Things of Beauty Growing: British Studio Pottery

Rose Bowl Things of Beauty Growing
Rose Bowl Things of Beauty Growing
Michael Cardew’s rose bowl.

Things of Beauty Growing: British Studio Pottery is both an exhibit and a book that if you are in any way involved with clay, you must not miss. The exhibit is currently at the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, CT where it remains through December 3. It moves to the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, UK where it can be seen March 20 through June 18, 2018. Really, you must go see this.

The book, a hefty tome, edited by Glenn Adamson, Martina Droth and Simon Olding contains thoughtful and provocative essays, splendid photos of the works on exhibit, a timeline, and, of particular delight, photos of potters by Ben Boswell. No, you cannot curl up with Things of Beauty Growing. It is too heavy and too large. Find yourself a comfortable chair where you can open it across both your thighs, or read it at a table. And you probably shouldn’t eat or drink while you are reading because if you spill on one of the pages, you will cry.

Glenn Adamson tells us that the title Things of Beauty Growing is taken from a Michael Cardew quote: “If you are lucky, and if you live long enough, and if you trust your materials and you trust your instincts, you will see things of beauty growing up in front of you, without you having anything to do with it.” He explains that the curators wanted to show “the sense that pottery has a life of its own.” He goes on to say that the “exhibition takes typologies of the vessel as its organizing structure. It shows that archetypal ceramic forms mark out their own internal chronology, as well as stages in trajectory thinking.” The focus is on the twentieth-century.

The first half of the book includes essays on such topics as exhibits, the factory, pottery in popular culture (love the record album covers!), origins, and what Edward S Cooke, Jr. calls “The Ideology of the Wheel.” This is followed by the catalog itself which is divided into thematic sections: Moon Jar, Vase, Bowl, Charger, Set, Vessel, Pot, and Monument. This is also how the exhibit itself is arranged.

Things of Beauty Growing Bernard Leach
Tree of Life charger by Bernard Leach

Neither the exhibit nor the book is a survey of British studio ceramics or a history, or even a “best of.” Potters you love and admire, potters I love and admire, are missing. Nevertheless, collectors and potters will recognize all the names, and will be familiar with most if not all of the works, if only from years of looking at photos in books and magazines. I was glad that I had read the book before attending the exhibit. Still, I was not prepared to see “in person” pots I had seen as images all my potting life. Even after looking at them portrayed in highly professional photographs in the book, I was stunned.

We begin with the story of the 18th century Korean moon jar that Bernard Leach shipped home to England in 1935 and which eventually became Lucie’ Rie’s and now resides in the British Museum in London. There are two photos of this legendary jar in the book: the jar itself, and a photograph of Lucie Rie seated next to it in her London studio. The exhibit opens with Adam Buick’s interpretation of the moon jar followed by the moon jars of Akiko Hirai and Gareth Mason. From the moon jars we move onto Vase. We see not only Bernard Leach’s interpretations, but also a few of the Song Dynasty vases that inspired him.

These were under glass, but the two-handled jar made by Edwin Beer Fishley in Devon about 1900 was out in the open on a pedestal. I had all I could do to keep from running my hands up the walls to feel Fishley’s throwing. Of course, I knew better, and the guard, probably reading my body language as I peered inside the pot, kept her eyes on me. This pot is beautifully photographed in the book but no photograph can completely convey the power of the volume of this pot, the strength and rigor of the throwing lines, and the incredible dark green glaze breaking to deep purple.

Lucie Rie in Things of Beauty Growing
Breakfast set by Lucie Rie

I will not list all the names – Shoji Hamada, Michael Cardew, Alison Britton, William Staite Murray, Hans Coper, Lady Kwali, Magdalene Odundo – and on and on, that you encounter walking through the exhibit or turning the pages of the book, as that is not the point, though it was dazzling to see their works all together. No the point is to see the sets made by Lucie Rie and Ruth Duckworth and the chargers made by Bernard Leach and Michael Cardew and Ralph Toft and the bowls, and vessels and pots. Topology!

My bias is towards traditional, functional wares but that is not the bias of the book or the exhibit. We see Julian Stair’s monumental jars that can hold a person’s body, and Grayson Perry’s decaled and gilded urns. We see Edmund de Waal’s a place made fast (dare I say it? – I love his books but was disappointed in his installation but glad to see it for myself after seeing photos of it). The exhibit and book close with Halima Cassell’s installation of vessels made from clay she has collected from around the world.

