Articles & Reviews
Modern English Potters
What I set out to do this evening, is to give some account of the different sources of influence which have contributed to produce the Modern School of English Pottery, as I propose to call it; & in doing so, to try to express what these potters are doing, and what kind of meaning is to be looked for in their work. (The word meaning is rather unsatisfactory because the 'meaning' of one art can never be more than hinted at in the terms of another.)
I have an impression that people in general are very interested in pottery, but there exists at the same time a good deal of mystification & misunderstanding on the subject. Do these potters claim that pottery, in their hands is a Fine Art? Are they interested in "raising the general level of design" (as the phrase goes) in the pottery industry; or are they superior to ordinary considerations of use and price, content merely to satisfy the esoteric standards of connoisseurs? Do they claim to be creating a really new style, or are they merely living on the past, filching their ideas from the Chinese, early English or Neolithic pots in our museums?
The accusation that we are mere pasticheurs, or mere archaisers, thinking of pots as "traps to catch collectors" is, I believe, entirely untrue: but the peculiar situation of the artist at the present day makes it seem plausible, owing to the fact that all the potters I am speaking of, are working independently of the industry as a whole, many of them in one-man studios. The scale of production of the modern studio potter is separated even from that of the craftsmen of the Traditional past by a considerable gulf: to say nothing of the even greater gulf between him & the mass-production of industry.
What, if anything, can be done about this by potters, seems to me to be a question of capital importance, which has a direct bearing on their work in the future; but it is a question beyond the scope of this lecture, which is concerned with the past history, rather than the future prospects, of the modern school.
But surely this is the fault of the age, not of the potters. William Morris, speaking in Burslem Town Hall on a similar subject, in 1881, said: "The aspect of this as regards people in general is to my mind much more important than that which has to do with the unlucky artist, but he also has some claim upon our consideration... If the people is sick, its leaders also have need of healing".
I shall only be giving you my own personal ideas on the subject, but as Wm. Morris said, "Every man who has a cause at heart must act (in this case, speak) as if it depended on himself alone, however well he may know his own unworthiness".
Now what is the relation of the modern school to the past? It appears to make a revolutionary break with the standards of the immediate past, because it is based on a return to an older tradition, and on a realisation of new or newly discovered, classical standards.
The main stream of European ceramics, which culminated in the various continental types of porcelain & faience, and, in England, in Josiah Wedgwood & the industrialists who succeeded him, had for its classical horizons the vases of Greco-Roman antiquity on the one hand, & the Chinese porcelain of the Ming and succeeding periods, on the other. I propose to call them, respectively, the Greek Vase Horizon & the Ming Porcelain Horizon.
The "Greek Vase Horizon" has been vastly enlarged by the labours of archaeologists. The typical Greek vases of the so-called Best Period, – that is, the 5 th Century B.C. - can be seen now in their proper perspective, and are chiefly interesting for the very wonderful line drawings for which they provide the field: but by any truly classical standard they are unsatisfactory as pots. The shapes have a mathematical harmony and precision, which does not come to life or achieve real beauty because they lack the pliability and subtlety of a living thing. They have been forced to conform to an idea, with no hint allowed of any escape from that idea towards other ideas. The treatment of the actual material, also, is hard & unsympathetic, at any rate to our eyes; and even in the best examples the pot itself is degraded to be a mere field for the drawing; and however good the drawing may be, the pot fails as a pot for that reason.
Made by the labour of slaves or of an artizan class explicitly held in contempt by Plato & Aristotle, who despised handicraft as a servile, vulgar and somehow disgraceful occupation, they are, in their own sphere, typical products of the age which saw the birth of logic and philosophy as we understand them, an age in which Greek intellectualism stifled Greek art.
Corean Porcelain Jar with dragon design
The technique here is almost pure Ming, i.e. it is painted under the glaze with cobalt oxide as Ming porcelains were: but the body is much more coarse, & contains more natural impurities; & the cobalt oxide also is much more impure, producing a much greyer or blacker blue. The chief contrast with Ming porcelain is in the far greater freedom of the throwing & boldness of the decoration.
I now propose to pass on to another influence from the Far East, which has produced a change of outlook rather than of perspective: the discovery (still quite recent) by Europeans, of the Japanes Tea Ceremony & the school of pottery which arose out of it. The Tea Ceremony began among Buddhist monks of the Zen sect - the same Dhyana sect which had earlier produced in China the well-known school of contemplative painters, – a sect the character of which is summed up in their "4 Statements":
The Tea Ceremony has been described as something half-way between a tea-party & a religious sacrament; & the style of pottery which it encouraged was in harmony with its ideal of primitive humility and an ascetic, austere kind of Epicureanism. The tea-master's word of highest praise was Shibui, a word which denotes a certain kind of astringent flavour, as of a persimmon.
