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 


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