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Keeping Quiet and Finding a Voice: Ceramics and the Art of Silence

Jeffrey Jones




The article explores various understandings of the condition of silence as they relate to the practice of ceramics. Lucie Rie and Hans Coper are identified as artists for whom silence plays a functional role in the framing of their work. A section on still life uses the notion of rhopography to make comparisons between significant aspects of still life painting with that of certain expressions of the genre of still life in the medium of ceramics. Susan Sontag's ideas concerning the 'aesthetics of silence' are discussed and extended to the field of ceramics. This leads to a consideration of the importance of oral testimony within the field, and how silence and speaking are privileged in different contexts. The conclusion is offered that there are various kinds of silences and that ceramics is a site where these can be apprehended and explored at some depth.

Key words:
Silence, Lucie Rie, Hans Coper, still life, rhopography, Cecile Johnson Soliz, Gwyn Hanssen Piggott, the aesthetics of silence, Norah Braden, oral testimony.


To attempt to speak about silence, whether through the spoken or written word, is a project beset with a contradiction of the most fundamental kind: silence at its purest and at its most powerful has at its core an ambition to render speech redundant.1 Yet it is also possible to assert that we always encounter or experience silence within situations. If it is the case that the general condition of silence remains resistant and essentially foreign to the intrusion of speech, the local conditions under which we apprehend it do not enjoy such a privilege. This article begins from the premise that ceramics is one of those sites where silence seems to happen and if there is something more than a tenuous connection between ceramics and silence then that, at least, is something that can and should be spoken about.

What might be called the silence of ceramics manifests itself in a number of ways, one of the most prominent of which is the slowness of ceramics as a genre of art to find and articulate a confident voice. There seems to be a silence located in many of the objects that we now identify as making up the genre of ceramics and a silence located around those objects. For some people this silence is comforting, for others it is frustrating.

Those who find the silence comforting might ask 'does very much need to be said about ceramics anyway? Wouldn't we all be better off if we kept quiet and let the work speak for itself?' Those who find the silence frustrating might ask in return if that is ever possible and might claim that all objects, including those made from ceramic, are always in some sense 'spoken for'.2 Nothing has a silent life, they might argue, everything exists in context, things talk to one another, discourse occurs whether we want it to or not.

Ceramics is not unique in its reluctance to develop a critical language, a discourse. It certainly shares this tendency with the crafts in general. Few people within the field would argue with Pamela Johnson's comment in 1998 that 'the interpretive community that we call the crafts ... falls easily into silence'.3 This act of falling into silence, with its implications of passivity, of compliance with events, of having little to say, sits at odds with a more active choice for silence on the part of some makers, for whom quietness or stillness are potentially enriching qualities within their imaginations, lives and work. There may be considerable virtue in keeping quiet as a creative act but this can easily become confused or overlaid with considerations of a different kind.

For example, even now that the discourse around the crafts has taken great steps forward, strong positions are still taken up with regard to speaking and writing about craft practice. There is an agenda still to be fought over. The silent maker and/or their silent work can be called upon to lend force to arguments for a limited engagement with theory and the preservation of an innocent and reticent 'craft' in opposition to a corrupted 'art' that is too forward for its own good and spoiled by too many words. On the other hand, whatever the degree of quietness or loudness manifested in their work, makers are often exhorted to take responsibility for speaking up about what they do if they are to have a hope of being taken seriously in an increasingly clamorous world.4

Within that range of contemporary practice that we now describe as ceramics, to 'let the work speak for itself' is no longer the simple and uncontentious option it once seemed to be. The silence within ceramic objects and the silence around such objects inflect one another in ways that are as much strategic as they are aesthetic. An added complexity is the current relationship of 'pots' or 'pottery' to 'ceramics'. As the range of ceramics expands to a point where pots make up a minority of the overall output, there is nevertheless a residual weight to the notion of the humble, quiet pot that, on the one hand, draws on strong, implicit, 'conservative' loyalties and, on the other, drags against powerful and restless tendencies towards a more 'progressive' ceramics, towards the need for attention, towards the imperative of being heard.

The examples given in this article are mainly of pots, although their makers would not necessarily describe themselves as potters nor what they make as pottery.5 This gives a manageable coherence to the subject but the choice of examples is not just a pragmatic one; it is through thinking and speaking about pots that the relationship of silence and ceramics can very effectively be explored. Four themes are used to facilitate discussion of various aspects of the relationship of ceramics and silence and these are The Silence of Lucie Rie and Hans Coper, Still Life and Ceramics, The Aesthetics of Silence, and Silence and Testimony

1. The Silence of Lucie Rie and Hans Coper

If we are to be persuaded that pots really do speak for themselves and are in little need of further interpretation then it is the work of Lucie Rie and Hans Coper that has the best chance of convincing us of this. If ever pots bore silent witness to such a claim then it is theirs. Their work appears timeless; it is quiet, reserved, impassive, self-contained, almost defying comment. But then comment about their work is something in which we have hardly been encouraged to engage.

