After a summer of controversy about public statues it’s not surprising that there’s been a row about Maggi Hambling’s sculpture to Mary Wollstonecraft, author of Vindication of the Rights of Women. It’s not a representation of the writer, it honours Wollstonecraft obliquely, the figure is naked and it’s been criticised on artistic grounds.


Modern democratic memorials are likely to be at ground level now or put on benches so that ordinary people can sit beside their heroes. Hambling, who is famously abrasive and contrarian, puts this one on a very traditional pedestal.


A militant smoker, Hambling gave her statue of Oscar Wilde a cigarette, which has since been removed. Wollstonecraft was quickly vandalised by someone who disliked its nudity (top).


Hambling has said that people don’t get it. But doesn’t the work of communication have to be done by the writer, not the reader, and if people don’t get it, isn’t it her failing? One feminist artist I spoke to said, “They get it well enough – Hambling is the one who doesn’t get it.”


Wollstonecraft was a pioneering feminist but much of her appeal comes from her life. Born into a large family with poor parents, she established an independent career, moved among radicals,  wrote and published much, supported the French Revolution, engaged in direct controversy with Edmund Burke and lived in Revolutionary Paris. John Opie painted her twice (below).

MaryWollstonecraft opie 1791

After advocating personal independence and platonic love she discovered sex late in life, had a child with the go-getting and irresponsible Gilbert Imlay, narrowly escaped the guillotine, attempted suicide, married William Godwin but lived separately from him according to their shared principles, and died giving birth to a daughter Mary, famous as the author of Frankenstein.

Godwin was admired by his son-in-law Shelley, who later came to find him stuffy and pedantic. Driven by a naïve frankness, Godwin sought to honour Wollstonecraft in a memoir that held back nothing about her emotional instability and bohemian life and virtually destroyed her reputation for a hundred years.


But there is evidence from the speech and behaviour of some of her characters that Jane Austen knew the Vindication. E. B. Browning read it at the age of twelve, George Eliot was thoroughly familiar with it and Virginia Woolf was well aware of it. The female suffragists brought her writings back into focus again and modern feminist criticism has put her centre stage. Although the ideas and sentiments of the Vindication are surprisingly modern, and there are modern editions, the language probably puts modern readers off and its doubtful if it’s much read.


Claire Cuneen: Angel.  To be auctioned for the last Harrow ceramics degree show

The Harrow ceramics course at Westminster University closes this year, 50 years after ceramics teaching started there.  The fact that something is old is no reason to keep it, but the Harrow course is widely recognised as one of the best in Britain.  To raise funds for the final graduation show, there is an auction in London on Wednesday, 14th March, upstairs at the Slug and Lettuce, 1 Islington Green, London, N1 2HX.  You can browse from 6.30pm.  The auction starts at 8.00pm.

