Conference Papers
  Radical Pots
Edmund de Waal


I have called this paper Radical Pots partly because I am fed up with hearing the word 'radical'. Radicalism seems to be ascribed to concepts, theories, bodies of knowledge and practice, and to their progenitors with frightening ease. With so much radicalism about, one is tempted to say, where lies conservatism.

So I wanted to do a little gentle probing on two key moments in ceramic history (one in the 1880s and 1890s, the other in the 1980s and 1990s) and see whether it is legitimate to call them ‘radical’, two moments when it may be possible to uncover some of the political life of ceramics.

A political interface seems a banal truism - used as we are to the Marxist idea that any action is susceptible to political interpretation. So if we think of three aspects, rather dry questions, to interrogate this interface:

  • Firstly there is the relationship between the potter and the labour market, who were they working for? What freedom did they have within their job? If they were employers what was their relationship with those who worked for them? What place does gender have within this determination?
  • Secondly there is the relationship between the potter and the pot. Who was their product for? Was it for use - if it was collected, who collected it and why? How much control did the potter have within the marketplace - how close were they?
  • Thirdly there is the relationship between potter and political/national structure. What controls or impositions exist? Would they know who they were selling to? Is there a critique possible of this?

If this sounds impossibly dry and dreary it is possibly because as a ceramic community we are still somewhat unused to addressing issues of social and political context. For social context and political context, the continuity from which historic objects have come or contemporary objects still come, even an interest in the particularity of local techniques of making, seems to be rather déclassé in the world of makers defining themselves as distant and apart. Within ceramics the phrase carries the implication that the maker has not quite hacked it into the upper slopes of the individualised artist, alone, self-contained, and context-less.

Granted that there are potters, craftspeople, who take as this their social context, there are nagging anxieties that this might be to do with meretricious regionalism, a wearing of a place or tradition on the sleeve of a career, a good bit of placement for the grant-givers of the local Regional Arts Board. After all there are enough examples of inept attempts at historical and romanticised local ventriloquism in the crafts: something that I explore further in an essay on ethnicity in a forthcoming book edited by Paul Greenhalgh.

So if context is worth considering let us think of the late 1880s and the world of pottery. The term ‘studio pottery’ is not yet current and there is a smattering of rarified art potters of different kinds against the vast landscape of industrialised production of a particularly harsh kind. It was harsh physically, the life expectancy in Stoke of those working in the industry was forty six. Here is a physician writing about the symptoms of potters in 1892:

I am told therefore by an intelligent manufacturer of earthenware in Leeds, that the comparative cheapness of the lead in glaze is the chief recommendation. Surely humanity forbids that the health of workmen, and that of the poor at large, should be sacrificed to the saving of 1/2s in the price of pots'.1

He notes potters' asthma, potters' consumption and potters' rot, their lungs sounding like a 'cracked pot'. And here is Bernard Ramazzini, writing much earlier, but with appropriate angry vigour:

there's scarce any city in which there are not other workmen... who receive great Prejudices from the Metallick plagues. Among such we reckon the Potters: for what City, what Town is without such as practice that the Ancientiest of all Arts?... they daub their Vessel, over with melted lead before they put 'em into the Furnace; they receive by the Mouth and the Nostrils and all the Parts of the Body all the Virulent Parts of the Lead they melted in Water and dissolved and thereupon are seized ... For first of all their Hands begin to shake and tremble, soon after they become Paralysed, Lethargic, Splenetick and Toothless; and in time, you'll scarce see a Potter that had not a Leaden Deathlike Complexion ... They are commonly pinched with another Evil viz Extreme Poverty. So that we are forc'd to prescribe such things as at least will mitigate the illness; adjure ‘em withal to give over working on their Trade.2

This harshness was connected to another more insidious harshness. That of the kind of work that the potters were doing - repetitious and physically demanding; but also lacking in stimulation. Here is Ruskin:

It is not truly speaking the labour that is divided; but the men:- Divided into mere segments of men, broken into small fragments and crumbs of life; so that all little piece of intelligence that is left in a man is not enough to make a pin, or a nail, but exhausts itself in making the point of a pin or the head of a nail.3

And for those tempted to consider working for the art-potters it is illuminating to hear of Mr Bale. Mr Bale has been sent on the recommendation of William Morris to work with William de Morgan, the pioneer of aesthetic Moorish lustre pottery at his Chelsea factory (in contemporary words ' a kind of private guild with a community of interest'.) Mr Bale recalled how he had once decided to finish a pot himself without waiting for De Morgan to give him a design:

'Why did you put that in?' asked De Morgan.
'I thought it wouldn't matter and would save time'.
'I thought' he repeated - 'Please understand I don't pay you to think. If you think again, you must think elsewhere!'4

Physically harsh and brutally constraining. And also grindingly poor. For indifferent pay was only one of the potters' grievances. Another was the unfair 'good-for-one' system, whereby potters were paid only for such wares made by them as came from the kiln in perfect state. The basis of this was the argument that wares flawed in the kiln were shoddily made - but often the kiln-packers were careless and in any case most manufacturers sold off imperfect wares as seconds while giving the workmen nothing.