In a short essay in the catalogue to Lucie Rie's 1967 retrospective exhibition Bernard Leach said precisely that her pots 'speak for themselves' and he added that they needed no comment from him 'except thanks for their integrity'.6 This kind of response, where the viewer is rendered speechless by work of such evident virtue, is endemic to the Rie/Coper literature. Tony Birks, the writer of biographical monographs on both Rie and Coper reports Lucie as saying that 'she is "just a potter", and that pots do not mean anything'.7 This reductionist view of Rie's work is one that her biographer seems content to indulge and almost his final words on his subject are that 'Lucie makes pots, and nothing else. They are vessels, either shallow or tall, abstract and self-justifying'.8

In 1975 Edward Lucie-Smith visited both Lucie Rie and Hans Coper as part of his preparations for a book, which was to be published under the title of World of the Makers. He says in the book:

Sadly, from my point of view, Miss Rie and Mr. Coper share an objection to being quoted. While both agreed to talk with me, gave generously of their time, they forbade me to print any directly attributed remark or opinion. 9

Edmund de Waal was surely right when he said of Rie and Coper that:

there is a hermetic silence surrounding both potters ... the serious, private kernel remains unbroken ... their silence accretes seriousness around them ... their not joining in is a form of silence too.10

There is, of course, no obligation on the part of any artist to speak about their work. Why should artists be expected to explain in words what they have struggled to articulate through the use of materials? But our acquiescence with the elected silence of Rie and Coper is a different matter. Are we really obliged to join in with it? And surely there is nothing to stop us from trying to account for it?

One obvious way of attempting to account for the silence that surrounds the work of Rie and Coper is to explore the context in which they lived and worked. This is a task that demands sensitivity since silence not only surrounds them; it protects them too. Their work may appear to be timeless but their lives were not and there is an understandable reluctance to probe. Our gaze is stopped short by their work; it seems impolite and indelicate to go much beyond it.

We have the outward details of both their stories: we know that their careers developed in a post-war context and their status as émigrés, fleeing likely persecution in Austria and Germany before the outbreak of war forms a poignant background to their subsequent careers in Britain. Is there anything that we can say about the terrible events of the 1930s and 1940s in their home countries, which has any bearing on their art? We can, I believe, say that it is not irrelevant that Coper's father, a Jew, committed suicide in Germany in 1936, probably to protect his wife, a non-Jew, and their two sons. This was the first of the many terrible blows and privations that Hans Coper would endure during the ensuing decade but the impression that we are left with is that all that was heroically put aside as Coper devoted his energies to his art.

Any kind of psychological analysis of Coper's life and work is presently unavailable but Tony Birks does describe Hans Coper as 'a man far from indifferent to the goings-on of the present day and who brought Hiroshima and all unnecessary modern suffering into his work'. 11 Though understanding Birk's sentiment, I think that it points us in the wrong direction. Shouldn't we be talking about the Holocaust instead of Hiroshima?

There is little space here to do justice to this subject; only enough to make an inadequate reference to Adorno's famous remark that after Auswitch there could be no poetry and suggest that there is scope for situating and interpreting Coper's work within that post-holocaust silence that echoed around Europe during the years after the second world war affecting many artists, not least those of Jewish extraction.12 There is also a wider context to bring to bear on Coper's work, which is that of twentieth century purist aesthetics and an understanding of Modernist abstraction as a reaction to the chaos and destruction of a violent century. In one sense Coper's work gives the lie to Adorno's remark; he persisted with his art, but it was an art that was increasingly refined, pared down and essentially ascetic – monastic even – in its form and spirit, as indeed was Coper's life. And for all the beauty and poetry of his work, Coper retained a sense that what he was doing was ultimately absurd.13 There is a sense of withdrawal and a certain starkness in Coper's vision that fits with Mark C. Taylor's understanding of what was at the heart of the Modernist project: 'Faced with the danger of the imminent collapse of Western civilization, artists and architects turned from the real to the ideal in search of reassuring purity'.14

While acknowledging the presence of Coper's pots it could be argued that there is also absence, a dark hollow at their core, an unvarying blackness at their heart, which sometimes spills over the rim. This sense of absence is intensified by the way that Coper's pots (and those of Lucie Rie) are routinely photographed against a blank white or black background sometimes with hardly even a shadow to keep them company. 'Endure your own destiny' Coper had written in 1952 on a piece of wood which blocked up the fireplace of his small, bare London flat. There is an inevitability about all of Coper's work; his pots confront us with the knowledge that they could be no other than what they are. They endure; this is their triumph and their fate. They have stranded themselves in a place where it seems as if there is no more to be said.