Here we have a very good example of a hand-modelled tea bowl, a rather esoteric form of art, difficult for the Western Eye to appreciate at first sight. But if one knows some of the ideas behind the making of such a bowl, & looks at it long enough with a receptive mind, one begins to realise its qualities as a work of art. Observe the austerity of the plain black glaze relieved only by the pitting of its surface caused by the extremely primitive method of firing. Notice the modelling of the rim: the potter has aimed at, & in this case achieved, a subtle asymmetrical rhythm, successfully avoiding the Scylla of exaggerated asymmetry & the Charybdis of making it so circular & regular that it might be mistaken for a wheel-thrown bowl.
Unfortunately it is not possible in a few minutes on the screen, to get a really satisfactory idea of such a bowl, especially as more than any other kind of pot, it cannot be seen properly in 2 dimensions, and needs to be handled & turned over to be appreciated.
The foot-ring of a Tea Ceremony pot receives special attention, & is one of its most important features. It is true of all pots that the shape, proportions and "feeling" of the foot-ring are an integral part of the whole; and as W. Staite Murray says, if the foot-ring is right, one knows what it will be like simply from looking at the pot without having to turn it over. But those who are "skilled in tea", as they say, that is, connoisseurs of the tea ceremony, pay more than the usual attention to the foot-ring.
Another point that the Tea Masters were very conscious of, is that in many cases a great deal of a pot's beauty is owing to the accidents of the kiln. This is especially the case with the type known as red raku, where the method of firing is such that the iron oxide pigment in the clay may take many slightly different shades or combinations of red, brown or green, some more beautiful & sympathetic than others; & they value them more, or less, according as the bowl has been treated well, or badly, by the kiln. This is a point of view which the Western mind, or at least the Latin mind, finds rather difficult; but modern English potters seem to share it quite easily.
This tea bowl is a particularly good example of its kind, having great breadth and dignity when seen and handled in 3 dimensions. But good examples are rare in the West. The majority of Japanese Tea Bowls in our museums illustrate the vices of Tea Ceremony Art: Preciosity, esotericism, exaggeration, self-consciousness, an affected & insincere primitivism, subtlety at the expense of breadth – everything that we mean by the word "Arty".
In general, I think, the pots made for the tea ceremony are more often bad than good, but the best ones represent something quite new and very important to us, a very conscious & essentially civilised attitude towards the potter's art. The tea masters came nearer than any of the schools of the past, to the modern potter's ideal of Pure Pottery; to treat pottery as a fine art, it is true; to make pots in the same spirit as sculptures and painting, certainly: but to recognise the essential difference of subject-matter; that is to say, to make pots to be used, & to make them in such a way, that the using of them is an enlargement of our sensibility and an enrichment of the harmony between us and the elements.
According to this conception of Pure Pottery, to put a pot into a glass case & never use it, is as bad as to put a sculpture or a painting underground, where it can never be seen.
The Japanese Tea Master was more of an appreciator than an originator, and these imported types are generally more interesting than the pots specially made for the tea ceremony by Japanese artists.
One cannot leave this subject, of what the Modern School has learnt from the Far East, without touching on the general question of why it is that the Chinese pots mean so much to us. It seems to be more than a question of China's technical superiority over the West; or rather, the technical question is part of a much wider one.
I would suggest, that the Chinese superiority in art is connected with the unbroken continuity of their civilisation from the archaic period onwards; & that this continuity is connected with the fact that China never gave up the ideographic script, in favour of an alphabetic script; that is to say, they kept to a system of writing based on pictures, metaphors, & poetic symbols, instead of adopting an alphabet, that is, a system of writing based on abstract, purely phonetic symbols, having no directly-apprehended connection with the things they stand for.
Thus the invention of the alphabet by the Phoenicians gave the whole of western culture a bias towards intellectualism & abstraction, against which Western artists are continually in revolt. The result is that while Chinese logic appears childish compared with our own, European art appears somehow adolescent compared with that of China.
Mr. Chiang Yee in his book on Chinese Calligraphy says: "We liken the irregularity of good strokes to the undulations of mountain ranges & winding streams, & the knotted strength of twisted Tree-branches, but we never write a stroke actually to resemble a natural object. It is a kind of life inherent in mountains, streams & trees which we wish to reproduce".