The artists who have donated include:
Claire Curneen
Carol McNicoll
Gareth Mason
Walter Keeler
Simon Carroll
Kate Malone
Aki Moriuchi
Alice Mara
Steve Buck
Kyra Cane
Christie Brown
Sarah Scampton
Daphne Carnegy
Duncan Ayscough
Aneta Regel Deleu
Katharine Morling
Zahed Tajeddin
Carina Ciscato
Kevin Millward
Barry Stedman
Stephen Dixon
Sarah Walton
Chris Keenan
Sandy Brown
Robin Welch
In the 1960s under the direction of Victor Margrie and Mick Casson the Harrow course became famous for teaching traditional studio pottery based on repetition throwing. There had been a boom in studio pottery in the post-war years, encouraged by the dearth of decorated pottery from Stoke-on-Trent following wartime restrictions, and by studio pottery’s combination of modernism and folk art, both of which had been popularised by the 1951 Festival of Britain.  Such was the demand for studio pottery that there weren’t enough throwers trained in workshop practice.  As production throwing wasn’t taught in other arts schools, the Harrow Art School studio pottery diploma was created to fill the gap.  According to Tanya Harrod, the production potter of the Harrow type had a good innings well into the seventies, by which time the market for this style of tableware was falling away
By the early 1980s the course was in trouble.  It was reinvented as a BA Ceramics, offering broader training and shedding some of its less relevant teaching, like digging and refining clay. From that point onwards, Harrow has taught a course in ceramic art, not just pottery.
Four years ago, in 2008, the university decided to close the course.  It was expensive, it took up a lot of space and it was difficult to fill all the places on it.  None of this was new. The first two had been the case since 1963.  Ceramics courses are always expensive because of the equipment needed and the large amount of space taken up by each student.  What was new was tighter government funding and better accounting. I doubt if in the 1980s the university ranked courses by cost per square foot. 
The difficulty in filling places was more problematic. Schools have been cutting ceramics for many years and arguably there is an over-supply of degree courses. It’s unfortunate that one of the best had to close.
The university’s announcement that the course was closing was the second blow in a year. In  June 2007 a fire destroyed much of the ceramics department.  The kiln room, some of the studios and the fine art and fashion departments were all destroyed.  Ironically, the fire didn’t start in the kiln room or even in the ceramics studios but somewhere else entirely.
On the night of the fire, a firefighter rescued a sculpture of a boy angel by Claire Palfreyman.  Kyra Kane, the course leader, saw it as a good omen. “We are determined that the world-renowned ceramics department at Harrow will continue to flourish despite this setback,” she said, “and this statue represents all the spirit, talent and inventiveness that will ensure our future.”  The University responded quickly, and all the affected courses were running again for the 2007-2008 academic year.
At that point I had just completed the first year of the course. After a lifetime’s passion for ceramics, I was accepted for Harrow’s prestigious BA. I had spent years in evening classes trying to develop my skills. My experience of part-time ceramics courses was that however much they welcome advanced students most of them are really for beginners. Many teachers in evening classes have limited skills and can only teach beginners. 
In some ways my previous experience put me at a disadvantage at Harrow because it’s easier to learn than to re-learn.  The experienced student was not allowed to coast until the less experienced ones caught up: the pressure was just as intense and you had to go further, throw looser and make bigger.  The throwing tutors, Richard Phethean and Carina Ciscato, were highly accomplished and their different styles introduced the student to a range of approaches and methods.
I have met several art students who say they get neither studio space nor adequate teaching on their BA courses.  Harrow was different.  The ceramics course had honed instruction to a sharp edge.  The teaching was good during the first half of the course (you were pretty well on your own during the second half) and the studio faculties were excellent.
Many of the artists contributing to this week’s auction have been associated with Harrow.  The auction will help to fund the degree show, Material Matters, which will be at The Rag Factory, 16-18 Heneage Street, London E1 5LJ, just off Brick Lane, from Thursday 7 to Sunday 10 June 2012, 11am – 6pm
The final graduates will be Jo Aylmer, Julia Beer, Zarina Kawaja, Dana Lazarus-Cass, Landon Peck, Nadine Shepley and Peter Willis.


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Here is an article Grayson Perry wrote in Ceramic Review a few years back.

“A ceramics centre in North Devon? Why not go the whole hog and put up signs saying ‘You are now entering “Leach Country”?’ After all, we’ve got Bronte Country and Hardy Country. A Potter’s Book should be made into a TV mini-series with Colin Firth as Bernard Leach.

“Pottery has been trying to shake of the smock of those kickwheel wurzels for more than a generation. Most good functional ware now seems to owe more to Philippe Starck than Michael Cardew and the arty farty ceramists all want to be Rachel Whiteread or Gilbert and George, not Barbara Hepworth.

“If you stick the centre down in that caravan traffic-jam called the West Country, nobody but grockles and trainspotters will ever visit the place. If we have to have an institution that is defined by its material like some medieval tradesman’s guild, then bung it somewhere in the middle.

“I’m sure all those ‘liddle’ potteries tucked away in Windchime-upon-Jostick churning out sub-Keeler and owls would benefit from exposure to Islington Man, but most pot-knockers live in lovely towns. I for one do not want to traipse out into overrated Devon countryside to avail myself of the Carpal Tunnel Syndrome seminar. Even Essex has more thatched cottages in one village than the entire West Country, so why not plonk the centre in Castle Hedingham.

“I have always needed a reason to go to Birmingham. Why not a disused council tower block in Britain’s second city? The centre could provide some of the following invaluable services:

“Pot recycling: Bring along all those god-awful pots, i.e. 99% of them that clog the nation’s shelves. Make space for good work and supply a profitable hardcore business.

“Careers advice: This could just consist of a sign saying, ‘Don’t become a potter we’ve got enough, go and do something useful.’

“Self-help group: For potters addicted to rabbiting on about firing cycles and their home-made pug-mill. Hopeless cases could sit in a room boring on until, after several days of trading tips with other technical know-alls, they might run out of things to say.

“For the public, we could jazz up pottery’s dreary old evening class and beard image with a few theme park style rides. They could have names like The Whirler, Slab Roller and Quartz Inversion Point.

“If this centre ever gets off the ground, please let it not become another place for families to drive to on a Sunday afternoon; whisking round the exhibits in ten minutes, half an hour in the shop buying Lucie Rie tea towels, Hans Coper fridge magnets and Philip Eglin scented candles, then an hour trying to swallow dry carob cake served on half inch thick ‘real clay’ crockery that cools tea to room temperature in thirty seconds. Outside the kids playing on a huge fibreglass harvest jug. It’s enough to make we want to throw.”

The Bideford pottery centre was never built.