This little figure was made by Jessamine Bray and Sybil Williams at the Dulwich Pottery in 1939. They were the last and Jessamine was the youngest of the Chelsea Potters, makers of the figurative ceramics that were so popular in the 1920s that they were the first things that came to mind when people talked about ‘studio pottery’.
Jessamine studied at Camberwell School of Art in the early 1920s, where she became interested in modelling, of which the school was the leading exponent. She worked for Charles Vyse and then became a teacher of ceramic sculpture at the art school. Sybil, who was older, also studied with Vyse and they probably met in his studio. The two women began their partnership in 1926.
This small model is typical of their work, with its mild Continental exoticism, its portrayal of a child with an animal and its meticulous underglaze painting.
Changing artistic fashion, changing family circumstances and the outbreak of war brought the Dulwich Pottery to an and, but Jessamine continued modelling at home at least until the late 1950s. This picture (below) was taken of her at the art school in the early 1920s.
I caught the repeat on BBC2 of Nick Willing’s film, Secrets and Stories, about his mother Paula Rego, a useful pendant to the recent retrospective at Tate Britain – a long interview interspersed with images of her at work and film of her younger self. What was obscure at Tate became clear: the autobiographical sources of her art and the way she exorcised her demons through painting. She inherited her father’s disposition to depression and admitted that her childhood was full of fears.
Willing said that until her eighties Rego was almost secretive about her life, but then she began to tell stories. The cause of her reticence may have been the way her experiences motivated her. If she talked she wouldn’t have painted. Well-adjusted people aren’t great artists.
The film was informative about Victor Willing, Rego’s husband. It was he who was tipped for artistic stardom at the Slade, not her, but as his inspiration withered, hers grew, and he enouraged her without jealousy.
Rego followed an undistracted figurative course through post-war fashions to become one of our greatest artists, but we saw here that she took 25 years to make the paintings we recognise her for. Not unconnected with her greatness is the fact that her talk was free of artbollocks. There was no wish to impress, to which lesser artists are prone, no conventional jargon, no theorising. She said what she felt and believed. Everything was real.