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