In Search of the Picassoettes


Jeffrey Jones, Centre for Ceramics Studies, University of Wales Institute, Cardiff


In recent years the writing of the history of the studio pottery movement in Britain has gone on apace. The reputations of many of the old heroes have been subject to re-evaluation, and previously neglected potters have surfaced to claim, or have claimed on their behalf, a rightful place in that history. In the process of redressing the historical balance some interesting stories have been uncovered which have struck a chord in the ceramics community and one such is the apparent dismissal by Bernard Leach of a trio of post war British potters with the belittling title of 'Picassoettes'. This term has now achieved a wide currency and the enthusiasm with which it has been taken up suggests that there is a ready constituency which is receptive to the implications and undertones of such a seemingly well aimed but mean spirited slight.

The Picassoettes in question (the terms Picassiettes and Picassettes will also be encountered in this article) were William Newland, Margaret Hine, and Nicholas Vergette. They came to prominence in the early 1950s when they offered an alternative to the anglo-oriental stoneware of Leach and his followers. Dora Billington, then head of ceramics at the Central School, was keen to promote their fresh approach to ceramics but they were soon to fall out of favour until a new champion of their work appeared three decades later when Tanya Harrod published her article 'The Forgotten Fifties' in Crafts in 1989.1 In that year Harrod also published an article on Picasso's ceramics for Apollo in which she stated that 'William Newland, Margaret Hine, Nicholas Vergette and even Hans Coper were all liberated by Picasso into exploring a Mediterranean rather than an oriental tradition'.2

The search for the Picassoettes that is undertaken in this article is both an enquiry into the origins of a phrase and an investigation of its uses and implications. The invocation of the name of Picasso, surely the icon of twentieth century modern art if ever there was one, is a powerful act. The opportunity to enlist this most famous of artists as an ally or to cast him as an enemy has been one that many in the British art, craft and design world have seized with enthusiasm. For much of the twentieth century it was the case that to situate oneself and ones interests in relation to the work of Picasso was to signal clearly and meaningfully that ones activities counted for something and that one knew where one stood. This was as much true for the various art practices as it was for individual artists and ceramics was, and still is, a case in point.

For many makers in clay the ceramics that Picasso produced at Vallauris from 1946 onwards remain an important body of work which validates ceramic practice as a legitimate art activity. For others outside the ceramics world this work offers an opportunity to draw a line; Picasso's ceramics are somehow not proper Picasso. The question of whether the thousands of pieces of ceramics produced by Picasso during the late 1940s are indicative of a decline in his later years is part of the controversy over 'late Picasso' which has generated a considerable literature. There is not space here to rehearse these arguments and the limits and scope of the Picasso canon must be argued through more thoroughly elsewhere. The focus of this article is on the emergence of a British group of ceramicists for whom Picasso offered an inspiration and rallying point and it is in the context of the reception of modern art in Britain in the decade following the end of the second world war that their allegiance must first be understood.

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1 Tanya Harrod, 'The Forgotten '50s', Crafts, no.98, May/June 1989, pp.30-33. back to article

2 Tanya Harrod, 'Picasso's Ceramics', Apollo, vol.cxxix, no.327, May 1989, pp.337-341 and 372, p.341. back to article

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The article discusses the use of the term 'Picassoettes' in connection with the three British potters William Newland, Margaret Hine and Nicholas Vergette. The influence of Picasso on the postwar visual arts community is explored in order to provide a context for the trio's espousal of the example of Picasso. The claim that Bernard Leach used the term 'Picassoettes' to disparage the group is investigated using both written and oral sources. A story emerges in which the protagonists are seen to manoeuvre around the name of Picasso and to invoke or challenge his authority according to the requirements of their particular agendas

William Newland
Dora Billington
Bernard Leach


Modern Art in
Post War Britain

Picasso and
the Potters

Dora Billington and
the Bayswater Three

The Oral Testimony
of William Newland


Acknowledgements & Bibliography

In Search of the Picassoettes • Issue 1