11 February 2016


I thought I knew something about 20th century art. I'd heard of Alexander Calder, and in the 'sixties, when I came to artistic consciousness, Calder was still working and his mobiles were emblems of modernism. So I went to Tate Modern's Calder exhibition and realised I knew almost nothing about him.

One of the newspaper reviews said it's the happiest exhibition in London. It is. He made delighful wire sculptures in the 'twenties and 'thirties, portraits of his artist friends in Paris and figures from the circus. His interest in the circus continued throughout his life (he died in 1976) and there's a film of him with his moving models of circus animals and acrobats on a toy scale, down on his hands and knees playing with them like your grand-dad.

Movement was essential to his mobiles: the clue is in the name. I knew about the hanging mobiles with their biomorphic vanes, delicately balanced and moving gently in the air, but not about the standing mobiles, like the one in the picture, which has a small motor and moves through several cycles, like a solar system. (Planetary motion was one of his inspirations.) Nor did I know about his collaboration with musicians, some of whom, like John Cage, took the idea of random change from him and put it into their compositions.

You would therefore expect to see movement in this Tate Modern show, but, as many of the comments on the comment board complained, you didn't, because these works are too fragile. All you got were five minute videos on little screens beside Calder's automota, and none of the musical collaborations.

The exhibition was a museum curator's presentation of rare Calder works, wrapped in cotton wool for us to bow down before in reverence. All the fun had been taken out of them.

I return to my theme of the stifling effect of value upon art: these works were too valuable to be set in motion. OK then, homage to Calder demands that the originals be left in their fusty, padlocked cellars for academics to peer at, and that engineers be commissioned to make reproductions of them for display. Then we would get what Calder was about, not this po-faced exhibition at Tate Oldfashioned.

30 January 2016


Photo: Anikó Kern
After returning from Hungary last summer I hoped to write something about the Wekerle Estate, Budapest’s garden city, but failed to do so. Here instead is a cross posting from Martin Yarnit's travel blog, Silver Streaker, with some photos of the estate by me and much better ones by Dr Anikó Kernwho has kindly allowed me to reproduce them.

When you go to Budapest  you will, of course, visit the grand old pastry shop Gerbeaud; but why not venture further afield to a simple out-of-town cukrászda, a traditional pastry shop, in one of the most successful social housing developments in Europe?

We went to the to see the Arts and Crafts architecture of Károly Kós. The state-owned workers’ estate was built in the early 20th century on the initiative of the prime minister, Sándor Wekerle, to accommodate the city’s rapidly increasing population in a new kind of tenanted housing. Inspired by the English garden city movement, it was an attack on the landlord system, at first meant for public sector employees. Wekerle spawned co-operatives and community associations, planted thousands of trees and bought fruit bushes for the tenants’ gardens. You might think such a socialist experiment would have appealed to Hungary’s Communists, but they closed the community association and let the estate decay. Now there’s a renaissance of community action, green ventures and volunteering. We went on a sweltering day and stopped at the spacious, old-fashioned pastry shop for a cake and a coffee.

Allow at least half a day for a tour of the 1.7 sq. km. estate. Bus 99 from Blaha Lujza tér will take you to Kós Károly tér at the heart of the estate. Over 65s travel free. Guide books and information in English from the community centre (Wekerle Táraskör) in Kós Károly tér (closed noon to 4pm; no credit cards).
Károly Kós

Photo: Anikó Kern

Photo: Anikó Kern
Photo: Anikó Kern

15 December 2015


I liked the acerbic art critic Brian Sewell not just for his deflation of the empty and pretentious but also for his knowledge of exhibitions staged long before his readers were born. I was born fifteen years after him but I remember the Picasso exhibition of 1960, the one that established his reputation for the first time in England - before that he was widely considered a charlatan. I was fourteen and it was the start of my gallery-going.

Now public galleries are dependent on sales, and blockbusters have to be bigger. Important anniversaries that won't draw the crowds are missed, which is why there was no Futurist exhbition in Britain in 2009. The straightforward retrospective is out.

The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, which I visited on Saturday, has a Van Gogh-Munch show comparing the two innovative and troubled artists. They were in Paris at the same time but there's no evidence that they met. In some ways the parallels are forced but the exhibition made me wonder whether, if they weren't so totally neurotic, they'd have done anything so interesting. Van Gogh's tragedy was that he died at 37; Munch's that, as the world's most anxious man, he lived to 80.

As well as putting on comparison shows, curators have to explain things to the younger visitor, like what a "letter" is. Van Gogh had a voluminous correspondence, which his family preserved, so we know a lot about his thoughts, travels and careful artistic experiments. A note explains, "In those days it was common for people to write letters in order to keep in touch and share news." Well, d'oh! But, hang on, who writes letters now?  I only write them to old people who don't do email and I'm told that some yoof think it's unmanly to write with a pencil instead of a thumb.

But does the Rijkmuseum have to explain in such a patronising way what a self-portrait is? "A selfie, who has not taken one? But did you know that artists were doing this from as early as the late 16th century?"

So what did a "letter" actually look like?  No-one really knows. Even in 1670 people were texting, as this selfie by Pieter de Hooch (below) shows, and, look, the little girl in the doorway has a selfie stick.

4 December 2015


There are lots of ideas that I don't have time to develop.  One was a homage to the maiolica of Montelupo, the Tuscan town which produced a lot of jolly plates with images from the Commedia del'Arte. They used large areas of yellow in the sky, that delicious egg-yolk yellow that the potters made from the deadly antinomiate of lead. The plates are admittedly crude, but that appeals to me, and I thought I might adapt them to modern life a few years ago, with this sketch for a plate.

30 November 2015


I don't normally make tiles, but I produced a few for my talk and demonstration at the Buckinghamshire Pottery and Sculpture Society last week - the idea was to have a square on which I could show how different techniques of decorating work.  On this tile, I quickly applied a few dashes of wax emulsion mixed with blue stain, then painted stripes of yellow and dark blue over them to give an idea of the texture they produced. The effect is actually different from what I've done on my pots before, illustrating the fact that sometimes you can get good results under pressure and without due consideration. I may make a few tiles like this in the future.

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.