1 September 2015


Life in Squares, the BBC TV adaptation of Amy Licence’s book, Living in Squares, Loving in Triangles, gave a - shall we say - one-side view of the Bloomsbury Group. By the end of it we knew who did which and to whom and with what, we saw Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant dabbing away at canvases and we understood that Virginia Woolf went mad, but we hadn’t learned much about the art and literature that they created. OK, I suppose the Clive Bell/Roger Fry theory of significant form doesn’t make prime time television; and the series has been a great fillip to Charleston, the Bloomsbury home in Sussex where much of it was filmed - visitor numbers are up, which is welcome because the Charleston Trust has a major improvement programme.

Charleston has been open to the public for almost thirty years and it's a window into the lives of the Bells, Grant, Woolf and their friends. It’s preserved pretty well as they left it, decorated in their idiosyncratic style and frozen in time from before the Second World War, after which they were getting old, were poor and liked things much as they were.

Virginia Woolf said that "on or about December, 1910, human character changed", referring to the Post-Impressionist exhibition organised by Fry at that time. Artistically, the Post-Impressionists shaped the style of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, and also to some extent that of their son Quentin, who was a talented decorator of pottery. (The picture above shows one of his tile decorations.) Bell and Grant were among the standard bearers of Post-Impressionism but they did not play a major role in the development of modernism in Britain. Woolf was central to modernist literature, and in art theory Fry exercised an important influence through the The Burlington Magazine and his Slade professorship.  But in  the practice of painting and design it may more truly be said that in 1910 Bloomsbury discovered the Post-Impressionists and from that point on never looked forward. Cubism and Futurism touched Bell's and Grant's interior design lightly, but not their painting, and, in even in traditional old England, they were overtaken by the young rebels at the Slade: Paul Nash, C.R.W. Nevinson, Stanley Spencer, Mark Gertler, Dora Carrington and David Bomberg. Bomberg, whose work underwent continuous development, was only five years younger than Grant. In literature and in intellect Bloomsbury led, but in art practice they became repetitive. They lived in squares, loved in triangles and painted in circles.

Charleston became what the Germans call a Gesamptkunstwerke, a total work of art. Beds, doors and cupboards were decorated with figures and natural motifs; they laboriously block-printed the walls instead of papering them; Quentin made pottery lampshades with holes in that projected pretty lights on to the ceiling; their painting and pottery are everywhere - and the pottery they collected: Staffordshire figures and tin-glazed plates, probably found in junk shops.

Bell's and Grant's talent was recognized and they were commissioned to create interiors for their friends. They designed fabrics commercially. Stoke-on-Trent commissioned designs for plates, which worked well in production. The colours at Charleston are muted - grey, buff, mustard yellow, brown, faded pink, black - in an original and effective palette they developed in the 1920s, which is softer than that of the Omega Workshops. All this is set against old English furniture, chintz and worn oriental rugs. The style is unclassifiable: anti-Victorian but eclectic; 20th century but not modernist; with a dash of neo-Classical out of Picasso and redolent of upper-class taste. Omega similarly brought a Post-Impressionist influence to interior design and its furniture shows an awareness of the Wiener Werkstätte, but the important influences on 20th century design came from continental, mainly German and Austrian, developments in architecture and design theory.

Charleston is charming in the summer and a good gardener has created wonderful views through the windows. But everything has to be packed and put in store in winter because it’s so cold and damp. The reason was probably a combination of poverty and a horror of anything so bourgeois as comfort. Blomsbury's physical isolation and indifference to contemporary movements in art and design makes Charleston unique – or should I say “unusual”, because there are other artists’ houses in England like this and Voysey's interiors from the time were comparable. It has a strong appeal to those who like its mix of the rural, the artistic and the quirky. Charleston has probably influenced taste in the last thirty years and the Charleston shop sells the work of modern designers whose work (including my decorated pottery) chimes in with Bloomsbury style.

26 August 2015


Romantic Prague: Baroque Palaces in the Little Town, the broad Vltava, fairy-tale spires, palace gardens, accordionists playing sentimental melodies in the restaurants.

One of the most popular locations for visitors is Jewish Prague in the Old Town, which comprises mainly its ancient cemetery and its six synagogues (Pinkas, Klausen, Spanish, Maisel, High and Old-New (above)), the ghetto having been cleared around 1900 in the wake of Jewish emancipation. Emancipation allowed a major Jewish contribution to German and Czech culture - Mahler, Freud, Husserl, Kafka and Čapek to name but a few. Now gaggles of tourists follow their leader, umbrella aloft, stopping at salient points to be hectored like idiot children.