So it is the independence of the Martin Brothers that still seem so exciting; here is Holbrook Jackson:

There is nothing about the little shop of the Martin Brothers at all like modern commerce. Business, you imagine, may possibly take place there, but you feel the main object is something different. The pots are not arranged like the crockery of an ordinary shop, and there is no effusive display of antagonism towards dust... They will not approach you as shopmen and I dare not think what would happen if you immediately tried to open up commercial relations. I have seen many pieces of stoneware bought of Wallace and Edwin Martin, but I have never seen them sell a piece.5

They seem a-commercial, removed from business, unconcerned with collectors, unbothered by display, far from modernity.

Or in the words of Edmund Spence, another contemporary :

I do not say that all pieces of their ware are beautiful... but... every piece possesses an individuality of character... Indeed at first sight everyone is disappointed by this sombre coloured, severely shaped saltglaze ware: after a time however, the disappointment wears off, and interest takes its place, then the latest beauties disclose themselves and at last the fact that no hands since those of the artist have touched it produces a subtle charm and leaves the spectator in a state of delight.6

That is - the work is also not only beautiful, it doesn't pander to a putative audience. Furthermore the audience has to work to find its beauty - a beauty that is inextricably linked to the fact that the pots were made by them alone.

The Martin Brothers then, stand apart from the Ruskinian definition of 'wage slaves': they have control and independence and choice: they are self-defining artists, neither employees nor employers. And their work moving as it does from the Puginesque decoration of their early pots in the exhibition and the wonderfully exuberant historicist saltglaze Bellarmine to that virtuosic display of excitement of the gourds, also shown here may be up for the title of 'radical pots'.

They are radical in that they are made and signed by supremely industrialised artists, beholden to no-one, setting their faces against the exigencies of contemporary taste and the momentum of contemporary commerce.

They are radical in that they overflow with ideas. historicist forms are abandoned. In the exploration of organicism, ripened figs, reptilian scales, the bark of trees, a sloughed snake-skin, sutures overflow. This is not Owen Jones or Christopher Dresser, radical ornamentation applied to a form: these are radical in that they are made and decorated in toto. They are, indeed, abstract vessels - they are ‘about’ themselves.

The 1980s and 1990s are not another country, but another planet. The position of the potter is more like that of a déclassé entrepreneur, astute at positioning themselves within the shifting worlds of Craft, art and commerce. It is the era of Thatcherism, on yer bike rigour. Remember the Top Office exhibition of 1987 - a Crafts Council/Business Design Centre collaboration to create 'Top Offices' for 'Top People': Mrs T in blue in her Top Office with a firebasket by Stuart Hill a rug by Peter Podmore and a David Leach teaset. Where lies radicalism in this land of corporate collections, institutional patronage? How can you be counter-cultural? Where ‘the gatekeepers’ of taste, the Crafts Council encourage a little bit of rough with such ludicrous shows as the New Spirit in Art & Design ( broken TV sets with Helen Yardley rugs inside; Fiona Salazar vases balanced on girders.) The Street at its most etiolated and aestheticised.

For real radicalism I look to Elspeth Owen's pots. Owen started making pots as part of a walk to Greenham: she talks of wrapping and unwrapping this fragile object every night where she camped en route. Of making as an act of conservation, certainty, but also of recuperation of value in a nightmare world: the pots 'hold me and support me as well as me holding and supporting them'.7

Holding and supporting: Owen is both maker and performer. She has worked with film, video and installation as a counterpart to ceramics. Her pots are not archaised; they come from an attitude to independence, technical self-sufficiency and environmental responsiveness. They are radical in the way that much of the Land Art movement of the time can be seen as radical, a-commercial and uncollectable. Unthinkable in a Top Office.