This is of course the Thomist maxim Ars imitatur naturam in sua operatione: ("Art imitates Nature by working as she works".) But I think Chinese artists have been much more consistent than Europeans have been, in carrying the maxim into effect.
Western man is at last becoming conscious that it was in some ways an advantage to the Chinese never to have given up their system of writing by pictures & symbols, & to have preserved, in this way, contact with their archaic, pre-logicalpast, even though it meant that they never produced any system of logic such as we understand it. The theory & practice of modern poets & modern artists of many different schools are evidence of a contemporary movement to recover that pre-logical, more integral stage of consciousness. What is more striking still, in my opinion, is that the Neo-Thomists themselves appear to be looking somewhat in the same direction: witness these observations by a modern Thomist philosopher.
"The senses are not something physically separate, & tacked onto our minds… The anima vegetativa, sensitiva & intellectiva, are not 3 souls but one… If the senses must renounce the state of self-satisfaction of their own mode of living for the sake of apprehending the beautiful, the mind too must stand forth from itself, renouncing the pleasure of its own self-regulated activity, for that delight which is identified in the profoundest being of the object to be seen… It has been observed, that the apprehension of beauty involves necessarily mortification, a pruning of the senses; we shall go no further without a certain mortification of the mind."
Bernard Kelly, in Blackfriars
These are 3 Medieval pitchers found in or near London, one of which shows rather clearly its Near-Eastern ancestry.
Edwin Fishley was one of the last potters to carry on the original native tradition of England, as opposed to the main stream of English ceramics, which had long ago successfully achieved the techniques known as Fine Earthenware & Bone China.
These are among the last true peasant pots in the tradition of the Middle Ages, – made out of local materials & for the purposes of the country people who made them; & above all, made by potters working on a workshop scale, that is in small groups & with only the smallest amount of division of labour, each workman being responsible for what he produced, in all its stages.
But these old country pots, at once functional & humanistic, were made in & for a civilisation that is disappearing or has already disappeared. Those water-pitchers, beer bottles, cider mugs, cream pans, salting pans & store jars are all superseded or in process of being superseded, by chromium-plated taps, galvanised iron pails, tin cans, glass bottles, paper cartons, or mass-produced earthenware.
These facts, it seems to me, provide an important key to the attitude of the modern studio potter. You cannot put back the clock, as the saying is, (or at any rate, not very much); & and so the modern potter, suffering from a kind of nostalgia, arising from the continual & increasing deprivation of pottery as a functional necessity in the daily life of the mass of the people, automatically & by a natural compensation, grows more conscious of our humanistic or aesthetic needs in this respect; & pots as such begin to acquire a new significance for us.
Hence the modern potter's ideal of Pure Pottery, as I call it. The humanistic pot is no longer an economic necessity, & so we are naturally & inevitably become more & more conscious of it as an aesthetic need.
But the modern studio potter is not an apostle of Art for Art's Sake, making pots only for contemplation, & not for use at all, (though I admit he sometimes talks rather as if he was.) The true ideal of Pure Pottery is to understand & vindicate the autonomy of pottery as an art, but as an art in its own right, not to be confused with painting & sculpture; to be able to make pots in which practical use and use for contemplation are completely fused, – something much more than is meant by the facile, familiar phrase, "the combination of utility & beauty", but a true fusion, in which those two abstractions are melted into one, and become real in the process.
It is easier to realise what this means in practice, in the case of pots made to hold flowers, but it can be, & must be, equally true for all kinds of pots.
I do not quite know what purpose this pot was made for, but it is one of the best examples I know, of pure pottery. It has no assignable meaning, just as pure music has none, yet it certainly expresses something which we cannot do without.
If it was possible to say in literary terms what it expresses, it would not have been necessary to make it.
Its beauty is as satisfying as that of the Delphic charioteer or of a Tang figure; & yet I cannot help thinking that if one only looked at it, & never used it for flowers, one's power of seeing it would become somehow diminished & impaired.
It is comparable to a Tang figure or the Delphic charioteer; but it is not any of those things: as Chiang Yee would say, it has the same kind of life, an irresistible & inexhaustible springing-up, which is yet controlled & calm.
When modern studio potters emulate the Chinese pots of the great periods, it is qualities like these which they are aiming at, rather than at re-discovering their technical "secrets" (or imagined secrets.) Their aim is rather to set to work following consciously the same technical principles which the old potters followed traditionally, & to achieve in this way the same kind of technical qualities that we admire in the old pots.
Take the question of Glaze, for instance. A glaze is not to be judged only by its hardness & durability, its colour & surface, but above all by its depth, & the "Kindness" of its quality.
