Interpreting Ceramics | issue 11 | 2009

Articles & Reviews

(*)(*) (*) (*)  

Book Review by Graham McLaren
Studio Pottery in Britain 1900-2005

by Jeffrey Jones

256 pages

A & C Black Publishers Ltd, London, 2007.

Contents | Home

Ceramics in the West Midlands in the Late 18th Century: Production and Consumption through the Eyes of Katherine Plymley

by Jo Dahn

National Identity and the Problem of Style in the Post-War British Ceramic Industry

by Graham McLaren

Pushing the Boundaries of Ceramic Art Tradition in Nigeria: Notes on the ‘Suyascape’ Project

by Ozioma Onuzulike

Ceramics Without the Ceramics: Material Exploration in New Territories

by Jane Webb

Studio Pottery in Britain 1900-2000, book review

by Graham McLaren

Confrontational Ceramics: Artist as Social Critic book review by Garth
Clark, followed by a response by the author Judith S. Schwartz and
comments from our readers

Zelli Porcelain Award 2009, Competition review

by Peter Holmes

NB. A Word document is available to download at the end of each article.

book coverTrying to capture and encapsulate the history of British studio pottery has been a task that many have set themselves over the years. Most have brought something (sometimes lots of things) new to the table but none have succeeded in my opinion in entirely reconciling the stolidly individualistic, sometimes isolationist nature of studio pottery within the larger context of art and design and the bigger picture of social, political and cultural activity.

Jeffrey Jones enters the fray with a courageous and innovative book that reveals new vistas of this landscape to us and gently, subtly but persuasively argues for alternative approaches to researching the area.

A significant element of Studio Pottery is based on Jones’ PhD dissertation, ‘Studio Pottery in the Age of Modernism – 1920-1955’. This helps to explain the heavy emphasis on the significance of the mid twentieth century evolution of studio pottery that is evident throughout the book. The first three chapters, ‘Potters of Independent Means’, ‘The Pioneer Potter 1920-1940’, and ‘Bernard Leach and the Leach Pottery’ seem at first to follow a narrative that will be familiar to those who have read earlier attempts to encompass the history of studio pottery in Britain. However, just as we are becoming lulled into the sense that this is another cosy, standard reiteration of a well-known story, seeds sown by Jones start to undermine our preconceptions.  The significance of class is one example that surfaces again and again. The case of Sir Edward Elton and his assistant George Masters at the Elton Pottery is an early illustration, Jones conjuring an image comically reminiscent of Ted and Ralph from The Fast Show:

The class differences between the two men are obvious, even in the photographs which have survived; the tall figure of Sir Edmund has a well-groomed look, in spite of his working clothes, whereas the physically stunted figure of George Masters displays all the evidence of a much less privileged inheritance.1

Similar issues (although in very different contexts) emerge in the later relationship between Michael Cardew and Sidney Tustin where ‘…Tustin felt obliged to know his place’2 and defer to Cardew in the making of ‘big pots’; and in the case of Reginald Wells, where the reader is asked ‘…to what extent was Wells truly independent and self-reliant as a potter? … It is probable that there were numerous pottery workers … operating under his proprietorship’.3

The underlying theme here, that to understand the contribution of the pioneers one has to understand the role (and significance) of the usually unsung characters supporting them, reaches an apogee in Jones’ analysis of Bernard Leach and the Leach Pottery. In this case he reveals with a flourish worthy of a matador that William Marshall:

threw many of the iconic pots that bore the BL seal, albeit under Leach’s direction and with Leach often adding the finishing touches … it is likely that his anonymous handiwork made a major contribution to the most photographed, studied and creatively assured examples of all studio pottery.4

The reality that Jones opens up to the reader is that many of the best-known pioneers of the movement were well-off refugees from the industrial capitalism that was one of the root causes of the First World War. They were dependent on skilled workers who rarely shared their limelight and their place in history was assured through the good offices of critics who often shared their privileged background. Whilst the light that Jones sheds on this situation is not entirely new (it has always sat uneasily in the peripheral vision of anyone studying the first fifty years of the studio pottery movement) no-one has shown how widespread a feature it was, or articulated its significance with such aplomb.

This is just one example of the territory where Studio Pottery excels, that of inviting the viewer to look at aspects of the movement that they thought they understood anew.

In reaction to the revelation of William Marshall’s significance for our understanding of Bernard Leach and his legacy, Jones asks a key question, before providing his own answer: ‘How much does this matter? It matters to the extent that authorship matters’.5

This is important, because authorship certainly matters in this book. Particularly in its opening chapters this is the story of great men and women and how they earned their place in the pantheon. Perhaps because of the study of the evolution of studio pottery with modernity underpinning it, the book uses a methodology and structure that is strongly reminiscent of the Pevsnerian approach to the development of modernism in Britain. Jones is never afraid to reveal uncomfortable realities, but authors and their creations play the dominant role in this history. The introduction plays an important role in setting the tone for the approach taken elsewhere and facing for the first time some of the conundrums that Jones (and by implication the reader as well) has to overcome on the journey to understanding this complex history. One of the greatest of the great men in this story, William Staite Murray, is allowed pretty much the first say in the book and he is referred to throughout, by contrast with Bernard Leach who is kept pretty much boxed within certain chapters.6. Jones sees Murray’s career as a key highpoint in mid-century studio pottery, for example in his ‘reinvention’ of stoneware as a material for the studio potter: ‘In this respect Murray had no peers and none of his successors would surpass him.’7

