In Search of the Picassoettes Jeffrey Jones    

Dora Billington and the Bayswater Three


By the time of the publication of Leach's article in Pottery Quarterly a decade of experimentation had occurred in certain quarters of British studio ceramics in which the question of the permissibility of an above/below, easel to clay influence had simply become redundant. Much of the encouragement for this had come from Dora Billington, head of pottery at the Central School in London, who had established a department in which pottery was regarded as an open-ended activity for which there were no fixed standards or preferred methods of making. In such a milieu Picasso's disregard for the conventions of discrete art practices was easily assimilated amongst the new wave of postwar students, many of them ex-servicemen such as William Newland, who had little time for the controversies over modern art.

Billington's ideas were disseminated through her writing as well as through her teaching. Her article for The Studio in 1953 entitled 'The Younger English Potters' covered work by a wide range of potters including Lucie Rie, Kenneth Clark, Eleanor Whittal, James Tower, and Steven Sykes. Here the author was respectful to Bernard Leach but made clear her frustration with the aesthetic for which he stood: 'stoneware had gone stale'.26 After considering some of the innovative ways that the younger potters approached their chosen medium Billington went on to say:

But that is only the beginning of the fun. Sculptor potters are becoming aware of the possibility of the thrown shape as 'something to work on', following, probably quite unconsciously, the lead of the Martin Brothers, and dare one say it? - perhaps a little more consciously, Picasso! But the influences, which are in any case unavoidable, are completely submerged in the abundant vitality and originality of three potters, William Newland, Nicholas Vergette and Margaret Hine.27

The setting apart of these three potters continued in Billington's 1955 article for The Studio, entitled 'The New Look in British Pottery'28 which focused exclusively on their work and which again made reference to Picasso. It is clear from these and other sources that in the early 1950s Newland, Hine and Vergette formed something of a coterie, sharing a studio in Bayswater and exhibitions at the Crafts Centre and the Studio Club, a night club in Swallow Street, Piccadilly.29 The three also shared a holiday in Spain in 1949 where they 'went to Malaga and studied throwing and tin-glaze techniques'.30 In 1954, in the newly established Pottery Quarterly magazine, Murray Fieldhouse referred to 'the Bayswater workshop' in a review of an exhibition at the Swallow Club, saying that 'the group have travelled widely; and modestly feel it their function to act as a clearing house for the many cultures that are bearing on every potter in these times'.31

The article in Pottery Quarterly also referred to exhibitions of the work of James Tower, John Eaves and Roy Dale, all of whom were using experimental methods of pottery making in contrast to the orthodoxy of anglo-oriental stoneware associated with Bernard Leach. The comment that John Eaves 'would like to participate in a revival of painterly pottery'32 would doubtless have reinforced the 'easel to clay' anxieties of Leach had he read the article. However Eaves and Roy Dale failed to secure for themselves the kind of reputation enjoyed by Newland, Hine and Vergette, and it was these three that captured the attention not only of Dora Billington in the 1950s but also of a later generation of commentators. Darren Dean, for example, in a 1994 article entitled 'William Newland, Margaret Hine and Nicholas Vergette, 1949-54: The Emergence of the Individual Studio Potter in Post-War Britain' wrote of his subjects that 'there were a few other potters working in a similar way in the early 1950s, such as Steven Sykes, Estella Campavias and James Tower, but few were as well-known as Newland, Hine and Vergette'. Dean concluded that: 'these three potters can be seen to bridge the gap between the disciplined approaches of pre-war craft practices and the free and experimental studio ceramics which developed in the 1960s and after.'33

The application of the soubriquet 'the Picassettes or 'the Picassoettes' to the Bayswater three in the late 1980s and 1990s did much to reinforce their credentials in the eyes of a later generation. Tanya Harrod's crucial comment in 1989 that 'they were derisively dubbed the Picassettes by Leach' gave an air of notoriety to the group which was attractive to subsequent writers.34 In 1998 Julian Stair referred to them appositely as the 'infamous Picassettes'.35 In a catalogue essay to accompany an exhibition of Newland's work at Aberystwyth in 1996 Peter Dormer noted that 'the trio revelled in the description of 'the Picassoettes' because, as they admitted, they were inspired by Picasso's pots'.36 None of these writers cite a source for their information, although Tanya Harrod and Peter Dormer both knew William Newland and he might well have talked to them about this matter.37

