23 September 2014

COBALT BLUE: LETTER TO AN ADMIRER



I got an e-mail in response to my post Not Quite Monochrome, asking me how to use cobalt oxide in the decoration of porcelain. As the question came from someone who declared me "the best ceramist in the world", I took some trouble over the reply. Here's an edited version of what I said.

"Cobalt blue is the most reliable and stable colouring oxide used by potters. I don’t know what it is that your potter friend has given you, but the best thing to start with is cobalt oxide, which is readily available although not cheap. Ceramic suppliers also sell blue stains, comprising cobalt oxide and other things, sometimes calcined for greater stability. Those stains have their uses, but I avoid them because I want to use washes of varying intensity, and for that the simple oxide is best. You can apply the colour as a watery wash, which gives just a hint of blue, to an intense line, which is almost black, and everything in between. Chinese brush decoration on ceramics (for example, the Qing Dynasty porcelain dish from the V&A illustrated below left) exploits this quality of cobalt oxide to great effect.

"The cobalt oxide we get today is very pure and very bright. That’s fine if you want a bright blue, but I don’t, so I tone it down. There are several ways of doing that: you can add red clay, or iron oxide, or copper oxide (which I do) or manganese dioxide. Manganese produces purplish brown, but mixed 50:50 with cobalt produces a warm black. (My piece at the head of this post uses a cobalt/copper blue and a manganese/cobalt black.) You can experiment with line blends of cobalt and another stain – say stain to cobalt in the ratios 1:9, 2:8, 3:7, 5:5, and see what is best for you.

"Cobalt is perfect on porcelain, and it doesn’t matter much whether you fire in an oxidising (clean) or reducing (smoky) atmosphere. Cobalt is stable at 1300 deg. C (cone 10), so you should have no problem at cone 5.

(I was asked what made the cobalt go fuzzy.) "If you are applying it as an underglaze stain direct on the bisque ware, and then glazing over with a clear glaze, the glaze may be disturbing your decoration, giving you a fuzzy effect. There are two ways of avoiding that. The first and simplest is to mix the oxide with a little gum Arabic dissolved in hot water. If that doesn’t work, fire the decorated bisque to about 600 deg. C before glazing.

"This is my method. I put about ½ a teaspoonful of the oxide on a shiny white tile, add a few drops of water and mix to a paste with a spatula. You can add a drop or two of gum Arabic at the same time. Then thin as required and use the tile as a palette. Some people mix in a bowl or jar, but that way you can’t vary the intensity of the wash or line so well. The addition of gum sets the oxide into a hard cake rather than a loose powder when left to dry, to be softened with water next time you use it.

"If you want the decoration to go fuzzy, you can apply it by brush as an underglaze and then rub over it with a finger. This method is even more effective if you apply the colour in-glaze, which is to say, glaze the bisque, let the glaze dry and then paint over it – which is like watercolour painting on absorbent paper. The stain will soak in and dry almost at once, then you can rub or distress it – you can even scratch through it with a pin or stick to make white lines against the blue. By the way, you can also exploit wax resist (wax emulsion, not candle wax) for a white line. By combining washes of varying intensity, rubbing with a finger, wax resist and scratching through to make a white line, you can get a wide range of decorative effects.

"Like most potters I have experience with only a small number of glazes – in fact I use only one glaze – though I believe that there will be little reaction between cobalt and any clear glaze. However, the temperature at which you fire may affect the result you get. If the glaze runs, it may carry the oxide with it. That is even more of a problem if you paint in-glaze than if you paint underglaze.

"My ceramics are earthenware, glaze fired to 1060 deg. C and I don’t know about porcelain, but there are many books with glaze recipes for you to look up. My glaze is

Lead bisilicate frit (permitted in the UK but not the USA): 56%
Cornish stone:   16%
Borax frit:   8%
China clay:   5%
Tin oxide:   7%
Zirconium silicate:  8%

"I add about 0.5% Epsom salts (magnesium sulphate) to stop the glaze settling in the bucket.