Murray’s career raises the question of how the still, silent objects in clay that are the products of studio potters are to be ‘read’8. For Jones this is key. He challenges the notion that we should be satisfied to accept the pot in its stillness and in its lack of context, for ‘… we all need sufficient clues to set us on our way to understanding’. He therefore finds himself needing to modify the notion that ‘…the pot is everything’:

‘So much of what is rich and meaningful about pottery depends on what the individual pot is perceived to stand for, and what it stands for has to be communicated and learnt through some means external to the work itself. Studio pottery relies on the spectator to be in the know, but how is ‘the know’ to be achieved?’9

Achieving ‘the know’ is the raison d’etre of this book. It is the justification for both its core methods and its relevance to its core market which is, we learn, those ‘outside’ studio pottery culture who wish to be ‘… in the know’. Studio Pottery therefore stands as an alternative to the more common route to developing ‘… an informed interest’ and being ‘in the know’, that of ‘… being part of a studio pottery culture.’10

Such an emphasis explains in large measure the resolute approach taken by the book to its sources, and particularly the significance attached to oral11 and written testimony by studio potters.  The ‘outside’ is only allowed to intrude in methodological terms where strong supporting testimony is provided (in the form of exhibition reviews, for example) or where the written word is believed to have had a powerful shaping influence upon direction of the movement. In this context Jones devotes sections of the book to close analysis of key texts. ‘The making of the studio pottery canon’ is an example of one such, and in this Jones devotes some pages to an interesting and important review of the role of key authors in the immediate post Second World War period, including Arthur Lane, George Wingfield Digby and of course Muriel Rose’s seminal Artist Potters in England. Such close analysis is in my view amply justified as (for example) Rose’s work had an impact on public perception and government policy that went far beyond the (actually rather bland and selective) pages of Artist Potters. These historical asides highlight though the fact that this is not a book that always progresses evenly in terms of tone and rhythm. The dutiful close analysis of source texts expected of a doctoral thesis do not always translate easily to texts whose titles imply a ‘grand narrative’ rather than detail on aspects of it.

The sections of the book devoted to the mid twentieth century development of studio pottery feel very assured and Jones should be congratulated for setting new standards in its interpretation. By contrast the treatment of the last decades of the twentieth century is less confident. This is the time when, in line with other areas of the Arts, the certainties of the modernist project give way to something more precarious, more edgy and defying easy categorisation. The chapter charged with this task, ‘Studio Pottery in Britain after 1955: From Pots to Vessels’ is perhaps the least well defined of the book. Jones struggles to cohere the stolid individualism of ceramicists expected by a newly interested art market to make their mark by being different to all that went before, into some form of narrative structure. In places one feels that one is reading through a dutiful list of those from the period deserving to be included in the pantheon. There is a palpable sense of relief, one feels, as Jones returns in the final two chapters, ‘Nature and the Studio Potter’ and ‘Art and Utility’ to themes that provide this coherence and allow him to draw together strings from across the period he reviews.

Jones can take comfort in the fact that an entirely successful encompassing of British studio activity post 1960 has yet to be achieved, but the struggle does highlight the ultimate limitations of approaches that focus heavily on the maker, the meanings that they invest in the ceramic object at the time of making or in hindsight, and contemporary critical reactions to their work. One of the things that intrigues me most about the material is its very longevity. Its artefacts have the capacity to hold multiple, even myriad meanings beyond that of the creator as they are consumed and re-consumed down the years. I would have liked more on this, to have been told for instance rather more about the people who bought studio pottery, about how much the pottery cost them, what they did with it once they got it home, and how they felt about it. In another context, one form of consumption of studio ceramics is the joy engendered by the process of making. A defining feature of post-war ceramics is the explosion in amateur activity. Jones makes significant reference to the work and significance of Dora Lunn during the inter-war years. Perhaps her most powerful legacy though was as a support, through multiple editions of her manual Pottery in the Making to untold thousands of amateur devotees, who would never be part of the studio pottery pantheon, but who toiled to make Christmas and birthday presents in the pottery evening classes that sprang up around the country after the war, fuelled (dare I say fired?) by the availability of inexpensive nichrome electric kilns capable of being operated on a domestic 15 Amp circuit.

Of course Studio Pottery can never be all things to all people, or utilise all of the approaches that might, instead, be open to later attempts at this history. It is a mark of the book’s significance as a contribution to our understanding though that it leads to fundamental questions about how the history of studio ceramics in Britain should be interpreted. The combination of its lucid, thought provoking argument; sensible, appropriate illustrations and excellent bibliography ensures that this is a book that works on a number of levels and certainly earns its place as a core text for the subject. This is a book that is as important for ‘insiders’ to the studio pottery movement to read as it is for ‘outsiders’ to learn from.


  1. p.20. back to text
  2. p.25. back to text
  3. p.36. back to text
  4. p.92. back to text
  5. Pp.92-93. back to text
  6. Murray’s presence lingers through many of the book’s chapters to a greater extent even than Bernard Leach, who is in the main kept safely corralled within defined chapter headings. back to text
  7. p.60. back to text
  8. ‘Pottery is perhaps more readily enjoyed as a pure aesthetic expression than either Sculpture or Painting … a finely proportioned pot is accepted as beautiful without the disturbing question of the meaning of its form’, p.8. back to text
  9. Ibid. back to text
  10. Ibid. back to text
  11. Ibid. back to text

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