JOSEPH WILLEMS

The Flemish sculptor Joseph Willems made this wonderful porcelain figure at Chelsea in the 1750s. I saw it in the V&A yesterday, not in the ceramics galleries, which explains why I’ve never noticed it before, but in the British galleries. It’s the largest figure known to have come from Chelsea, about 38 cm high and wide. It was described at auction in in London in 1756, as ‘A most magnificent LUSTRE in the Chinese taste, beautifully ornamented with flowers, and a large groupe of Chinese figures playing on music.’

Willems was born in Brussels in 1716 and came to Chelsea in 1749, where he worked until 1766, when he returned to Flanders to become Director of the Imperial Royal Academy of Drawing and Modelling at Tournai.

DULWICH POTTERY

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.

POST-WAR MODERN

The exhibition Post-War Modern: New Art in Britain 1945-65 at the Barbican highlights the diversity of the period, including Lucien Freud’s, John Bratby’s and Jean Cooke’s figurative paintings, Lynn Chadwick’s and Eduardo Paolozzi’ s angular bronzes (above), John Latham’s, Victor Pasmore’s and Gillian Ayres’ total abstraction and the beginnings of psychedelic art.

Looking at the period from a distance the curators are bound to evaluate it differently from the way it was evaluated at the time. The art world always knew that John Bratby, despite his huge commercial success, was a pretty obnoxious character and controlled his wife, Jean Cooke, who was already suspected of being a better artist than he was. Post-War Modern thrusts their domestic relationship to the fore and Cooke’s 1966 self-portrait, Blast Boadicea, removes any doubts about her excellence. Abstraction reached its high-water mark in 1960. Herbert Read’s Concise History of Modern Painting (1959) narrated the progress of art from Impressionist beginnings to supposedly inevitable resolution in Pollock, Rothko and De Kooning. Now we see that art was always more diverse. In relation to the representational works on show, the notes are bound to discuss content and meaning but, following the decline of interest in the formal properties of art, they say surprisingly little about the appearance of non-representational paintings by Victor Pasmore, Mary Martin, Adrian Heath, Anthony Hill and Robert Adams.

The photos of Bert Hardy, Nigel Henderson and Roger Mayne show a ravaged urban environment with children playing in bombsites and rotting Victorian streets. We’re presented with artists dizzied by war and engaged in a search for meaning in a world without secure values. That was all true. But the post-war decades were also years of optimism and reconstruction. Hardy was good at showing people enjoying life at fairgrounds, dance-halls and the seaside. And against the photos of crumbling cities might be also be placed the Festival of Britain, the New Towns and the schools of the 1944 Education Act. There was full employment and wages were rising. People believed in Science. The best food, they thought, was made in factories and didn’t go stale. Britons were excited by the Space Age, Sputnik and planes like the Avro Vulcan. Those on the Left thought the Soviet Union was harnessing Science for Mankind and promised a prosperous and peaceful future – at least until 1956 when it invaded Hungary.

Today, however, we are pessimists. Science represents danger. The environment is going to kill us. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Left envisages not Utopia but only endless struggle. So we see in post-war art (and probably in all art) anxiety and anomie rather than celebration and hope.

What did create anxiety, of course, was the H-Bomb, which Britain adopted in 1957. Post-War Modern mentions Gustav Metzger, the inventor of auto-destructive art, who was active in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, but the way the Bomb overshadowed the Sixties wasn’t fully brought out. Jeff Nuttall called the art of the decade Bomb Culture.

A case of pottery by Hans Coper and Lucie Rie formed an interesting pendant to the exhibition. They weren’t included in earlier reviews of the period – not, for example, in the Barbican’s Transition: The London Arts Scene in the Fifties (2002) or the Tate’s Art & The Sixties: This Was Tomorrow (2004) These refined ceramics were part of the same movement as Victor Pasmore’s abstract paintings. Rie, a Jewish refugee from Vienna, was of an earlier generation of artists associated with the Weiner Werkstätte. In England she became an inspiring but very demanding teacher at Camberwell School of Art. It’s difficult to say much about her pottery because, in contrast with the other leading potter of the period, Bernard Leach, she not only made pots absolutely of her time but also refused to say anything about them.

VESSELS WITH WINGED HANDLES

‘Gale Force‘, Marshall Colman

Someone compared my vessels with winged handles to Colin Pearson’s ceramics. Colin made wonderful explorations of vessels with wings. Some are in the V&A and he won the Faenza Prize with others.  But this motif was around long before him and it’s not hundreds but thousands of years old.

Colin Pearson, 1994.

The Wallace Collection has some 16th-century drug jars from Deruta. They were functional vessels for apothecaries but they gave potters freedom to decorate and permitted flights of fancy like winged handles. The handles aren’t functional of course but they offer a surface for painting and sgrafitto.

Deruta, c.1500

The most impressive example is The Gazelle Vase in the Alhambra. It was made with two handles but it’s now defined by being broken. We wouldn’t want the handle to be repaired. The 19th-century reconstructions look too neat. They lack its ruined grandeur. Sometimes we prefer assymetry and we like faces that aren’t too regular: perfectly symmetrical faces are uncanny.