"If you are sieving a glaze you must NOT sieve it dry, which is potentially hazardous to health through the inhalation of silica dust. You should use a good quality mask when mixing the dry ingredients (a builder’s paper mask is not good enough), and you should sieve wet. To get the glaze though a 120 mesh sieve you will have to add more water than you need, sieve, then allow to settle at least 24 hrs and then pour off excess water.

"I hope that helps, and good luck in your work!"

12 August 2014

PAINTED POTTERY: AN EXHIBITION OF MY WORK


I'm taking part in Hertfordshire Open Studios this year as part of a mixed media show with five other artists at the Old Courtroom, St Albans Town Hall, Market Place, AL3 5DJ. Trains from London St Pancras to St Albans take about 20 minutes.

The show is open from 6th to 28th September, Wednesday to Sunday (not Sunday 7th), 11am to 4.30pm.

The firing temperature for these painted pieces is critical: the colour has to melt but not to run, and the temperature in my old electric kiln varies by 25˚C from top to bottom. The answer is to re-wire - but not when you have a lot of work to finish for a show. So in the meantime I have to average and hope the top shelf isn't underfired and the bottom shelf isn't overfired.

My inspirations are varied - obviously the long history of blue and white pottery, both tin glazed and porcelain, but also the painted pottery that came out of Stoke-on-Trent from the 18th to the early 20th century.

In the 19th century, expensive freehand painting was being replaced by transfer printing and filling-in, but progressive and artistically-minded manufacturers resisted the trend. They were helped by the  craze for pottery painting  between 1870 and 1900. In the 1870s Minton's developed their art pottery studio in close association with the South Kensington art training school (later the Royal College of Art); in the next decade Doulton's of Lambeth employed local art school graduates to decorate their salt-glazed pottery; and at the beginning of the 20th century there was a fruitful partnership between W.R.Lethaby, Cecil Wedgwood and Alfred and Louise Powell.

Wedgwood, unlike many other manufacturers, commissioned designers from outside the company and developed links with art schools. In 1902 he asked Lethaby to recommend a suitable designer and Lethaby introduced him to the Powells. Fortunate in finding a director receptive to their Arts and Crafts approach, the Powells had a strong influence on Wedgwood's ceramics for many years.

In the 1930s there was a vigorous debate about the importance of art in industry. The 1935 Victoria and Albert Museum’s exhibition English Pottery Old and New demonstrated good design with both industrial pottery and studio pottery. Gordon Forsyth's book Twentieth Century Ceramics (1936) covered hand-made and factory-made pottery without discrimination, and Dora Billington took a similar approach in The Art of the Potter (1937). After the second world war, a few British tableware manufacturers imitated studio pottery, and in Scandinavia there was lively hand painting in pottery factories - notably by Stig Lindberg, whose work is much sought after today. The Italian tradition of mass-produced, hand-painted pottery is very much alive. But in Britain there has been a parting of the ways between the factory and the studio, which I think has been unfortunate for both.

5 August 2014

MARGIT KOVÁCS: VERSATILE HUNGARIAN CERAMIST WHO COMBINED FOLK AND MODERNIST ELEMENTS IN HER WORK


Margit Kovács (1902-77) was a ceramic artist who made narrative and sculptural pieces depicting religion, Hungarian national history and family life. Her work is rooted in her country's folk art.

There are collections in Győr, her birthplace, but the biggest is at Szentendre, the pretty artists' town just outside Budapest, where her work is displayed in a light, airy museum in Vastagh Street. We went there on St Stephen's day, the big Hungarian national holiday; Sezntendre was buzzing with holidaymakers but we had the museum almost to ourselves.