The understanding of Coper's work that is offered here is open to question; perhaps his pots are, after all, just pots. At least, though, we should note the contrasting way in which the work of, for example, Mark Rothko is caught up in an extensive discourse of silence, purity and absence that might, conceivably, pertain to Coper's work should we have the will to apply it. John Cage and Samuel Beckett offer examples of contemporary artists in other fields who engaged with silence and identified it as an area not only of creative possibilities but also of dispute. The sheer success of Coper's pots in remaining aloof from the arguments is all the more remarkable for going un-remarked. Is there not something significant to be said?

We have enough information to be going on with to appreciate that the reluctance to speak on the part of both Hans Coper and Lucie Rie is intelligible within the context of their lives. As people, they chose to remain silent and while respecting that silence we can also make efforts to understand and interpret it. That project is inevitably linked to a parallel and as yet under-developed project to understand and account for the silence that pervades their art and indeed frames everything that they make. Silence seals them and their work in, giving little opportunity to construct what might be fruitful connections with other artists, other genres, other contexts. But with comparatively little effort those connections might begin to be established.

For Rie and Coper silence is functional in establishing and maintaining a micro-context within which their work thrives whilst also providing a defence against the possibility of a macro-context in which their work might be more widely interpreted. The claim that their pots speak for themselves is understandable against the background of their lives. It is however unsustainable in the face of even modest efforts to situate their work, to explore the context in which they lived and made art. Silence not only surrounds them and defends them, it reveals and locates them too. That silence which hides them from us also shows us where they are.

2. Still Life and Ceramics

The genre of still life has close connections with the genre of ceramics and overlaps with it in interesting ways. Norman Bryson has this to say about still life painting although he could almost be talking about ceramics:

It has always been the least theorised of the genres, and when the academies that launched the first theoretical accounts of painting came to mention it at all, they did so disparagingly: still life was always at the bottom of the hierarchy, unworthy of the kind of superior attention reserved for history painting or the grande manière ... still life continues to struggle with the prejudice that while (of course) it would be a subject worth investigating, the real stakes lie elsewhere, in the higher genres where (of course) things have always been more interesting.15

In his book Looking at the Overlooked Bryson distinguishes between 'megalography' and 'rhopography' as contrasting categories applied to art, particularly to painting.16 The megalographic mode can be understood as the depiction of the greatness of people and of things; heroic deeds, dramatic events, narratives and endeavours which move us by the grandness of their ambition or sensibility. The rhopographic mode, on the other hand, puts importance aside and draws attention instead to those things which are seemingly of little value: the insignificant, the excluded, the ordinary, the everyday. There is no room for people and especially not for their overarching ambitions in the still life world of the overlooked. People are nowhere to be seen and neither are their values. Here things are given centre stage, yet things of themselves can have no great story to tell and they cause nothing to happen. It is a world of stillness and of silence.

It is also a world attractive to those of a contemplative nature. Bryson discusses the work of two 17th century Spanish painters, Juan Sánchez Cotán and Francisco de Zurbarán. Bryson says:

In Cotán and Zurbarán megalographic ambitions are of course singularly absent, and everyday life is confronted without evasion. Their sense of painting as a spiritual discipline, bound up with self-negation and the reduction of ego, leads them to still life as a branch of art particularly suited to a vocation of humility.17

Bryson argues that it is by no mean the case that just because a painter takes the subject of still life, their ambitions are not megalographic. He points out that the still life paintings of Caravaggio and Cezánne are concerned to show 'the power of art to ennoble and elevate even a humble basket of fruit, or the capacity of art to embody and dramatise the detailed workings of aesthetic consciouness'.18 Such painting is aware of its importance and its potential to make a difference. It is art that knows its place in history and although people are kept out of the picture, the spectator is in no doubt that the artists are not far away in the background, making their mark.

The lesson that might be learned, then, is that if there is something about the genre of still life that lends itself towards a humble and self-effacing kind of art-making this is not an outcome that can be assumed from the choice of subject matter per se. It is, moreover, a lesson that needs to be borne in mind if comparisons are to be drawn between still life and ceramics or, more particularly, between still life and pottery, for it is from within that branch of ceramics known as studio pottery that the most obvious comparisons are to be found. It is to the studio potter that we naturally look for an affirmation of the quietness of clay vessels and of their potential to evoke responses that are as much spiritual as aesthetic. It is the studio potter who establishes the 'vocation of humility' as the proper vocation of all potters. It is studio pottery, on behalf of all pottery, that alerts us to the affecting presence of the simple bowl or jug.

