Exhibition Review

Things of Beauty Growing: British Studio Pottery. Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

A comprehensive, intelligent exhibition of the British studio pottery movement has long been awaited. Previous attempts have lacked either sufficient funding or sufficient depth of scholarship, or both. The exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum, organised in collaboration with the Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, where it was previously shown (14th September–3rd December 2017), has raised expectations but proves a less than successful attempt to do justice to a movement that changed the nature of art ceramics across the globe.1

It is unclear what the curators, Martina Droth, Glenn Adamson and Simon Olding, are trying to convey through either the selection of the exhibits or their display. In the introduction to the catalogue Adamson describes the variety of themes they had in mind: ‘Though it encompasses great diversity, the field of British studio pottery has always been animated by these concerns: the way that a ceramic vessel can symbolically centre our place in the world, articulating the relationship between form and substance, history and instinct, the particular and the universal’ (p.19). The intense art-historical discipline needed to achieve such ambitious objectives has broken down in several instances, however, overburdened by the ‘great diversity [of] the field’. Indeed, the twenty-first century has seen diversity grow into unfettered diffusion, and it is uncertain whether there is any meaningful connection between what has traditionally been termed ‘the British studio pottery movement’ and the art ceramics produced over the past thirty years, apart from occasional echoes from the earlier period. How to tackle the Hydra that British studio pottery has become must have been the curators’ greatest challenge, and they have made a bold attempt to dominate the monster by renouncing an approach that would have focused on the work of individual potters, concentrating instead on the taxonomy of pottery types defined by their shape.

Although this approach is generally successful, it is seriously undermined by the first group of pots, representing the influence of the so-called ‘Moon jar’ (Joseon dynasty; British Museum, London; cat. fig.91), which greets the visitor at the entrance to the exhibition. The curators claim that this almost spherical Korean porcelain jar is an important example of a tradition that dates back to the eighteenth century, when the jar was made, and has lasted to the present day. Bernard Leach acquired it in an antique shop in Seoul in 1935 and passed it on to his fellow potter Lucie Rie in 1943, who kept it in her house in Albion Mews, London, until her death. Yet, despite its prized status and the faintly romantic nuance of its provenance, the only direct influence the moon jar had on the development or style of British studio pottery occurred in 2013, when the Korean Cultural Centre held an exhibition entitled Moon Jar: Contemporary Translations in Britain, for which they commissioned several British potters to make pieces inspired by the jar. Some of these are shown at the Fitzwilliam, as well as two Moon jars commissioned by Yale for this exhibition (cat. no.4; Fig.21). But this hardly constitutes influence in the art-historical sense, let alone tradition. Moreover, since these contemporary versions of an eighteenth-century Korean vessel were commissioned, they do not, as the catalogue claims, ‘emphasize the historical awareness of ceramic artists today’ (p.173).

In the following sections, other pottery types follow each other in a loosely chronological order. A ‘Vase’ section, covering a period from ancient China to the late 1930s and including late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century examples, precedes a ‘Bowl’ section, which covers much the same time span but concentrates on the early period in Leach’s career, when the tea-bowl and all its variants were popular with studio potters. There follow sections presenting the ‘Charger’, with special attention paid to the work of painter–potters such as Sam Haile and William Newland after the Second World War; the ‘Set’ (sets for tea and coffee); the ‘Vessel’, which features the looser forms of the 1970s and 1980s in the work of Jacqueline Poncelet, Alison Britton (no.104; Fig.20) and Gordon Baldwin among others; the ‘Pot’, which focuses on the hand-building techniques popular from the 1990s; and last but certainly not least the ‘Monument’, which spectacularly represents the modern tendency towards the colossal, fostered by the increasing importance of museums and collectors of fine arts as sources of patronage (no.150; Fig.22). To have achieved a reasonably accurate chronology with a classification according to type was no mean feat, but the choice of the exhibits themselves is not always as thoughtful.

In the introduction to the catalogue, Adamson admits that arranging the exhibits by pottery type ‘has meant that many potters who might normally have been included in a ‘best of’ list have been left out’ (p.23). The problem, however, is as much what has been included as what has been left out. Among the nineteenth-century precursors to the studio pottery movement, the exhibition includes three vases (nos.15–17) designed by Christopher Dresser (1834– 1904), presumably as representatives of Japanese influence. However, although Dresser was instrumental in the early import of Japanese artefacts to Britain, he only ever designed for industrial production. Also shown is a lustre vase (c.1888–98; Victoria and Albert Museum, London; no.14) by William de Morgan (1839–1917), who is credited in the catalogue as having been ‘one of the earliest true studio potters’ (p.190). In fact, he was a designer, a glaze chemist and the employer of throwers and decorators. Whereas it is peculiar figures, it is misguided not to show anything by Edwin Martin (1860–1915). He was the youngest of four brothers who in 1873 established the first significant independent pottery studio in Britain. Eight years before that, the eldest brother, Robert Wallace Martin (1843–1924), had risen to his feet at a meeting of the Society of Arts and proclaimed that ‘he did not wish to see the workmen of this country always remain mere copyists, but was desirous to see their abilities displayed as designers’.2 In other words, he looked forward to the advent of the artist– craftsman. Moreover, the late work of Edwin Martin, with its abstract decoration in slip on salt-glazed stoneware vessels, would have been more appropriate than the Dresser and De Morgan vases. In 1907 the editor of the Studio saw in Edwin Martin’s pots ‘a charm which, without being in any way imitative, recalls the work of the old potters of Japan’, and commended his ‘very fine dullish black, which has all the excellent qualities of the best Chinese prototypes’.3

Whatever its defects, this exhibition assembles as fine a collection of British studio pots as has ever been found in one place at the same time. Many of the best have come, as one would have expected, from public collections in the United Kingdom, most prominently the Victoria & Albert Museum, York Art Gallery and the Crafts Study Centre, Farnham, but there are also several gems from the private collection of John Driscoll, New York. Driscoll was acquainted with the leading potters in Britain over the past forty years. Looking back to his first encounter with a selection of ancient oriental and modern studio pots, he recalled: ‘It was a new arena of objects that I experienced as visually articulate, three-dimensional, sensual and often of historical or art historical significance’, an experience that visitors to the Fitzwilliam Museum can share.

 

1 Catalogue: Things of Beauty Growing: British Studio Pottery. Edited by Glenn Adamson, Martina Droth and Simon Olding. 472 pp. incl. 316 col. ills. (Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2017), £55. ISBN 978–0–300–22746–8.

2 Quoted in M. Haslam: The Martin Brothers: Potters, London 1978, pp.17–18.

3 Ibid, p.154.