She won international awards in Milan, Paris, Berlin, Brussels and Rome. Gordon Forsyth in his survey of Twentieth Century Ceramics (London: The Studio, 1936) showed some of her work. She was once very popular in Hungary and the Communist regime gave her the Distinguished Artist Award in 1959, but since her death her reputation has declined because her work is thought to be not intellectual enough.
Detail from the portal of St. Emeric Church, Győr

Plaque at the Margit Kovács 
museum, Szentendre
Nevertheless, I find it appealing. When I first encountered it, it was unlike anything I'd seen before. Although she seems ingenuous to us today, she was serious about her subjects. Although she was folksy, her work is is quite different from traditional Hungarian pottery, which is mainly slip-trailed earthenware. It has something in common with figurative ceramics of Hungarian Art Deco, e.g., the work of Hajnalka Zilzer and Mária Ráhmer, though she stands alongside István Gádor as one of Hungary's major 20th century ceramists. Her themes are comfortable but she had a subtle modernist sensibility.

She said of herself, "I strive to express what is beautiful or the response I feel. I always want to be candid in my work. I live between two contrary poles.  One is fear of extinction: I want to keep pace with the age. The other is fear lest I should let myself be driven into an insincere trend: lest I should fall behind in time and life.  But what is new in life I wish to assimilate and formulate in my own idiom."

She had total mastery of her medium and her method. Her work is stylised, strongly-conceived and well-executed. She worked in earthenware, sometimes with coloured tin glaze. Her later ceramics are unglazed and made of chamotte, a gritty pink clay.  "The Big Family" (1962) (below) is typical. It's a deep relief, 110 x 120 cm, depicting an idealised family, an unfeasibly young father and mother at the top and eight children in pairs all around. She has not tried to hide the sections from which the relief is constructed and the absence of glaze over the rough clay shows her increasing interest in form and texture over colour.

"The Big Family", Margit Kovács museum, Szentendre

Not much has been written about her, but Ilona Pataky-Brestyánszky's well-illustrated monograph, with a catalogue raisonné, is readily available in English and is good. Ágoston Kollányi made a short film about her in Hungarian, Poet of Clay, in 1958. You can see her at work in the clips I've linked - the narrative is uninteresting but the record of her carving a large relief is informative.

Kovács studied graphic art and then china painting in the School of Applied Arts in Budapest, then ceramics with Herta Bücher in Vienna (1926-28) (where she was associated with the Wiener Werkstätte) and at the Staatschule für Angewandte Kunst in Munich. In 1932 she studied functional pottery in Denmark and in 1933 figure modelling in chamotte and porcelain at Sevres. It was in the 1950s that she developed her interest in traditional Hungarian themes, drawing on myths and folk tales for her narrative pieces and tableaux vivants.  It was then that she changed her preferred material from terracotta to chamotte and did more expressive modelling.  One of her most significant works of religious art is the portal of the Saint Emeric Church, Győr (1939–1940) (detail above), flat painted tile work, different from her sculpture and demonstrating her versatility.

She received many public commissions and her ceramic murals are still visible in Budapest and other cities. In the 1930s she was asked by the modernist architect István Hamor to decorate his buildings in Budapest ("The Fisher Boy" and "Saint Florian", below).


After the war many of her commissions came from the Communist state. The value of these public works is not fully recognised. Julius Palacinka found that local people had no idea who these reliefs were by, and some, unfortunately, were obscured and neglected. Pataky-Brestyánszky lists her murals - in the table below I show all the public Budapest murals extant at the time of her death and their locations.

Fisher Boy, 1932 Ponty utca 14
St. Florian, 1935 Fürst Sándor utca 16
The Peacock Alighted, c.1935 Vármegy utca 15
Signs of the Zodiac, c.1936 Foyer of Kosciuszkó Tádé utca 14
To the Old Post House, 1937 Régiposta utca 13
Budapest, Queen of the Danube, 1937 IBUSZ, Roosevelt tér 5 (fragment)
Adam and Eve c.1939-40 Vámegy utca 15
Fishing, Hunting, 1942 Lobby of Bimbó út 11
The First of May, 1946 Ministry of Education
Map of Lake Balaton, 1950 Hall of the Déli railway station
Fountain Pool, c.1950 Pioneer Department Store (destroyed) 
Folk Dance Group Rehearsing, 1952 Ministry of Foreign Affairs
The Seasons, 1953 Budapest Museum of History
The Matyó Family, 1955 Museum of Applied Arts
Wine Harvest, 1955 Museum of Applied Arts
Games, 1959 Ministry of Education
The Meteorologist, 1960 National Meteorological Institute
Two Girls Went to Pick Flowers, 1961 Museum of Applied Arts
In Remembrance of Things Past, 1961 Blood Donor HQ
Into the Woods, 1965 Home for Handicapped Children

