Conference Papers

Overthrowing Tradition

Alison Britton


If you tell a stranger that you're a potter they immediately imagine you bent over a potter's wheel. Throwing is the normal, commonly understood, core of ceramic practice. I have avoided throwing since my student days, and am well aware that, particularly with two eminent exponents of thrown pottery as my colleagues on the platform of this conference, both of whom have written or are writing books on Bernard Leach, I am walking on thin ice in taking on throwing, the ins and outs of it, as the chosen subject of my talk. But I am passionate about pots and the suggestions they make, in use or in sight. I am also more broadly interested in all kinds of ceramic practice, and interested above all in the notion of studio ceramics as a complicated culture with different strands that diverge and link in various ways.

The kinds of studio pottery that developed in the 1970s, and became known as ‘New Ceramics’, never quite displaced the Leach tradition of wheel-thrown, subtly glazed pottery. But the label did give a name to a tendency that had begun even twenty years earlier, which had determinedly, mainly through hand-building, opened up the range of possibilities of form in clay. Leach’s persuasive Anglo-Oriental fusion had dominated the pottery world in Britain for some time. In any creative discipline rules, in the end, are there to be defied. In this lecture I will look at the place of throwing in developments in British studio ceramics in the decades through which I have been working.

During this time there has been an expanding discourse about the craft disciplines. This is due probably in part to the Crafts Council, which was formed as the Crafts Advisory Committee in the early 1970s, with Crafts magazine and numerous publications, catalogues and books. Design History has also developed as a subject, and the academicisation of the Dip AD course into a BA course has required articulacy to extend into new territories. Ceramics especially got off to a good start, because Leach and Cardew both wrote supremely well, philosophically as well as technically.

So it is now much more the meanings of artefacts that we talk about, beyond the old discussions of recipes and temperatures and techniques. Arguably, and this may be a personal dilemma rather than a general one, it is a more difficult task to write something original about traditional thrown pottery, than about the wilder forms of clay sculpture and pots that intend to ask new questions of the discipline. Pursuit of the discourse in the critically- establishing period of the seventies and eighties, may indeed have favoured the more sculptural end of the spectrum of ceramic art. But in recent years this lack has been eloquently addressed, in particular by Edmund de Waal.

In preparing this talk I have sought out what some earlier studio potters have said about throwing, beyond the how-to-do-it descriptions. Leach and Cardew, unsurprisingly, take the central importance of throwing for granted. Leach in A Potters Book in 1940 says there is nothing quite like it in any other craft, and talks about the clay being 'urged and pulled and coaxed through a series of rhythmic movements, which like those of a dance are all related and interdependent.' Cardew in, Pioneer Pottery in 1969, says that 'no potter who has once seen the wheel in operation can resist it'. Henry Hammond, a student of William Staite Murray at the Royal College in the 1930s, recalled the master teaching by throwing a pot in silence when he thought it was the right minute to do so. He also apparently looked on throwing as a procreative symbol, and disliked pots with thin lips. And Dora Billington, in her much less well known but wonderful book of 1937, The Art of the Potter, says:

The making of pots on the wheel … is by far the most exciting method. In swift directness it can be compared to drawing, and like drawing it must be done and left, for retouching can only spoil it. Once one has realised the difference, a thrown pot can never be mistaken for one made in any other way, unless of course it has been tampered with and its distinctive character lost

But best of all I think is Bill Newland’s definition in a reflective interview with Peter Dormer in 1985 (Newland was a pupil of Billington's shortly after the War):

Throwing is concerned with inner force- dynamic growth from the wheel, like a triangle on its apex or a crocus from its stem striking its way upwards. The hands make a gesture in space and the clay records the gesture. There is a simple aesthetic concerned with throwing and it is to do with growth and natural form. A good thrown pot is not one which hangs over its ankle straps - it must not appear saggy or look prolapsed. After all, we learn from the cradle that the fully ripe and expanded fruit is the best, apples that look like prunes are rejected. All good thrown pots must express joie-de-vivre, uplift and umph - there are no saggy pots in the British Museum.1

In a more metaphysical tone Hans Coper wrote in 1968:

The wheel imposes its economy, dictates limits, provides momentum and continuity. Concentrating on continuous variations of simple themes I become part of the process; I am learning to operate a sensitive instrument which may be resonant to my experience if existence now - in this fantastic century.2

Philip Rawson, a curator and art historian rather than a potter, in his book Ceramics of 1971 which reviews the whole history of the medium, writes:

The ways in which clay has been shaped for ceramics are either direct or indirect … far the most important of the direct methods is hand-modelling. It is among modelled ceramics that the most vivid and lively touch-structures can be incorporated. Patted, squeezed, pinched, and pressed clay objects speak a language like no other.