Four of the synagogues are run by the museum service and illustrate the history of Czech Jewry. In the Pinkas the walls are densely covered with the names of every known Holocaust victim. The Spanish has interesting case displays about emancipation under Joseph II, the Jewish enlightenment, the Jewish contribution to the arts and sciences, the Nazi destruction, Communist persecution and revival post-'89. The displays in the Maisel are more scholarly. The Klausen has a good collection of ritual objects explaining Jewish life. The old cemetery is a higgeldy-piggeldy pile of ancient tombstones, including those of venerable figures like Judah Loew ben Bezalel (associated with the Golem in literary myth). I saw a visitor place a pebble on his grave in the Jewish tradition, then cross herself.

It's right that the victims of Nazism should be rescued from anonymity but the huge quantity of names numb, and what shocked me more was a large box of discarded phylacteries, their straps tightly wound by neat and tidy killers. They reminded you that most of Jewish Prague is in the past tense, a tourist attraction about the dead. Hitler wanted the items looted from synagogues in the east to form a museum of an extinct race. Well, this is it. Because Nazism was defeated and democracy restored, we forget how successful Hitler was. The deep-rooted Jewish cultures of Vilna, Warsaw and Prague were wiped out and most of eastern Europe is now Jew-free. In 1930 there were 357,000 Jews in Czechoslovakia, in 1946, 55,000. Now there are fewer than 8,000.

For that reason I didn't include the Old-New synagogue in my museum tour; it's under the control of the Prague Jewish community and I joined their Sabbath morning prayers instead. The service is orthodox and traditional, entirely in Hebrew with no guidance for participants, no sermon and very brief announcements.  If you're not familiar with the liturgy you won't have much idea what's going on, but there's a good cantor and parts of the service are moving. Typical of traditional synagogues, it's chaotic and informal, with a mixture of intense prayer and men chatting. Women are out of sight in an upstairs gallery and can't see much. This and the other active communities are the real Jewish Prague, not the Prague of dead Jews.

31 July 2015


How many times have you read that, only to be told by the company when you ask them to mend your doorbell, “Sorry, it’s too small to be economic”? Well, I found the perfect engineering firm for which it was true: no job really was too small.

My second hand Fitzwilliam potter’s wheel required a modification, just a block with two holes in it and two retaining bolts. In the old days, Mervyn Fitzwilliam, the designer and maker of this Rolls Royce of potters’ wheels, would have done the job for me, but sadly he died, too young, a couple of years ago. Then I found a little company that was willing to have a look at it. “We’re very busy, I’ve got someone just had a baby and two guys on holiday, but I’ll try and fit it in.”

They're at the blind end of a narrow lane, all the other buildings are Victorian cottages, you can hardly get your car down and wonder how the hell you’ll get out again. The factory is also old, small and crammed tight with machinery, swarf everywhere, odd shaped parts being cut, turned and drilled. Tinker, tailor, potter, engineer – stick to what you’re good at and do it well.

The boss told me to have a word with Peter.  Peter is about eighty and comes in two days a week. The younger guys wear t-shirts, Peter has a collar and tie and a long grey coat. He fiddles with the piece I have brought for him to copy, “Hm, that fits when it touches, I suppose", he says disapprovingly. I immediately have confidence that he will make a good job for me. “But I probably won’t be able to do it till next week.”  “Fine!” I say.

The next afternoon Peter phones to say that my job is finished. It's perfect, of course. The prototype was made of mild steel with a painted finish. I told him my part would be used in a wet environment, so he made it out of stainless steel.

I went to pay the boss. When I asked for a VAT receipt he gave me an old fashioned look. I explained that I couldn’t record it as a business expense if he didn’t.  “Ah,” he said, “You’re very naughty. I slipped it in for you and now you want the paperwork. In that case you should have issued a purchase order, then the book-keeper could deal with it properly.” He made an exception for me. What a wonderful combination of informality and bureaucracy.