The Gazelle Vase, c.1375.

When I make pots with winged handles I make sure the handles don’t match, in a nod to The Gazelle Vase.

There’s a pot from Erimi in Cyprus with flattened handles in the Museum in Nicosia, the oldest example I’ve seen, from between 3500 and 2800 BCE. Somewhat older than Colin Pearson and me.

Vessel from Erimi, Cyprus, 3500 – 2800 BCE.

CLAUDIA CLARE (4)

It’s hard to find out what’s going on in the case of Claudia Claire, whose invitation to talk at Ceramic Art London has been withdrawn, apparently because of her views.

The event is organised by the Craft Potters Association at Central Saint Martins School of Art, but it appears that neither organisation has taken responsibility for the ban. Where did it come from? The Daily Telegraph has investigated and a report is expected tomorrow.

CLAUDIA CLARE (3)

With the caveat that Central Saint Martins (above) haven’t spoken publicly about their reason for refusing to allow Claudia Clare to speak at the university, which I’ve written about earlier, their reason, as I understand it, looks rather thin on examination.

Apparently their reason for the ban is that, because of her gender-critical views, Claudia’s speaking would breach their equal opportunities guidelines. (Gender-critical, for those unfamiliar with this world, means the assertion that sex – being a man or a woman – is based on biology and isn’t altered by one’s gender identity.) I’ve said that, since Claudia wasn’t billed to talk about her gender-critical views, but about her work of art, And the Door Opened, this means she’s being banned not for what she’s saying but for what she thinks.

If that is the case, Central Saint Martins may be skating on thin ice. Claudia and her supporters have drawn my attention to the Forstater case, in which the courts decided that a person couldn’t be sacked for gender-critical views and overturned the ruling of an Employment Tribunal that they could. The court ruled that if those views were cogent and sincerely held they were a philosophical belief akin to a religion and were a “protected characteristic” under equality law. In other words, dismissing someone from their job because of their gender-critical beliefs, would be contrary to equal-opportunities law.

Allowing or not allowing someone to talk on one’s premises is another matter, and as I’m not a lawyer I can’t say whether or not Central Saint Martins is breaking the law by banning Claudia because of the views she holds. But the government has become concerned about the increasing tendency of students in higher education to bully speakers they don’t like and the tendency of university authorities to give in to them and to ban those speakers, as it seems has happened to Claudia, and a Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill is going through Parliament to extend the Forstater principle and to stop it from happening in the future.

CLAUDIA CLARE (2)

Since writing about Claudia Clare’s exclusion from the forthcoming Ceramic Art London (CAL) exhibition at Central St Martins School of Art, I’ve learned more about the surrounding events. In 2020 Claudia proposed to talk at CAL about her project And the Door Opened, which is about women escaping the sex trade. At the time no-one objected, and when CAL was revived after a two-year break she was included in the programme. But this year Central Saint Martins said that they couldn’t permit her to talk because she breached their equal opportunities guidelines.

How so?

Claudia thinks that a person can’t change their sex by identifying as a person of a particular gender and that women’s rights are endangered by gender self-identification. Central Saint Martins appear to think (or to defer to the view) that holding that opinion is in itself a breach their equal opportunities policy and that a person who holds it can’t be allowed to talk on their premises. Claudia wasn’t actually billed to talk about gender but about women and prostitution, so it does look very much as if she’s been banned not because of what she was going to say but because of what she thinks. That’s about as close to Orwellian thoughtcrime as it’s possible to get.

Central Saint Martins thus put the event organisers, the Craft Potters Association, in a very difficult position: should they have pushed back and jeopardised the whole event or should they have agreed to curtail Claudia’s civil liberties?

CLAUDIA CLARE

An unusual row has broken out at the Craft Potters Association (CPA), the body that represents Britain’s best ceramic artists and which is part of the British craft establishment. They recently decided to cancel their invitation to Claudia Clare (above) to display her ceramics and give a talk at Ceramic Art London (CAL), the big ceramic exhibition that they put on each year.

I know Claudia well, having first met her as a fellow-student on the Harrow ceramics course, and I’ve always respected her integrity, her ability as an artist and her independence of thought. The CPA also respect her, having selected her as a member, an honour given to few potters. My understanding of the circumstances surrounding Claudia’s cancellation is this. She was invited in 2020 to give a talk at CAL and to display her ceramics about women forced into prostitution and their way out of it, an installation supported by the Arts Council. The invitation was postponed because of COVID and was scheduled for this year.

Recently a threat was made to her display at CAL, not to Claudia but to the Craft Potters Association. The Association haven’t communicated the details to her, but they told her that they have now decided to cancel the invitation. Claudia’s enquiries indicate that the threats were made by people who disagree with her views about sex workers.

Claudia never shrinks from controversy but in this case her point of view is hardly controversial. Some people obviously disagree with it, in which case they’re free to argue their case; but if the Craft Potters Association have received threats of violence I would think that the right course of action is to report them to the police and to provide adequate security at the event, not to tell the exhibitor that she can’t appear. I’ve written to Peter Snowden, the Chairperson of the CPA, to tell him that. There’s a petition here if anyone wants to support Claudia and artistic freedom of expression.

