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Studio Pottery: Twentieth Century British Ceramics in the Victoria and Albert Museum

Oliver Watson.
London: Phaidon Press Limited, 1993.
Paperback edition, $29.95.

The link between American and British ceramics is a strong one. Although often seen to relate only to the functioning vessel, the connection between them is just as visible in the practice of pottery as fine art. This book is a masterful overview of the entire British studio pottery movement during the last seventy years, written and compiled by Oliver Watson, curator of ceramics at the Victoria and Albert (V&A) Museum in London, England.

It is based on the studio pottery collection at the V&A, a collection that numbers some 753 objects by almost 200 potters. The museum started acquiring the objects as early as 1920, although most were acquired during the 1950s and the 1980s, two periods of intense growth for the studio pottery movement in England.

Three principal sections comprise the book: an introductory essay by Oliver Watson, a full-color portfolio of pots and sculpture from the collection, and an annotated and biographical catalogue of the V&A's studio pottery collection.

The photographs representing the collection extend chronologically from pre-World War II through to the '80s. Included in the selection are many familiar potters: Michael Cardew, Bernard Leach, Norah Braden, William Staite Murray, Harry and May Davis, Hans Coper, Lucie Rie, Walter Keeler, Colin Pearson, Richard Batterham, Michael Casson, and Liz Fritsch. There are also lesser known ones: Sarah Walton, Carol McNicoll, Alison Britton, Ian Godfrey, Jacqueline Poncelet and Janice Tchalenko. On the whole the collection is a strong one, although institutions do not always choose what some of the potters may appreciate as representing them (consider some pots in our own Smithsonian Institution).

Oliver Watson's introductory essay is right on target. Watson begins by defining craft. Craft, he says, was "the space left by industry as it abandoned working-class manual skills... [and] occupied by middle-class artists for their own expressive or vocational ends." He identifies the term "studio potter" within this context with work produced on a small scale by an individual in a non-industrial stance, a description that seems comfortable even today. The term, he notes, became current in the mid-1920s to distinguish a certain kind of potter's work from industrial art pottery.

Watson goes on to point out that the moral overtones of the Arts and Crafts Movement during the early decades of this century evoked a particular resonance among studio potters generally because the potter's craft offered a vocation with strong social and ethical overtones. The pot according to these criteria carried a message of a natural shape derived from Oriental forms that transcended mere good looks. He identifies this phenomenon as the "ethical pot," a phrase, according to Charles Counts, that Watson invented himself. The ethical tradition was thus seen to be rooted in functionalism and any deviation from this was considered immoral, setting the stage for the kind of controversy that bedevils us even today.

This conflict can readily be seen in the opposing figures of Michael Cardew and Hans Coper: Cardew the potter, on one hand, laboring in penury for years to be consistently functional; Coper the sculptor, on the other hand, who disdained clay but could not achieve the results he wanted in any other material.

Yet, it was probably Bernard Leach, the intellectual potter and writer from St. Ives, and William Staite Murray, Head of Pottery at the Royal College of Art, London, who exerted the strongest influences on the two developing streams of ceramics. Leach represented the Orientalist or ethical school while Staite Murray represented the modern school. Both currents, however, flowed within the mainstream of clay work.

Leach espoused a romantic yearning for a pre-industrial society in which the artist-craftsman would improve things ruined by the "industrial devils," and taught through hands-on apprenticeship. (Watson notes drily that son David Leach probably saved his father's pottery from financial collapse through a course in pottery management he took at the Technical College in Stoke-on-Trent, the home of industrial pottery.) Staite Murray, a towering figure during the'20s and'30s, was an artist and considered pottery tu be a link between painting and sculpture. He was concerned that the artist-potter should engage in the contemporary world, and taught while creating an atmosphere of creative stimulus.

Oliver Watson's penetrating yet uncritical eye reveals a perspective on the aims and purposes of these two figures who shaped the work of several generations of English potters. Without question, they also influenced American potters.

Watson concludes that studio pottery today clearly fulfills a need in contemporary society, not just for potters but also for a public that buys and enjoys their work. Even though the debate between the ethical and the expressive pot continues to rage, our field on the whole has been energized and enlarged, not diminished, by this diversity.

Here is a book that helps shed light on the recent history and, by inference, illuminates its effect on us. Indeed, as one peruses the pages, a certain "deja vu all over again" rises, the feeling that our American experience has happened before.

Yet questions concerning the origins of our species remain. More than ever there is a certain angst amongst us today, a need to understand the deeper meanings of this strange and beautiful work to which many uf us have devoted our lives. What is craft? Where is its source? What is the ultimate mystery of its power?

Reviewed by Gerry Williams. Studio Potter Network Newsletter, Autumn 1994.

reviews:   Books | Videos |

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