Yet, in spite of that, there is a certain ambition that the studio potter has for their work that cannot quite be squared with the rhopographic mode of still life. Often for the studio potter, it is not the common object that deserves our gaze; it is not the ordinary but the extraordinary vessel that claims our rightful attention, however simple or quiet that vessel might be. For Bernard Leach, there was no virtue inherent in the state of being overlooked:

If, on any day, I walked into my pottery and pointed to a board full of newly thrown jugs and asked each man in the shop to pick out the best and the worst, nearly always everyone gave much the same answer.19

Unlike so much still life painting with its concern for sameness, for anonymity, for the relative unimportance of difference, it is the special and particular quality of a thing that is being celebrated here; a thing capable not only of speaking for itself but for a grander world of human possibilities, ambitions, ideology and even hope.

It is difficult to look at a Bernard Leach pot without being aware of what it stands for and the greatness of the venture in which it is engaged. The humblest of his work speaks of a big idea. To expect pottery making to carry the burden of, for example, uniting East and West is a project that is megalographic rather than rhopographic in its scope and ambition. This is not to condemn it, it is merely to note the self-evident nature of the undertaking. It is an undertaking, moreover, which has as much been explained to us in words as it has been shown to us through the practice of pottery making.

Pottery, like still life, may be well suited to the expression of rhopographic concerns but is also capable of elevating itself onto a seemingly higher level of culture and discourse. In doing so it reaches above and beyond what Norman Bryson tellingly calls 'low-plane reality'. Bryson's phrase is a useful one. It reminds us again of that sphere where what he calls 'the routines of daily living, the domestic round, the absence of personal uniqueness and distinction' hold sway. This is the world to which Morandi and Chardin were closer than Caravaggio and Cezánne, closer also perhaps than Bernard Leach, with his all-embracing philosophy and his far-reaching gaze.

There are a number of examples of contemporary makers in ceramics whose work seems to reflect that 'low-plane reality' of which Bryson speaks. Two of these are Gwyn Hanssen-Pigott and Cecile Johnson Soliz. Interestingly, Hanssen-Pigott's still life groups have developed from her work as a studio potter whereas Johnson Soliz has always situated herself as a sculptor. It is possible to see this difference as significant, it is also possible to ignore it altogether. The two artists appear to share common interests; the work of them both seems content to inhabit that place where art fades into life, into ordinariness, into the material world. Their concern is not to make something that asserts its uniqueness, proclaiming that 'nothing has ever looked like this before' but rather to remind us of the quiet existence of things, especially those categories of things that are taken for granted and overlooked.

Cecile Johnson Soliz, Twenty-eight Pitchers, (1994–6), clay, wood, paint, 214 x 150 x 23 cm


Cecile Johnson Soliz, Twenty-eight Pitchers, (1994–6), detail.

It is a simple point, but nevertheless an important one, that the genres of still life and ceramics have both been around for a long time, they span the centuries. Returning to Norman Bryson's concern with still life, he says that:

The things which occupy still life's attention belong to a long cultural span that goes back beyond modern Europe to antiquity and pre-antiquity ... behind the images there stands the culture of artefacts, with its own, independent history.20 (original emphasis)

Bryson lists some of those artefacts, the things that we might expect to see in a still life painting: bowls, jugs, pitchers and vases. There is an additional layer of complexity and interest here in that those bowls, jugs, pitchers and vases that are depicted are more than likely to be ceramic objects. They are part of a material world that has less to do with innovation and more to do with continuity. This is a world not just of low-plane reality but, to adapt Bryson's phrase, slow-plane reality as well.

Slowness has not been much valued in art, at least in modern western art, the pace of which has accelerated over the centuries in a headlong rush towards the new, with little acknowledgement that there are other paces, other speeds, other rhythms of life, work and existence. So powerful has this pressure for change become that Bryson feels that he has to describe as 'odd' his project to 'investigate still life as a response to this slowest, most entropic level of material existence', the level where those objects, those bowls, jugs etc. are 'tuned to a slow, almost geological, rhythm that is all their own.' 21

If it is correct to say that ceramics has been slow to find a voice for itself, then this slowness that inheres in objects such as pots is surely of relevance. Those who feel that they want to push ceramics forward, who are ambitious for change and who ally themselves with newness, can often feel dragged back by pottery and its associations with oldness and with inactivity tending towards what seems like inertia. Perhaps it is time to reconfigure this problem of the slowness of ceramics/pottery, to stop feeling that it is something that needs to be defended or justified, challenged or corrected, and to see it instead as something that simply needs to be taken seriously and to be considered on its own account.