In a tape-recorded interview made in 1994, a few years before Newland's death, Anna Hale asked Newland about plans for a forthcoming exhibition at Aberystwyth Arts Centre.38 Newland's reply reveals the extent to which by then he had become the jealous guardian of the group's title.



Is it going to be entirely your show?


Yeh, well no, it will be the Picassoettes.

AH. Oh the Picassoettes! So it will be Vergette–

WN. Vergette and Margaret, and Vergette's son's got quite a few, he's down in Dorset way.

AH. What about James Tower?

WN. Pardon?

AH. James Tower?

WN. No, he wasn't sort of labelled.

AH. He wasn't, no.

WN. No, and Ian Auld, was the other one, and he's not labelled either.39

[Listen to audio]

MP3 [516k file]


But what was the substance of the labelling that Newland referred to? It seems fair to assume that Newland had in mind Bernard Leach's notorious insult, but when, if ever, did Leach single out that particular trio of Newland, Hine and Vergette for his special attention? Fortunately, through the efforts of NEVAC (the National Electronic and Video Archive of the Crafts, at the University of the West of England, Bristol) there now exists a considerable body of recorded sound and video interviews featuring William Newland. An examination of some of this material reveals some fascinating insights.


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26 Dora Billington, 'The Younger English Potters', The Studio, vol.cxlv, no.720, March 1953, pp.78-85, p.79. back to article

27 Billington, 'The Younger English Potters', p.80. back to article

28 Dora Billington, 'The New Look in British Pottery', The Studio, vol.cxlix, no.742, January 1955, pp.18-21. back to article

29 See video recording of William Newland interviewed by Mike Hughes at Prestwood, Buckinghamshire, 29 September 1994, NEVAC CD 708 (1 of 4), 16min.57 sec.-17min.30 sec.; Harrod, 'The Forgotten '50s', p.32; Peter Dormer, William Newland: It's All There in Front of You, Aberystwyth Arts Centre, 1996, pp.38 and 39; Darron Dean, 'William Newland, Margaret Hine and Nicholas Vergette, 1949-54: The Emergence of the Individual Studio Potter in Post-War Britain', Studio Pottery, no.12, December/January 1994-95, pp.31-38, p.3. back to article

30 NEVAC CD 708 7min.40sec.-7min.47 sec. back to article

31 Murray Fieldhouse, 'Exhibitions', Pottery Quarterly, vol.1, no.1, 1954, pp.43-46, p.44. back to article

32 Fieldhouse, 'Exhibitions', p.46. back to article

33 Dean, 'William Newland', p.39. back to article

34 Harrod, 'The Forgotten 50's', p.33. back to article

35 Julian Stair, 'Dora Billington', Crafts, no.154, September/October 1998, pp.24-25, p.25. back to article

36 Dormer, William Newland, p.30. back to article

37 Some of Tanya Harrod's conversations with William Newland are drawn on for the article 'Sources of Inspiration' in which 'the potter William Newland discusses his life and work with Tanya Harrod', Crafts, no.139, March/April 1996, pp.42-45. It is also clear that Peter Dormer drew on conversations with Newland for his essay in William Newland: It's All There in Front of You, see p.12 for example. back to article

38 Anna Hale, Assistant Curator of the Ceramics Archive at the School of Art, University of Wales, Aberystwyth, made this series of sound recordings on behalf of NEVAC. back to article

39 William Newland interviewed by Anna Hale for NEVAC, at Prestwood, Buckinghamshire, 26 January 1994, AC121, side 1, 13min.17sec.-13min.50sec. The exhibition subsequently showed Newland's work only. 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