allowed further than the showroom.  There I picked up the catalogue of standard ware, which shows what they made then. They charged  for the catalogue, their main marketing tool, a bizarre decision indicative of how uncommerical Leach was. I bought a couple of bowls (No. 8, 52 pence each) and an ashtray (No. 5, 22 pence). They were practical and hardwearing, though rough and unsuitable for polished tables.  I gave up smoking years ago but I still have the ashtray.

4 November 2015


BBC TV’s new series The Great Pottery Throw Down is a surprise, taking the successful formula of Bakeoff to the difficult and dirty art of ceramics. The first episode looked good. The judges are two experienced potters, Kate Malone, who makes large, juicy vessels in bright colours, and Keith Brymer Jones, who has applied the methods of studio pottery to long runs of kitchen ware. The host is DJ Sara Cox.

 We started with the familiar formula of with ten contestants of varied character and background, all keen amateur potters, given challenging tasks in a limited time with a lot of chivvying from the host and judges. Here they are: James, Jane, Jim, Joanna, Matthew, Nigel, Rekha, Sally-Jo, Sandra and Tom.

First they had to throw a group of bowls that fitted into one another. That requires not only judgement of size but also keen observation of the bowl’s profile. The slightest variation in curve gives a bowl a different character, and the hard thing is not making a bowl but making a consistent series. Nevertheless, they made a good fist of it. TV time is a lot shorter than clay time and the bowls had to dry far too quickly – no wonder so many cracked.

Then they had to pull a load of handles and put them on a group of mugs. Cue innuendo about stroking a wet clay sausage. (That reminded me of an adecdote Alan Caiger-Smith told me about his teacher Dora Billington. One of his fellow students, who used to drink a lot at lunch time, was standing at the back of the afternoon class sniggering as the prim Miss Billington showed them how to make a handle by pulling the clay sausage. Miss Billington looked up and snapped, "Yes, Mr Bolt, it is phallic. Now stop sniggering and pay attention!") The large number of fat wonky handles showed that this is harder than throwing a bowl.Then to finish, throw 20 eggcups off a 5kg lump of clay in 20 minutes.  Phew!

The fired pots were glazed and decorated with colours. Matthew stuck stubbornly to his brown country pottery aesthetic and was ticked off by Kate and Keith. I’m glad that decorating is part of Throw Down because it’s been neglected by many studio potters.

The winner in  Week 1 was Tom, a competent and confident maker.  Sally-Jo, an interior designer, didn’t have quite Tom’s craft skills but had a nice colour sense and a soft, free decorating style.

The money shot of reality shows is the first contestant to cry. Stick a camera in my face when I’m making something difficult and shout, “Come on, only thirty seconds!” and I’d cry.  But the first tears came not from a pottery tyro but from big, chunky Judge Brymer Jones, who was moved by Jane’s efforts. Clay? Weeping for joy? Excellent marketing for potters!

Galleries tell me that pottery vessels are out of fashion and that people are buying pottery animals and glassware. Some say the recession has cut the sales of small items but that big ticket paintings still sell. University courses are closing, fewer and fewer state schools teach pottery and materials-based art is unfashionable. But there are more potters than ever before, and some find it hard to make a living. In that context you may wonder if encouraging more people to be potters is a good idea. But if this show does for pottery what Bakeoff did for cakes, it will be valuable as well as entertaining. Buyers of craft are more likely than non-buyers to know about art and are more likely to be interested in the ideas and skills behind craft objects. Increasing knowledge of ceramics and how it’s made (even with Carry On jokes about pulling handles) is bound to widen the market for pottery and to be good for potters.

30 October 2015


I have a range of shapes and patterns but my ceramics are always developing and I'm trialling a new design and a new method - sponging. The method of sponging designs under the glaze to white pottery is long established - Emma Bridgewater does it well - but I'm not aware of anyone who's done it on glaze, maiolica style. Sponging has a nice texture you can't get any other way, it repeats regular shapes, but with pleasing variation, it's quick and - I admit it - I like playing around with new ideas.

This (left) is the kit. Dense sponge, a knife, a blowlamp to heat the knife, which cuts when hot, tile to mix the colour, palette knife to grind it smooth, brush to mix. The foam makes noxious fumes when burnt so I will be wearing a mask next time.

The first results are pleasing, and it has potential, though there's a long way to go. Watch this space.

22 October 2015


However long you do ceramics, a kiln firing remains nerve-wracking and you always open the kiln with trepidation. Today I finished a firing and took out 70 pieces, nearly all of them good.

Firing an electric kiln isn't as easy as is often made out. Sure, you can get the controller to switch the kiln off while you're asleep in bed, but kiln thermometers are inaccurate, all kilns have hot and cool spots, and anyway you have to measure heat-work, not temperature, and that requires pyrometric cones. In my 14 cu.ft. (400 litre) kiln I use two sets of cones because the top and bottom can differ by almost a cone (roughly 20 deg. C).  The last two hours of firing call for as much fiddling with sector switches, vents and bungs as a gas kiln.