The table might form the basis of a Budapest Kovács trail.

Several of the institutions mentioned here may have changed their names since 1989 and some of the works have perished. For example, her world map (without America) in the pool in the foyer of the huge old Pioneer Department Store, the Úttörő Áruház, (below) was destroyed when it was redeveloped in 2008. Those works that remain should be preserved or removed to Szentendre if the present owners are not willing to look after them.

Ilona Pataky-Brestyánszky, Margit Kovács (Budapest: Corvina, 1978)

28 July 2014

STOKE-ON-TRENT-ART SCHOOL, 1919: "AN ATMOSPHERE OF DEPRESSION, FAILURE AND DISAPPOINTMENT"

Differences between teachers and school inspectors are not new.  The Stoke-on-Trent art schools got a pasting from government inspectors at the end of the First World War, but the principal, Stanley Thorogood, was proud of their achievements in difficult circumstances and was fizzing with ideas for the future.

Hanley, one of the six towns of the North Staffordshire Potteries, first opened its art school in 1847. Burslem opened in 1853. Smaller schools in the other towns amalgamated with Hanley and Burslem in 1910. They were part of the national system of art education, providing artisans with basic drawing and modelling skills. Only the most persistent student could follow its syllabus through its 22 levels; most went through only two or three. Originality and creativity were actively discouraged. At the pinnacle of this system was the National Art Training School in South Kensington, later the Royal College of Art (RCA)

Remarkably, the Potteries art schools did not teach much pottery until the second decade of the 20th century. Craft education was the responsibility of employers, and the art schools gave only a basic training. From about 1900, the Arts and Crafts Movement brought about reform, introducing a more practical education requiring familiarity with materials. Birmingham was famous for it, the London County Council's Technical Education Committee, under the leadership of Sidney Webb, set up the Central School of Arts and Crafts, and Camberwell Borough Council set up the Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts. The RCA, largely under the influence of Walter Crane, followed suit in 1900. Crane lasted only a year as principal: the RCA was controlled by central government and he couldn't bear the red tape.

Arts and Crafts designers were not unanimous. C.R.Ashbee thought art schools were pretty much a waste of time and that the crafts should be learned in guild-type workshops. Lewis Day, one of the more commercially successful designers, thought it was not necessary to be familiar with every medium and that it was preferable to teach pure design principles.

Whatever the most progressive way of teaching design, Hanley Art School lagged behind. Its 1908 prospectus lists its art courses as: freehand and brush drawing; plant drawing; model, architectural and mechanical drawing; geometrical and perspective drawing; painting in oil, tempera and watercolours; pottery painting, designing, modelling; moulding and casting and wood carving; and art metalwork. It also offered studies in decorative design as applied to manufactures, and lectures on the theory, history and practice of art.

In 1908, there were courses in pottery moulding, modelling and casting and pottery painting, but throwing and turning were not taught. Despite Hanley and Burslem being the main art school in the Potteries, their teaching of ceramics was deplorable. Although students at Burslem were capable of producing nice but hackneyed tile designs in the style of Kate Greenaway (above), an inspection of 1919 found the Schools were "without any practical teaching equipment on a scale adequate for either specialised training or research in throwing, turning, mould making, moulding, stamping and the firing of industrial art pottery. At Hanley, no making machine of any kind exists in the School, while at Burslem and London Road the hand-driven throwing and turning machines are obsolete for teaching and experimental purposes".