And then there is Richard Slee. In the mid 1990s the potter Richard Slee embarked on a series of contemporary Toby Jugs. The Toby Jug is a vernacular English decorative tankard of a bluff, pink-cheeked, Henry Fielding country squire with his own tankard of ale in his hands. But Toby is also a red-faced, myopic, jingoist Little Englander, a bar room politician. With Slee Toby underwent a series of transmogrifications; Toby as Harpie, poised in mid-denunciation, a Roast Beef Toby and a Fizzy Toby with eaten away features. At the high water mark of a particularly strongly inflected political nostalgia for a kind of Englishness based on values of continuity, tradition and community, Toby became in effect the carrier of a whole series of radical inversions of Englishness. The image of an Englishman with his side of beef changes in an age of the disease BSE, just as a stalwart Englishman happily in his cups inflects differently when drunken English youth are the most forceful image of the English abroad. Toby as a figure elides with the other iconic figure of Mr Punch, another cross between comic jocularity and frightening violence.

It's as if these are common sites within cultural life which are particularly susceptible to this opening up of their ‘otherness’. That is, the interest of Slee's work lies not just in his use of the vernacular in a politicised way to explore ideas of ethnicity but in the way that he makes this commentary on his own cultural matrix. As the anthropologist James Clifford has said: ‘[What] has become immediately curious is no longer the other, but cultural description itself'.

That is, by dealing with 'the matter of Englishness' by taking as his theme the iconic Toby Jug, or indeed the iconic figures from the cottage mantelpiece, Slee automatically puts himself into the area of intense speculation on ethnicity. Slee is his own ethnographer.

A comparison can be made with the work of the Japanese ceramicist Nakamura Kinpei. Nakamura was brought up in Kanazawa, a centre of rarefied craft traditions, spent a year in the US as a Rockefeller Foundation Fellow in 1969-70 and now teaches at Tama University of the Arts in Tokyo. He is a heterodox figure within Japanese ceramics, a maker of ceramic sculpture that acts as a commentary on the foundations of the ‘authenticity’ of accepted taste, holding in 1988 an exhibition entitled 'An Exploration of Japanese Taste'.

In 'Even Stone has Sap' we see a briccolage of disparate man-made industrial and craft objects assembled on a gilded rock promontory. It is difficult to read: are these bizarre objects malign growths or benign decorations? From a metallic angle of pipe sprouts a twig, embedded in the rock is an open cube of pure Shinto scarlet.

Nakamura helps in decoding this deftly coded sculpture, this palimpsest of Japanese cultural motifs, by introducing the notion of kitsch: in an essay he wrote for the catalogue:

the constant reworking of traditional ceramic styles by artists living in an age of different priorities from those obtaining at the time the original works were made, leads to products that cannot fail to degenerate into mere kitsch replicas.8

It is his embracing kitsch as a significant cultural manifestation, as a cultural practice as significant as the pursuit of authenticity that is richly (and politically) present in his work. Consider the place of the rock and the branch within Japanese aesthetics as an integer for the carefully mediated placing of 'the natural' within the Tea Ceremony and Zen gardens. This austere aestheticising of the natural is not so much parodied by its transformation into fired clay cloaked in metallic glazes as intensified by it. This is not mocking of tradition but a fierce concentration of both the subject and way of approaching it within the same piece.

For here the rock and branch which should, in normal Japanese aesthetics, be isolated and cordoned off into the safe places where beauty is allowed to perform its role, have to act within a welter of discursive images of modernity. Japan is like this, Nakamura seems to be implying: the structures that have allowed for a distance between confusing everyday urban living and the objects of fetishised cultural attention, have fragmented.

Everything within the piece carries the same visual weight and significance: this is the maker as obsessive ethnographer and obsessive collector of Japan, the maker at large in the modern city.

But just as Slee cannot be said to be an ironic ceramicist (the impulse behind his work is both celebratory and critical) so Nakamura is engaged with 'cultural description' and not prescription. They dramatise cultural and political narratives, they create 'radical dislocations' of narrative, offering alternative views of normative orthodoxies.

In short ‘they make the story crooked’ in the lovely phrase of the cultural historian Stephen Bann. They make, like Elspeth Owen and like the Martin Brothers ‘radical pots’.

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1 Bevis Hillier, Pottery and Porcelain 1700-1914, 1968, p.21. back to article
2 Hillier, Pottery and Porcelain, pp.19-20. back to article
3 John Ruskin, Stones of Venice, 10, p.196. back to article
4 Hillier, Pottery and Porcelain, p.253. back to article
5 Holbrook Jackson, ‘Martinware’, T.P Magazine, November 1910. back to article
6 Edward Spence ‘Martin-ware pottery’, The Artist, 1887, p.327-8. back to article
7 Moira Vincentelli, Women and Ceramics, 2000, p238. back to article
8 Nakamura Kinpei, 1983 p16. 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



Radical Pots Issue 2