Through repetition and experiment I've eliminated the grossest faults in my firings. Crazing and crawling are the opposites of each other, but I've had them both. Glaze chipping off the edges of pots is a hazard of tin glaze, and I've pretty well got rid of that. Colours running - got rid of that too. There's always room for improvement, of course - a slight adjustment of glaze thickness, some modification of the colour, better control of the brush, and in this firing I tried some new designs which will go into production when they've been refined. But on the whole, satisfactory.

12 October 2015


"Baroque excess" is a tautology, but the glorious silver tomb of St. John Nepomuk by Fischer von Erlach in the Cathedral of St Vitus in Prague cannot be described without tautology. I took a few pictures with a poor camera in the low light of the church, but they give some idea of it.

21 September 2015


When the iron curtain came down, western businesses were quick to invest in eastern Europe, but almost a generation later many interesting eastern European artists are still unknown to us. We discovered Pál Molnár-C by chance when we were traveling on the Danube from Budapest to Szentendre. There was a heatwave and we were trying to find somewhere cool to sit. Out of the sun on the lower deck we saw about thirty framed drawings - including the one above - topical, witty, well observed, obviously old and not what you would expect to find on a river boat. The only clue was the signature MCP, which was not much to go on.

Google soon turned up Pál Molnár-C (1894-1981), not an obscure artist as the large number of images on the web witness, but new to me. His studio in Budapest, in a middle-class, tree-lined street on the Buda side, was kept by his family as a museum and couple of days later we visited it. We were told through the entryphone that it was closed for the summer, but as we were there we were allowed in, and Molnár-C's great granddaughter Maria kindly showed us round.

First, an explanation of his odd surname, Molnár-C. Molnár was very close to his mother, Jeanne Contat (whom he conflated with the Madonna in his paintings) and he added the C in tribute to her.

Maria told us that the drawings on the riverboat were put there on the initiative of her father, who had contacts in the company. These graphic works were originally published in the evening paper Est in the 1920s and were so popular that readers complained on days they didn't appear.

The title on the drawing at the top of this post, Főzőcske, isn’t easy to translate. (The rough English pronunciation is "furzurchkeh".) Kati said it’s “cooking”, like preparing a chicken for the pot. Beguiling? Leading him up the garden path? A book about the artist translates it as "Softening". The nicely characterised portraits are of actual people, the socialite Baby Becker (below left), who had worked in silent films with Alexander Korda, and the playwright  Ferenc Molnár (below right), whose play Lilliom was adapted for the musical Carousel. The gossip columns avidly followed Baby Becker's affairs, and the readers of Est must have got the reference.
Below you can see three more of his drawings of Budapest life from Est.

 There is a full account of his life on the museum website. He was born in Battonya, a village in the far south east of Hungary, trained for three years at the Hungarian Royal Drawing School and then studied in Switzerland and Paris. His daily illustrations in Est started in 1924 and quickly brought him recognition.

At the same time as he was doing these little satirical drawings he was making religious paintings (above). He was awarded a scholarship to study at the Hungarian Academy in Rome, where he lived from 1928-31, still continuing his drawings for Est.
Tuscan Landscape
He loved Paris and Rome but he missed Hungary - a country he described as "horizontally small but vertically large." In 1931 he married Alice Gstettner and moved to the house in Ménesi street, where he lived and worked (below) until his death in 1981. “I wake up every morning as excited as the groom who is about to meet his love,” he said. “For me, reuniting with the palette, the paintbrush, the canvas, and the constant challenge that art represents, is a feeling of reviving happy excitement every single day.”
Pál Molnár-C in his studio
He was both a colourist and an accomplished graphic artist in black and white. He painted landscapes, portraits, religious and allegorical works and church murals, and designed posters, made woodcut illustrations and drew in a highly original way. His portraits and landscapes of the 1920s and 1930s are in the
St. John the Baptist
neo-classical current of the time. The portraits of his daughters (which you can see in this video of the studio) are warmly felt and beautifully executed. Molnár-C's subject matter and style made him unpopular with the regime after the Second World War: he was on the Communists’ banned list and struggled to make a living from private work and church commissions. (He's an interesting contrast with another Hungarian religious artist, Margit Kovács, who cleverly adapted her work to socialist themes in the 1950s and so secured her career.) After his death, his daughter was able to buy back many of his paintings at reduced prices; now he is so popular that his work is being forged.

Ménesi út 65, Budapest 1118, Hungary
Phone Number: +(36)302011073

Opening hours
Thursday: 10.00 - 18.00
Friday: 10.00 - 18.00
Saturday: 10.00 - 18.00

Ticket prices
Adults:1500 HUF (5 EUR)
Children/student/senior: 750 HUF (2.5 EUR)
With foreign language guiding.

Good surveys of his graphic works are available from the museum: The Good Old Days in Drawings by Pál Molnár-C; and Pál Molnár-C. Graphic Artist.