Clare Twomey Things of Beauty Growing
Made in China by Clare Twomey

And then there is Clare Twomey’s Made in China installation, which includes 80 vases, 79 made in Jingdezhen, China and one in Stoke-on-Trent in Staffordshire, England. The 79 are decorated with decals and identical. The one from England is hand-decorated with eighteen-karat-gold. Of course, you must find the one, not an easy task when they are all the same size and shape and red and gold. Happily, I did find it, and immediately realized that one of the amusements for the guards is watching people search for the 80th jar. The guard knew as soon as I had found it, and came over and chatted, a light-hearted way to end a museum tour, though I realize Twomey’s installation is political and not light-hearted.

Exhibits are ephemeral but books last. With Things of Beauty Growing, the book/catalog brings depth, discussion, and insight. The essayists do not all share a point of view; they have different opinions and outlooks, which is enriching. This is a book you might talk back to. Even if you can’t get to the exhibit, though I strongly urge you to see it if at all possible, the book is an excellent addition to a potter’s library and education, a book to return to again and again.

Lovely New Editions of Two Leach Books

Unicorn Press has reissued the classic A Potter’s Book by Bernard Leach and his lesser-known travelogue, A Potter in Japan. Both have been newly typeset, printed on heavy, coated paper and bound in linen and paper over board, with satin ribbon bookmarks and gold stamping. Even if you already own copies, and think you have read each enough times, these editions are objects of beauty in their own right. They are worth having for the visual and tactile pleasures they offer, much like a good pot. They have a heft to them yet are a nice size for holding.

All the original drawings have been kept in A Potter’s Book. The publisher has found many color versions of the photos from the first edition. Where this was not possible, color photos of Leach’s pots have been used. In addition, other pertinent photos have been added “for clarity.” But don’t think this is a glossy coffee table version. This is a serious republication, done with respect.

A Potter in Japan has not been given color photos, but it is still a handsome book. Written during Leach’s sojourn in Japan 1953 -1954, it is a travel memoir filled with descriptions and impressions and most of all, opinions. During his stay, he makes many pots and pictures, holds exhibitions, gives talks, and, in addition to writing this book, works on another, all of which he discusses. The book has a feel of immediacy. Describing Hamada’s workshop after earthquake jolts and rain, he writes, “Yesterday about 1,000 pots were carried in and out, three times for sun and shower. Today the pots stayed out until 4 p.m., then the whole lot, 2,000, were carried on boards down the muddy slippery path to the smaller kiln beyond the lower house, 250 yards away, and massed around the long shed on the ground. After tea, the biscuit-firing kiln-packing was started and was nearly complete by supper time. Finished afterwards by candlelight and the fire started, I have never seen anything like it. Everybody, except Richard and I, knew their jobs and had a deft control of their bodies.”

I congratulate Unicorn Press. I wonder if they might consider giving Michael Cardew’s books the same lavish treatment?

David Frith and Margaret Frith Potters

It doesn’t get more pottery-romantic than David Frith, Margaret Frith: 50 Years of Brookhouse Pottery by Jane Wilkinson. Published in 2013 by the Ruthin Craft Centre in the UK but new to me, the book is a delight. I spent an hour happily turning the pages and poring over the photos, fantasizing, before actually reading a word.

The pots are luscious: David’s stoneware, Margaret’s porcelain, meticulously thrown and glazed, pick-me-up tactile, all evoking pot envy, or at least covetousness. David’s platters are large enough to hang on an exterior wall. Margaret’s teapot invites a brew of Earl Grey. We see jugs, bottles, large jars and a wonderful array of tea bowls expertly made and photographed.

And then there is the pottery itself. Who has not dreamed of restoring a quaint old stone mill by a riverside and making it one’s workplace? Brookhouse is what you imagine when you think of a country pottery. Margaret has planted abundant gardens. There are spacious outbuildings on both sides of the river, and an airy kiln shed that is beautiful. Paths. Bridges. Potted plants. Flowerbeds. Decks. Large windows. Did I say the kiln shed is beautiful?