But writing in 1985 in that same Fast Forward catalogue of Peter Dormer's, Rawson is despondent about the kind of objects that my colleagues in the hand-building sorority were producing, complaining of a Coper-ised effect on the fullness of ‘ideal’ pot forms:

But not all sexy silhouettes give good central presence and imply strong volumes … So chillingly often we are nowadays given pots that retreat, flattening themselves and huddling back into diagrams.

The critic Peter Fuller, to conclude this string of quotations, puts the boot in even more vigorously to the New Ceramics reform movement when he says in an article taking its title from Cardew ‘The Proper Work of the Potter’:

Clay, of course, can legitimately be handled in many ways: modelling, after all, is one of the twin poles of sculptural activity. But … throwing is close to the heart of any living pottery tradition: it bears witness to the best and the finest that can be done in this craft with clay. Coiled or pinched pots may occasionally divert us: but they seem essentially regressive, anal even; whereas piece pots partake of that collaging of given segments so typical of contemporary practice and so inimical to full imaginative transformation.3

Returning to the theme of this paper - how the importance of throwing seems to have shifted around in the development of ceramics in the last three decades - I will show slides of some of those key figures I have quoted, while continuing my account which combines my experience of the time with subsequent research.

The Central School of Art and Design, in London, was a great place to be studying ceramics in the late sixties, with a course established in 1925 by Dora Billington. Her background was industrial, from Stoke-on -Trent, but she had embraced the new ideas in the Studio Pottery Movement without losing her identity in the Anglo-Oriental folk-art fusion promoted by Leach. She enthusiastically fostered new talents, and in the fifties and sixties the Central School was significant in disseminating an alternative to Leach. The group that were later known as the Picassettes - William Newland, Margaret Hine, and Nicholas Vergette, studied or worked there. They were inspired by Mediterranean art rather than Oriental, and made exuberant, highly decorated thrown and assembled pieces. The Picasso exhibition shown in London in 1950 included ceramics and made a great impression on potters with an eye for a change. As William Newland said: ‘It’s not that we were anti-Leach, but there were other things to do’. Newland’s work was essentially thrown, but in his handbuilt pieces and likewise in the work of Dan Arbeid, Ian Auld, RuthDuckworth and Gillian Lowndes, there was a desire for other forms -sculpture, ornament, new vitality. Ethnographic collections from Africa were inspirational.4

Throwing was still a big part of the Central curriculum, but by the time of graduating, if a student had developed stronger interests in surface decoration, slip-casting, or hand-building, that was equally encouraged. One of the influential teachers there in my time was Gordon Baldwin, who always brought a large sculpture he was coiling with him in the Landrover to continue making while he taught .

The interest in more sculptural ceramics, moving away from the wheel, but still based on vessel form, was a recognised ‘New’ phenomenon by the late 1970s. Ceramics was not the only medium to be changing; the upheaving ‘bulge’ generation of babies, born after the war, was coming of age; art-schools were well-funded and full of life. Cities were seen to be creative and stimulating environments for potters.

A rural and urban division was already evident in the location of most wheel-throwing potters of the continuing Leach tradition working in barns, with access to timber, space to build huge kilns, and fire their volume production. The New Ceramics potter was probably to be found in a communal workshop in a derelict warehouse, with electric kilns, making fewer one-off pieces . The approach to learning was also different - Leach and Cardew had thought that apprenticeship was definitely the better path for understanding the reality of the potter’s life, and were dismissive of what could be learnt at art-school.5 A fierce debate about the opposing merits of the two approaches had been held in 1966 at an evening meeting at Craftsman Potters Assocation. Lines were harshly drawn between Henry Hammond and Gilbert Harding Green on the one hand, both of whom led burgeoning Dip AD courses at Farnham and the Central School, versus a number of potters including David Leach who believed that there was no true professional path other than ‘the slower, radical, disciplined drill of the workshop’.6

Now, however, more than thirty years later, to learn about ceramics at art school is the normal route, and it is not easy to find a potter who will take on apprentices. The ‘one-off, non-functional vessel form’ did seem to be a definite preoccupation by the early eighties, no doubt in part as a result of the altered training/educational context. I, as one of a group of potters engaged in making such things, was asked to try and define the attractions of such a form by Martina Margetts for Crafts magazine in 1983. I included a comment on tradition:

