2 December 2016

VASE MANIA PART II: THE URN IN FUNERARY ART

Highgate Cemetery
Highgate Cemetery
Highgate Cemetery

In Highgate Cemetery (above) there are many monuments with urns, many of them draped with cloths. To us, the urn as grave marker suggests ashes; when draped, a shroud; when wreathed, honour and remembrance. It is easy to see how it became a part of Victorian mourning customs and symbolism. But what exactly did it symbolise?

Look on the web and you'll find many explanations, most of them offered with confidence, without source or justification and often contradictory. The urn is said to symbolise sorrow, the departure of the soul from the body, the veil between the living and the dead, immortality, the hope of resurrection, an untimely death and the ashes of the dead. The last interpretation is the least likely: at the time when the urn was most common in British funerary art, cremation was illegal.

Perhaps we might understand this urn monument better if we knew where it came from.

The urn is a high-shouldered vase on a small foot with a narrow neck, usually with a lid and with or without handles on the shoulder. The high shoulder makes it lift from the ground, looking elegant and noble. The high-shouldered jar has been a popular form in ceramics of different cultures, styles and materials, in the Greek amphora, the Song vase, Renaissance maiolica, and the studio potter's jug, but it flourished in Britain as an absolute mania in the 1760s.

Urn monuments were most common in the 19th century, the age of elaborate tombs and conspicuous mourning. They spread through the English speaking world, but whether they're found outside Anglo-Saxon cemeteries I don’t know, nor whether they're exclusively Protestant. Their use continued into the 20th century, a modest age embarrassed by death, when they fell out of favour.

A good place to start looking is Simon Knott's extraordinary photographic record of gravestones in East Anglia (below), over 2,000 pictures covering the period roughly 1700 to 1875. From his painstaking collection we see that, in this part of England at least, the urn motif emerged in the 1780s, not as a free-standing monument but carved in relief on headstones.


Among Simon Knott's photos are:
  • an urn with a skull and cherub, St Peter, Strumpshaw, Norfolk, 1781
  • an urn with cherubs, St Peter's, Ousden. Suffolk, 1793
  • a woman grieving over an urn with a weeping willow, early 19th century
  • a draped urn, 1834
  • an urn with a fern, 1867
  • an urn, St Mary, Tharston, Norfolk, 1875

Lawrence Weaver, in Memorials and Monuments, a plea for a fitting funerary art written at the beginning of the First World War, said that "The sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, with their rather weary imagination, were much addicted to the decorative use of such dismal emblems as the skull, hour-glass and the scythe, all by way of memento mori." Then, towards the end of the century, the urn was added.

So the first urn in East Anglia may have been carved in about 1781, when the mania for vase collecting was beginning to cool. There is also a gravestone dated 1781 at the old Ayot St Lawrence church in Hertfordshire with an urn motif. Where did the stonemasons get the idea from? Did they invent it or did they copy it from somewhere else?

In Memorials and Monuments, Weaver considers the influence of Robert Adam  on monumental art. He found a wall memorial in Westminster Abbey to Edward Wortley Montagu, made in 1787, "a delicate and delightful tablet, with its clever use both of the sarcophagus and urn motifs". The Montagu memorial takes its style from Adam, but it may have taken the urn as well.

Monument to David Hume, Edinburgh

The urn was part of Adam's architectural vocabulary, used on buildings and furniture without reference to death or mourning. But Adam did use the urn at least once as a funerary motif, on the grand mausoleum for David Hume in Edinburgh (1778) where he has a prominent free-standing urn – earlier than the Montagu memorial and earlier than the gravestones in Strumpshaw and Ayot St Lawrence. The urn was not unique to Adam, it was part of the language of Neo-Classicism in its Baroque, Palladian and Adam phases. It was taken with other motifs from Greece, Pompeii and Rome without too much fuss about its original context or significance.

In Chiswick House (1729), the Earl of Burlington and William Kent employed urns as finials, accents and decorations. The two grand, purple porphyry urns in the house are said by the trustees to symbolise the imperial majesty of Rome. Urns had also been used as finials by Vanbrugh in Grimsthorpe (1715) and by Talman in Chatsworth (1696).

