27 November 2014


Here are a few pieces that came out of the kiln this morning.  They're going on sale this weekend at the Chilwickbury Christmas Market, St Albans, Hertfordshire. The market is put on by Christiane Kubrick at her house every year, and it's always a pleasure to have a stall there - actually, it was once a horse's stall - the market is in the Childwickbury stables, where very grand horses used to live a hundred years ago.

This is not your average Christmas market. Christiane creates a wonderful atmosphere. There are original art, ceramics and gifts on show, sold direct by the artists, and there's plenty of hot, fresh and healthy food. The relaxed and easy going attitude creates the perfect environment in which you can approach the artists and talk to them about their work. So do come along and meet me on Saturday or Sunday.

Admission is free and there's plenty of free parking. No need to book, just turn up, park, begin browsing and enjoy the day.

Opening hours
Saturday 29th November 10am-5pm
Sunday 30th November 10am-5pm

19 November 2014


In my last post I said that in the mid-seventies there were 37 full-time courses in ceramics in Britain. Like everyone else I wondered what the closure of courses would mean for studio pottery.  Assume the annual intake of each course was ten, and that half the graduates became professional potters (a very generous assumption) and that 10 per cent stopped making every year. Over thirty years that would produce about 1,700 potters. But in 2004, the Crafts Council estimated there were about 6,700 professional potters in Britain (Making It in the 21st Century: Executive Summary). Most must have learned informally outside art schools. The quality of their work was variable; some were very good, many were mediocre and some were no good at all; but in terms of numbers, the training of potters clearly does not depend entirely on art schools.

31 October 2014


I've written before about the closure of the Harrow ceramics course, the BA Ceramics at the University of Westminster. Matthew Partington, of the University of the West of England, described the closure of ceramics courses a few years ago in an interesting paper "Can British ceramics education survive?"  He says that in 1980 there were 17 degree courses in Great Britain; in 2010 there were four.  The decline is actually steeper:  In 1976 there were 37 full-time courses in ceramics (not all degree courses), although ceramics is still taught on some 3D courses.

There are several reasons for the decline.  (This, I should say, is my gloss on Partington's argument, not exactly what he writes.)

Fewer schools teach it, because of financial pressure, pressure on the timetable, concerns about health and safety and lack of skilled teachers.  It's not necessary to do a foundation course before a student goes on to an art degree, so students can start art at university without any experience or knowledge of ceramics.

There were too many ceramics courses and it was impossible to fill the places.  They're expensive, and if they're not filled, they have to close in the end. Financial stringency in universities has ensured that.  Ceramics tutors were getting old and they weren't being replaced.  One exception is Cardiff, where ceramics is still thriving.

Ceramics is unfashionable.  It's about materials and technique and not about ideas or self-expression. As art has become more cerebral, ceramics has lagged behind, though not on post-graduate courses. Ceramics expanded in a hands-on, intuitive way and there's little critical discourse in the ceramic community. (It's surprising how insatiable is the appetite of the older generation of pottery enthusiasts for throwing demonstrations.) There aren’t enough role models for young artists who want more than that. They would rather do fine art, animation or film.  Ceramics once chimed in with alternative ideas; now it's realised that it has a big environmental footprint, it's not green any more.

The cost of a degree means that students have to think about whether it will fit them for employment. Ceramics won’t, so it's now too expensive for everyone – for the university and for the student.

Partington points out that experimental ceramists depended on teaching for a living and weren’t under too much pressure to sell their work.  Course closure means they may no longer have an income. However, some experimental ceramists depend on grants and sponsorship.  Since they don't make commodities, there was never any market for their work.

Without teaching, many ceramists won't be able to make a proper living.  Although there was an over-supply of courses, there is also an over-supply of ceramists, who make more pottery than people want to buy. If some ceramists stop making, it may be better for those that continue.

But there may be a zero sum.  The unfashionability of ceramics may mean that the market for it also shrinks. Anyone who sells ceramics direct to the public knows that most of their customers are over fifty.  They grew up with Cranks, the Design Council and hippy crafts. Will the generation that grew up with instant messaging, neo-liberalism and Ikea replace them?

26 October 2014


Kazimir Malevitch's "Black Square" (1915) (above) was the end of representational painting. In 1916, the Dadaists' Zurich exhibition was the end of art.  After those momentous events, what art became was a family whose members bore some resemblance to one another, but in which distant relatives looked very different indeed.

And where did one go after the "Black Square"?  In the comprehensive Malevitch exhibition, which ends at Tate Modern today, Malevitch's career, before and after "Black Square", is traced and documented.  He put a great deal of energy into teaching in the 1920s, inspiring his students with his ideas about Suprematism, his art doctrine of which the black square became a symbol.  In the 1920s, as Stalin's power increased in Russia, avant garde art was marginalised and condemned.  Malevitch himself was imprisoned, accused of being a German spy.  Then, in the 1930s, he started to do representational painting again, including portraits of workers.  But this was not socialist realism.  There were elements of realism, Suprematism and Renaissance portraiture.  To some extent this development may have been part of the Return to Order which occurred in art throughout Europe after the First World War; in part it may have been the need of a painter to continue painting, and a feeling of the limits of pure, hard-edged abstraction.

One of Malevich's last paintings was a portrait of E.Yakolevna (below), into which a lifetime's experience is poured.  To me this was one of the most beautiful portraits in the exhibition, with traces of abstraction in the red, white and black stripes in the subject's collar.  In this period of his life, Malevitch signed his pictures with a black square.  At his funeral in 1935 the front of the hearse bore a black square and mourners carried banners with black squares. 

14 October 2014


To determine the weight of dry matter in the glaze slop.