Thorogood wrote in 1916 that "It is to the credit of the Stoke educational authorities that they have, as far as it is possible under present conditions, endeavoured to more thoroughly concentrate their energies on the direct needs of the pottery industry. An Art Advisory Committee has been formed, including manufacturers and technical experts, and the whole art work of the borough, including the five schools of art, is now under the supervision of a Superintendent of Art Instruction."

Graded courses of study had been drawn up for pottery decorators and designers, tile draughtsmen and designers, pottery modellers and designers, pottery engravers, pottery litho artists and designers and pottery enamellers and gilders.

Thorogood wrote: "To illustrate one important class directly beneficial to the industry, reference must be made to the works executed by enamellers and gilders (girls only), ages from thirteen to sixteen years. These particular students take a three years' course, based on their industrial requirements, which includes drawing of ornament (freehand), painting from plants, geometrical setting of pattern on ware, direct brush-drawing on pottery with pottery colours, and shading of a technical nature also on pottery ware. Their diploma is granted for direct and expert draughtsmanship as demanded by the industry, and herein lies the crux of the whole system of training. Their course of study has been carefully thought out for them and adapted to meet their special requirements, and not made to fit in, as in the past, to meet the established ordinary school of art curriculum and examinations. The instructors are technical experts who are engaged in a factory and who have received an art education in the schools. "

Thorogoood envisaged reforms in the system of training the craftsman. "With the new well-equipped Pottery Science School now established in the Borough under Dr. Mellor, it is to be hoped that we are at the beginning of a new era in the history of the potting industry. The time has arrived to provide the missing link as far as the training of certain types of pottery art students is concerned, by bringing the technical and artistic sides of the industry into closer relationship. Art students recognize the extreme importance of technical knowledge, and the scientist pays us the compliment of acknowledging that it is the design and pattern that sells the work. In support of this argument and necessity of art students receiving a certain amount of technical knowledge, it should be pointed out that many of our best students become decorating or pottery managers involving a very wide field of knowledge. It seems incredible that more advantage is not taken of the endless scope provided by the potting industry. Take the case of the thrower, turner, mould-maker, etc., would it not be to the ultimate advantage of the industry if classes were instituted to provide both technical and artistic training for these particular types of craftsmen? All the latest types of machinery might be congregated together, including a collection of the finest shapes procurable. At the same time a certain amount of technical knowledge, including the composition and properties of materials, their treatment, firing, etc., might be given to meet their immediate requirements. We should thus produce craftsmen saturated with a true knowledge of the beauty of line and form, together with a clear understanding of the limitations of their material. Their field of vision would be broadened, and so lead to a versatility of ideas, and enable the worker to meet the ever-changing fashions demanded by the vagaries of the human mind."

The inspectors were not impressed. "Perhaps the most noticeable feature common to the Schools was an atmosphere of depression", they said; "of failure and disappointment. Teaching methods, for the most part, were lacking in the inspiring motives so essential for success. These things, together with the apparent inability of members of the teaching staff to bring themselves into contact with the practical needs and developments of the local industries, cannot but hamper the Schools in achieving the distinction of directing the development of an art which means life to the borough. There was poor provision of kilns and too much dependence on the goodwill of manufacturers. "Paintresses attend in numbers", said the inspectors, "and they are proficient but their training is conservative and monotonous."

In summary the inspectors' judgment, allowing for the adverse conditions created by the war, was that the effort to provide practical technological instruction was "feeble and inadequate".

Board of Education, Report of Inspection of Stoke on Trent Schools of Art, 1919.
Charles Holme (ed.), Arts and Crafts. A Review of the Work Executed by Students in the Leading Art Schools, The Studio, 1916

18 July 2014

CLARE TWOMEY, "PIECE BY PIECE": CERAMICS ABOUT


Last night I went to the launch exhibition accompanying the three-day conference on Ceramics and the Expanded Field at the University of Westminster, which runs from 17-19 July.  It's part of a major research project by the Ceramics Research Group, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. The conference is subtitled: Museum as Context, Creation and Authorship, Process and Material, Audience Engagement.