It is with this in mind that I tentatively apply the adjectives slow, old, inactive and still to the work of Gwyn Hanssen-Pigott and Cecile Johnson Soliz. Their work has an eloquent silence about it, which at least in part consists of a refusal to make claims of greatness for itself or to persuade the viewer that genius is at work. Minus people, minus narrative, lacking any sense of a great event, and with anonymity replacing uniqueness, in many ways this is risky art-making because nothing exceptional occurs. But for all the understated, quiet nature of its existence it is still art. Silence is part of its aesthetic.

3. The Aesthetics of Silence

In an essay entitled 'The Aesthetics of Silence' Susan Sontag turns this idea around. Although silence is her subject, she is concerned not with silence as it exists within art but silence as it exists against art, the silence which arises when art itself is abandoned as a worthwhile project; silence as anti-art.

Sontag discusses three people who effectively renounced their vocations as artists, as geniuses even, and instead chose silence. The three are Duchamp, Rimbaud and Wittgenstein (whose inclusion Sontag justifies on the grounds that he is a philosopher-artist). Sontag argues that the choices made by these people at certain points in their lives to leave their artistic careers behind and follow other paths did not thereby negate their previous work. On the contrary, their actions can be seen as giving a new kind of validity and seriousness to their art.

Bearing in mind that she is writing in 1969, Sontag talks of a 'newer myth' of art that replaces a version of art as an expression of human consciousness with a version of art as something that has to be worked through and eventually overthrown. She sees this process as akin to a spiritual quest and she says:

As the activity of the mystic must end in a via negativa, a theology of god's absence, a craving for the cloud of unknowing beyond knowledge and for the silence beyond speech, so art must tend toward anti-art, the elimination of the "subject' (the "object", the "image"), the substitution of chance for intention, and the pursuit of silence.22

Art is therefore not something that brings fulfilment on its own account but rather through art the artist becomes purified and eventually is able to put art aside. In Sontag's words the artist 'is more satisfied by being silent than by finding a voice in art'.23 The famous passage at the end of Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus well illustrates this. The vivid metaphor that Wittgenstein employs, of throwing away the ladder after you have climbed it, takes on added significance with the knowledge that Wittgenstein did, in effect, do just that. After writing the Tractatus he abandoned philosophy and went off to become an elementary school teacher leaving behind him that much quoted final sentence, 'Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent'.24

Sontag interprets this kind of renunciation as 'a highly social gesture', which, she says, is 'made only after the artist has demonstrated that he possesses genius and exercised that genius authoritatively'.25 Sontag even suggests that the 'craving for silence' indicates a sense of superiority and through the choice of silence a clear message is sent to the former artist's peers. This is silence as a kind of valediction through which the artist renounces speech. Sontag calls it 'the artist's ultimate other-worldly gesture' and she sees in it the climax of a struggle between 'the "spirit" seeking embodiment in art' clashing with 'the "material" character of art itself'.26 Not only is the everyday world insufficient as a subject for art, art itself is insufficient for the artist who would be silent.

Sontag's essay, though still commanding considerable force, is thirty years old now, and it is reasonable to ask whether that 'newer myth' of art that she identifies still holds good. Certainly the kind of renunciations of art, the leaps into silence that she describes seem to belong to a particular time. 'Newness' itself has come under scrutiny and the notion of an avant-garde, continually challenging and overthrowing the concerns of the past, itself now appears outdated. Also, the dissatisfaction with the material character of art appears out of step with a contemporary interest in materiality and a current willingness to look closely at things/objects of all kinds and accord them due respect.

In many ways our claims for art are now more temperate, more circumscribed, more contingent, more modest even. The time for the bold, all-encompassing act, whether to reinforce the power of art through some revolutionary artistic statement, or to confirm art's redundancy by abandoning it and opting for silence, has gone. The leaps into silence, like the preceding leaps into greatness, were themselves moments in art, moments in history. Art, like history, still went on.27

Is there a potter or ceramist who might fit into Sontag's thesis, someone who gave up art making and elected for silence instead? William Staite Murray is a possibility, although it is difficult to tell whether Murray's silence after a career of barely twenty years was of the kind with which Sontag was concerned. The ending of his career seems at least in part to have been due to adverse circumstances. Norah Braden offers a more modest, but nevertheless intriguing example of a potter who fell silent.

