The exhibition of Simon Pettet’s ceramics at 18 Folgate Street made me visit Dennis Severs’ house in Spitalfields, which I’d meant to do for a long time, with the added incentive of being permitted to take photos, which isn’t normally allowed.

Pettett graduated with a first-class degree in ceramics from Camberwell School of Art in 1983 and met Severs shortly after, moving in to the house that Severs was turning into a replica of what it might have been in the 18th and 19th centuries, telling the story of a family of silk weavers over a period of decline from prosperity to penury.

Pettet’s clever pastiche of Delftware, with current references, like the images of Spitalfields residents Gilbert and George, fit well into this theatrical environment, with its wood fires, half-drawn curtains and unmade beds.


A picture of the little figure (above) that I described in an earlier post is going to illustrate my forthcoming article on the figurative pottery of the 1920s and 1930s in West 86th. Since writing it, I’ve found out more about the elusive artist who signed it JMW. The subject matter led me to think she was a woman. A picture of a similar piece by “J. West” in the Camberwell Art School’s archive (below) made me think he might be a man. In fact she was Joan Mary West (1883-1974), an artist with a varied practice, who came to ceramics comparatively late in life.

There’s a solitary painting by her in Manchester City Art Gallery, Ennui (below), undated, but judging from its style, painted at roughly the same time as her little figures, though it’s free of their sentimentality.

I’d assumed she was a young student at Camberwell, but she was in her forties when she studied there. On I even found a picture of her, no doubt taken at about that time, and showing her interest in pottery.


Early accounts of studio pottery, notably those by Muriel Rose (1955) and Paul Rice and Christopher Gowing, (1989) were selective and very partisan, basically, just showing the pottery they liked. Oliver Watson’s 1993 survey of studio ceramics in the V&A was the first to cover the subject in an objective and dispassionate way and after Watson there were numerous scholarly studies. The revision of Watson’s volume by the V&A’s senior ceramics curator, Alun Graves (above) has been a long time in preparation and it’s now out. Watson acknowledged the significance of figurative studio pottery in the 1920s and 1930s (ignored by Rose, Rice and Gowing) but he had to exclude it for reasons of space. Graves’s book covers the modellers, in which there’s a growing interest, and it’s a welcome addition to the literature.

Alun Graves, Studio Ceramics (London: Thames and Hudson/V&A, 2023)


An interesting feature of all the notes you’ll read about Spanish pottery is that there’s no mention of tin glaze. That’s because virtually all pottery made in Spain is tin glazed, and drawing attention to the fact is like drawing attention to the fact that it’s made of clay. So take it as read that all the pots and tiles shown here are tin glazed.

Above is a large 19th century basin, about 60cm in diameter, from Seville. It’s typical of the basins (lebrillos) made in Triana at that time, the district in Seville where the potters have worked for centuries, vigorously painted on tin glaze in blue, green, yellow and black with a characteristic border and a motif in the centre, either a bird, an animal a portrait or an abstract pattern. They’re made from a pale buff clay, of which there were abundant deposits in Seville and which was the foundation of its ceramic industry.

This dish is from the collection of Laura Salcines, whose excellent shop, Populart, at 4 Passaje de Vila, near the cathedral in Seville, I visited when I was in the city. As Mrs Salcines doesn’t speak English and I don’t speak Spanish, I couldn’t be sure exactly what this superb piece of pottery was used for, but I gathered it had something to do with pork.

There’s a review of ceramics, the Collecion Carranza, in the Alcazar Real, covering the 15th to 19th centuries, with examples of Renaissance, Baroque and Rococo pottery and the azulejos made in Triana, including some fine religious tile paintings. The notes to the exhibition, in English as well as Spanish, are good. The Carranza collection call the age of Baroque tiles the Golden Age, which is moot because a common view outside Spain among artist potters is that the Hispano Moresque period from the 12th to the 15th centuries is the Golden Age and that there was a decline thereafter. Curators and historians, however, for example, Alice Wilson Frothingham, tend to take a broader view, but potters are interested in vessels and Spain has lavished much of its ceramic effort on tiles.

The motivation for the tile makers was often religious and artistic considerations were secondary, so the quality of the drawing is sometimes poor, but but the limitations of the medium – a few colours and the difficulty of correcting what’s been painted on the glaze – result in simplicity and directness. That, and the fact that the colours don’t fade or darken like paint, means that Spain has a wealth of street art, some of it outside churches and some in mundane places, on buildings now used as flats or corner shops.

The Collecion Carranza say –

“During the Baroque period, streets and squares were invaded by numerous examples of religious imagery. In Seville, the tiles reproducing images for devotion became a type of holy painting for exteriors with evident advantages for their preservation. The facades of churches, convents, houses and hospitals, in addition to the religious murals located at many different points throughout the city, fulfilled the task of extending religion to exterior spaces and served as a backdrop for rituals encouraged by the Catholic Church.”

They have documented hundreds of azulejos, mainly religious, in Spain’s churches and other public places, covering a period of over 500 years. They record an essentially conservative art, almost a folk art, except that the painters are specialists in tile painting.

