Tombstones covered in ivy or damaged by weather become lovelier in their shape, posture, colour and texture. Some inscriptions peep out from ivy fronds; some stones have been completely suffocated by plant growth.



Where there is a regime of herbicide, tombstones don’t get covered like this but the weather still erodes them or the ground undermines them.
East Ham Jewish burial ground
Glasgow Necropolis
East Ham Jewish burial ground
East Ham Jewish burial ground
Glasgow Necropolis
Glasgow Necropolis
Glasgow Necropolis

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A prosperous society renews everything quickly, so there are few old things left in public places, and old things are given the heritage treatment, which makes them brand old instead of brand new. Occasionally, in neglected corners, old things remain, like these weathered signs I saw in Edinburgh.

I was a graphic designer before I was a ceramic artist, which explains my interest in surface treatment. I like the form of letters, and these examples of the sign writer’s art were beautiful even before they decayed. After years of weathering and indifference, they have become like abstract paintings, the letters reduced to mere shapes and marks.

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Writing about Wedgwood reminded me of the postcards that you used to get in the North Staffordshire Potteries  showing the town enveloped in smoke from bottle ovens, with ironic captions like, “Fresh air from the Potteries” and “Beautiful My Country”.

This series of postcards was published in the 1950s by Shaws of Wolstanton, though the photos are at least fifty years older.  Shaws had the negatives and the cards are marked “Guaranteed real photograph”.  The company got good sales from them for a long time, obviously appealing to self-deprecating potters and amused visitors.

Simeon Shaw, in his History of the North Staffordshire Potteries, written in 1829, described the filth produced by the bottle ovens:

“The vast volumes of smoke and vapours from the ovens, entering the atmosphere, produced that dense white cloud, which from about eight o’clock till twelve on the Saturday morning, (the time of firing-up, as it is called,) so completely enveloped the whole of the interior of the town, as to cause persons often to run against each other; travellers to mistake the road and strangers have mentioned it as extremely disagreeable, and not unlike the smoke of Etna and Vesuvius.”

When these postcards were circulating, bottle ovens had already been made obsolete by the rising price of coal and the Clean Air Act of 1958. Electric tunnel kilns had been in use from the 1920s and they were common after 1950. Bottle ovens were incredibly wasteful, 95% of the heat going up the chimney and only five per cent reaching the pottery. There were once four thousand bottle ovens in the Potteries. By 1950, two thousand were still in use. By the end of the 1960s there were none.  Forty-seven remain,  listed buildings and museum-pieces like the one at the Gladstone Pottery Museum.

As these coal-fired kilns were being pulled down, Donald Morris, a local school teacher, was rushing round with a camera, recording them as they disappeared, once arriving minutes after one of them had been demolished. Below is one of his atmospheric pictures, taken in Longton in 1958 before the site was cleared for a shopping precinct.

Longton, 1958.  (Donald Morris)
In the 1960s, some of Morris’s photos were published by students at Keele University in Unit magazine, of which I was art editor.  Two years later, under Tony Elliott’s direction, Unit went to London and morphed into Time Out.  Thirty years later, Morris finally published his collection of photos in The Potteries – A Photographic Record

What you see of a bottle oven is the outer skin, or hovel, protecting from the weather the fire-mouths within. Thousands of pots were placed within the inner cavity and the flames were drawn up through the wares by the chimney draught. To keep them clear of coal ash, the pots were put into fireclay boxes, called saggars, which were piled on top on one another in the kiln in a tall column.

Saggars being placed inside a bottle oven.
Each full saggar weighs about 25kg.
One of Morris’s photographic subjects was Fred Boulton, a saggar maker. His job was to shape the walls of the saggar round a wooden former and then attach it to the base. And, yes,  there was indeed someone called a saggar maker’s bottom knocker – the saggar maker’s less skilled assistant who hammered out a lump of clay to make the base for him.

Fred Boulton, saggar maker. (Donald Morris)

Pottery jobs were advertised in the Evening Sentinel. But you couldn’t find a job for anything as simple as a potter: you had to be a sponger, a dipper, a cranker, a fettler, a jollier, a pencil-bander, a blunger charger, a cup-mould runner, a large flat maker, a dust grinder or a back stamper.  As a result of specialisation and long practice, craftworkers in The Potteries had extraordinary abilities.  A thrower making teapots on the wheel, for example, could make seven in five minutes.  No studio potter could approach these people’s skill.

Specialization, by the way, has been a feature of pottery making from time immemorial and the “peasant potter” who did everything himself is a myth. The small workshop in which there is no division of labour is wholly a creation of 20th century studio pottery.  The uniquely satisfying nature of traditional craft work is also a myth, for pre-industrial potters often had to mass produce by hand at great speed, working for long hours in filthy conditions.

