Interpreting Ceramics | issue 12 | 2010
Articles & Reviews
Getting it Right
‘I remember it like this’. That, if I remember it correctly, was how Eileen Lewenstein was going to start her memoirs, she told me. Whether she got further than this promising beginning I don’t know. She would have had a lot to tell – early member of the CPA, co-founder and editor of Ceramic Review, she was also asked to contribute to the book about Briglin Pottery and Brigitte Appleby, her one time partner in the early years of Briglin. With an enigmatic comment, she declined – why we’ll never know. I had been nagging Brigitte for years to writer her account of the dynamic, tempestuous Briglin Pottery. There would be sizzling stuff she hinted. At last she did get the ball rolling and called in material from far and wide. She rang me to complain that, as I’d started it all, where the hell was my contribution?
It was in the post. She rang back to say she liked what I’d written, couldn’t herself remember all of it! That was the last time I ever spoke to her. A week later she was dead, her vital recollections unrecorded.
A bland, competent book was put together by a professional writer but, oh, what it lacked as a true picture of a remarkable era. A splendid panoramic photographic of just one group of the ever-changing cast of Briglin workers was used for the endpapers. The original photograph shows a small, but voluptuous, Israeli girl hanging on Brigitte’s arm. I remember her well. She has been airbrushed out. ‘Why?’ I asked. ‘Oh, she looked silly’ was all the answer I got. Marvellous, how inconvenient people can be made to disappear now. Brigitte wouldn’t have allowed that.
I don’t keep up with events in the studio pottery world but this year I was sent a Ceramic Review with Helen Bevis’ gaudy version of the first fifty years of the CPA. I found it hard to recognise.
I joined the CPA in about 1960 when a lot of the hard work had already been done. I’d heard it was a co-operative marketing venture run by professional potters, non-profit making so it could offer a 25% commission rate, well below the 33?% of the most generous of conventional retailers. Those were the days! I liked the name too: ‘Craftsmen Potters Association’. Not Craft Potters as Helen Bevis wrote. There seems to be some inhibition about using the original name, like New Labour’s problem with the word, ‘Socialism’.
Boldly claiming to be ‘craftsmen’ meant to me that these were practical, skilled people out to make and sell quality goods to a discerning market. Then, as now, all I’ve ever wanted to do was to sit in my workshop (preferably somewhere nice) with my stuff all around me, trying to work to nobody’s timetable but my own. Free to wander out into the garden at will, making a living solely from my work. I’m still getting away with it.
I went up to look at the CPA shop in Lowndes Court, off the newly trendy Carnaby Street. I was told that to join I had to have my own workshop and kiln. That was all right so I took some work to show them and Mick Casson looked them over, and said he liked them.
Rosemary Wren gives her lucid account of the aspirations of the CPA in Studio Ceramics Today, 1983, published by the CPA.
One wonders whether Helen Bevis had ever read this clear statement of intent. It wasn’t just cliques that were in disfavour. Dilettantes and teachers making a few exhibition pieces in artificially favourable circumstances were also not wanted. She chooses to build her castles in the air on a possibly throw away quip by Mick Casson ‘If you were using clay, you were in’. Since Helen Bevis’s, perhaps tongue in cheek, speculations in Ceramic Review, Jeffrey Jones’ book Studio Pottery in Britain 1900-2005 has appeared. I’ve just got a copy. I presume this sets out to be a sober, accurate account of events, free of froth. Yet he too quotes Mick Casson as saying of the CPA, ‘at first anyone could join…’ Curiously Mick Casson is then quoted as saying of the CPA founders ‘most of whom were either mildly or more left wing than that’ as the reason for their qualms about the value of selection procedures. The implication seems to me is that the founders were a bunch of unworldly loony lefties – (need I say more?).
It seemed to me that a great deal of thought by intelligent, wary people had gone into the principles and organisation of the early CPA, left wing or not, I didn’t notice. The original shop basement was divided up so each member had an exactly equal shelf space, about two square feet I think. Members had the right to display whatever they chose in that space. I liked that because one could try out things that the conventional retailer might, justifiably, hesitate to put his money into. Special pieces could be shown in the ground floor shop at Pan Henry’s discretion (Mick Casson’s sister, the shop manageress).