Chiswick House

Chatsworth
Grimsthorp

Sir John Soane, The Bank of England
Sir John Soane, who was said to be preoccupied with death, used antique-inspired sarcophagi and cinerary urns on several of his buildings, including the  Bank of England (1788-1835) (above). In his house in Lincoln's Inn Fields there is displayed his large collection of antique urns He employs the urn to good effect in the mausoleum at Dulwich picture gallery (1817) but oddly enough, not in the  monument to his beloved wife Eliza.


Roman cinerary urn
Roman cinerary urn

The Romans and Etruscans practiced burial and cremation at different times, keeping cremation ashes in various types of vessel - canopic jars, receptacles like little houses,  terracotta vases, urns of bronze or clay, and urns of glass. This first or second century Roman cinerary urn, in glass, about 26cm high, approaches the shape of the Victorian funerary urn, though it is broader in proportion. Here is the same high shoulder, narrow neck and small foot finished with an out-turned rim, and the same high-placed handles.

The urn, draped or otherwise, seems to have emerged as a grave motif in the late 18th century to accompany older funerary motifs, copied by country craftsmen from Neo-Classical pattern books or the buildings they saw around them. As a funerary motif, it developed at the same time as emotional religion. The simple urn on the headstone was joined by a weeping woman, a weeping willow and the shroud of the dead.  (The urn-and-willow motif was particularly popular in the United States.) In an era when cremation was forbidden, local masons made muddled reference to Roman funeral practices, seen through the prism of grand architecture and the Grand Tour. Then, when industrial fortunes were made and burial moved from cramped churchyards to large new cemeteries, there was money and space enough for big tombs.  More important, there was a  culture of mourning that favoured sentimental sculpture. The urn, anticipated by Adam's monument to David Hume, become a popular memorial.

The urn is replete with associations, from Roman imperial to maudlin Victorian, but it never had any particular significance: it was not a symbol, just a fashion.

What did the Victorians have to say about it? They liked to invent symbols and to attribute meanings to things, whether flowers, dreams or the way a girl held her fan at a ball.  It would be surprising therefore if they didn't attribute specific meanings to cemetery sculpture as well.  There may be some 19th century book, perhaps put out as a marketing aid by a funeral director or monumental mason, explaining the meaning of grave motifs, but if such a book exists, I haven't yet found it.

(Thanks to Simon Knott.)

A STRIKING MODERN-LOOKING TEA SERVICE FROM 1901

This porcelain tea service was made in 1901-2 from a design by Jutta Sika (1877-1964). The milk jug is 8.5cm high, the teapot 12.5cm, the cup 6.5cm high, diameter 9cm, and the saucer has a diameter of 16.5cm. It was manufactured by Josef Böch of Vienna, 1901-1902

It is in the Museo Internazionale delle Ceramiche, Faenza. The catalogue says, "Jutta Sika was a pupil of Kolomon Moser at the Vienna Kunstgewerbschule from 1897-1902 and one of the founders of the Wiener Kunst im Hause. The Wiener Werkstätte never directly produced glass and porcelain itself, entrusting its execution to the most prestigious Bohemian and Viennese factories of the period, Bakalowitz and Böch. This tea service exhibits simplicity, the use of a geometrical matrix and a pioneering functionality. The decoration, employing groups of white circles against a pale blue background, shows the influence of the Viennese strand of Art Nouveau. The inscription 'Schule prof Kolo Moser' is impressed upon the reverse of the saucer."

The modernity of this tea service is striking, especially when you consider that British potteries at the time (such as Doulton and Pilkingtons) were producing historicist Arts and Crafts pottery.