My image shows an intervention by Clare Twomey, a British artist who constructs large-scale installations, sculpture and site-specific works from clay.  She has exhibited at Tate, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Crafts Council and the Museum of Modern Art in Kyoto-Japan. An interesting aspect of her practice is her collaboration with industry, including Royal Crown Derby, Emerys minerals and Wedgwood.

This installation comprises a large bounded space in which a performer casts objects from slip (liquid clay) in plaster moulds. The objects are small kitsch figures with which the performer populates the space in a manner she chooses.  Her performance is poised and balletic.  She does not respond to questioning.  If you talk to her, the exhibition attendants ask you to stop.

Twomey's work, Piece by Piece, refers to the quest for perfection through iteration and the relationship between audience and exhibit. The focus on slip casting figures recalls 18th century soft-paste porcelain, in which thousands of figures were cast and which did achieve a sort of perfection. Twomey's are relatively simple.  Although they are made in multipart moulds, they come out whole.  In the most virtuoso works of potteries like Chelsea (left), figures were so complicated that they had to be assembled from several cast parts. Twomey's work is about the process, but the there is little finishing and the figures are fairly rough. This sort of conscious reflexivity, in which the work is about itself, is normal in academic ceramics. The unconscious Chelsea figure was not about anything.

Raising the question of art's relation to the audience is hazardous, as the Yellowist outrage on Rothko's Black on Maroon demonstrated.  Here, it seems, the relationship is looking.

Craft pottery went through a phase in which the work had to be designed, made, fired and sold by the maker (and if he didn't sell it, it had to be used by the maker as well).  That was a departure from Arts and Crafts practice, in which a separation between conception and making was normal, if problematic: William Morris did not print all his wallpapers and William de Morgan did not paint all his pots.

What was problematic for Morris was that he advocated an economy in which things were made by autonomous workers, while his factory was not like that, and he said it could not be like that until after the revolution. The separation of designing from making also became problematic in Arts and Crafts practice as familiarity with materials became increasingly important .

Twomey's work is post-craft and in it the relation between conception and execution is subtly different from that in the Arts and Crafts Movement. In neither is the maker the artist, but here the artist doesn't just employ the maker but, because the maker is the work, she employs the work itself.  In early craft, the maker was employed to make the object; in this post-craft work he maker becomes an object.

7 July 2014

MAKING AN OVAL VESSEL WITH HANDLES

            

27 June 2014

ALKALINE TIN GLAZE

Tin-glaze potters normally use a lead/tin glaze, which is bright, adaptable and reasonably hard.  My usual glaze, derived from Daphne Carnegy and Alan Caiger-Smith recipes, is made from lead bisilicate frit, Cornish stone, borax frit, china clay, tin and zircon.  It can be fired successfully between 1060° and 1120° C. Its main shortcoming is a slight yellowness which affects copper oxide.  In alkaline glazes, however, copper oxide produces a delicious turquoise, as illustrated in my earlier post.

In his book British Tin-Glazed EarthenwareJohn Black illustrates  a plate (left, Netherlands, first quarter of the 17th century) in which part of the decoration is turquoise rather than the yellowish green one expects from copper in a lead/tin glaze, which indicates an alkaline glaze. Alan Caiger-Smith gives the following Dutch glaze recipe from the mid-eighteenth century:



50 lb. dry sand
15 lb. potash
20 lb. soda
6 oz. manganese
Mixed, calcined, ground and sieved.

To this are added:
20 lb. lead
20 lb. tin
Calcined, and oxidized ground and sieved.

Such a glaze was 28 per cent alkaline (disregarding impurities), which would certainly have produced turquoise in the presence of copper oxide.  The illustrated plate was made a hundred years earlier than the recipe but may have a similar glaze.

