18 July 2014


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 instllations, 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 designer and executant was normal: William Morris did not print all his wallpapers and William de Morgan did not paint all his pots.

There was something problematic in that for Morris. He advocated an economy in which things were made by autonomous workers, but his factory was not like that and he explained that it could not be like that until after the revolution.

Twomey's work is post-craft where 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 post-craft the maker becomes an object.

27 June 2014


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


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.
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


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


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

3 May 2014


Jo Atherton, It's Only a Game (2014)

At Watford Museum until 28 June, Jo Atherton is showing constructions made from objects found on the seashore, brightly coloured twine, netting, tags from lobster pots, plastic toys, hooks, labels, balloons, fish decoys and nameless, unidentifiable fragments. I spoke to Jo at the opening today.

I know Jo as a ceramist – we have exhibited together in Hertfordshire several times – but she has got interested in objects she came across when walking by the shore. "When you get your eye in, you see more and more of them,"  she told me. Gradually she built up a collection and began to weave them together.  Each woven piece told a story.

One of her large pieces is called Goodies and Baddies, (below) made with lots of little toy soldiers, which seem to proliferate at the edge of the sea. "With so many of these little plastic heroes washing ashore," Jo says, "I am mesmerised by their global presence. Toy soldiers wash ashore in the UK, on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of the USA, South Africa and Australia. These toys are in a varied state of erosion, yet remain a constant on many shorelines. There’s an army of toy soldiers, a global force amassing beneath the waves – but where are they all coming from? And who is their leader?"

She now collects flotsam from around the British Isles – Cornwall, Norfolk, Sussex, Pembrokeshire and Kerry - and objects sent to her by collaborators in Illawarra in Australia, Cape Town in South Africa and Maryland in the USA. Her boyfriend has had to get used to parcels of rubbish being sent to her in the post.

As she sorts the flotsam, themes suggest themselves.In Cornish Blue, she combines twine and objects in various shades of blue. The colours are striking when combined like this, although a single scrap of blue rope on a beach may not be so noticeable.

Her work is possible because rope, twine and netting are made of non-biodegradable fibres like polypropylene and nylon.  The jute and sisal ropes of an earlier generation had no colour to speak of and eventually rotted away.  Modern twine breaks up into smaller and smaller pieces, eventually ingested by fish, but it's always there.

I was fascinated by another large tapestry, Plenty of Fish in the Sea, full of tags numbered and lettered in code. Jo discovered that they're licence tags from lobster pots, many having drifted to Cornwall from the coast of North America.  She contacted the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans to find out more.  Jo describes this work in the following way: "Fish shaped lures swim through tangles of line, against a colourful backdrop of twine and fishing line. Lobster pot tags from as far away as Newfoundland, Maine and Rhode Island are included in the weaving, demonstrating the extent to which tidal currents ignore nations, boundaries and cultures when delivering marine litter to new shores."

Flotsam traces the movement of the seas over decades.  Some of the little plastic toys she's found were current thirty years ago; she's found things with their price marked in pre-decimal currency.

These tapestries of little figures are poignant, especially the dismembered and headless toys.  Jo has made something surprising and beautiful from them but behind it is a comment on the pollution of the sea. As Jo makes art from the flotsam, the pollution is reduced a bit.

19 April 2014


We were inspired to visit Great Dixter again by the programme about it in the BBC’s Gardens in Time series.  The episode is on i-player until 27 April.

Christopher Lloyd (1921-2006), who made the garden, was a radical among gardeners.  He emphasisied form and introduced unfashionable colour clashes. Would anyone before Lloyd have put pinks and oranges together? I don't know, but because of him it’s now OK.  He enraged readers of Country Life by telling them that he’d dug up the rose garden and replaced it with a garden of exotics.  April isn't the time for exotics and we'll have to go back in high summer, but even this early in the year there are powerful colours, like the bed with lilac coloured tulips, sky blue forget-me-nots and acid green euphorbias, or the trade mark collection of pots by the house door with all the bright things in season put boldly together.

The Lloyds bought the medieval house before the First World War and got Edwin Lutyens to make an extension.  He made the old house look more Arts and Crafts by adding tall chimneys. Through the influence of Gertrude Jekyll, there's a link to the Arts and Crafts Movement in the garden as well - though Lloyd's planting has superseded her style.

Like all good gardens, Great Dixter is made against a good structure, much of it created by the topiary yews, which stand big and black against the sky. The house is also a foil and also makes good shapes. The garden is now under the direction of Fergus Garrett, who worked closely with Lloyd for many years.

There are things for a ceramist here as well as shapes and colours.  Dixter sells superb flowerpots from the Whichford Pottery, where Jim and Dominique Keeling have made a study of historic garden pots. And Lloyd was also a collector of Alan Caiger-Smith’s pottery, some of which is on display in the house.

16 April 2014


I'm sorry I haven't added much to my blog recently. I've been busy in my studio making a large batch of tableware for shops, galleries and upcoming shows.  But here's something that interests me.

Before 1930 there were four major events in the development of studio pottery in Britain. The first was the setting up of a pottery class at the Royal College of Art (RCA) in 1901. The second was the exhibition of Chinese art at Burlington House in 1910.  The third was the arrival of Bernard Leach and Shoji Hamada at St Ives in 1920.  The fourth was the appointment of William Staite Murray (above) as pottery instructor at the RCA in 1925.