The Wiener Kunst im Hause (Viennese Art in the Home) created integrated domestic interiors. Their products, which they exhibited at the Paris Exhibition of 1900 and the Vienna Seccession Exhibition of 1902, were praised for their simplicity, practicability and affordability. Out of the Weiner Kunst grew the Wiener Werkstätte. Its founders, Josef Hoffmann and Kolomon Moser, were inspired by the Arts and Crafts Movement but rapidly went beyond it, embracing machine production and developing a forward-looking aesthetic. The Bauhaus followed a a similar path after the First World War. The early experimental ceramics of the Bauhaus are less convincing than Sika's, but some of its graduates, for example Margarete Heymann, did striking work.

This was the artistic environment in which Lucie Rie was educated. She studied ceramics at the Weiner Kunstgewerbschule from 1922 under the traditional Michael Powolny but came under the influence of Moser, who encouraged her to exhibit at the Wiener Werkstätte. By then it had lost its original drive and had been reduced to selling presents and nick-nacks.

1 December 2016

VASE MANIA

Monster vase by Jean-Laurent Legeay.

The two-handled vase has an intrinsic appeal for artists. The form is elegant and it may suggest the human form. Artists since the Renaissance have been fascinated by it and the way it can present itself for ornamentation. Enlarged and placed on a plinth, it becomes a sculpture, like this vase (below) of unknown provenance in Floral Street, London. Adding two handles to a vessel defines a front and back that's useful in decoration.

Floral Street, London

There was a mania for vases in late 18th century Europe - vases used in interior decoration, vases for gardens, vases as building motifs, and ultimately vases as grave ornaments. They didn't contain anything, they were simply to be looked at or to communicate the taste of the owner. If a vase was useful it was not as a vase but as something else wittily got up as a vase - a knife box or a stove. Josiah Wedgwood said that "an epidemical madness reigns for Vases, which must be gratified." With characteristic talent and energy he gratified it, making clever and beautiful adaptations of Classical models. Vase Mania drove him to technical innovations in ceramics. In order to meet the demand, he changed his method of production and marketed his products with vigour. With some justification he titled himself "Vase Maker General to the Universe".

The excavations at Herculaneum and Pompeii had produced masses of material for architects and designers and they helped to create the Neo-Classical style. Archaeology uncovers more vases than sculptures, so vases became emblematic of the ancient world and were studied in depth. The finds of southern Italy (loosely called "Etruscan") were disseminated through books of engravings. Architects and designers looked for models in Anne Claude de Caylus's Recueil d'antiquités égyptiennes, étrusques, grècques, romaines et gauloises (1752-1755) and Giovanni Battista Piranesi's Vasi, candelabri, cippi, sarcophagi, tripodi, lucerne ed ornamenti antichi (1778) (below).


 Giovanni Battista Piranesi's Vasi, 1778

Sir William Hamilton, British ambassador to Naples, amassed a large collection of vases, which he donated to the British Museum. His Collection of Etruscan Greek and Roman Antiquities (1767) was intended to influence taste. "We think also, that we make an agreeable present to our manufacturers of earthenware and china and to those who make vases in silver, copper, glass, marble, etc.," he wrote. "[T]hey would be glad to find here more than two hundred forms, the greatest part of which are absolutely new to them; there, as in a plentiful stream, they may draw ideas which their ability and taste will know how to improve to their advantage, and to that of the public." There were other vase collections by J.F.J. Saly (1746), J. M. Vien (1760) (below), C.de Wailly (1760) and E.A.Petitot (1764)

Suite de Vases, Joseph Marie le Ven (1760)

Wedgwood owned Hamilton's Collection and was himself a collector of vases, to the despair of his wife. She wrote, "I am almost afraid he will lay out the price of his estate in vases he makes nothing of giving 5 or 6 guineas for." Well abreast of the antique taste, Wedgwood called his new Stoke-on-Trent factory "Etruria". It gave its name to the surrounding district and anyone like me who has spent any time in Stoke-on-Trent thinks of Etruria as a dirty industrial area in North Staffordshire, not as a place in Italy.