But a place such as Brookhouse, and such great pots, do not just happen. They take imagination and years of hard work and dedication. David and Margaret Frith began working together more than fifty years ago, starting with a line of slipware. In 1975 they bought a semi-derelict 18th century woolen mill turned brewery called the Malt House and began arduous renovations, converting the property into a home and workshop. They renamed their picturesque North Wales haven Brookhouse Pottery. Here they have raised a family, made pots, entertained guests such as David Leach, Michael Cardew, and Mick Casson, hosted exhibitions and taught workshops. Their work continues today. The book is a nice look at the Friths lives and work together.

The Last Sane Man

These past weeks of silence on the blog, I have been immersed in Tanya Harrod’s monumental biography, The Last Sane Man: Michael Cardew, Modern Pots, Colonialism and the Counterculture. It is not a book to be read quickly or lightly. Harrod, an art historian and the author of The Crafts in Britain in the Twentieth Century, spent a decade researching and writing it. Cardew was a lifelong diarist, a prolific letter writer and the author of two books, Pioneer Pottery his elegantly written and highly technical opus, and Pioneer Potter, his autobiography, plus essays and lectures. He was written about, filmed and covered in the press. Many of the potters whom he influenced are still living and working. Harrod had an abundance of sources to consult and indeed her acknowledgements read like a who’s who of twentieth century ceramics.

Michael Cardew was by all accounts charismatic. He was photogenic even in old age. And he made beautiful pots, perhaps some of the most beautiful pots the world has seen, that, even more important than their beauty, connect emotionally with the beholder. He has mythic status amongst potters.

The outlines of his life are widely known. Born into a musical family (he played the recorder throughout his life), the middle of five tow-headed brothers, he received a classical education. Arthur, his father, collected pots made by Edwin Beer Fishley and would take the whole family on summer expeditions to Fremington to purchase his pots. However, the senior Cardew was not pleased when his son chose to become a maker of pots himself. The young Cardew sought out William Fishley Holland, Edwin Beer’s grandson now at Braunton, to teach him to throw. While there, he learned of Bernard Leach’s pottery at St. Ives and asked to come work with him. They formed a life-long friendship and appreciation for one another.

After leaving St. Ives, Cardew purchased an abandoned pottery and opened Winchcombe, where he produced exquisite earthenware, though not without many tribulations. Here, Elijah Comfort came to throw for him, and Ray Finch came and eventually took over for him. He then purchased an old inn and built Wenford Bridge, but left for the first of two lengthy stays in West Africa, in the Gold Coast (now Ghana) and later in Nigeria. There, he turned to stoneware, and of necessity, became deeply knowledgeable about geology, glaze chemistry, clay and all the technical aspects of ceramics. He returned to Wenford Bridge periodically throughout his stay in Nigeria, and, upon leaving Africa for good, remained at Wenford Bridge. By then, he was a legend, much sought and admired. He took in his first students since his return to England, Svend Bayer and then Todd Piker, and made several lecture tours in the US.

“Michael Cardew’s life and work,” Harrod writes, “represented a creative response to an increasingly mechanized society and took the form of a desire for authentic, lived experience.” She focuses as much on Cardew’s personal life as on his art, writing extensively about his boyhood tryst with a fellow Exeter student, David Owen, and heartbreak at being abandoned; his unusual marriage (that lasted until his own death) to Mariel Russell with whom he had three sons; his role as an often absent father; and his overwhelming love for Clement Kofi Athey. At times, Harrod seems determined not to let us put or keep Cardew on a pedestal, and points out how difficult it must have been for Mariel to be married to him, though she quotes frequently from Cardew’s many letters to her. She questions some of his actions in the Gold Coast and Nigeria and his complex relationship with imperialism. She tells us that he burst into rages and shed tears easily. He liked to share red wine with friends, often quoted Blake, and was moved by Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

Cardew made pots up until his death by stroke at the age of eighty-two. After the slipware of his early years, he produced tall stoneware cider jars, African inspired stools, casseroles, bottles and jars with working screw tops, great platters and rose bowls, all with his unmistakable seemingly simple designs. He lived aesthetically but always surrounded by beauty, part of his attraction to generations of admirers. Who has not been moved by the now famous photos of his long, wooden eating room table at Wenford Bridge, his pots on the windowsill, the whitewashed walls?

