Contemporary Applied Arts
Photo by Ceramic Review

Last Thursday I went to the private view of “Tradition and Innovation: Five Decades of Harrow Ceramics” at Contemporary Applied Arts in London.  It runs until 9th June.

There was a certain poignancy about the exhibition, because the Harrow Ceramics course is ending this summer.  It is widely regarded as one of the best ceramics courses in the country, and the decision by the University of Westminster to close it because they consider it too expensive was met with howls of outrage when it was announced.

The private view was packed – there was a queue down Percy Street when I arrived – and I will have to go back again when there are fewer distractions.

The exhibition is accompanied by a book of essays edited by Tessa Peters, who curated the show.  It includes priceless archive material (some on display at CAA) and a long interview with Victor Margrie about the early days of the course.  Interesting to discover that pottery at Harrow almost disappeared in 1961 because the art school failed to get validation.  Several of the works shown are pictured in the book, but it would have been good to have a complete list.

Alun Graves, curator of contemporary  ceramics at the Victorian and Albert Museum, writes a thoughtful preface.  He says that the special contribution made by an art school arises as much from its unique grouping of personalities as from what is formally taught there, and that that can never be exactly replaced.

Although much is made of the continuity of ceramics teaching at Harrow, it is very different from what it was in the 1960s, when its mission was to train repetition throwers to work in production potteries.  Now it is to train artists who happen to use clay as a medium. Richard Slee, who taught at Harrow before heading up the ceramics course at Camberwell, is quoted as saying, “all that domestic ware was about fashion, the fashion of the time and they thought it was something else – a spiritual thing.”

The piece at the head of this post is by Lawrence Epps, who graduated in 2011, and most the of work in the exhibition is by ceramists who are making now. Tanya Harrod’s exhibition “The Harrow Connection”, put on by the Northern Centre for Contemporary Art in 1989, similarly concentrated on work from the period. For a representative 50-year survey, you will have to pick out the pieces with a Harrow connection from the 20th century studio ceramics in the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Some who exhibited in 1989 have work in the CAA exhibition.  Some who exhibited in 1989 are completely forgotten now.  I asked Steve Buck, who runs the Harrow Course, what had happened to a good potter I  knew.  I was told that he gave up many years ago because he couldn’t make a living from pottery. This is something that everyone knows but rarely talks about: there is more good work being produced than the public want to buy.  How can that be changed?

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