Wedgwood Black Jasper Vase
Wedgwood Agate Vase
Wedgwood Porphyry Vase
Wedgwood Portland Vase

Wedgwood rapidly capitalised on the taste for vases. Here are representative vases from his output in different ceramic media: a vase in black Jasper ware, an agate vase in which clays of different colours are mixed, an earthenware vase with a so-called porphyry glaze, and the famous Portland vase, also in Jasper ware. Wedgwood developed the Jasper body specifically for imitations of antique vases, taking many years and encountering many problems. It's a vitreous body that doesn't need a glaze. He worked to high standards and had difficulty in finding the right craftsmen. (He's famous for going round the factory and knocking down anything that wasn't good enough for him.) He had to find ways to make unique designs pay. "It is this time losing with Uniqueness," he complained, "which keeps ingenious Artists who are connected with men of great taste poor." He had to improve productivity, driving down the piece rate he paid, but doing his best to persuade his workers that his methods would increase their wages in the long run because they would be making more.

Wedgwood was observed by Matthew Boulton to be "scheming to be sent for by his Majesty." He marketed his vases to aristocracy and royalty, charging the highest prices possible. At the height of Vase Mania, vast sums were paid for desirable items. In one auction, a tea kettle was sold for 130 guineas.

Decorative vases in the antique style were made by Wedgwood's rivals in Staffordshire, the factories of Derby, Worcester, Coalport and at Sèvres. Nor was pottery the only medium. Matthew Boulton, the Birmingham metalworker, made teapots, hot-water urns, egg caddies and chandeliers in vase forms. Silver vases were used as ornaments and given as prizes. Wooden knife boxes were made to look like vases and Robert Adam designed a cast iron stove to look like a vase. During Vase Mania and after, the vase motif proliferated in surface design, in marquetry and on textiles.

Silver vase given as a prize
Wooden knife box
Robert Adam Stove

Vase Mania peaked around 1772. Wedgwood saw the way the wind was blowing and decided to make more and to sell more cheaply. "The Great People have had these Vases in their Palaces long enough for them to be seen and admired to the Middling People," he said, "which Class we know are vastly, I had almost said, infinitely superior, in numbers to the great, and although a great price was, I believe, at first necessary to make these vases esteemed Ornaments for Palaces, that reason no longer exists, and the middling people would probably buy quantities of them at a reduced price."

Some artists faithfully copied antique vases in their engravings, others invented fantasy vases that never were and never could be. The vase had become separated from function, turned into a marker of taste, an object of contemplation and a stimulus to historical reflection or emotion. In Jean-Laurent Legeay's Collection de divers sujets des Vases, Tombeaux, Ruines et Fontaines (c. 1770), the antique vase becomes Romantic and mysterious, recalling Piranesi's imaginary prisons. In Legeay's drawing at the top of this post, a huge vase and pestle stands in a ruined landscape dwarfing the human figures. The image uncannily anticipates the appearance of a neglected Victorian cemetery, in which the tomb-vase has been routinised. (I've written more about the Victorian funerary urn here.) Ennemond-Alexandre Petitot in a different kind of fantasy humanised the vase form (or vasified the human form) in this drawing of The Greek Bride (below).

Ennemond-Alexandre Petitot, The Greek Bride

From stove vases, vase brides and enormous vases in a landscape it's a short step to vases on funerary monuments. Urns appeared on tombs ten years after Vase Mania had passed its peak. In the Victoria and Albert Museum, there is a monument by Joseph Nollekens, erected 1786 but designed earlier (below), with a fine draped urn, which the V&A describes as "a standard classical symbol of death". Next to it is a monument in Coade stone to Sir William Hillman (1800), with a vase on a pedestal attended by a mourning woman - a motif that might have been taken from Legeay. The funerary urn was clearly from the vocabulary of Neo-Classicism, a remnant of Vase Mania, and although symbol hunters speculate endlessly about its meaning, there's no evidence that it means anything except an association with the antique and the bestowal of honour.

Design for a monument by Joseph Nollekens, erected 1786 
Stefanie Walker (ed.) Vasemania - Form and Ornament in Neoclassical Europe, New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2004.
Jenny Uglow, "Vase Mania", in Maxine Berg, Elizabeth Eger (eds.) Luxury in the Eighteenth Century, Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2001.

