In Search of the Picassoettes Jeffrey Jones    
  Picasso and the potters


'Picasso and the Potters' was the title of an article published in The Pottery Gazette and Glass Trade Review in April 1946. The article began as follows:

The remarkable interest shown by the general public in the recent exhibitions of the later phases of the art of Picasso is not without a special significance, for no matter in what spirit the thousands of visitors viewed his canvases - amused, scoffing or in adoration – the general concern shown, both in the Press and by the public, may be accepted as proof of an existing lively interest in art, and a desire to understand it.10

This measured response on the part of an anonymous writer in a pottery trade journal contrasts markedly with the public lather into which many prominent art critics (or aspiring art critics) worked themselves. The writer of the article is clearly no real lover of the work of Picasso; in fact he/she soon gets bored with him and moves on to other matters, but not before discussing the 'possibilities of Picasso's methods' and how these might be applied to pottery decoration. The writer sees potential there and notes that 'pattern designers in cotton and wallpaper were, from the first, quickly appreciative' of those methods. He/she acknowledges that a few individual attempts have been made by potters to take a similar approach but they lacked 'special commercial significance and may be classed as studio pottery experiments'.11

The writer may well have had the work of Sam Haile in mind; no other studio potter of that time quite fits such a description. Haile's work during the late 1930s had shown the exciting possibilities that were open to studio potters if they looked beyond the now orthodox influences of the Far East. In 1951 Patrick Heron had pointed out that 'ten years and more before Picasso began to design and to decorate pots at Vallauris, Haile was creating his essentially contemporary idiom in pot decoration'.12 Heron says that in terms of decoration Haile was 'a most startling innovator'.13 Haile's work was assimilated easily enough into the emerging studio pottery canon and examples of his work were illustrated in Ronald Cooper's The Modern Potter (1947) and George Wingfield Digby's The Work of the Modern Potter in England (1952).

It is surely no coincidence that the titles of both these books include the word 'modern' and it is clear that the studio pottery movement was as attuned to the importance of the modern as any of its companion disciplines in the rest of the art world.14 However the loss of confidence in the modern/abstract cause on the part of many involved in the postwar British fine art world was not reflected within the studio pottery literature. Wingfield Digby devoted a whole chapter in his book to 'The Origins and Aims of the Modern Artist-Potter' and he could confidently state that: 'The freedom possible for the artist-potter lies in the abstract quality of form of a thrown shape in clay; it does not have to be anything or like anything' (original emphasis).15 He was, moreover, seemingly able to use the word modern with none of that 'duplicity' which Garlake notes was apparent to many in the British, postwar fine art community.16

Perhaps Wingfield Digby's appropriation of the modern was just too innocent. In fact there proved to be considerable scope within the ceramics world for the kind of squabble which erupted in the British fine art world, albeit carried on within the more private confines of the ceramics community and shifted on to slightly different ground. In order to elaborate this point it should be noted that 'abstract' and 'modern' need to be carefully delineated in terms of the interests of postwar artists and pottery makers. Abstraction had never been controversial to British potters in the way that it had been to painters and sculptors; the medium simply leant itself more readily to an abstract approach.17 The argument in the ceramics world was much more about where modernity could justifiably be located within that world; the examples given here suggest that it was more or less taken as read that being modern was a good thing.

This is well illustrated by a review of Wingfield Digby's The Work of the Modern Potter in England which appeared in Pottery and Glass (another of the journals representing the interests of the ceramics industry) in November 1952. The review was entitled 'The Not-So-Modern Potter' and it began by saying:

It is difficult to decide whether this book was written, tongue-in-cheek, as it were, by a man of keen discernment, or whether it represents his sincere, but naïve, appraisal of a 20th century phenomenon. The title is misleading. 'A guide to the work of the studio-potter in England between 1920 and 1940' would have been more apt. For the real subject of this book is the cult of studio pottery during the inter-war period in which the legend of the mystical potter was created.18

The same edition of Pottery and Glass included a review of the 'Ceramics in the Home' exhibition held at Charing Cross underground station in London in October 1952. The exhibition included work by William Newland and Nicholas Vergette and much of this work had something of a Picasso look to it.19 According to the catalogue the exhibition was intended to show 'modern achievements in ceramics' but the writer in Pottery and Glass questioned their success.

It seems a pity, therefore, that despite the claim made by the sponsors, they were not examples of 'modern British achievement' in pottery, but rather the work of amateurs. Let the hobby potter exhibit his work by all means, but do not delude the public into thinking that he represents modern British pottery.20 (original emphasis)

Whereas in the fine art world the scandal of the modern was centred on the proper limits of content in art, in the ceramics world the dispute was much more to do with the proper limits of a practice and how that practice should be described, encouraged and endorsed. The kind of fractured and dissonant images epitomised by the work of Picasso were threatening in a fine art context but treated as more of a resource in a ceramics context. Both industrial potters and studio potters (Sam Haile, at least) could draw on Picasso with impunity as long as that influence could be interpreted as decorative and the resulting work retained an integrity as pottery. It was a different matter all round, though, if that pottery integrity was at stake. The willingness of Picasso to alter and decorate basic thrown shapes provided by others would surely have been seen as an unacceptable compromise by studio pottery purists. But as the decade of the 1950s wore on the example of Picasso encouraged more and more ceramicists, not only in Britain but also elsewhere in Europe, to abandon the constraints imposed by rigid conformity to the ethic of wheel thrown stoneware and to adopt a freer approach, thus provoking a consequent reaction from the pottery status quo.