In the Alcazar Real is chapel whose walls are covered in tiles painted with flowers, arabesques and grotesque figures. These paintings, from about 1600, are different from Hispano Moresque painting but they’re just as good in their own way. The colours are rich, dominated here by Naples yellow, and the drawing is fluent. Below are a few panels of fantastic, quasi-human figures.

Our Lady of Hope, the lachryomose Nuestra Señora de la Esperanza, is revered in Seville and is local to Triana, where she’s a constant in the bars alongside the pictures of footballers and bullfighters, all of whom appear to be venerated equally. Tile images of Mary are common, and this one (below), The Virgin of the People, who used to be in the Convento del Popolo and is now in the Museum of Fine Arts, dates from about 1670 and is a very good example of what can be done with a few pigments – in this case, only three – cobalt blue, antimony yellow and manganese purple.

Other saints can be found in very ordinary places, like this St Augustine tucked between the blaconies on the first floor of a house. There’s a larger image of him below.

There are still tile companies around Seville making religious images, like this realistic 1982 Christ (below) outside the Church of SS Francisco and Eulogio in Córdoba, by J. Soriano. Modern work has the advantage of a wider range of colours and is highly finished but it lacks the simple vigour of the older tiles.


Coll IMJ, photo (c) IMJ, By Nachum Slapak

On Facebook, Rabbi Jeremy Gordon drew my attention to this beautiful Hispano-Moresque dish now in the Israel Museum. It’s very large, 57 cm across, decorated in superb detail in gold lustre and blue and with a central inscription in Hebrew which makes it plain that it was designed for a Jewish client to be used in the Passover Seder meal. A timely post, as Passover begins today. It’s an important piece of Judaica because it’s the oldest surviving Seder plate and a record of Jewish life in Spain before the expulsion of 1492.

But the extraordinary thing about this ceramic tour de force is that the inscription is illiterate. It’s supposed to say Pesach Matzah Maror Seder, referring to elements of the ritual meal, but everything is mis-spelled. This is difficult to understand. Spain was a centre of high Jewish culture, with great philosophers like Maimonides and poets like Ibn Gabirol, and it’s hard to credit the rich client who commissioned this item with such illiteracy, for illiteracy is the only credible explanation.

The lustre technique was brought to Moorish Spain from the Middle East and North Africa and it was common for Muslim potters to make ceremonial items for Christians and, as this plate shows, for Jews as well. Asked to decorate a Seder plate, the potters could be expected to be given the wording for the Hebrew inscription. Is it possible that the potters made this item on spec to advertise their skills and had only rough idea of what to write on it? Given the size and complexity of the piece, that seems unlikely. Was the inscription mis-copied? That’s possible too but also unlikely, because the letters are correctly formed, and the potters wouldn’t have known how to write them without a guide. So it remains a mystery, an extraordinary achievement of the potter’s art, with well-formed Hebrew lettering but the product of ignorance.


William Bower Dalton (above) (1868-1965) was one of the pioneer studio potters, making ground-breaking experiments in Chinese-style stoneware glazes and presiding over the Camberwell College of Arts and Crafts from 1899 to 1919 during a period of rapid expansion, including a pottery class run by Richard Lunn. By the time Dalton retired in 1919, Camberwell had become, in the opinion of many contemporaries, the best art school for pottery teaching in Britain.

I was pleased to be able to see an unusually fine collection of Dalton’s pottery yesterday, which gave an insight into his work and the way it developed. He was fortunate after retiring from Camberwell at the age of fifty-one to have sufficient means to make pottery as he wished and to experiment freely without the pressure of selling. What I hadn’t realised is that he spent the last twenty years of his very long life in the USA, where, when he was in his seventies and his eighties, he established a reputation as a potter in the 1940s and 1950s, exhibiting in New England and New York.

The collection covers Dalton’s whole career and shows the many influences that came to bear on it. He shared his interest in Chinese glazes with his students Reginald Wells and William Staite Murray, and though he knew Bernard Leach, Dalton’s trajectory appears to have been independent of his. In the 1920s, when figure modelling became fashionable, Dalton made some small ceramic sculptures. He knew Gwendolen Parnell but his work is far closer in teachnique and appearance to the ceramic figures that Wells made. There are also vessels similar in style, colour and surface texture to those of Staite Murray.

One of the outstanding qualities of Dalton’s ceramics is their surface decoration, which in modern studio pottery is variable, sometimes consisting merely of dabs and splashes, but Dalton could draw well and he had a good sense of balance and rhythm and made fine surface marks and sometimes added lettering to vessels otherwise Chinese in feeling.

His serious interest in high-fired glazes (above) developed in the 1920s. Before that date (he conveniently dated his pots) there are ceramics in the Turkish and Persian style (below) with polychrome decoration on a white ground. (The images are from Jane Bailey’s paper on Dalton in the Journal of the Decorative Arts Society.)

These add to the evidence of the prevalence in early studio pottery of an interest in the Middle East rather than the Far East, also preferred by Richard Lunn in his courses at Camberwell and the Royal College of Art, by William de Morgan, Alfred and Louise Powell and Gordon Forsyth, an important tendency that has been rather sidelined in the histories of studio pottery.