The pottery class at the RCA was set up by Richard Lunn, an artist who had been a successful artistic director of  Royal Crown Derby china in the 1880s. His appointment was part of the reform of British art education under the influence of the Arts and Crafts Movement.  Up to about 1900, the government art schools had taught little other than designing on paper and there was almost no practical craft training.  Painting was, of course, taught at the Royal Academy, the Slade and at private art schools, but they were not under the control of the government. Government funded art training had not been about producing practical craft workers but about producing designers and teachers who could draw accurately and who had good taste. Lunn was brought into the RCA with other teachers of practical crafts to change all that.  He claimed that his was the first pottery class in any British art school where students could design, make and fire their own work.

The 1910 exhibition of Chinese art included early Chinese ceramics, which had not been seen widely in England before, and opened the eyes of many, including the early studio potters Charles Vyse, George Cox, W.B.Dalton and William Staite Murray. In retrospect, following the eventual dominance of the oriental style in studio pottery, the Burlington House exhibition was seen as seminal.

Leach and Hamada set up their pottery at St Ives under the influence of Japanese country pottery and they became interested in English country pottery as well.  The cultural influences on St Ives were complex. The aesthetic of Japanese folk art that informed Leach and Hamada was promoted by westernized Japanese who were familiar with the writings of Ruskin and Morris.  Although Leach disliked some of the products of the English Arts and Crafts Movement, his philosophy is essentially that of Ruskin and Morris.

Leach was not well known in the early 1920s. The most famous potter of that period was Staite Murray. Staite Murray's pottery was also influenced by the far east. He exhibited his work at high prices in west end art galleries alongside painters and promoted himself as an artist rather than a craftsman. The circumstances of his appointment at the RCA are mysterious. The accepted account (which is given at greatest length in Malcolm Haslam's biography) is that Staite Murray wanted help in teaching galena glazing and raku and invited Leach to assist him.  Leach, living almost 300 miles away, said he would prefer to teach in a block of several months a year.  Staite Murray said there was no money for two teachers and that he could not afford to vacate his post for Leach.  Misunderstanding and bad feeling ensued and relations between the two men cooled.

The contretemps between Leach and Staite Murray has come to be known as "The London Affair".  It is not much documented and, as Staite Murray burned all his papers, even Haslam's account is brief.  Emmanuel Cooper in his biography of Leach, whose life is very well documented, has  little to say about it.  Paul Rice puts some of the blame on the principal of the RCA, William Rothenstein, but as far as I can tell Rothenstein was not responsible for the misunderstanding, which was probably the result of Leach's vanity.

There is, however, a third party in the London Affair: Dora Billington.  Billington was pottery instructor at the RCA until Staite Murray’s appointment and left before he took up his post.  She had trained under Richard Lunn and took over his class in 1915.  By the time Staite Murray was appointed she had been teaching at the RCA for ten years and had just installed a high temperature kiln. She had also been teaching at the Central School of Arts and Crafts since 1919. Why then did she leave the RCA?

Billington explained it many years later: "When Professor Rothenstein became Principal of the College, he felt that the junior staff should not stay beyond a certain number of years, and we were all informed that we should not be kept on."  This is odd.  Rothenstein became principal in 1920 and Billington remained for another five years.  Her RCA course won an award at the Paris Expo of 1925. She was 35, not exactly "junior".

There had been a critical review of the RCA in 1911 but little had changed and it had lost its way. Rothenstein was brought in to to make major changes and established the College's reputation.  He elevated the teaching of painting and brought in practicing artists of high standing who would teach part-time and continue their own creative work. Staite Murray was an ideal appointment. He was the most famous potter in Britain, eight years older than Billington and better at promoting himself.  I suspect that Rothenstein in effect sacked Billington.

Ironically, Billington was a better teacher.  Staite Murray, as a Zen Buddhist, said that he taught by not teaching.  His aim was not to instruct but to "create an atmosphere".  Many of his students received no instruction at all; some did not see him for weeks on end. When Robert Baker took over ceramics after the war he found a locked room full of equipment that had been put there to stop students using it. Nevertheless, Staite Murray was a charismatic presence, when he was actually present, and did influence many potters, including Sam Haile, Henry Hammond, Robert Washington and Ursula Mommens.  Many, however, had to take evening classes at the Central with Miss Billington to learn how to make and glaze their own pots.

14 March 2014


I took these pictures of wall art by Loretto in south London.  They're from a small area: New Cross, Peckham and Nunhead. It's not surprising that someone should copy Banksy - it's suprising that there should be so few people copying him.

If not for the signatures, you might think for a moment these were by Banksy, but, once you know they're not, you see, at least in two of the pictures, a less sardonic wit.  The friendly policeman, happy in his destiny, is so not Banksy, and the hurrying commuter, about to be struck by Cupid, is also too nice for him.  But the chilling "My Plan B" shows that Loretto has a darker side.

South London is not my manor and I've probably missed some of Loretto's work.  For someone so talented, it's surprising there is so little information about this artist.  More, please.