The ceramist Kenneth Clark died last month at 89. He occupied a rare position between studio pottery and industrial ceramics, running a small workshop and carrying out design commissions for architects and large potteries.  He taught at the Central School of Art (now Central St Martin’s) and at Goldsmiths (whose ceramics course is long gone).  I always admired the breadth and openness of his vision.

As well as running his workshop, his design consultancy and teaching, Kenneth Clark wrote books for people starting pottery, which approached the subject in the systematic manner of the good educator.  His best-known book was The Potter’s Manual, but I started on an earlier book, Practical Pottery and Ceramics, published in 1964 and still available on the second hand market. The introduction sets out his approach clearly and is so good that it’s worth reproducing in its entirety.

“People beginning ceramics in the post-war era have inherited the sound tradition established earlier by Bernard Leach and his followers; and Bernard Leach, in his turn, was inspired by the works of Morris and Lethaby, to whom ‘truth to materials’ with all its implications was of prime importance.

“Today, there are a number of ceramists, Lucy Rie amongst them, who are continuing to enrich this tradition by producing individual pieces of domestic ware in a highly personal style. But, with all the great changes – social, economic and artistic – that have taken place since World War II, how many ceramists have sought to extend tradition to meet the new needs and conditions of the present day?

“When the restrictions of war and rationing were over, the great cry and demand was for colour, to be used with daring and verve in ceramics, fabrics, interiors and a host of allied fields and activities. With this desire for colour there developed a greater appreciation of natural surfaces and materials, from wood to stone, where textures blended and contrasted. No longer were purely individual pots, and, to a limited extent, hand-made domestic ware the only accepted products of the potter. There were new uses and far greater opportunities for ceramic work than before.

“During this period of change Picasso with his daring, invention, colour-sense and imagination, shattered and shocked the traditionalist potters with his experiments in ceramics. While his approach was obviously more that of the painter, he added fresh life and a new direction to ceramics, and from his activities stemmed many schools of thought and expression which flowered in the ‘fifties. Ceramists found that their values needed drastic revision, while at the same time they endeavoured to retain an openness of mind and an integrity in the use of their materials.

“Was British industry alive to what was happening, and did it revitalize its tradition with fresh ideas and imaginative thought? Alas, with few exceptions, it does not appear so, nor were most of the individual potters prepared to co-operate, when industry ignored – and still ignores – them and the contribution they could make. As a result, the world now wants only our traditional wares, and shops elsewhere for good modern design.

“Now let us look at what has happened beyond these shores. In Scandinavia, management has used ideas intelligently, and employed the best potters, consequently gaining them a world-wide reputation. In Japan the work of the potter is prized above that of the painter, and the proceeds from the sale of one pot can supply all the needs of a distinguished potter for at least three months. In America there is a demand for imaginative and lively ceramics; and in Australia, we are told, the demand for individual pottery far exceeds the supply.

“Here in England many small industrial firms have closed or been forced to merge with others, in order to survive economically. And science, in the name of uniformity for mass production, has eliminated much of the natural richness and variety in many raw materials. These added factors, combined with competition from plastics, make it essential that ceramists should have a high standard of design – but this has yet to be achieved.

“Too few of us are alive to the implications of living fully in the present. Yet, today the ceramist may be commissioned to supply, say, large pottery containers, individual pieces for a board room, perhaps an external ceramic feature for a wan, even asked to advise on suitable ware for the restaurant or canteen; and all for one client and one building. Here, surely, is a cue for the future; there is a growing demand for the variety and richness of ceramics that few other materials can replace.

“This is a situation that can be exploited, but only after careful thought and planning, coupled with the acquisition of ceramic experience and the widest possible knowledge. And, to succeed, we must look further back into history to find a wider application of ceramics for stimulating us today. But though, for a time, some of us may strive to fulfil these needs, the day must surely come, as it has in other countries, when industry, with its wealth and resources, will combine with the ceramist, recognise the real contribution that each can make, and work out a plan for co-operation.”

Kenneth Clark, Practical Pottery and Ceramics, London: Studio Books, 1964 


Subscribe to my newsletter


My medium is tin-glazed earthenware, but that doesn’t matter much. I say it because some people are curious about how things are made.