The glaze I'm developing is made from a soda/potash frit, china clay, tin and zircon and it's also 28 per cent alkaline. As it has only four ingredients it's quick to make up. Alkaline glazes craze like mad, so it's not for tableware. First results are promising but the glaze was put on too thick and the firing wasn't quite right. This piece (left) was decorated with copper, cobalt/manganese black and a red stain.

26 June 2014

MYSTERIES OF A JUG

Jug 1
Jug 2
Jug 3













The traditional jug or pitcher, with a round belly, high shoulder and a narrow neck, is one of the most satisfying for the potter and one of the most practical.  The full belly, tapering up to the neck and down to a foot of similar width, not only looks good, but also feels good to use. The high shoulder raises the centre of gravity so that the jug is easy to lift when full, and the narrow neck acts as a funnel projecting a stream of liquid away from the lip. Making a lip that doesn't dribble is a challenge rarely met.  I have a factory-made coffee pot with a tiny hole below the hollow spout for the drips to fall back into, a clever device that I've not seen repeated. The usual rule is that the lip should have a sharp edge to cut off the flow, but that's not an absolute guarantee.

The traditional jug is one of those evolved designs, like the traditional bicycle, that it seems impossible to improve on, but aesthetics and fashion drive innovation and there are all sorts of jugs and all sorts of bicycles. Despite my praise of it, I'm not currently making this form because I'm creating a more contemporary look, but I agree with Michael Cardew, who said, "If a thrower can make pitchers well, he will be able to make any other shape. A good pitcher is the most lively and athletic of all pots, realising the conjunction of grace with strength, ready and apt for action yet majestic in repose."

Proportion is tricky.  The eye can discern small differences in proportion, and certain ratios of height to width, and the dimensions of one part of the jug in relation to the others, are immediately satisfying.  It's not easy to explain why, although the most useful guide is the golden ratio, in which the ratio of one dimension to another is the same as the ratio of the larger dimension to their sum, a ratio of about 1.62.  But I've tended to approach this sort of jug empirically, varying the proportions until they look right – in other words, my approach is subjective and personal and I work on the assumption that what looks right to me will probably look right to most other people as well.

Nevertheless, I've tried to analyse what looks good and what doesn't. Here, (top), are three jugs, similar in shape but slightly different in proportion.  To my mind, the one on the left (Jug 1) looks too squat and the one of the right (Jug 3) is too narrow and its neck too tall. The the one in the middle (Jug 2) combines elegance with generosity of form. Why?

The key measurements are the height of the jug, its width at the broadest point, the width of foot (roughly equal to the width of the neck), and the height of the neck. The ratio of each part to the others is shown in the table below.

Rule 1 is suggested by Jug 2, where the ratio of height to width, 1.6, is close to the golden ratio.  But the golden ratio is seen nowhere else; the closest is the ratio of width to foot, at 1.8 - good jug makers often make a narrower foot that stands in relation to width closer to the golden ratio. In Jug 3, with the long neck, the width of the foot and the length of the neck are about the same; in Jug 1, the ratio of neck to foot is 1.3, which suggests ...

Rule 2: the length of the neck should be less than the width of the foot.

Rule 3 might be: the width of the neck at its base should be about the same as the width of the foot.

I don't know whether there are other ratios that people find satisfying, and for the present the proportions of a good jug remain a mystery to me.
JUG 1 JUG 2 JUG 3
height : width 1.4 1.6 1.7
height : foot 2.6 2.9 1.7
height : neck 3.4 3.4 3.4
width : neck 2.4 2.1 1.9
width: foot 1.9 1.8 1.9
foot : neck 1.3 1.1 1.0

12 June 2014

WORK IN PROGRESS

This is how it starts.

The demands of making pottery mean that I haven't been able to write this blog since my note on Sicilian maiolica.With orders from galleries and exhibitions coming in the autumn I've been in the studio all day.  It's a dirty job, but someone has to do it.