In Stoke on Trent everyone had some connection to the industry. I first started making pottery in the art room at Keele. The porter who unlocked it for me was a retired mould-maker. He took a professional interest in what I was doing, putting his hand into my clay bin and pronouncing with approval, “That’s a good, fat body.”

People used to say that the Potteries’ great misfortune was that it wasn’t bombed in the war. In 1970 it still had old-fashioned buildings and old-fashioned industries. In the 1980s there were government attempts at regeneration, notably the Stoke on Trent Garden Festival.  Now pottery employment has almost completely disappeared. In 2009, fifteen hundred jobs were lost at Wedgwood. Much tableware is now imported from China. However, in line with other manufacturing industries in Britain, the pottery industry has increased productivity, and I was told recently by the owner of small pottery in Stoke that although there were now few potters, the output of pottery is as high as ever.

Meakins’ works, Hanley, by the Cauldon Canal, before its bottle ovens
were demolished.  Now taken over by Emma Bridgewater. (Donald Morris)

Burslem, once grand in small way, looked to me on a recent visit, with all its demolition sites, as if it had been bombed.  In Hanley, at the old Meakins works, Emma Bridgewater, making her cheerful and popular tableware,  is one of the few local entrepreneurs to buck the trend, ensuring continuity of employment for spongers , fettlers, jolliers, back stampers, and maybe even saggar-maker’s bottom-knockers.

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This is where it all started for me: an article in Harmsworth’s Universal Encyclopaedia.  It was my father’s, and on rainy days in the school holidays I would browse in it. The encyclopaedia was published by Lord Northcliffe, the newspaper magnate who founded the Daily Mail, and was edited by John Hammerton. It first came out as a fortnightly serial, then in a twelve-volume edition in 1922.  There were articles about First World War soldiers, with stiff studio photos, colour plates showing flags of all nations, philosophical essays on Aristotle and Plato, and this article, Pottery: For Use and Ornament, written by H.Barnard and E.G.Harmer.

Hammmerton edited many reference works but was proudest of the Universal Encyclopaedia, which sold twelve million copies in the English-speaking world and was translated into six languages.  Barnard worked for Wedgwood, and at the time he wrote this article was curator of the Wedgwood Museum.

I first read it when I was about nine.  Barnard’s historical survey went over my head, but Harmer’s technical account interested me.  I went out into the garden, smashed a flowerpot to dust, mixed it with water and wondered why I couldn’t make it into clay again. (In case you’re wondering, at 573 degrees Celsius an irreversible physical change occurs in the quartz that is part of the clay.) This interested was stimulated by the 5-minute film of The Potter’s Wheel that BBC TV put on at the time, to cover the gap between programmes. (Looking at it now, I’m surprised to see how bad the potter is.)

I had a passing interest in pottery when I did A-level art, but it wasn’t taught.  There was a kick wheel in the art room, a stand-up wheel with a treadle.  You balanced on one foot and kicked the treadle with the other, rocking backwards and forwards all the time.  In this attitude you were supposed to make something.  These wheels were designed to put beginners off pottery.  They are still being made for reasons impossible to guess. From the school library I borrowed Practical Pottery and Ceramics by the ceramist Kenneth Clark, a useful, modernist introduction. Then I went to Keele University, near the north Staffordshire potteries, and learned to work in clay in a studio in the education department.

Now it’s possible to read Harmsworth’s online, and I discovered Barnard and Harmer again, where it all began.  The article is a very good summary and stands up well after ninety years.


Claire Cuneen: Angel.  To be auctioned for the last Harrow ceramics degree show

The Harrow ceramics course at Westminster University closes this year, 50 years after ceramics teaching started there.  The fact that something is old is no reason to keep it, but the Harrow course is widely recognised as one of the best in Britain.  To raise funds for the final graduation show, there is an auction in London on Wednesday, 14th March, upstairs at the Slug and Lettuce, 1 Islington Green, London, N1 2HX.  You can browse from 6.30pm.  The auction starts at 8.00pm.

