As part of Open House London, I visited the Royal College of Physicians yesterday. The RCP building in Regent’s Park was designed by Denys Lasdun. We were ably guided by Calder Barnabas, who wrote his PhD on Lasdun.

Lasdun is better known for the National Theatre, but the RCP building is equally successful, closer to the International Style than the Brutalist National Theatre. Several of the ideas Lasdun used in the National Theatre were first tried in the RCP.

The Royal College of Physicians is an ancient body, founded in the reign of Henry VIII.  By the 1950s had become clubby, in an obscure location near Trafalgar Square, and a bit stuffy. But the president and council determined that it should it should modernise  and have a more public face. Overcoming the reluctance of the more conservative members, they chose Lasdun to design it. Some of the costs were met by the Wolfson Foundation and the RCP (whom Dr Barnabas described as ideal clients) instructed Lasdun not to skimp on the materials and finish for the sake of £15,000 here and there – remember this was the late 1950s.

Lasdun’s building is Modernism at its best, its design determined by its intended use and shaped to facilitate the activities of the college. Although of a different era and style from the surrounding Nash terraces, it takes account of them, echoes their materials and colours and creates stunning views of them.

The central area of the college is open and airy, as captured in the photo (above) by Chris Guy. It’s arranged on several levels linked by a staircase and giving views of the lower floors from the upper, offering a theatrical view of the activities there – something developed even further in the National Theatre. There is a huge glass wall looking out on the college garden and Nash’s houses and made so as not to draw attention to itself but only to what can be seen through it. By this, Lasdun links the inside and the outside of the building. The glass panels were the largest that could be made in Britain at the time; now, fifty years later, we have lost the capacity to do so, and if they have to be replaced, they will have to be imported.

The building is faced in black brick and pale grey mosaic. The brick was commissioned from English brick makers. Although most of the building is rectilinear, part of it has a gently curving wall in the manner of Corbusier’s Chapelle Notre Dame du Haut, for which Lasdun needed brick in several different shapes – and exceptional bricklayers too, I imagine. The bricks are uniform in colour, achieved by careful sorting on site and rejection of those that were the wrong shade. Other walls are faced with porcelain tesserae, commissioned from a tile maker in Italy  (presumably beyond the capacity of Stoke on Trent), in a colour chosen to match the paint used on the Nash stucco. Since then, the Crown Estate has changed the colour of its stone paint, so the point is now lost. The mosaic continues within the building, again uniting inside and outside.

The building has been treated with respect by the Royal College of Physicians. It’s Grade I listed, but the respect goes beyond that. Unlike many other Modernist buildings, its interior hasn’t been added to or cluttered up. The library and meeting rooms are almost free of furniture when not in use, in deference to Lasdun’s wish. “Architects don’t like furniture,” said Dr Barnabas.

The RCP building is open to view outside the Open House weekend.


Autumn is the time for my Open Studio. I exhibit new work and on the studio shelves have what remains of last year’s work at reduced prices.  Open Studio is a time to take stock and to see what I’ve achieved in the last twelve months.

I decided to exhibit less in 2012 and to spend more time in the studio developing a more coherent body of work and solving technical problems. My big problem was glaze. I use a lead borosilicate tin glaze that had been giving trouble for a long time. Someone said that there are no hiding places in an electric kiln. Faults, especially in an earthenware glaze, are obvious and can’t be passed off as interesting kiln effects. Tin glaze has a horrible tendency to crawl, and mine crawled so badly that sometimes the entire firing had to be thrown away.

Books on glaze faults will tell you that crawling is caused by dust or grease on the surface of the pot. If only it were that simple! In my case I had to examine the physical causes of crawling, i.e., what it was in the glaze that made the particles stick to each other rather than to the surface of the pot. That took me into the delightful science of glaze rheology, which we never touched on in my BA Ceramics course. Rheology is the science of flow. I solved my problem by attacking every possible cause, which either alone or together was causing me to tear my hair out.

  1. Change the materials. After consulting other tin glaze potters, I found that my lead bisilicate was being ground to a finer particle size. A fine ground glaze is one of the causes of crawling. The maker had changed from wet milling to dry milling. The only supplier of wet-milled lead bisilicate I could find was Potclays of Stoke on Trent.