Cleaner and prettier than this heap of clay (above) fresh from the pugmill have been my experiments with a new glaze.  My existing glaze is a fairly standard maiolica, based on lead and tin oxides, derived from recipes by Daphne Carnegy and Alan Caiger-Smith. Such a glaze gives opacity, moderate hardness, sheen and a good colour response. Its only disadvantage is a slight yellow cast.  So I've been formulating a high alkaline glaze in order to get turquoise blue, which you can't get with a lead glaze. Turquoise alkaline glazes were the glory of medieval Persian pottery, like this beautiful jug (left) in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.

Finally, after many trials (below), I found a good glaze. The trials  involved changing the way I fire my bisque.  Previously I followed the usual studio pottery practice, firing bisque to about 1000˚C and glaze to about 1060˚C. The alkaline glaze only works with bisque at 1085˚C and glaze at 995˚C. It's cheaper than a lead glaze and uses about 10% less energy, so it's good for the environment too. Reports and pictures soon.


26 May 2014

SICILIAN MAIOLICA

Sicily is an important centre of Italian maiolica, much of it made in the old town of Caltagirone.  The Arabs brought glazed pottery to Sicily and the town's name is said to come from the Arabic qal’at-al-jarar, meaning “castle of jars.” As maiolica is so normal in Italy, it's hardly ever called that, just ceramiche artistiche, art pottery, to distinguish it from wall and floor tiles. Unfortunately nearly all the art pottery I saw during a recent trip to Sicily was dreadful, the ideas conservative, the shapes derivative and the decoration weak. The shop in Taormina, pictured below left, gives a good idea of what you'll find.

It's artisan production, but the Italian word artigianale doesn't mean the same as "craft" does here. We invented craft in the 19th century  as a conscious revival of old ways of making in reaction to mass-production.  Italy, which industrialised later, retained more artisan trades. One of the joys of visiting the country is the small workshops in city centres, doing things ranging from gilding picture-frames to mending cars. Artisan manufacture is such a significant part of the Italian economy that the chambers of commerce are chambers of "commerce, industry artigianato and agriculture". The huge International Handicrafts Trade Fair in Florence doesn't make our distinction between craft and manufacture, which means that in Italy a craft like art pottery may well be mass-produced by hand.

Eventually I found two pieces of pottery that I liked.  One was a pair of ceramic heads (top picture) made by Renata Emmolo in Syracuse; the other was a tile (below) made in Giacaomo Alessi's workshop in Caltagirone.

The ceramic heads are ubiquitous and nearly every home, shop and restaurant in Sicily has them. They represent the story of a Sicilian girl who cut off the head of her perfidious Moorish lover. They're usually garishly painted and many are made in moulds. Renata Emmolo's are modelled by hand, and I liked her additions of grapes and loquats - the fruit they call nespole in Italy.  I think these heads look better left unpainted.

Giacomo Alessi is influenced by medieval ceramics and uses a limited range of colours on a cream-coloured glaze. “I didn’t have any instructors," he says. "I learned by myself and my independence allowed me to look ‘beyond’. I love tradition but I’m not traditional. I translate tradition into something new. I searched, gathered and re-invented the Baroque heritage in my own way. It makes my fantasy fly until everything becomes movement, human and animal spirit”.

In the end I never got to Caltagirone, although it's only an hour by car from Catania. In a two-week trip visiting Syracuse, Noto, Agrigento, Piazza Armerina, Taormina and Catania on Sicily's fragmented, confusing and sometimes unreliable public transport, we just couldn't get there.

Giacamo Alessi
Caltagirone shop, Via Principe Amedeo, 9. Tel +39 0933 21964
Caltagirone  factory, Via F.sco Schiciano, 10-12. Tel +39 0933 31694
Agira EN: Sicilia Fashion Village.  Tel +39 0935 594265
Catania airport, Departure Lounge. Tel +39 095 7232084
Catania: Vechhia Dogana (Old Customs House), Via Dusmet, Catania Port. Tel +39 095 532056