30 November 2016

THE KENZAN BRAND OF PAINTED POTTERY


The painted ceramics of Ogata Kenzan (1663–1743)  are elegant and harmonious. They match shape to decoration beautifully and they render natural motifs fluently in an almost abstract way.  They are so revered in Japan and the West that there is almost a cult of Kenzan.

Bernard Leach worked in the Kenzan tradition and his occasional brush decoration is good because he was trained to draw before he learned pottery. Potters in the Anglo-Oriental tradition shared Leach's admiration of Japanese ceramics but their painting is perfunctory because they doubted the validity of decoration and colour.

Given the beauty of Kenzan's pots, it's disappointing to discover how much in the Kenzan cult is bogus. Ogata Kenzan made very little himself and he commissioned most "Kenzan" pots from unknown potters and painters. Kenzan is a brand rather than a person, like Gucci or Louis Vuitton. Ogata's successors may be presented as traditional craftsmen but some of them were urban sophisticates who ran factories making products for Tokyo department stores.

Leach mythologized his relationship with Kenzan, emphasising what he learned from Urano Shigekichi, whom he called "Ogata Kenzan", and obscuring his debt to other teachers. Leach's supposed inheritance of the Kenzan title was really no more than a certificate of competence from Urano, which, at the suggestion of Tomimoto Kenkichi, he inflated as a way of marketing his work in Japan. Janet Leach said that Tomimoto's idea so went to her husband's head that he came to believe that he was a Kenzan.



Kenzan may be imagined as a traditional pottery workshop without division of labour, but such workshops are not so much a fact as an idea. As soon as pottery-making moved out of the household, there was a division of labour. Excellence in making became possible only when potters specialised in making, decorating or kiln-firing. The studio pottery workshop in the West was a product of the Arts and Crafts philosophy, of which Leach was a late and passionate adherent. Even in the workshop of the English country potter, another of the studio potter's inspirations, there was a division of labour, and admired country potters like George Curtis and  Isaac Button were found to be working alone only because by that time they were old and were running down their businesses.

Leach's famous essay "Towards a Standard" in A Potter's Book (1940) is a re-statement of the Arts and Crafts philosophy with all of William Morris's suspicion of industry and idealization of the peasant. The Arts and Crafts movement was influential in Japan as well, and Leach's Japanese colleagues, Tomimoto and Soetsu Yanagi were thoroughly familiar with Ruskin and Morris. And so Leach's "Japanese" ideas were already westernized before he picked them up.


The value and scarcity of work from Ogato Kenzan's workshop inevitably encouraged forgeries. By the early 1960s a large number of them had come onto the market and for a time they deceived collectors and critics. Leach never ceased to believe in them, even after everyone else was undeceived. Although his failing sight made it difficult for him to see them properly, he said that he knew in his heart that they were genuine.

Nevertheless, the best Kenzan ceramics (whether made by Ogata or not) remain an inspiration to pottery painters.

Richard Wilson, The Potter's Brush (Washington: Smithsonian, 2001)
Bernard Leach, Kenzan and his Tradition (London: Faber & Faber, 1966)

28 November 2016

FERRONI'S "THE SUPPER AT EMMAUS" IN SANTA MARIA DI MONTESANTO

The Supper at Emmaus, Riccardo Ferroni
Rome is so full of churches, and so many of them are dedicated to Mary, that it's easy to go to the wrong one.  We meant to go to Santa Maria del Popolo in the Piazza del Popolo to see the two Caravaggios, The Crucifixion of St Peter and The Conversion of St Paul, but we mistakenly went to Santa Maria dei Miracoli instead and spent fifteen minutes wondering what had happened to the paintings.

There's a third Santa Maria in the Piazza, Santa Maria di Montesanto, the twin of Santa Maria dei Miracoli, and it has a surprising painting, The Supper at Emmaus, by Riccardo Tommasi Ferroni.