BERNARD LEACH: LIFE & WORK

Covid and Christmas gave me the chance to catch up on reading and after Fiona MacCarthy’s life of William Morris, I’ve finally got round to Emmanuel Cooper’s biography, Bernard Leach: Life and Work.

As a man with no doubts about his own importance, Leach (1887-1979) left a large archive, which makes the work of the biographer easy, though Cooper may have been blessed with too much material and remains too close to the sources. In contrast to Leach, Dora Billington, another major studio potter of the period, left nothing. As Leach dominated the pottery studio world, so she dominated pottery in the art schools. She was in a better position to leave an archive than he was. He was peripatetic, had an emotionally turbulent life and was always in search of funds; she remained at the Central School of Arts and Crafts and lived in the same house with one companion for thirty years. The absence of a Billington archive suggests that her papers were destroyed, probably on her instructions.

Leach’s first wife, Muriel, said that no man was ever more in need of a religion than he was. Pottery was a religion for him. He thought that Beauty was to be found in the Absolute. Industry had no soul and bad pottery was “dead”. He could never accept that his work was simply a style that he preferred: he had to believe that it reflected a universal, unvariable and absolute standard that all pottery should measure up to, and damn it if it didn’t. He was brought up a Catholic and was educated by Jesuits. When doubts crept in, he became a follower of a charlatan called Alfred Westharp, who combined polygamy with the Montessori method of education. Westharp conveniently persuaded Leach that his discontent with monogamy was spiritually significant and that he would never develop as an artist if he didn’t follow his sexual urges.

Later, under the influence of Mark Tobey, Leach adopted the Baha’i faith. His employees at the pottery had to attend daily prayer meetings. He stood on a soap box in St Ives harbour to preach on the evils of modern life, which, by the 1950s, included not only industry but also cinema, chewing gum and Music While You Work.

Leach’s mission was to bring together East and West. In Japan he sold pottery based on the English vernacular tradition and he introduced Japanese potters to the clay handle instead of the traditional bamboo handle. He and his colleagues, Soetsu Yanagi and Shoji Hamada, encouraged a Japanese reading of Ruskin and Morris. But as he was so opposed to the values of the West it’s hard to see what he brought to the East – unlike, for example, Charlotte Perriand, whose design was inspired by Japan but who remained a significant Western designer.

Leach made successful tours of the United States, which challenged him because he couldn’t understand a country with diverse traditions and a love of innovation. Cooper is frank about his aloofness and dogmatism in America, but for all that he was often open to new experiences in the arts, society and nature. Most remarkable was his warm response to the designers Charles and Ray Eames, who, despite their collection of folk art, represented the antithesis of Leach’s values. He wanted to produce a small number of things for a discerning élite: their objective, in their memorable phrase, was getting the best to the greatest number of people for the least.

There’s nothing surprising about a man developing odd ideas but it is suprising that Leach’s odd ideas gained so much traction. He and Hamada irrupted from Japan into England in 1920 and worked in disregard of other art potters. There were broadly speaking three groups: Leach and his small band; the late followers of the Arts and Crafts movement, like Alfred and Louise Powell; and the figurative potters like Charles Vyse and Gwendolen Parnell, who were untouched by Orientalism, had little interest in the vernacular and didn’t share Leach’s aesthetic of simplicity, modesty and utility.

Leach’s style was slow to catch on. Some, like the Marxist Henry Bergen and William Slater, the managing director of the Dartington Trust, were unafraid to interrogate his vague ideas, but after the war there was an avalanche of interest. That is partly explained by Leach’s unshakable self-confidence, his talent for publicity and A Potter’s Book, but there have been many confident self-publicists without a following. Murray Fieldhouse, an enthusiastic follower, I think explained it. He told me that after the war a lot of people were looking for a new way of life and that the crafts seemed to offer it. He and several others who went for this way of life were pacifists like Leach. The Leach idea of a small pottery in the country, in the shadow of the atom bomb, away from the rat race, seemed to fit the bill. If oriental religion could be added to the mix, so much the better.

DAMASCUS TILES

I looked at Arthur Milner’s gorgeous large-format book Damascus Tiles yesterday, which is a history, a gazetteer and a large collection of high-quality photos.

It explained why there was such confusion in Britain until the 20th century about the precise origin of these tiles, because there was not only influence and export but also movement of the potters from place to place. The story isn’t just of Damascus but also of Jerusalem, Istanbul and Cairo and the rise and fall of empires over a thousand years.

Milner calls the enthusiasm for Damascus tiles in Britain at the end of the 19th century “a craze”, and the focus of the craze has to be the Arab Hall in Frederic Leighton’s house (which he describes as the largest one-bedroomed house in London), mainly tiled with panels from the Near East but also with fill-in sections by William de Morgan. It’s closed till the spring, but I’ll look at it again then with fresh eyes.