Norah Braden's story is less dramatic than the stories of those three men highlighted by Susan Sontag. She is far less of an obviously 'important' figure, although she was a talented woman and achieved some success as one of Bernard Leach's first pupils at St.Ives in the 1920s. She arrived there with a ringing endorsement from William Rothenstein, the recently appointed principal of the Royal College of Art; 'I am sending you a genius', he wrote to Leach.28 Moira Vincentelli points out that Leach found it necessary to temper this praise with his own assessment that 'there was some truth in this estimation, even though the frustrations of life forced her later into teaching rather than potting itself'.29

In comparison to Duchamp, Rimbaud and Wittgenstein, Norah Braden's decision to give up her career as an artist and to fade into relative obscurity went largely unnoticed. It could reasonably be argued that this was due to the fact that she had less to give up; her 'genius' remained unrealised, her artistic oeuvre was only partly formed. Yet that does not quite exhaust the argument if we see it as significant that all the examples that Sontag provides are of men. The gendered nature of our understanding of the notion of genius needs no further elaboration here but this does need to be extended to include the possibility that silence is gendered too.

This can be understood in various ways. There is the general point to be made that silence is often imposed rather than freely chosen and there are subtle and not so subtle means of social constraint that disadvantage women and can effectively silence any contribution they might make, even before it is uttered or expressed. There is the more particular point that the studio pottery world was a world where masculine virtues were (and still are) celebrated – individualism, self-sufficiency and the mastery of materials and ideas. This gave few opportunities for women to voice alternative, perhaps more modest, ways of thinking, speaking and making.

There is a further consideration, which is that silence, of itself so seemingly pure and undifferentiated, so obviously empty, cannot help but offer itself up to be filled with a big idea. It invites a grand gesture, a heroic act, the like of which, for whatever reason, men have been more ready to supply than women. The silence that Sontag describes has been made equal to genius and has become an absolute state, as powerful and authoritative as the art it supplants. This utterly abstract, all enveloping and non-negotiable idea of silence does not leave much room for degrees of quietness and withdrawal, contingent silences if you like, which perhaps better reflect the experiences and understandings of women like Braden for whom the 'frustrations of life' (which must also include the frustrations of art) cannot be solved at a single, silent, masterful stroke.

Norah Braden does not exemplify Susan Sontag's thesis but she does inflect it in an interesting and challenging way and her story takes on added significance when towards the end of her life, she makes a more considered choice for silence. This second silence of hers gives an opportunity briefly to explore another way in which we might approach the subject of silence and this is through the relationship of silence and testimony.

4. Silence and Testimony

I need here to speak more personally and to mention the late Mike Hughes who was the driving force behind the establishment of NEVAC, the National Electronic and Video Archive of the Crafts, at the University of the West of England, Bristol.30 I knew Mike for all too short a time, but I well remember a conversation in which he talked eloquently about the recordings he was making. The kind of oral history project that Mike was engaged in was relatively new to me at the time and I listened, fascinated, as Mike talked about the importance of gathering the testimonies of potters such as William Newland, David Leach and Marianne de Trey, all of whose voices, in some significant way, had never fully been heard.

Mike talked to me about Norah Braden who was still alive at the time of our conversation in 1999.31 It was clear that Mike would have loved to talk to her, to have gathered her testimony, to have given her a voice, but it was also clear that she had no intention of breaking her decades long silence during which she had made no further pottery as well as no public comment on her experience as a potter. Mike and I agreed that it was a pity about Norah Braden's silence and then I went on to ask him, what about Lucie Rie and Hans Coper, did he think they would have agreed to participate in the NEVAC project, had they still been alive? The answer was no and Mike agreed that the kind of work that he was doing 'privileged the talkative'.

It is important to note that oral history, in seeking to fill in the gaps or silences of history through the gathering of testimony, does this, crucially, through the spoken word. Oral history thus offers a critique of writing as the privileged form of speaking.32 If ceramics is indeed what I claim it to be, a site where silence happens, then it may well be of significance that in recent years talking has proved to be as, if not more, effective than writing as a means of finding a voice within this site. This is exemplified not only by NEVAC and other oral history projects within ceramics, but also by the popularity of numerous ceramics festivals, fairs, workshops, demonstrations, conferences, symposia and the like. Indeed in many ways the ceramics world is now a noisy, chatty place. There is plenty of talking going on and it is sometimes difficult to discern its usefulness as an alternative to the silence that it positions itself against. There may, though, be some justification for reconfiguring the problem and abandoning the straightforward antithesis of language and silence in favour of a tripartite arrangement in which talking, writing and silence form shifting and unexpected alliances which are nevertheless more truly reflective of the ways that 'ceramics' is currently understood and interpreted.