30 July 2015


William Rothenstein (left) was principal of he Royal College of Art from 1920 to 1935. It's hard to believe it now, but when he took over, the RCA was a pretty poor art school and its reputation was low. Rothenstein revolutionized it. He thought it was stuck in an Arts-and-Crafts time warp, and although he had little time for the modern movement (he called Cézanne's followers "ces ânes", these asses) he wanted to bring the college up to date by hiring top artists who would have studios there and teach part time.

The the Arts and Crafts movement was the gateway to modernism and in sculpture it influenced the move away from modelling towards direct carving, as illustrated in Tate Britain's exhibition "Barbara Hepworth: Sculpture for a Modern World". (Hepworth and Henry Moore were RCA students under Rothenstein.) But in design it was overtaken by more forward looking movements. Rothenstein said,"It is important we should not fall behind the Continental industries, and the freshness of design, execution and subject matter which is characteristic of the best French, German and Austrian work has not been sufficiently encouraged and sought for at the College." The book accompanying the Hepworth exhibition has something about pottery at the RCA that I hadn't seen before. In 1920 Rothenstein was happy to go along withe the painted pottery taught there by Billington, and he wanted to help her by bringing in Alfred and Louise Powell as instructors; by 1924 he had discovered William Staite Murray, who was making big, sculptural vessels in a totally new way. One of Rothenstein's ideas for reform, as shown by a letter quoted in the book, was to bring together the woodwork and pottery studios. It didn't happen, but it was a good idea. When the Bauhaus-inspired Basic Design course was developed at the Central School of Arts and Crafts after the Second World War, that sort of cross fertilization really took off. Billington's pottery students there worked with sculptors William Turnbull  and Eduardo Paolozzi and the painter Alan Davie. Paolozzi, who had quite an influence in the pottery studio, was himself based in in the textile department.

12 July 2015


My article on Dora Billington, "From Arts and Crafts to Studio Pottery", has just been published in Interpreting Ceramics - you can read the full text by clicking the link here.

It traces her career before 1945, in particular her years at the Royal College of Art as a student and teacher and her innovations in teaching pottery at the Central School of Arts and Crafts before the Second World War. In the critical decade of the 1920s, the teaching of pottery in British art schools was revolutionized and she was part of the revolution.

In 1920, students were being taught pottery decorating in the style of Persian, Iznik and Italian maiolica. Alfred and Louise Powell, who hand-painted pottery for Wedgwood in a tight, floriated style (above, left), influenced Billington at the RCA, and pottery teaching at the Central was led by one of their studio assistants. In 1920, the principal of the RCA, William Rothenstein, wanted to bring in the Powells to teach pottery painting; but by 1925 he had taken a complete change of tack and wanted to propel the RCA forward by appointing the hottest property in studio pottery, William Staite Murray, who was making monumental, Chinese- inspired stoneware (above, right). Billington was pushed out of the RCA to make way for him, but at the Central, she quickly introduced his type of pottery, installing a high-temperature kiln and inviting him to teach classes there as well. By the early 1930s, Central students were all making the new stoneware, and decorated pottery in the Persian, Turkish and Italian styles was out of the window.

7 July 2015


We had good weather and a happy weekend at Art in Clay at Hatfield House. In the brief lull before returning to work, here's a few things that caught my eye from exhibitors who stood out from the traditional potters.

One of Vilas Silverton's Zen rogues (left, top) was featured on the show ticket. I liked them and I liked Vilas. He breaks the rules and he's an artist who happens to work in clay rather than a potter, sometimes like Richard Slee, whom some of his work (above) reminds me of.

Student work, unconstrained by the need to sell, is always interesting. From Cardiff, Sarah Statham did good things with tiles, with oblique, inconsequential images. Joanna Simmonds made faceted porcelain mountains (left, middle). Cardiff is one of the good ceramics departments that hasn't been closed. There was also innovative and cheeky work by students of Central Saint Martins: the pots with boobs were disapproved of. Central St Martins trains students to be industrial designers, but those who exhibited at Art in Clay wanted to be makers.

Independent schools have the resources to set up pottery studios that state schools don't, and Chris Sutherland, artist in residence at Bishop's Stortford College, brought an excellent group of A-level work, much of which is of degree standard.

Barry Stedman's ceramics become increasingly painterly with an assured use of colour (left, bottom), not always evident in ceramic art.

2 July 2015


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

30 June 2015


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

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

26 June 2015


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

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

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

I'm up for it.

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

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

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

16 June 2015


Marshall Colman ceramics 2015

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

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

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