It was developments in France that drew many of the comments made in Britain. Muriel Rose's 1955 publication Artist-Potters in England entirely ignored the Picasso inspired work produced in Britain in the early 1950s but the author did describe the situation in France:

In recent years, inspired largely by the work of Picasso at Vallauris, an entirely different school of potters has sprung up in France. Beyond remarking that Picasso's pottery may probably be treated more appropriately as an extension of his painting rather than as the work of an artist-potter, the present monograph makes no other reference to Picasso and his followers, their pottery having as yet had little direct influence on the craft in England.21

Also in 1955 John Chappel published an article entitled 'Letter From Vallauris' in Pottery Quarterly in which he referred to a 'Citoyen d'Honneur de Vallauris' (his quotation marks), presumably meaning Picasso. This person was described as 'a man who has produced drawings and paintings that are among the best of our time and who, in his small shack of a studio in Vallauris, persists in producing pottery that is perhaps the worst!'.22

In 1958 Pottery Quarterly published an article by Bernard Leach entitled 'The Contemporary Studio-Potter'. The article consisted of the text of 'a paper delivered to the Royal Society of Arts in 1948 and recently revised by the author'. In a footnote Leach commented on a passage in his original text which referred to French pottery:

Since the above was written ten years ago, another influence has become increasingly obvious – the painter-potter. Picasso is the best known. But the effect of such artists has so far been too much from above to below, from the easel to the clay. Picasso is a great and most inventive artist, but he is not a potter and his effect on potters has been disastrous. His followers in Paris are known as "les Picassiettes".23

It is here that the Picassiettes, as described by Leach, make their first documented appearance in Britain and they have a resolutely French identity. In A Potter in Japan, published in Britain in 1960, Leach makes a similar reference to the work of Picasso and adds: 'His pots are often vital and interesting as creative design, but the 'Picassiettes' of his thousand imitators, without his birthright are an international disaster'.24 As used here the term can be understood as referring to pots rather than to potters, and I am grateful to Peter Starkey25 for pointing out that in that case it can be understood as a pun on the French word for plate, 'assiette'.

The gaze of Leach, as well as that of other British writers such as Muriel Rose, determinedly refused to alight on those British potters of the 1950s who took their lead from Picasso. If the painter-potter could be treated as a French phenomenon then perhaps the integrity of pottery might be defended in Britain in a manner which appeared hopeless on the continent. Leach's Picassiettes, those foreign, semi-mythical creatures, seem to have been called upon to provide a warning to all good British potters: Picasso is great, Picasso is different, Picasso is no potter, leave him be.

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10 'Picasso and the Potters', Pottery Gazette and Glass Trade Review, April 1946, pp.233 and 242, p.233. back to article

11 'Picasso and the Potters', p.233. back to article

12 Patrick Heron, 'Round the London Art Galleries', The Listener, vol.xlvi, no.1176, 13 September 1951, p.428. back to article

13 Heron, 'Round the London Art Galleries', p.428. back to article

14 For a full discussion of this issue see Jeffrey Jones, 'Studio Pottery in the Age of Modernism' unpublished PhD thesis, University of Wales, Aberystwyth, 1999. back to article

15 George Wingfield Digby, The Work of the Modern Potter in England, London, John Murray, 1952, pp.15-16. back to article

16 Garlake, New Art, p.38. back to article

17 See Jones, 'Studio Pottery in the Age of Modernism'. back to article

18 'The Not-So-Modern Potter', Pottery and Glass,, no.11, November 1952, p.72. back to article

19 Illustrations of pieces from the exhibition by Newland and Vegette accompanied the article. See 'Caviare to the General: Ceramics in the Home Display at Caring Cross', Pottery and Glass,, no.11, November 1952, pp.70-71. back to article

20 'Caviare to the General', p.70. back to article

21 Muriel Rose, Artist Potters in England, London, Faber and Faber, 1955, p.3. back to article

22 John Chappell, 'Letter from Vallauris', Pottery Quarterly, vol.7, Autumn 1955, pp.107-108, p.108. back to article

23 Bernard Leach, 'The Contemporary Studio-Potter', Pottery Quarterly, vol.5, no.18, Summer 1958, pp.43-58, p.47. First given as a paper to the Royal Society of Arts in 1948 with the footnote added for the article's publication ten years later. back to article

24 Bernard Leach, A Potter in Japan 1952-1954, London, Faber and Faber, 1960, p.203. back to article

25 Peter Starkey, salt glaze potter and course leader of the BA Ceramics course at Cardiff School of Art and Design, University of Wales Institute, Cardiff. back to article

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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