It looks like a conventional Baroque painting until you notice that the boy in the foreground is wearing trainers. Then you notice that Jesus has put the meal on a newspaper. Ferroni painted it in 1982. It's a rare setting of a biblical story in a quasi-contemporary setting, which interested me because in my narrative ceramics I tried something similar.

Ferroni (1934-2000) was born into an artistic family and studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Florence. Later he moved to Rome. By the end of the 1950s he was recognized as a modern painter in the school of Caravaggio, referring to pictorial forms of the past, in particular Mannerism and the Baroque. He he participated in the Fourth Quadrennial in Rome (1965) and in the Fourth Biennial of Contemporary Art in Paris. In 1982 he was elected to the Accademia di San Luca and exhibited at at the Venice Biennale, where he was involved in an altercation with Antoni Tàpies.

Self-Portrait with Verdi, Riccardo Ferroni
Ferroni was a bold choice for Santa Maria di Montesanto because some of his other paintings were weird, such as his Self-Portrait with Verdi. But in truth Caravaggio, the bad boy of art, made far more disturbing paintings than Ferroni with his mild surrealism.

Caravaggio, Judith Beheading Holofernes

25 November 2016

STIG LINDBERG'S CERAMICS AND BIOMORPHIC DESIGN

Faience vases by Stig Lindberg (1950s)
In ceramics, joie de vivre is usually associated with the Mediterranean – the tin-glazed pottery of Spain or Vallauris.  But there's something about tin-glaze itself that brings it out, even in the north.  One of its great exponents was Stig Lindberg (1916-1982), the prolific Swedish designer who spent most of his career at the Gustavsberg pottery factory.

Lindberg studied at the Swedish State School of Arts, Crafts and Design in Stockholm, with the intention of becoming a painter. He started at Gustavsberg in 1937 and became their art director in 1949. He remained with the company until 1980, when he retired to Italy to set up his own studio. Much of his work was in faience, painted tin-glaze, in which he made a modernist re-interpretation of an old method of decoration, like these vases  from the 1950s (above). His faience designs were painted directly in-glaze, an expensive method of decoration also used, in a similar medium, by the Poole Pottery in Dorset.

In the 1950s, many of Lindberg's forms were derived from biomorphism, a movement in painting and sculpture that evoked living forms but was generally non-representational. The most consistent exponent of biomorphism was Hans Arp (below). Many of Miró's forms were biomorphic too.

Hans Arp, Human Concretion (1933)

Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth produced biomorphic sculptures - Moore's representational, Hepworth's (below) abstract. In the post-war period biomorphism heavily influenced the applied arts.

Barbara Hepworth, Corinthos (1954)

Because of the diffusion of biomorphism into interior design it became emblematic of modernism. There were cartoons of puzzled museum visitors looking through holes in biomorphic sculptures – Anatol Kovarsky's classic (below) was published in The New Yorker in 1947.

Anatol Kovarsky, The New Yorker (1947)

But the puzzled visitor went home and used biomorphic glassware, biomorphic ceramics like Lindberg's, textiles with biomorphic motifs and even biomorphic furniture (below)

Murano glass (1950s)
Textile by Robert Stewart (1950s) 
T.H.Robsjohn Gibbings cocktail table (1950s)

20 November 2016

MODERNIST CERAMICS BY PICASSO, MIRÓ, LURÇAT AND THE BAYSWATER THREE


In the dark, grey days of post-war austerity, the ceramists William Newland, Margaret Hine (above) and Nicholas Vergette, known as The Bayswater Three, found a ready market for their cheerful, Mediterranean-influenced pottery and they did well with contracts from the newly-emerging coffee bars. They were influenced by the ceramics of Picasso (below), who took up pottery in his mid-60s, embarking on a new stage in his career at a time when most people are thinking of retiring, and producing hundreds of pieces over the following years. Picasso ceramics were seen in Britain for the first time in 1950 in Picasso in Provence, a show at the Royal Academy, which caused a stir and encouraged many people to take up pottery.


