I’m about to go to Italy, where I’ll be visiting the International Museum of Ceramics in Faenza, which claims to have the largest collection of ceramics in the world.  I’ve never been there before and it will be fascinating to compare it to the ceramics gallery of the V&A, which I know well.

After writing my post on cobalt blue, I realized that I’d omitted to mention Nigel Wood’s work on blue-and-white ceramics, of which he is making a special study, researching the uses of cobalt ores throughout history in the fine and applied arts.  He describes Chinese blue and white ceramics as the most influential ceramics in the world and says that it’s hard to find any country that doesn’t have blue and white ceramics from China.

In one of his lectures he observed that a single piece of blue and white pottery in China may have passed through 80 hands in the workshop.  I find this fact interesting in the context of the influence of the Arts and Crafts philosophy on British studio pottery, which I’ve been writing about.  Coming via Japan with Bernard Leach and Hamada Shoji, that philosophy led early studio potters to say that all processes should be carried out by one craftsman, or at least in a small team with as little division of labour as possible.  That ethic rested on the myth that before the industrial revolution artisans worked in this way, but that was unlikely, except in domestic workshops where goods were made for the maker’s own household.  For the early studio potters, the myth was reinforced by the practice of the few remaining English country potters, men like Fishley Holland, George Curtis and Isaac Button.  But when he was filmed in the 1960s, Button was working for a disappearing local market and he no longer employed any assistants.

The myth of the peasant potter (an odd term, because artisans are not peasants) led to the devaluation of work that was not made by one person, however good it was.  William de Morgan (above), the supreme ceramist of the Arts and Craft Movement, who stands head and shoulders above every other art potter of the period, was thus demeaned because he made designs that other people painted, on blanks that had been bought from Stoke on Trent.  If de Morgan had been a potter and not a designer, we would not have his glorious lustre pottery, we would have had something else instead, and the world of ceramics would be more uniform and less beautiful.

The myth also leads to a devaluation of art and a selective reading of the so-called peasant potters. Edwin Beer Fishley, celebrated by Bernard Leach as “the last of the peasant potters”, made made elaborate pieces, including imitations of Attic vases, that revealed knowledge of western art, and he was a reader of art magazine; and Isaac Button, the country potter immortalised in Robert Fournier’s film, with his flat cap and overalls, also like to go the the opera with Fournier; but this has been edited out of the studio potters’ narrative. There are many such selections in the reading of craft. George Sturt’s The Wheelwright’s Shop, a key text in the myth of craft, shows the wheelwrights working intuitively, but they told Sturt what he wanted to hear and they used more measurements, plans and science than they admitted.  Ruskin’s doctrine of savageness, which is the origin of the doctrine of rough finish in modern craft, simply dismissed the fine finish that many pre-industrial craftsmen like Thomas Chippendale strove to achieve.

Jeffrey Jones, Studio Pottery in Britain 1900-2005
George Sturt, The Wheelwright’s Shop
Christopher Frayling, On Craftmanship
John Ruskin, The Nature of Gothic
David Pye, The Nature and Art of Workmanship
Glenn Adamson, The Invention of Craft 

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I’m preparing a talk for the News From Nowhere Club next  month and I’ve been reading Michael Cardew’s chapters in Pioneer Pottery on price and product.  I’d forgotten what good sense he talked.

Cardew (left), whom Leach regarded as his best pupil, started off trying to make pottery for everyday use at a price that ordinary people could afford, but he was unable to support his family, and in 1940 had to take a salaried post in Ghana running the pottery at Achimota college. Later, in Pioneer Pottery,  he set out the problem clearly. In order to achieve low prices, sometimes called “the just price”, the potter had to make a lot and to work quickly, but by doing this he pitted himself both against the machine and the market. Ultimately the quality of his work suffered.

Leach was a late adherent of the Arts and Crafts philosophy, which he saw through a Japanese prism with his colleagues Hamada Shoji, Tomimoto Kenkichi and Yanagi Soetsu.  His essay, “Towards a Standard” in A Potter’s Book, was a re-statement of William Morris’s view of industry, although he  thought the Arts and Crafts Movement had ended in “pseudo-medieval crafts little related to national life and work”.  “In the field of ceramics,” he said, “the responsibility for the all-pervading bad taste of the last century and the very probably ninety per cent bad taste of today lies mainly with machine production and the accompanying indifference to aesthetic considerations of individual industrialists and their influence on the sensibility of the public.”

Morris famously regretted that his firm ended up producing interiors for the “swinish luxury of the rich”. You may want to make beautiful things at reasonable prices, but things made by hand are expensive. Tomimoto saw ceramics as a vehicle for individual artistic expression and at the same time believed that it was possible to produce well-designed and affordable vessels for popular everyday use.  This dual ambition characterised much studio pottery in the early 20th century, sometimes accompanied by Leach’s anti-machine aesthetic.

Morris’s ideas about the crafts and society implied conflicts between quality and price, good conditions of work and adequate profit. He thought craft work was necessary for the quality of the goods made, the happiness of the user and the wellbeing of the maker. But craft work is expensive compared to machine made goods. If it’s sold cheaply, the producer’s income goes down.