Earthenware is a type of clay that’s fired to about 1000 degrees centigrade By contrast, stoneware and porcelain are fired to about 1300 degrees. These figures are approximate, and there is a wide latitude. To be precise, I fire to 1100. Tin-glaze is a glaze made opaque with tin oxide. That was the traditional opacifier, but you can use other things as well.

Tin-glazed earthenware has a long history, originating in Iraq in the 9th century. It reached great heights in Renaissance Italy, where vases and plates were elaborately painted in the istoriato or story style. This phase of tin-glaze was called maiolica, probably because it first came to Italy from Majorca. The colours are from metallic oxides and the paintings are remarkable given that the painters couldn’t get a red oxide. The nearest they got was iron oxide, which is basically rust, and that’s the colour it makes on maiolica.

Tin-glazed pottery went to the Netherlands, where it also flourished, particularly at Delft in the 17th century, to the extent that it was called Delft. The Dutch had a different approach to the Italians, lighter, even frivolous. They particularly liked to make tiles in this medium, and there are many Dutch houses that still have fire surrounds in old Delft tiles. Well they might, as it’s estimated that over a period of two hundred years the Dutch potters made eight hundred million of them.

That’s a brief history, and needless to say I’ve spent a long time looking at old tin-glazed pottery. If you’re travelling, there’s a good collection of Delft dishes in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, and the Museo Nazionale d’Arte Medievale e Moderna in Arezzo claims to have the most important collection of maiolica in Italy. (It’s interesting that most of the istoriato dishes in Arezzo portray classical rather than Biblical scenes.) The consensus is that maiolica was past its best by the 18th century, but in Arezzo there are some 18th century dishes from Viterbo (never a great maiolica centre) showing domestic scenes, like a boy peeling fruit, painted in a loose style that appeals to me more than the tight painting on the grand istoriato pieces.

My reason for using this medium is that it’s good for painting. You have a white background and you can use a wide range of colours. I only use six, blue, green, yellow, brown, black and red, but I have made them precisely as I want them. The range of stains available to the modern potter is much wider than that available in the past; new oxides and industrial methods have produced a vast palette. But the trouble with these commercial stains is that they were designed for the ceramic industry where predictability and stability are essential. This makes them too cold and dead for my liking and I prefer to use raw oxides, which blur and run and which separate slightly after they have been mixed. Red remains difficult: I still have to use a commercial stain, but I’m doing some experiments on getting red with raw oxides.

The traditional vocabulary of tin glaze is naturalistic, tending to fruit, flowers and birds, all of which have been beautifully treated in Delft and maiolica. But I have chosen purely abstract decoration, limiting myself to two or three colours on each piece. Combined with the white background, this gives quite enough possibilities for variation and contrast. Take blue and green: you can paint blue on white, white on blue, green on white, white on green, green on blue and blue on green – six combinations from only two colours.

The way I work is to construct each piece carefully, spending a lot of time scraping and refining the form, and then painting freely. This is a high risk method, because painting of this sort can’t be corrected. If it’s wrong, the only thing to do is to wash off all the glaze, dry out the vessel and glaze it again.

Abstract decoration is more difficult than fruit and flowers. Their shape is given and it’s easy to arrange them on the object. My arabesques are infinitely variable and can easily go wrong. I have to get the shape right but it can’t be planned or laboured. You have to work like a Chinese calligrapher, to see the shape before you on the white surface and then to fill it in with a quick sweep of the brush. The profile of the line is important as well. It’s determined by the shape of the brush and the type of hair the brush is made of. Often the profile  is wrong even if the form is right, just a bit too flabby. For that reason I’m always on the lookout for the right brush. It has to have edge and spring, or alternatively, rough bristles to make a dry ragged line. Sometimes only the best Kolinsky sable will do, sometimes I use an old glue brush with the bristles falling out that probably cost 50p. The broad washes of colour are usually done with a wide soft brush – Japanese hakes are good for that – but sometimes I want a dry, ragged wash, and use something rougher and stiffer. A watercolour painter was horrified when I told her that I use Kolinsky sables with these abrasive oxides or with gummy wax, but, hell, the purpose of a knife is to cut, not to be kept sharp.

I will be demonstrating at Childwickbury Arts Fair next weekend (Friday 6th to Sunday 8th July) where you can see how this is all put into practice.

Alan Caiger-Smith, Tin-Glaze Pottery, Faber & Faber, 1973 

Subscribe to my newsletter