This explains why many modern potters adhere so firmly to ancient & traditional methods of firing - using wood, for instance, which seems to give a glaze more life & variation, although as a fuel it is rather calorious as well as risky & difficult to control.
Depth of glaze also involves the very important principle of the relationship of the glaze to the body, that is, the clay. To put it in a simple way, the principle is, that the melting point of a glaze should be as near as is practicable to the fusing-point of the clay, & should overlap the vitrification point of the clay.
But even this is not enough, unless the biscuit-firing is done at a very low temperature, or better still, cut out altogether in favour of the ancient system of Raw Glazing. This ensures that the clay contributes to the glaze, & co-operates with it to the maximum effect; & the nearer the clay is taken to its point of fusion, the more it will contribute to the depth & quality of the glaze.
Thus the temperature at which a pot should be fired is relative to the temperature that the clay will stand; & so in slipware, for example, a depth & quality of glaze can be obtained which is comparable to that of stoneware, in spite of the fact that slipware is usually fired at about 1050° centigrade, & stoneware at about 1300° C.
I do not think this is the whole story for stoneware glazes may be applied to hard biscuit & apart from the difficulty of application the body will react upon the glaze as well as a soft biscuit body would.
But if the clay is first taken to a high temperature with no glaze; & then fired a 2 nd time, with glaze, at a lower temperature, the clay is killed before the glaze is put on, & can contribute nothing to the quality of the glaze, which remains hard, shallow, glassy, unsympathetic & unkind. It is in this respect that modern commercial fine earthenware is so unsatisfying.
Hamada, considered by some to be the best living potter, certainly by far the most interesting modern Japanese potter, came to England with Bernard Leach in 1920 & worked with him in Cornwall for 3 years.
The large ginger jar in the middle was made probably about 100 years ago, or more; the painting is in the style of the 18 th century, & though it is very charming, one tends to look at it as a painting & not as a pot.
On either side of it you see what this landscape turned into, 50 or 80 years later - a few careless Dots and dashes; but these later pots are pots, in the sense that the decoration helps the shape & does not prevent one from seeing the pot as a whole. I am not saying that these jars are anything wonderful, (though they happen to be rather good ones of their kind); but they are interesting as an illustration that what is degeneracy according to an old standard opens the way for a new standard.
This is a very free interpretation of a traditional, Chinese type of design. This pot was made by Hamada at St.Ives, Cornwall, in 1923, discarded by him & subsequently rescued and fired by Bernard Leach.
The pot was dipped in a white slip, & the decoration was scratched through this covering on to the body underneath with a bamboo stick.
Notice the indentations round the foot - a characteristic feature of medieval pitchers, but used here to emphasize the affinity between the fan-tail fish & the pot itself.
Finally, to give some idea of what the work of Murray's pupils is like, here are four pots by T.S.Haile, who is perhaps the most interesting of them.
This is a potter who can successfully decorate pots with human figures, & he does it by making his human figures pot-like. There is no strain here between the pot and the decoration.
This is pottery treated very much as a Fine Art. Is there any hope that these potters will be able or willing to "return to the Cave" like Plato's philosophers, & help directly towards a much-needed revolution in the Pottery Industry as a whole?
I think some of them are willing enough, but they cannot make a revolution, until Staffordshire itself is ready for it.
November 22 1938
List of slides used (in proper order)
Notes for Staffs. Dec.1938
Suitable for purpose (e.g. pouring, for a jug) produces beauty automatically - thesis of D.I.A. etc. But no, a good pot is the product of a continual tension between 2 poles, the absolute exigencies of shape & the utilitarian exigencies of e.g. pouring – & of a successful holding of the balance between these.
One Principle of good potting is a clay sh'o be fired to its maximum (optimum) temperature i.e. to its vitrification or near it. & the glaze to go through fire with (simultaneously with) clay not separately.
These are vaid principles for all pottery not only followed by & applicable to, studio potters. Studio potters only follow them because they are valid for all pottery.
General reasons for studio potters concerning themselves with & designing for, Industrial Pottery; Studio Potter or handicraft potter is all the time creating shapes i.e. choosing this shape rather than that, exploring the dynamics of shapes on the wheel – The good designs of 18 th cent. Came from working potters. They are good & have stood test of time but " Art est saisonnierè, comme la Nature " (Maritain) & need arises for fresh designs from the same source – The "modernistic" new designs of today are either work of dilettante, novelty for its own sake, or come from the head not the hand i.e. are work of theorists, not practical potters.
|Modern English Potters Issue 6|