Another thing the peer group has in common is a strong regard for tradition, but on the whole a quite separate channel of tradition from the Oriental one which has sustained the majority of pots made here in the last forty years. When I was a student at the Central School in the late sixties I remember that part of our sense of corporate pride and college rivalry was expressed in the fact that we made blue and yellow things whereas at Camberwell they were still green and brown. Anti-Orientalism (in our inspiration though not our appreciation), and divergence from the Leach line, is a stance held in common. Useful sources are varied; though great respect for ancient and primitive and very different cultures is a binding factor. Richard Slee lists influences that range from Pre-Columbian vessels to Krazy Kat cartoons through Sèvres porcelain and the Surrealists, and is entirely convincing … The members of this hypothetical group need and recognise tradition, not in order to follow it, as perhaps the Orientalists have been inclined to do, but to mix it all up and try to invent freely on top of it. How else could Krazy Kat and Sèvres contribute to the same piece? Some sort of distortion, or visual deception, and non-symmetry, are other usual features of these new vessels. Even those who throw now muck about with the shapes afterwards. Both my favourite throwers, Walter Keeler and Betty Woodman, are expert at this … The tendency to trust spontaneous improvisation, by which I don’t mean accepting what chance brings, but rather ‘shaping at the point of utterance’, is clearly shown in such pots.7

Since nothing is ever tidy or simple, although the makers involved in New Ceramics aimed to stretch and vary ideas about ceramic form; as I have implied in that quotation, throwing was not excluded. Walter Keeler, Janice Tchalenko, Colin Pearson, (and the American Betty Woodman who inspired the British), are examples of potters using the wheel in a different way; initiating new forms or ideas about surface. But the hand-building of irregular forms characterised the fresh impetus. Peter Dormer’s book The New Ceramics was published in 1986. I wrote the introduction for it and compared the idea of Prose and Poetry, different ends from equivalent means, to elucidate the relationship between different kinds of pot. And Dr Oliver Watson of the V&A enhanced the definition of the two opposing camps - and they were adversarial at the outset - with his definition of ‘the expressive pot’( New Ceramics) and ‘the ethical pot’ (Leach).8

Hostility from the old masters to the young, frequently female, upstarts was to do with perceived status, prices, what the makers thought was their proper place in the spectrum of art and craft, beauty and utility, humility and irony, that is the culture of ceramics. ‘Awkward and beautiful’ is the phrase Angus Suttie used in 1985 to describe the objects he sought to make, which sums up perhaps the mood of the time. The newly formed Crafts Council, while greatly respecting the Leach ethos, also did a lot to promote and exhibit the new ideas of the young urban ‘artist/craftsperson’. But the Leach tradition was tired and clichéd for many people by the seventies. As Takeshi Yasuda has reflected, what the Leach movement needed was a more questioning, ensuing generation who re-worked the initial ideas, but what it got was disciples. At this point in the discourse of ceramics there was a commonly held view that skill and art were somehow in opposition, ‘mere’ skill was thought to exclude imagination, and the status of thrown ware diminished.9

But in recent years the tables have been turning. Earlier this year I wrote a leaflet for an exhibition of new young artists which included thrown work by Chun Liao and Daniel Fisher:

It has been long enough now since the grip of Leach’s persuasive, pervasive ‘orientalist’ version of the best norms in wheel-thrown pottery has loosened … the wheel seems free, again, for some fresh and serious work. The Japanese potter Takeshi Yasuda has been significant for a lot of younger potters, and he has been teaching here for the past twenty years. Another phase of the east/west conversation has been ongoing.10

Yasuda arrived in Britain in 1973 after a traditional workshop training in a family-run pottery in Mashiko, and ran his own pottery there for a further decade. He came here to rethink his making life. After a few reclusive years which mixed small-holder farming with some pottery production, Takeshi applied for a job teaching ceramics for three months in Bergen in Norway in 1978, in the Kunsthandwerksskole. Here he refound the excitement of pot-making, and ever since the production and teaching of pottery have, in differing proportions, filled his life. He has been very much appreciated in both his roles. His work and his thinking has never stood still, he has never rested on assumptions. He is now internationally recognised, with a dense programme of exhibitions, and currently much more making than teaching.

His work has been through several dramatic changes, and there are substantial bodies of work in all the different types. The first works I saw were the celadons of the eighties, huge flat dishes with pimpled handles like the limbs of an octopus, and the bucket forms, a down-to-earth reversal of the ceramic basket. These were followed by pieces such as the quintessential Takeshi forms ‘the sprung bowl’, and the ‘plateau’ raised dish, which are glazed in a dramatic stoneware version of Chinese Tang Dynasty colours. His recent work is with creamware, earthenware, which refers to refined English eighteenth century production. His forms are increasingly loose but poised. His use of very soft clay leads him to make shapes that express plasticity, delicate deformation , give, and sensuality. Recent exhibitions have been inspiring in the way the rhythmic series of different shapes have been installed, as in the 1996 show at Christ’s Hospital School.