 2. Change the clay body. I used terracotta, but I now use a mix of three parts white earthenware to one part terracotta, which gives a pink clay like Italian maiolica. The glaze doesn’t have to be so thick, and that might help adhesion.

3. Change the water. I live in an area where there is a lot of calcium and magnesium in the tap water. These minerals flocculate the glaze, i.e., make the particles stick together, which means greater viscosity. I now use de-ionised water. As a result, the glaze materials go straight to the bottom of the bucket and they then have to be flocculated with Epsom salts. It may seem crazy to deflocculate and then to flocculate, but it works.

Another change I’ve made is to mix my colours form raw oxides and, except for red, not from commercial stains, which are too stable.  In the gestural, abstract painting I do, I want colours that will run in the kiln (left), not inert ones.

I’ve also developed a vocabulary of design and a range of shapes that works for me, and they’ve been well received.

My studio is open on Friday 21st September, Sunday 23rd, Friday 28th and Sunday 30th from 10am to 5.30pm. For further details, you can-mail me here.


Veronesi e Figli, a jeweller in Bologna, has kept its old shop front and old sign.  The sign has gilded lettering on a black background.  Such signs last a long time because the gilding and paint are behind the glass, but Veronesi, an upmarket firm, has kept the sign as part of its branding, not to economise. So have several other shops in the city.

The tobacconists offering Sali e Tabacchi have kept their stained glass sign as a deliberate anachronism – sali is smelling salts. Some signs are loved so much they are kept after a 180 degree change of use. The menswear shop Marciano keeps Baraldi’s old painted sign above the window, though it’s a long time since beef and mutton were sold there.

The wonderfully named Amleto Villa has been selling camping and climbing gear at the same shop since 1928 and the  gilded sign may date from 1928 as well. Armi (meaning weapons) uses an art deco letter on its fascia a bit like the 1929 Vogue typeface. The sign maker has spaced the lettering very nicely. Odd to see a gun shop using lettering designed for Vogue magazine.

Several of the gilded signs belong to pharmacists who have been trading in the same place for a long time. I have also included the fascia of a shabby profumeria with an old neon sign

Like Armi, Cecconi seems to have left their sign and window display the same as it always was simply out of conservatism.  Old electrical shops, paint shops and ironmongers in the heart of a city contrast with smart modern clothes shops, bars and offices.  We still have some of them in London, obviously with freeholds or long leases and completely unbudgeable. But Italy has a relationship with the past different from ours, maybe because they have so much of it. We either ruthlessly modernise it or wrap it in heritage cotton wool.  In Italy, the past and the present seem to live more comfortably side by side.  Inside a crumbling building, for example, you may find a very modern apartment (in Venice, Tintoretto’s house has been divided into flats and not hertitaged), and an up-to-date bar (bottom picture) can leave an old tobacconist’s sign unchanged.

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Argillà, the ceramics biennale in Faenza, ran from 31 August to 2 September this year. The Corso Mazzini, Viale Ballardini and the Piazza del Popolo were closed to traffic and set aside for the 170 potters exhibiting, and anyone visiting Faenza could see their work for nothing.

The weather was perfect for an outdoor market. The heat wave of the previous weeks, when temperatures were in the upper thirties, had abated and there was warm sun. Plenty of bars, cafes and cafes had tables in the street and you could pause for a panini, a plate of pasta or an aperitif.

Faenza is the ideal setting, with its long history of ceramic production, its ceramics university the Ballardini Institute, the International Museum of Ceramics with its big collection, and the Faenza Prize, which has departed from the city’s history of maiolica and now awards prizes for conceptual ceramics.

Most exhibitors were Italian, but there were representatives from Slovenia, France, Austria, Greece, Germany, Spain, Hungary, Finland, Holland, the Czech Republic, Ecuador, Poland, Romania, Cameroon and Britain. There was only one potter from Britain, John Townsend, but I bought a couple of bowls from Terry Davies, an English potter who moved to Italy fourteen years ago.