We can choose silence or we can choose speech, but it is a choice that is always open to interpretation and it is a choice that always has implications whether of a social, personal, political or artistic kind. I have argued above that silence is gendered, as language is gendered, and in the same way that it matters who is doing the speaking, it similarly matters who is being silent. There is certainly scope for interpreting Norah Braden's silence in this light. And if there are occasions when talking is privileged over silence, then there are similarly circumstances when silence is privileged over talking. We have the examples of Lucie Rie and Hans Coper to remind us of that. In the end, though, you cannot give a voice to anyone who will not speak, and to refrain from talking and/or writing is a choice that many will continue to make.


It appears that as people we have a choice: on the one hand the busy attractions of talk, speech, discourse and on the other hand silence, absolute and immutable. However this polarity is not as straightforward as it seems. There is certainly evidence to show that there are different kinds of silences and we should at least recognise that silences occur at, and even as, historical moments. The examples given in this article need to be interpreted as such, with due acknowledgement of the specific historical conditions that pertain to each.

That there are different silences is something that Michel Foucault stresses. He tells us 'There is not one but many silences' and then he goes on to add that 'they are an integral part of the strategies that underlie and permeate discourses'.33 This seems to make sense in the light of the examples discussed in this article. If we think of the different kinds of silences of, for example, Hans Coper, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Norah Braden then, far from being empty and meaningless, these withdrawals from speech are in fact full of meaning; they are strategic, they have a point. To quote Foucault again:

Silence itself ... is less the absolute limit of discourse, the other side from which it is separated by a strict boundary, than an element that functions alongside the things said, with them and in relation to them within over-all strategies. There is no binary division to be made between what one says and what one does not say.34

This is a point that is also made by Susan Sontag who says that 'silence remains, inescapably, a form of speech (in many instances, of complaint or indictment) and an element in dialogue'.35 The silence of people, our silence, is not passive but active, not empty but substantial and occupying space. Our silence cannot be differentiated from discourse and must be understood as something that is correspondingly exhaustive, something that seeks to say everything and to leave no gaps. Silence and discourse are in fact alike in that the ambition of them both is to leave nothing left to be accounted for, nothing more to be said.

We could say that is the constant failure of this ambition that gives rise to the conditions that are favourable for art. Here another kind of silence can be encountered, which is different to the silence of people: it is the silence of things. Not all forms of art-making, not all genres of art offer themselves readily for this kind of encounter but I suggest that ceramics is one of them. Ceramics is not only a site where silence happens it is somewhere where different silences happen and, in particular, it is a place where the relationship between the silence of people and the silence of things can be apprehended and explored.

If there is such a condition as the silence of things then in what does it consist? I would argue that a primary characteristic of the silence of things is their inexhaustible nature; things persist, they are ongoing, they are patient, they are unambitious, they endure. Long after we are gone there will still be bowls, jugs, pitchers and vases, sitting on shelves and tables, being made in one kind of studio, being painted in another. The silent witness of everyday objects will not go away.

This is a small truth, to be regarded as significant or insignificant according to how our mood or our nature takes us. We might remember it though, when making the claims that we have to make for those things made from clay, those ceramic objects, to which many of us have some kind of allegiance and on behalf of which some of us, in some way, feel obliged to speak.



(Click on the end note number to return to the appropriate place in the article)

1 The article is an expanded version of a conference paper delivered at the Intention and Interpretation in Ceramic Art conference in Bideford, North Devon, UK, on 5 July 2002.

2 See Andrew Jackson, 'Against the Autonomy of the Craft Object', in Obscure Objects of Desire: Reviewing the Crafts in the Twentieth Century, ed. Tanya Harrod, London, Crafts Council, 1997, pp.284–291, p.285.

3 Pamela Johnson, Ideas in the Making, London, Crafts Council, 1998, p.19.

4 See Edmund De Waal's article 'Speak for Yourself' in this issue of Interpreting Ceramics.

5 Hans Coper insisted that he made 'pots' but not 'pottery'. Cecile Johnson Soliz is a sculptor whose favoured material is clay and her sculptures often consist of individual pots, which make up the whole piece.

6 Bernard Leach, in Lucie Rie: A Retrospective Exhibition of Earthenware, Stoneware and Porcelain 1926–1967, (exhibition catalogue), London, Arts Council, 1967, p.5.

7 Tony Birks, Lucie Rie, Alphabooks, A&C Black, London, 1987, p.77.

8 Birks, Lucie Rie, p.78.

9 Edward Lucie-Smith, World of the Makers: Today's Master Craftsmen and Craftswomen, London, Paddington Press, 1975, p.65.

10 Edmund de Waal, in Lucie Rie and Hans Coper ­ Potters in Parallel, London, Herbert Press/Barbican Art Gallery, 1997, p.18. Lucie Rie published no writings, Hans Coper published one short catalogue essay: Collingwood/Coper: A Picture Book 1969, London, Victoria and Albert Museum, 1969. Coper burnt most of his papers and correspondence before he died and left instructions that the remainder should be destroyed after his death.