Takeshi’s presence in Britain has represented a liberation of ideas about throwing. His influence is profound. That he is Japanese, rather than inspired by Japan, is important in the British context. Choosing to work here gave him a clean start, his own sphere. He was not born into the crafts, nor art-school educated - his father was a photographer and he has wide visual interests, having wanted at first to be an engineer. His discovery of the pottery scene in Mashiko and his decision to go and work there in 1963 was the choice of an alternative life-style, like the counter-culture thinking of the UK in the same period. Once in Britain, his early encounter with the British Anglo-Japanese potters made him realise that he wasn’t part of that tradition. But he cherishes English peculiarity in many forms, and is pleased with the way in which we have retained a use for the pot in the domestic interior.

In Takeshi's view the postgraduate phase of learning is crucial for throwers. There isn’t time on a BA course, he thinks, for the fellowship and competition, influence and inspiration of each other, that feeds the understanding of the discipline. At the postgraduate Royal College of Art, where I teach and he is an occasional tutor, it is plain that interest in throwing has greatly revived. We have recently rebuilt the throwing room to give people more space. Another visiting tutor that has inspired new energy in the throwing room is Simon Caroll, who throws sometimes against the plaster walls of huge press moulds. He makes great vigorous pots that conjoin loose and controlled aspects of thrown form, and make cheerful reference to medieval English slipware.

The Nigerian Lawson Oyekan , who studied ceramics in London, does not distinguish between handbuilding and throwing in his expressive and energetic quest for forms that mean something. He uses both techniques, in different series of pots, and his use of the wheel communicates an outstanding kind of vitality.

Clive Bowen and Gwyn Hanssen Pigott are two quite different potters whose work is very well established. Both of them, in my view, have developed strong personal languages, that do not grow stale, out of the tradition of thrown forms that followed Leach. I included groups of work from both, and from Newland and Oyekan, in curating the exhibition ‘A View of Clay’ at Contemporary Applied Arts in 1998.11 Hanssen Pigott is partly, I think, in the background for a number of young potters who in recent years have amounted to what is almost a craze for simple thrown forms in porcelain.

‘The New White’ exhibition at the V&A Museum in 1999 was curated by Alun Graves and included Julian Stair and Edmund de Waal. Here was evidence of the high cool edge of contemporary throwing in Britain, that fits so beautifully into current moves towards minimalism in the interior. Also in that show was Joanna Constantinidis, whose long distinguished career as a thrower of refined modernist forms has just ended. Thus far I have avoided talking about function as a decisive issue in the means one chooses to make pots. But is clearly is of key importance to many who decide to throw. What other conditions, do we suppose, promote the interest in the purity, or is it puritanism, of the New White? Alun Graves in his exhibition leaflet stresses that use, as well as the special associations and qualities of porcelain, are central to its appeal. For me the table settings, offering the most functional, everyday pleasures, were the best feature of this exhibition, made by five out of the seven contributing potters.

I want to propose in conclusion that striking developments in thrown pots of the past few years have rebalanced the ceramic scene. Arguably we are still stuck with the art/craft conundrum, but there is no longer a conflict of status between different types of making. It is, as ever, vitality that counts, whether you pull, pinch, roll, pour, or scrape clay to achieve it.

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1. Fast Forward catalogue, London, ICA, 1985. back to article
2. Collingwood/Coper catalogue, London, V&A Museum, 1969. back to article
3. Fify Five Pots and Three Opinions. Catalogue for exhibition curated by Peter Dormer at the Orchard Gallery, Londonderry, 1983. back to article
4. See Tanya Harrod, The Crafts in Britain in the 20th Century, Yale University Press, 1999. back to article
5. I have explored these differences in 1991 in The Urban Potter. Essay in Colours of the Earth catalogue, British Council exhibition in India curated by Janice Tchalenko. back to article
6. Quoted by Harrod, The Crafts in Britain, p.240. back to article
7. Crafts Magazine no.61, March/April 1983. back to article
8. Oliver Watson, British Studio Pottery, The Victoria and Albert museum Collection, London, Phaidon Christie’s, 1990. back to article
9. Alison Britton, ‘The Manipulation of Skill on the Outer Limits of Function’, Beyond the Dovetail catalogue, London, Crafts Council, 1991. back to article
10. Alison Britton, Momentum, Exhibition leaflet, London, Barrett Marsden Gallery, 2000. back to article
11. Alison Britton, ‘The Open-Minded Eye’, Crafts, 150, January/February 1998. back to article

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Diversity in the Making: Studio Ceramics Today
Camberwell College of Arts, London, UK

15 January 2001

Overthrowing Tradition
Alison Britton


Action - Reflection: Tracing Personal Developments
Neil Brownsword


Ends and Beginnings
Emmanuel Cooper


Radical Pots
Edmund de Waal


Studio Ceramics: The End of the Story?
Jeffrey Jones




Overthrowing Tradition Issue 2