This large, decorated tin-glazed dish by Dora Billington just came into my possession, bought from a seller in New Zealand. It’s an exact copy of a dish in a private collection in Sussex, which appears to have been made for the Inn Signs Exhibition, which was held at the Building Centre in Bond Street in 1936, though it wasn’t included in the catalogue and doesn’t appear to have been exhibited. No doubt Billington made two, in case one didn’t turn out well, and indeed the New Zealand version has some smudging in the decoration. How it got to New Zealand it’s impossible to say, but it’s undoubtedly by Billington.

Billington is well-known for championing tin-glazed pottery, which she began to make early in her career in the 1920s and carried on making until her retirement from the Central School of Arts and Crafts in 1955, by which time Leach-style stoneware was highly fashionable and this kind of pottery was rather looked down on by studio potters. Her pre-eminent tin-glaze student, Alan Caiger Smith, told me that when he was at the Central in the early 1950s, the kiln technician point blank refused to fire his tin-glazed pieces.

Billington herself learned to decorate with a brush, painting into the glaze, when she was a student and was working in the studio of Bernard Moore, and when she entered the Royal College of Art in 1912 she studied lettering with Edward Johnston, from whom, as this dish shows, she learned much. So here is a perfect combination of painting in tin glaze, restrained design in two colours, first-class drawing and very elegant lettering.

We don’t know how the plate got to New Zealand but repatriating it was difficult and hazardous. A brief attempt to put it in the luggage of friends who were travelling back to the UK had to be given up as impractical and I entrusted it to Ravi Dhillon, who runs a pack-and-send business in Dunedin. Ravi’s packing was superbly robust and he recommended DHL as a carrier.

I have no experience of international shipping and wasn’t a little anxious to find, as I tracked the parcel, the great number of stops it made and the large amount of handing it went through. Between New Zealand and England it was transferred at Auckland, Sydney, Singapore, Bahrain, Frankfurt, Leipzig, Stansted, Heathrow and Luton. When it had got to Leipzig I found DHL’s promotional video about the new shipping hub there and my mind was put at ease by the amazing scale, expertise and professionalism of the facility.


After its showing at the Bard Graduate Centre Gallery, New York, and the Waters Art Museum, Baltimore, Majolica Mania has come home to Stoke-on-Trent. It’s now at the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery until the end of January, the first major exhibition of majolica in nearly four decades. It examines the remarkable range of this exuberantly-modelled and brightly-glazed pottery, featuring objects from private collections in the United States, the Potteries Museum’s own collection and the Minton Archive.

What is majolica? It is earthenware with a moulded surface decorated with areas of transparent, coloured, lead-based glaze. Minton, it’s inventor, at first called it Palissy Ware, in reference to its source of inspiration in the 16th-century ceramics of Bernard Palissy, but because the company at the same time exhibited imitations of Italian tin-glazed maiolica, there arose some confusion and the name majolica came to be attached to this type of ceramics. Both types – tin-glazed maiolica and lead-glazed majolica – reflected Victorian historicism and the contemporary fascination with French and Italian Renaissance ceramics.

First introduced at the Great Exhibition in 1851, majolica became so popular that it was copied in quantity by manufacturers other than Minton. Wedgwood made it about ten years later and the other potteries included William Brownfield and Sons, George Jones, John Adams and Son, Joseph Holdcroft and Wardle and Co.

The stylistic and technical innovations were largely the work of one man, Léon Arnoux, a French potter and ceramic chemist who came to England to escape the 1848 revolution and went on to become Minton’s art director. Several French artists were attracted to Minton by the excellent salaries on offer and the prospect of greater political stability in England. By the 1870s Minton valued Arnoux so highly that they were paying him the fabulous sum of £1,200 p.a.

Majolica lent itself to extravagance in which function was decidedly second to appearance and it was particularly suited to display, even when applied to objects ostensibly designed for use. It had obvious architectural applications in tiles and panels with coloured relief modelling, and Herbert Minton’s association with Henry Cole provided the opportunity for majolica reliefs to be used in the rapidly expanding South Kensington Museum. It was widely applied to commercial buildings and domestic interiors. The well-preserved building below is The Crown pub in Belfast.

In the decades before the American Civil War about half the pottery exported from Stoke-on-Trent went to Amercia and by the 1870s many American manufacturers were making majolica jugs, spittoons, tea sets and other tableware, often copying best-selling English models. There had been a flow of British potters to the USA since the 1840s in search of a better life and they were able to apply their expertise to the American industry. US manufacturers included Griffen, Smith & Hill (below), Chesapeake Pottery, New York City Pottery, Morley & Co., The Eureka Pottery Co., Arsenal Pottery, Edwin Bennett Pottery Company, and Peekskill Pottery Works.

By the 1870s the popularity of majolica was beginning to wane in Britain, hastened by a growing awareness of the toxicity of the lead glaze. By the end of the century there was widespread public and political concern about lead poisoning and a search began for a safe substitute. Although the potters benefited from the increased attention being paid to their health, lead substitutes like borax failed to impart the same brilliancy to the majolica glaze.


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.


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.