Newland’s papers in the Central Saint Martins archive record much of this period. He was training art teachers at London’s Institute of Education, many of whom were inspired by Picasso’s ceramics. There was an enthusiasm for ceramics in schools, which equipped pottery studios, and education authorities sent round traveling exhibitions of pottery to inspire the pupils.

Newland's enthusiasm for brightly-painted European pottery represented a counter-current to Bernard Leach's muted pottery inspired by the country wares of England and Japan. “It wasn’t that we were anti-Leach,", said Newland, "it’s just that we had other things to do.” But reading his papers, you detect his irritation with Leach, whom he regarded, with some justification, as pretentious and full of himself. He mentions the exhibition of Ceramics in the Home, organised in 1951 by The Observer newspaper that showed work by Newland, Vergette and Hine, Hans Coper and Lucie Rie. Leach wasn’t included. That annoyed him, said Newland, and he kicked up a fuss with his MP. At that point that Leach dismissed the others as “Picassoettes”.


Newland says that they could just as well have been be called Miróettes, because Picasso was only one of their influences. Many other continental artists had turned to pottery at that time, Miró (above), and Lurçat (below) in particular.


One artist not mentioned by Newland was Gino Severini. I didn’t know he had worked in ceramics until I saw this piece (below) in a shop in Cortona, his birthplace. It's painted in overglaze colours on blanks which had been made in a factory. Severini is well known as one of the original Futurists, the iconoclastic artists who grouped themselves around Marinetti, but he had a much longer career post-Futurism, and worked in several media. Not surprisingly he tried ceramics as well. 

There is renewed interest in the artistic ceramics of this period. Some of it is interesting rather than good, but much of it is good as well as interesting, an attempt to create a modernist art pottery that doesn't look back sentimentally towards rural and pre-industrial forms.




18 November 2016

PAINTED POTTERY BY ALFRED AND LOUISE POWELL

A sugar bowl by Alfred and Louise Powell for Wedgwood, 1920s.

Alfred trained as an architect, Louise as an embroiderer and a calligrapher. Alfred persuaded Wedgwood to revive the art of freehand painting on pottery, one of the most successful marriages of Arts and Crafts ideas with industrial manufacturing, lasting until the late 1930s. The Powells worked at Wedgwood's factory in Stoke-on-Trent and also had a small studio in London where blank Wedgwood pottery was sent for decoration.

Alfred Powell was invited by W.R.Lethaby to start a pottery painting class at the Central School of Arts and Crafts in 1906. He only led it for a couple of years and then handed it over to one of the young women in his London studio, Margaret Hindshaw. For twenty years Miss Hindshaw's students produced pottery decorated freehand like this sugar bowl, then her assistant, Dora Billington, acquired a high temperature kiln for the class, and it turned to the Anglo-Oriental style stoneware pottery that was coming into the art galleries under the influence of Bernard Leach and William Staite Murray.

The work designed by the Powells for Wedgwood (much of it decorated by themselves) was the last flowering  of the "art pottery" that came out of the Arts and Crafts Movement. William Rothenstein, director of the Royal College of Art, considered the Powells to be the most outstanding pottery decorators of the age and wanted to bring them in to teach in his pottery department. The plan never came off and he became enamored of the bold, textured stonewares of Staite Murray and brought him in instead.


Surface decoration went out of fashion in studio pottery, though it was continued by unfashionable studio potters like those of the Bloomsbury Group, Venessa Bell (above), Duncan Grant and later Quentin Bell. Their making was clumsy and their mark-making lacked fluency, but their sense of design and colour was acute and the relationship between form and decoration on their pots was second to none. Quentin Bell went to the Central School to learn pottery in the 1930s, where he was taught to throw by Miss Billington.


Despite her admiration of the newly fashionable stonewares, Miss Billington continued to decorate with a long flexible brush and later encouraged Alan Caiger-Smith (above) to decorate in this way on white tin glaze. Caiger-Smith revived this tin glaze technique and over fifty years at his Aldermaston pottery trained dozens of young potters. One of them was Judith Partridge. I trained with Judith Partridge in the 1970s. So that's why I like this sugar bowl.