11 Tony Birks, Hans Coper, London, Collins, 1984, p.69.

12 The debates opened up by George Steiner's book Language and Silence, which centres on the destruction of language in the wake of the atrocities of the 20th century are also of relevance here.

13 In April 1966 Coper wrote to Donald Brook and discussed some teaching job offers he had received. Coper commented to Brook: 'You know my peculiar attitude to what I do. Coming to terms with absurdity privately is one thing, and I am pretty good at it by now, but being appointed to do it institution-wise is often as demoralising as I had always thought it could not fail to be'. Birks, Hans Coper, p.60.

14 Mark C. Taylor, Disfiguring: Art, Architecture, Religion, Chicago and London, University of Chicago Press, 1992, p.99.

15 Norman Bryson, Looking at the Overlooked: Four Essays on Still Life Painting, London, Reaktion Books, 1990, p.8.

16 Bryson is drawing on the work of Charles Stirling. See Bryson, Looking at the Overlooked, p.61.

17 Bryson, Looking at the Overlooked, p.87. For an image of Zurbarán's 'Still Life with Pottery Jars go to

18 Bryson, Looking at the Overlooked, p.86.

19 Bernard Leach, The Potter's Challenge, London, Souvenir Press, 1976, p.16

20 Bryson, Looking at the Overlooked, p.12.

21 Bryson, Looking at the Overlooked, p.13.

22 Susan Sontag, 'The Aesthetics of Silence', Styles of Radical Will, London, Vintage, 2001, pp.4–5.

23 Sontag, 'The Aesthetics of Silence', p.6.

24 Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, London, Routledge, 1981, p.189 (first published 1922).

25 Sontag, 'The Aesthetics of Silence', pp.6–7.

26 Sontag, 'The Aesthetics of Silence', pp.6–7.

27 There is much more in Sontag's essay that is deserving of attention but it is impossible within the limits of this article to draw out any further the implications of her arguments for ceramics as a practice. Sontag talks of 'various moves in the direction of an ever receding horizon of silence' (p.10) and it at least seems significant that thirty five years after her essay was written these 'various moves' can still be observed going on within art, not least within the genre of ceramics. We can also speculate how Sontag's arguments might be correlated with those of Norman Bryson's, particularly with regard to his understanding of rhopography. Sontag does not mention still life painting but she does say that 'the emotional fires feeding the art-discourse analogous to obsessionalism may be turned down so low one can almost forget they're there. Then all that's left to the ear is a kind of steady hum or drone. What's left to the eye is the neat filling of a space with things, or more accurately, the patient transcription of the surface detail of things' (pp.27–28). This appears to imply that the particular approach of some still life artists to the 'horizon of silence' is one that Sontag might have treated with considerably less favour than Bryson (who was writing some twenty years or so later).

28 William Rothenstein quoted in Moira Vincentelli, Women and Ceramics: Gendered Vessels, Manchester University Press, 2000, p.146.

29 Bernard Leach quoted in Vincentelli, Women and Ceramics, p.146. Vincentelli explains that Braden struggled to reconcile the different roles that she had to play in life, foremost amongst which was that of the 'dutiful daughter'.

30An obituary of Mike Hughes can be found at

31 For obituaries of Norah Braden (1901–2001) see Ceramics Monthly, vol.49, no.6, June/July/August 2001, p.24, Crafts, no.170, May/June 2001, pp.68–69, Ceramic Review, no.189, May/June 2001, pp.28–29.

32 Jaques Derrida has explored at some length the opposition between speech and writing, see in particular Of Grammatology, translated by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.

33 Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Middlesex, Penguin Books, 1987, p.27.

34 Foucault, The History of Sexuality, p.27.

35 Sontag, 'The Aesthetics of Silence', p.11.

Top of the page | Download Word document | Contents


Speak for Yourself
Edmund De Waal

Keeping Quiet and Finding a Voice: Ceramics and the Art of Silence
Jeffrey Jones

Filling the Silence: Towards an Understanding of Claudi Casanovas’ Blocks
Geraint Roberts

'Between the Dog and the Wolf'
A review of the exhibition by Christie Brown at the Kingsgate Gallery

London, 2 -12 October 2003
Babette Martini

Review by Bronwyn Williams Ellis

The Armenian Ceramics of Jerusalem: Three Generations 1919-2003
by Nurith Kenaan-Kedar

Review by Steven Goldate

The Artful Teapot
by Garth Clark


Keeping Quiet and Finding a Voice • Issue 5