An informed society should have a richly detailed, carefully researched biography of an artist of Cardew’s stature and now we have it. Bravo. But Harrod admits that it is a book he did not want written. The title comes from a 1978 review the novelist Angela Carter wrote of Garth Clark’s monograph on Cardew in which she called him, “The Last Sane Man in a crazy world.” Harrod points out that there are many who would agree with Carter, “in particular the students who worked with Cardew at Wenford Bridge in Cornwall after his return from West Africa in 1965.” She continues, “I interviewed many of them and when they recalled the 1970s and early 1980s spent in Cardew’s company, learning about quality in pottery and in everyday life – thinking back to that period of no compromise, of life lived at its purest – all were visibly moved, several of them to tears.”

There are ample black and white photos throughout the text and a section of color plates. The notes are thorough but I would also have liked a bibliography, though the absence of one was likely not the author’s choice. The index is superb.

We must thank Harrod for her good work. I highly recommend taking the time to read her book. And you know what – I never had the opportunity to meet him except on paper and seeing his pots, but Michael Cardew is still on a pedestal for me.

Ethel Sets the Table

Edwin Beer Fishley bowl

The third and last of the books I ordered from Cotswolds Living in the UK is Michael Cardew, Ethel Mairet and the New Handworkers Gallery: The Hill Collection, again by John Edgeler. In this monograph, Edgeler looks at the collection of pots, originally amassed by Ethel Mairet but passed into the hands of her heirs the Hill family, residents of New Zealand.

Mairet was a weaver. She married Ananda Coomaraswamy, an art historian and philosopher but the union was short lived. She then married Philip Mairet, a draughtsman, and together the couple built a comfortable Arts and Crafts style house called Gospels. She was an excellent weaver, studied the weaving of many other cultures, and wrote articles and books.

What makes her interesting to us is she was deeply appreciative of not only her own craft, weaving and spinning, but in everything handmade. She had an eye for excellence. She set up a gallery in her home and sought out talented craftspeople. She was particularly interested in pottery, and ended up deeply influencing three of the most influential potters of the twentieth century; Bernard Leach, Shoji Hamada and Michael Cardew. She did this by serving dinner.

The country potter Edwin Beer Fishley, whose shop was nearby, was one of Mairet’s friends. She collected and used his pottery and, when she later became friends with Leach and Hamada and Cardew she introduced them to his work. She invited Hamada and Leach to dinner at her house. She set her large oak table with pitchers of various sizes, oval dishes, and green plates, all made by her friend, the slipware potter E.B.Fishley. It was a table setting the men never forgot and which Hamada still exclaimed over years later. When Hamada was about to return to Japan, she gave him a woolen suit she’d sewn from cloth she’d woven, seen in many subsequent photos of him. And he brought English slipware to Japan so he could continue look at it.

Leach declared Fishely the “last peasant potter” and praised him in his books. Cardew wanted to make pots that were as strong, and asked Fishley’s grandson, William Fishely Holland to teach him to throw.

The book is actually a catalog. Many of the photos are of early Cardew pots, which dominate the collection. The Cotswolds Living books are small, nicely produced affairs with good quality photos. Reading the book, I liked being reminded what an impact a table set with beautiful handmade dishes can have on the dinner guests.

The Slipware of Michael Cardew

I have continued with the three books I ordered from the UK by the collector, writer, dealer and publisher John Edgeler. After reading about the Fishleys, I turned to Michael Cardew, Edgeler’s passion, and read Michael Cardew and the West Country Slipware Tradition. Much has been written about Cardew, including his own books, but Edgeler is still worth a look, especially because his focus is on the country slipware potters that influenced Cardew and Cardew’s interpretations of their work.

“In his slipware pots at Winchcombe, arguably his best work,” Edgeler writes,  “Cardew has instinctively put truth to materials as his first priority in throwing wares of great beauty, but his lack of technical knowledge led to unpredictable results. The pots that were born in his firings had an accidental aesthetic, a quality of the kiln that was not controlled or controllable but was accepted by Cardew. Yanagi in the same way saw quality in misfired pots made by Kawai Kanjiro that were regarded as ‘imperfect’ by their maker; as did the Japanese Tea Masters in their admiration of particular misshapen and cracked water jars and tea bowls.”