Because of Morris’s idealism and his socialism, it’s easy to overlook how successful a businessman he was. The conditions of work at Merton Abbey, where Morris textiles were made from the 1880s onwards, were not much different from those of other dye works and weaving sheds, although the surroundings were pleasant and attractive. The work was repetitive and the creative decisions were made by Morris and his principal designer J.H.Dearle. There was no creative input from the workers and the firm was not democratic. Morris was often asked why this was so, or why he didn’t give the business to the workers. He explained that he had a large family to support, but he also said that it would be futile: only a total revolution on Marxist lines would make a permanent difference to the condition of the workers.

C.R.Ashbee, a generation younger than Morris and inspired by his ideals, set up The Guild of Handicraft in the East End of London, and then with utopian ambition took it to Chipping Camden. The Guild produced excellent furniture, silverware and books, but it began to make a loss after 1900. After the collapse of the Guild, Ashbee still spoke about his desire to destroy the “commercial system”, as he called it. He advocated a tax on factory goods to give craftsmen a chance, but the consequence of this confused idea, if it had ever been put into practice, would have been to depress factory wages and put factory workers out of a job.

Craftspeople have often underpriced their work and some still so.  If they persist, they will, at best, be unable to renew their equipment in the long run; at worst, they won’t be able to support themselves.

The difficulty for the ceramist who makes useful things is the tendency of the public to compare his work to factory-made tableware and to value it accordingly. David Leach made an elegant fluted celadon bowl and then put a handle on a similar shape, turning it into a cup; the cup took more work but it sold for far less because it was more obviously useful.

In A Potter’s Book, Leach shows his accounts for 1939, in which his profit was about 5% of sales, rather a low figure. (I suspect this even this figure is inflated, because at the time Leach was being subsidized by Leonard and Dorothy Elmshirst.) “This” he says “has meant simple living and hard work.” Despite his contempt for Stoke-on-Trent, the St Ives Pottery really was only established on a sound footing when David Leach took it over after training in management at Stoke.  But it is impossible for the craftsman to make things for everyday use at a price that ordinary people can afford unless she has a fortune, a sponsor or another job.

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I’m repeatedly drawn to decorating only in cobalt blue. It’s not exactly monochrome decoration because of the variation in tone you can get with it, but it’s mono-pigment.

Cobalt is absolutely reliable, performing well at all temperatures and in all kiln atmospheres. It’s one of the most versatile of oxides, usable on raw clay, as an underglaze colour or painted over glaze. What makes it valuable to the decorator is its range, from a pale wash to deepest midnight blue. Its versatility was exploited by the maiolica and Delft painters. On Delft chargers, for example, pale washes could be applied with a big soft brush for clouds and sky, and outlines with a fine pointed brush, as in the accomplished piece below depicting Perseus and Andromeda.

Other oxides don’t perform in this way. I find it difficult to control the tone of iron oxide, for example, a thin wash of which often disappears completely. Copper oxide has a fuzzy edge, which is good if you want that that sort of thing, but if you put it on thickly it turns from green to an ugly metallic black.

Cobalt was one of the five pigments described by Piccolpasso in The Three Books of the Potter’s Art (1557).  It came as zaffre, an ore with traces of sulphur, arsenic, nickel and manganese.  Piccolpasso says it came from Venice, but Venice was only the entrepôt. According to Ahmad Yousef al-Hassan Gabarin (of the Institute for the History of Arabic Science at Aleppo), it was mined in Persia, Oman and the northern Hijaz and sent to glass and ceramics centres in the Islamic world, from where it made its way to Europe.

The high cost made extraction in Europe worthwhile, and by the eighteenth century it was being mined in Saxony, the Mendip Hills and in Cornwall.  Luke Hebert, in The Engineer’s and Mechanic’s Encyclopaedia (1836) says that in the North Staffordshire Potteries, the best zaffre cost about four pounds a kilo – equivalent to seven weeks’ average earnings, or £3,000 at modern values.  The best price I can get today is £65 a kilo, but cobalt oxide is still the most expensive pigment used by the potter. It costs about 25 times as much as the cheapest, iron oxide. But you don’t have to use much: a quarter of one per cent will make a good blue in a white or transparent glaze.

Its strength means it has to handled with care. One stray speck, invisible before firing, will shows up in a tin glaze and it’s advisable to wash your hands often in order to prevent cobalt fingerprints.  Stray cobalt is one of the hazards of pottery evening classes, where students and technicians are careless.  It’s so strong that white clays can be made to look even whiter by the addition of one part of cobalt to 20,000 parts of clay.

Cobalt oxide is now is so pure that it produces a colour too bright for my taste. The popular tin-glazed plates from Spain and Italy use this garish blue, but I tone it down by mixing it with copper oxide. Cobalt is a flux but copper is more powerful and I like to fire my work to the point at which the copper makes the blue run. Where the colour is thick, it runs more than it does where it’s thin, so I can create contrasts in the performance of the stain as well as in its tone. The copper and cobalt also separate, which gives the blue a green halo. You might call these effects imperfections, but they’re perfect for me because I want this sort of glaze-colour reaction, often seen in stoneware but unusual in earthenware.

See also: Cobalt Blue: Letter to an Admirer