With limited shelf space no one member’s work could dominate the overall display, for good or ill. Jeffrey Jones says ‘it soon became apparent that the “system was unworkable” ’ but does not make it clear what he means by that. Helen Bevis though quotes Mick Casson as saying ‘the standards weren’t high enough’ and that selection ‘had to be introduced’. One seems intended to get the impression of high minded muddle and incompetence and shoddy exhibits. Helen Bevis states that the shop had to be closed for a day while the mess was sorted out.
Neither author gives a truthful picture of events. What had become apparent was that goodwill, good faith and the favourable commission rate was not ensuring adequate supplies of good work. I’ve never minded supplying work on a sale or return basis as long as I trust the retailer, there are arguments in its favour. I’m not in a majority though. Some potters whose work was in high demand were giving paying customers priority over the CPA. The CPA often got the leftovers. Prima donnas are thicker on the ground among potters than I had imagined too and there were those who shied away from the rough and tumble of the crowded shelving in the basement. But sales were still very good indeed.
It was with the impending move to the Marshall Street premises that David Canter expressed concern about the general standard of work and wanted only the cream to be transferred to the new show space. He suggested, a little coarsely, a CPA ‘enema’. He proposed Mick Casson, Pan Henry and myself as wielders of the catheter. I had by this time been elected to the Council. To my surprise no one objected to David’s suggestion which seemed totally undemocratic. Possibly no one else wanted the job but it was my first insight into David Canter’s capacity to ride rough shod over niceties. The shop was not shut for the day, we started at closing time and worked until about three in the morning, going through every single member’s shelf display, picking only a selection of the best, sometimes only on finicky technical grounds.
This was not the only purging David had in mind. He urged the Council, at each meeting, to pick out for criticism any work found lacking. I only remember David as taking the initiative. It seemed he had a personal ‘hit list’. First up was Stanislas Reychan who presumably had been notified on the quiet of being in disfavour and he turned up at the next Council meeting to defend his work. Uncomfortably, we all stood around waffling that maybe he should leave out the more lightweight pieces. ‘These are all my children’, said Stanislas defiantly. David tired of the faffing about responded: ‘Your work is fit only for the fairground!’. I was amazed. Nobody else said anything. Stanislas looked slowly around at us all in silent contempt and left. Helen Bevis refers admiringly to David’s imperious ways, ‘directing the co-operative as he felt right’. He was right she adds emphatically. I’ve always wished I had walked out there and then, the ugly episode sticks in my mind so. Many years later Rosemary Wren showed me the draft of her book, Animal Forms and Figures. One chapter is by Stanislas Reychan. To my horror Stanislas recounts in icy detail that shameful day, it had stuck in his mind too.
David did not get his way the next time though. He picked out a small cylinder pot by Denise Wren. ‘Look at this glaze’ he said, ‘it looks like Dulux gloss paint’. It did a bit, an alkaline low temperature pale blue (Rosemary years later gave it to me as a souvenir). The Council mutinied, not as an agreed response, but I suspect we were all feeling that David was just getting too big for his boots. After all what were his credentials as a judge? All right, he was an astute businessman, he prided himself on his good taste but he was the CPA’s Honorary Secretary, not a highly respected potter! Somewhat ludicrously we all stood up for Denise Wren’s humble little pot, we wouldn’t let David have his way. He was furious. By the very next post we all got an extraordinary letter (I think I have it still) accusing us of undermining all he was trying to do. David was trying hard to straighten out the world with wholefood and Ray Finch stoneware in his Cranks Restaurant. Now it seemed the CPA in his view was another instrument of his righteous zeal. There was no doubt that the CPA wasn’t going to be the non-partisan marketing co-operative that I, and the founders, had in mind. Personal axes were being ground all round. It was in a way very entertaining. Annual General Meetings were crowded, boisterous affairs as various factions had a say. ‘Let those buggers in and they’ll end up running the show’, I fondly remember, a burly bearded potter bawling out when the acceptance of abstract sculptural pottery was debated.