By the end of the thirties, Cardew, wanting more durability than he could achieve with earthenware, and having vastly increased his technical skills and knowledge, turned to stoneware. After flirting briefly with factory design for the masses at the instigation of communist Henry Bergen, he introduced stoneware in his Wenford Bridge pot shop and produced stoneware for the rest of his life, including his years in West Africa.

I think Cardew’s stoneware is beautiful. I like the well-balanced forms, the dark glazes, and the simple decorations. Yet I understand the sentiment that the slipwares he made at Winchcombe were his best works. Perhaps they were. They are deeply human pots, emotional. They speak of white washed kitchens, rustic tables, rural gardens and farms. In the beginning he was imitative of the traditional potters around him, of course, as that is how one learns, but he soon made the pots his own while managing to keep them traditional.

Cardew made jugs, mixing and washing bowls, lidded jars, plates, platters and chargers, tankards, cider jars, teapots, coffee pots, cups and saucers, handled casseroles, thrown and ovalled dishes, moulded dishes, vases and other domestic wares. He was more interested in form than decoration and is best known for his meander, a wavy line across the base of a bowl or belly of a jar. He used finger and stick wipes, sliptraililng, brushwork (from Chinese wares rather than West Country pots), sgraffito, chevrons and incised lettering.

Edgeler pays close attention to the styles of the West Country potters and what Cardew took from them. He includes photos of both Cardew’s pots and those he admired. Most interestingly, he provides two “interpretive charts of the early studio pioneers.” These are reminiscent of family trees, but they are influence lines and lines of “cultural osmosis” rather than bloodlines, beginning with English Medieval forms. He also offers a short bibliography which was a reminder to me of how many books are published in the UK that do not get published in the US. Many do, but many do not. Of course I want all the books I do not already have on my shelves. Some old time slipware pots would be nice too. I am dreaming of a jug but a small bowl would do.

The Slipware Potters of the Fishley Family

Bernard Leach called Edwin Beer Fishley (1832-1912) “the last peasant potter.” It’s true that old time country potters who dug their own clay and threw it by the ton in rural workshops were dwindling in number but Edwin Beer Fishley was not the only one left. Indeed, Edwin Beer passed on the tradition to his grandson, William Fishley Holland (1863-1944) whose son, George Tonkin Holland (1950-1959) also became a potter. Still, one can see what Leach meant. Edwin Beer was a talented thrower and decorator descended from the fabled family of slipware potters, the Fishley brothers, fathers, sons, and occasional daughter. He produced big-bellied harvest jugs inscribed with poems and images; baking dishes that he made oval by cutting out a leaf shaped hole in the base and squeezing the hole closed; and an astonishing variety of pots to suit the changing tastes. Leach was impressed with his work and later, Michael Cardew learned from his grandson William Fishley Holland.

The collector John Edgeler tells the stories of the many generations of Fishley potters in The Fishleys of Fremington: A Devon Slipware Tradition. Retired from a career in finance and a collector since his early teens, Edgeler has devoted himself to the pots of Michael Cardew, Ray Finch, and the work of the early slipware potters who preceded them. He founded a small press, Cotswolds Living, in honor of his bookseller dad, Bill Edgeler and has published a carefully researched and interesting list on English slipware. I will look at a few more of his books in upcoming weeks.

Before writing of the Fishley potters, Edgeler describes the countryside and the glacially deposited beds of red and white clays that enriched the area and enabled a thriving pottery industry. He gives an overview of North Devon slipware, the manner of making, and the typical shapes and methods of decorating thus placing the Fishleys in the context of their time and surroundings.

Edwin Beer Fishley

There are maps, old drawings of the pot shop and kilns, and lots of color photos of the lively old pots. I love the black and white photos of the potters dressed in tweed jackets or vests, caps on their heads, their torsos wrapped in generous aprons that almost reached the floor. How could they work in such attire? But work they did. Harry Juniper, the traditional slipware potter whom Edgeler interviewed in the summer of 2007 when he was in his sixtieth year of potting said, “I knew Fishley Holland very well. I rather liked him, a cocky little bugger…he was great, he turned up at Yelland and started criticizing Michael [Leach] as being too slow and laid back. The Fishleys worked – they bragged of a thousand plant pots a day. This was what they were like, they boasted about the work, they loved it, it was damned hard work.”

Well yes, “damned hard work.” And we might add they made, “damned nice pots.”