The organisers estimated that there were about 50,000 visitors. When I visited on the last day, the streets and squares were still buzzing. But exhibitors were feeling the effects of Italy’s dire economic situation. The budget cuts were being announced and the round of autumn demonstrations had begun. Sales at Argillà were down on previous years. The exhibitors were asking much less than I would expect to pay for work in Britain. These bowls by Erik du Chatenier (above left) at €7 were incredibly cheap. Perhaps British ceramists couldn’t afford to exhibit at Faenza for three days, and they’d have found it hard to cope with Italian haggling, which bid down even these low prices.

There was a range of styles and methods, probably wider than you’d find at a comparable fair in Britain, where selection reflects the tastes of the organiser. Because of Italy’s strong tradition of decorated pottery, Argillà had several exhibitors reproducing old maiolica. There was less distinction between studio and industrial ceramics than you might expect, which has something to do with the different meanings of “craft” in the two countries. It’s certainly not because of the absence of a ceramics industry: Italy is a big manufacturer of ceramic tiles and a major international exhibition, Tecnargilla, is being held in Rimini in a few weeks’ time.

Argillà has a lot of industry support and a lot of public funding. It’s promoted by Faenza city council and the Italian Association of Ceramics Cities (AiCC). It’s also supported by the city councils of Ravenna, Naples, Vietri, Cerreto Sannira, San Lorenzo, Ariano Irpino, Lodi, Nove and Castelli, by the Emilia-Romagna regional authority and the Ravenna chamber of commerce. It has international support from the associations of ceramic cities in France, Spain and Romania and the city councils of Aubagne (France) and Gmunden (Austria). And it gets EU backing as part of the Slow Tourism programme.

This amount official backing for a ceramics fair is bewildering to us in the UK, where most crafts fairs are run as private businesses without public support or collaboration. The nearest thing we have is the British Ceramics Biennial, but by comparison with Argillà it has few backers: Stoke on Trent and Staffordshire councils, The Arts Council, the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, Spode, Emma Bridgewater, Steelite and Johnsons Tiles. Despite the steep decline of industry in the area, there is no EU support. There is no support from councils or business outside Staffordshire, no Crafts Council involvement, no chamber of commerce backing and no international support.

Why can’t a ceramics fair in Britain get the sort of backing that Argillà gets? There are many reasons.

1. There is more state and local authority support for industry in Italy than in Britain. In Britain, membership of a chamber of commerce is voluntary and membership is low, chambers are small and have a narrow remit and little power. On the continent membership is either compulsory or expected. Consequently they can have a major impact.

2. The UK gets less EU funding than Italy, and what funding we do get is more tightly controlled by central government. There’s less awareness of EU funding at the local level and even where it’s available, there’s often a reluctance to apply for it. I would be surprised if there was anything for ceramics here.

3. Organisers of crafts fair can recoup their costs in four ways: public funding, stall fees, commission on sales or charging the public. Our craft fairs in Britain, even those run by not-for-profit organisations, invariably charge the stallholder and the public. I don’t know the precise arrangements at Argillà, but as they got public funding, they didn’t have to charge the public. The British public, having paid between £5 and £15 to get into a show, have £5 to £15 less to spend on ceramics.

4. Italy has a stronger artisan tradition than Britain, where the crafts are viewed as insignificant. The Ravenna chamber of commerce includes the word “artigianato” in its title. No British chamber of commerce includes the word “crafts”. But “artigianato” means something more than “crafts”, perhaps something like “artisan”. The difference is illustrated by the producer of the “gelati artigianati” we ate who translated it as “handicraft ice cream”, which is not quite what it is. “Crafts” has backward-looking connotations that “artigianato” lacks. British craft pottery has an unfortunate history of hostility to industry which does not exist among “ceramiche artisiche”, art potters in Italy.

5. Ceramics production in Italy is associated with several districts. In Britain,the only “ceramics city” we have is Stoke on Trent. In Italy, there are 35 “ceramics cities”, who have an interest in promoting themselves through a national festival. Craft pottery in Britain isn’t at present associated with a particular area, but might there not be a case for designating Devon as a “ceramics county”? Perhaps the Craft Potters Association and the Crafts Council might like to send a delegation to AiCC and see what we can learn from them.

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