By Brongniart's formula W = G(L-1000)/(G-1) calculate weight of dry matter in the glaze slop.

W = the dry weight of matter in the slop
L = the weight in grams of a litre of the slop
G = density of the dry matter relative to water (its relative density)

W is to be determined
L may be determined by measurement
G is unknown

Therefore G must be determined.

To determine G:

G = (Wd/Vd)/1

Wd = weight of dry matter
Vd =volume of dry matter

Weight  Wd of dry matter may be determined by measurement.

But volume  Vd of a given weight of dry matter is not known.

Therefore Vd must be determined.

Determine by displacement: take 1 litre water; add a given weight of dry matter and stir; measure displacement  Vd in litres.

Calculate Wd/Vd.

Calculate G.

Calculate W.

13 October 2014


As readers of this blog will have realised, I'm researching how pottery was taught in British art schools in the 20th century.  Here's a very, very brief overview.

Iznik, one of Lunn's teaching models, from Pottery, 1910
Practical pottery in Britain was first taught by Richard Lunn at the Royal College of Art (1901-15), then at Camberwell College of Arts and Crafts (1908-15). Alfred Powell introduced pottery painting at the Central School of Arts and Crafts in 1906. Lunn's and Powell's inspirations were Arts and Crafts pottery, Iznik and Italian maiolica. W.B Dalton, head of Camberwell College, was a grand feu, East-Asian stoneware inspired potter but he left teaching to Lunn. The grand feu ceramics of Dalton and Bernard Moore in Britain, Charles F Binns and Taxile Doat in the USA, and Ernest Chaplet, Auguste Delaherche and Alexandre Bigot in France - the progenitors of studio pottery - were of little interest to Lunn and Powell.

The USA was ahead of Britain. Binns taught grand feu ceramics at the New York State School of Clay-Working and Ceramics from 1900, and Doat introduced it to the Art Academy and Porcelain Works at St. Louis, in 1909. "Studio pottery" was an American term, first used in a review of Binns's The Potter's Craft in Keramic Studio in 1910. (If anyone can find an earlier use of the term, I would be grateful for the reference.)  Studio pottery was not taught in a British art school until William Staite Murray was appointed to the Royal College of Art in 1925.

Bernard Leach (8th from left) with apprentices and friends
Bernard Leach's view of craft training was similar to that of C.R.Ashbee, who advocated workshop training and wrote Should We Stop Teaching Art? (The answer was that art schools should be converted into subsidized craft workshops.) Leach said, "The greater part of art school training does more harm than good," and the studio pottery movement in Britain developed an anti-art bias. Leach's apprentice system, central to his craft philosophy, was, however, problematic. Most studios were too small to support unproductive staff: apprentices were never paid much and some actually had to pay for their training. The employment of schoolboys, which was tried for a while, did not work. The apprentice system was unsustainable and so there emerged a pattern of potters getting rudimentary skills in art schools and then going into workshops. By the 1970s, Britain had almost forty full-time art school courses in ceramics.

In the 1930s the Central School had flirted with industrial training, but the students did not want to go into industry, and certainly not to Stoke-on-Trent. The Second World War changed everything. The Central had been bombed and evacuated and in 1945 pottery had to be started from scratch. Dora Billington had taken over as chief instructor with Gilbert Harding-Green as her associate. They became the leading school for art-led ceramics. In 1947 the Central had a dynamic new principal, the painter William Johnstone, who introduced modernism into the fine arts, industrial design in place of crafts, and Basic Design (a Bauhaus-type training) for all disciplines. Out of deference to Billington, who would not countenance industrial design, the pottery course remained craft-based.

The "New Look" in British ceramics. Margaret Hine's and Nicolas Vergette's decoration of the Sarabia coffe bar, 1956

The post war optimism, Johnstone's reforming zeal, the introduction of modernism and Basic Design, and the need to rebuild the pottery department, all contributed to the ethos of Central ceramics. Picasso's ceramics, first shown in Britain in 1950, also exerted an influence. By 1951 - Festival of Britain year - Billington had put together the team that would define the "New Look" in ceramics at the Central: Harding Green as her loyal lieutenant, Richard Bateson, a country potter with an extraordinary command of throwing, and two young potters, William Newland and Kenneth Clark, who were outside the Leach orbit. Billington's approach to teaching was to get the student to discover what he or she wanted to do, give them the means to do it and then make them work very hard. She insisted on high standards, but she did not think there was only one standard.

2 October 2014


Tendring district council removed this ironic Banksy graffiti from Clacton-on-Sea because of complaints over the racist slogans. That raises several questions:

Does the high regard in which Banksy is held encourage the defacement of buildings by thousands of talentless graffitists, and should he be treated simply as a vandal?  Or is creative vandalism a special case?

Is he now held in high regard because of the high money value of his works and is he part of the artistic establishment?

Is it right to respond in this way to sincerely expressed feeling of offence?  Does art justify offence? Is the outcry over the removal of this graffiti partly inspired by its money value?

Comments welcome, and more thoughts later.

PS. Banksy has created an entirely new quandary because his graffiti is worth more than the buildings it defaces.  We have never seen that before.  Contrast the vandalism of the Rothko painting in Tate Modern, which the vandals claimed was art: their graffiti was worthless, but the Rothko was valued in millions. If the vandalism is worth more than what's vandalised, preserve it.  If, not, punish the vandals.

I like Banksy, but let's get him into proportion: he's a witty political cartoonist.

23 September 2014


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


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 (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 Store (demolished)
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. Her world map in the pool in the foyer of the huge old Pioneer Department Store, the Úttörő Áruház, (below) has thankfully been preserved in the First Site Hotel that replaced it. (It can be seen  at Kossuth Lajos utca 7-9, 1053 Budapest.) 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)