The artists who have donated include:
Claire Curneen
Carol McNicoll
Gareth Mason
Walter Keeler
Simon Carroll
Kate Malone
Aki Moriuchi
Alice Mara
Steve Buck
Kyra Cane
Christie Brown
Sarah Scampton
Daphne Carnegy
Duncan Ayscough
Aneta Regel Deleu
Katharine Morling
Zahed Tajeddin
Carina Ciscato
Kevin Millward
Barry Stedman
Stephen Dixon
Sarah Walton
Chris Keenan
Sandy Brown
Robin Welch
In the 1960s under the direction of Victor Margrie and Mick Casson the Harrow course became famous for teaching traditional studio pottery based on repetition throwing. There had been a boom in studio pottery in the post-war years, encouraged by the dearth of decorated pottery from Stoke-on-Trent following wartime restrictions, and by studio pottery’s combination of modernism and folk art, both of which had been popularised by the 1951 Festival of Britain.  Such was the demand for studio pottery that there weren’t enough throwers trained in workshop practice.  As production throwing wasn’t taught in other arts schools, the Harrow Art School studio pottery diploma was created to fill the gap.  According to Tanya Harrod, the production potter of the Harrow type had a good innings well into the seventies, by which time the market for this style of tableware was falling away
By the early 1980s the course was in trouble.  It was reinvented as a BA Ceramics, offering broader training and shedding some of its less relevant teaching, like digging and refining clay. From that point onwards, Harrow has taught a course in ceramic art, not just pottery.
Four years ago, in 2008, the university decided to close the course.  It was expensive, it took up a lot of space and it was difficult to fill all the places on it.  None of this was new. The first two had been the case since 1963.  Ceramics courses are always expensive because of the equipment needed and the large amount of space taken up by each student.  What was new was tighter government funding and better accounting. I doubt if in the 1980s the university ranked courses by cost per square foot. 
The difficulty in filling places was more problematic. Schools have been cutting ceramics for many years and arguably there is an over-supply of degree courses. It’s unfortunate that one of the best had to close.
The university’s announcement that the course was closing was the second blow in a year. In  June 2007 a fire destroyed much of the ceramics department.  The kiln room, some of the studios and the fine art and fashion departments were all destroyed.  Ironically, the fire didn’t start in the kiln room or even in the ceramics studios but somewhere else entirely.
On the night of the fire, a firefighter rescued a sculpture of a boy angel by Claire Palfreyman.  Kyra Kane, the course leader, saw it as a good omen. “We are determined that the world-renowned ceramics department at Harrow will continue to flourish despite this setback,” she said, “and this statue represents all the spirit, talent and inventiveness that will ensure our future.”  The University responded quickly, and all the affected courses were running again for the 2007-2008 academic year.
At that point I had just completed the first year of the course. After a lifetime’s passion for ceramics, I was accepted for Harrow’s prestigious BA. I had spent years in evening classes trying to develop my skills. My experience of part-time ceramics courses was that however much they welcome advanced students most of them are really for beginners. Many teachers in evening classes have limited skills and can only teach beginners. 
In some ways my previous experience put me at a disadvantage at Harrow because it’s easier to learn than to re-learn.  The experienced student was not allowed to coast until the less experienced ones caught up: the pressure was just as intense and you had to go further, throw looser and make bigger.  The throwing tutors, Richard Phethean and Carina Ciscato, were highly accomplished and their different styles introduced the student to a range of approaches and methods.
I have met several art students who say they get neither studio space nor adequate teaching on their BA courses.  Harrow was different.  The ceramics course had honed instruction to a sharp edge.  The teaching was good during the first half of the course (you were pretty well on your own during the second half) and the studio faculties were excellent.
Many of the artists contributing to this week’s auction have been associated with Harrow.  The auction will help to fund the degree show, Material Matters, which will be at The Rag Factory, 16-18 Heneage Street, London E1 5LJ, just off Brick Lane, from Thursday 7 to Sunday 10 June 2012, 11am – 6pm
The final graduates will be Jo Aylmer, Julia Beer, Zarina Kawaja, Dana Lazarus-Cass, Landon Peck, Nadine Shepley and Peter Willis.


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Plates from Wedgwood’s “Butterfly Bloom” range

Wedgwood’s current design Butterfly Bloom illustrates the constant trade between artists and industry, the studio and the factory, that takes place in ceramics.

Butterfly Bloom celebrates and recapitulates Wedgwood’s 250-year history, taking elements of traditional transfer-printed designs and, in effect, quoting them on contemporary products by arranging fragments of them asymmetrically.  It’s a clever trick, remaining well within the range of what is acceptable to the customers of this venerable company.  As Wedgwood says, it is “Perfect for that indulgent little oasis of calm in a hectic schedule, or for sociable gatherings with friends.”

The design introduces into mainstream manufacture a device that has been used by the ceramic artist Paul Scott for over twenty years.  Scott uses traditional transfer-printed North Staffordshire pottery to make social and artistic comments.  Well-established designs, like Willow Pattern and Spode’s Italian, that had become redolent of vicars’ tea parties and everything nice, have been subverted by Scott, who reproduces them precisely but with small alterations – for example, by putting wind turbines in a cottage landscape, or showing the Spode Works with a “Closed” sign on the gate.

Paul Scott, “After Bypass”

Paul Scott, “Cocklepickers”

Transfer printing was first used in the mid-18th century as a way of putting engraved designs on to pottery.  When Scott’s book on Ceramics and Print came out in 1994, the technique was confined to industrial manufacture and few studio potters used it.  Since then, there has been an explosion in printing on ceramics by artists, probably the best-known of whom is Grayson Perry, who combines sprigging, sgraffito, underglaze printing and transfers on his complex decorated surfaces.

Now, the subversion of transfer printing has itself become such a cliché that it can be reversed into the industry to produce Wedgwood’s charming and inoffensive Butterfly Bloom.