It was a lively time. David’s coup in negotiating a highly profitable sale of the Lowndes Court lease because of the Carnaby Street boom and his proposal of the renting of prestigious space next to his Cranks Restaurant in Marshall Street had everyone spellbound, but a little uneasy.
A Publicity Committee was set up to handle the launch of the new shop: Mick Casson, Pan Henry, Brigitte Appleby and myself. We had some convivial meetings and we even got quite a lot done. We tried to tackle the problem of quality control by proclaiming boldly (if contentiously) in all the publicity material that the new shop would be showing the widest range of the best work of the best potters in the country. We hoped the membership would feel obligated to make this a credible reality.
The Council was summoned to a special meeting to ‘discuss’ the layout of the new shop. When we all turned up, David was there ready and he unrolled sheet after sheet of highly detailed diagrams. We peered at them. What was there to discuss though? David’s technical resources in the Cranks Works department had done a professional job. David must have had a wonderful time, expressing all his personal enthusiasms for design and tasteful materials. He must have expended immense time, and probably quite a lot of his money on it all. It was quite a labour of love. No one of us on the Council could possibly have matched his devotion or even expertise. It seemed ungracious to make any complaint. But Murray Fieldhouse came up with the flaw. ‘I think we could all go home and leave David to it’, he said. I stopped going to AGMs but turned up out of curiosity to one, maybe in the late 1970s, early 80s. I was the only member there, apart from the Council. Everybody else seemed to have taken up Murray Fieldhouse’s suggestion!
I’ll leave my reminiscing at that, it’s all water long under the bridge. Does it all matter anyway if people are drawing dubious conclusions from past events? I suppose I just think, well, why shouldn’t they try harder to get it right? Helen Bevis was making recommendations based on her conclusions, suggesting that perhaps the CPA needs another ‘dictator’, like David Canter. I think he was more of a hi-jacker. Being on the CPA Council was my first – and last – experience of being on a committee. I’m not cut out for it, the politics, the manoeuvres. I get too involved, get obsessive. It was the traffic though that really finished me. Caught in a seemingly insoluble gridlock in the warren of streets round the CPA while trying to make a delivery I shouted: ‘This is sheer bloody lunacy’. I’ve never been back since except for the special, lack lustre, meeting to decide the name change of the CPA, when the last vestige of the Craftsmen Potters Association faded away.
Although I have quibbles about Jeffrey Jones’ book I liked it very much. I was glad to learn more about the Central School potters who had been my influences. I liked the respect he gives to people like Hans Coper and Lucie Rie (the little Viennese button maker to Bernard Leach) who got on serenely with their potting, indifferent to all the introspection and theorising. Potters do seem to be getting even more wordy. I liked the inclusion of the melodiously named Harry Juniper, also content to get on with his less conspicuous work, free of the silly compulsion to ‘push out the envelope’.
I would have liked something about the grittier side of pottery making that has figured highly in my experience of more than half the period he covers. He gives a moving account of the relationship between the beefy Sir Edmund Elton and his puny assistant George Masters who died within a short time of one another. He doesn’t mention that Sir Edmund died of lead poisoning and so, I wouldn’t mind guessing, did poor little George. Isn’t that a bit relevant to the studio pottery story? Health and Safety was always a concern to me when I employed assistants, I was almost relieved when I ended up working on my own and only my own health was at risk. I use barium carbonate a lot. I got worried about my profligate use of fossil fuels back in the 1970s, built a wood-burning kiln, got my wood from the litter after local tree felling by the Forestry Commission. The towering column of flame and black smoke from my elegant kiln, rising so high into the clear Dorset air big as that from a Mississippi paddle steamer, was a fine sight but it clearly wasn’t improving air quality and I went back to propane. I would have liked Jeffrey Jones to have got a bit more in about the social responsibility of potters.I suspect that, in the century we’ve started on, potters may well be banned for the energy guzzlers and polluters they undoubtedly are, always have been. Perhaps pottery demonstrations will still be allowed at intervals, under license, at special venues as a spectator sport like falconry and jousting.
© The copyright of all the images in this article rests with the author unless otherwise stated
Book Review by Alan Wallwork Issue 12