Saturday 24 November 2012

The Last Sane Man, Michael Cardew, Modern Pots, Colonialism and the Counterculture, Tanya Harrod, Yale University Press, 2012


Michael Cardew, (1901-1983), was, and still is, one of the most highly regarded potters of the 20th century. Along with Bernard Leach, he pioneered both the aesthetics and the technical know-how of the modern studio pottery movement, or what we now call ceramics.

Tanya Harrod’s detailed journey through his life and work is an epic sweep across the social, political, and art history of the 20th century. Her biography opens before Cardew was born with a brief look back at his ancestry, introducing his well to do, highly educated, upper-middle class family, and closes after he dies, looking forward to the impact of his extraordinary legacy which crosses well beyond the borders of craft pottery and the arts to embrace anthropology, politics, and the ecological and alternative movements of the 20th Century.

Early life and love

Cardew was born and raised in Wimbledon, South-West London, with regular family holidays at a seaside house in Staunton in Devon, where he grew to love the traditional English slipware pottery still being made at nearby Fremington. As a teenager, while doing agricultural work with his school during WWI, he experienced his first male love and subsequent rejection. While his love of slipware flourished, his love of other men became highly conflicted and was largely closeted throughout his life; he longed for ‘normality,’ for marriage and children.

He studied Classics at Oxford but then rejected the expected career of a socially privileged, scholarly male and, instead, pursued his love of pottery. He trained with Bernard Leach in St. Ives and, within a few years, set up his first pottery, retrieving the abandoned kiln and workshops at Winchcombe in Gloucestershire. Here he had success in both his pottery ambitions and in love but, nonetheless, longed to return to Cornwall. It was at Winchcombe that he met and married Mariel Russell and where their three children were born. Here too he developed his life-long preference for ‘austerity.’ He rejected what he referred to as ‘bourgeois’ affectations, preferring the sometimes harsh conditions of the struggling rural potter.

Cornwall and West Africa

In 1939, he left Winchombe with Mariel and the children to realise the dream and set up the Conrnwall pottery at Wenford Bridge. This saw the beginning of a series of disastrous firings and relentless, unforgiving struggle. With the onset of WWII Cardew decided to leave Mariel and the children to cope with the inconclusive chaos at Wenford and, in 1942, got a posting to Ghana, then called the Gold Coast and still a British Colony. Here, at Achimota, he set up what would be the first of three pottery workshops in West Africa. It was also here that he met and formed a lasting relationship with a young man called Clement Kofi Athey. After Achimota, he went with ‘Kofi’ to Vume on the Volta River, and set up the second workshop. The third was near Abuja, in Northern Nigeria.

For five years, the failed firings continued but, at the point of transferring to Abuja, with an adjustment to the kiln design, they began to yield much needed success. It was also in Abuja that Ladi Kwali, an immensely gifted Nigerian potter, using traditional handbuilding methods, joined Cardew and his team and learnt to use the wheel and work with stoneware and glazes, while also doing with her own work. Ladi Kwali later became a major star, touring the USA with ‘Kofi’ and Cardew and also visiting the UK. Cardew left Nigeria in 1963, after independence, and returned to Wenford Bridge. Mariel was living in London now but regularly visited Wenford. 'Kofi' also came to Wenford for some time but returned to Ghana and Cardew continued to visit him there. Over the next twenty years, Wenford Bridge became a magnet for aspiring studio potters from all over the world and Cardew did numerous speaking tours to USA, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia.


Michael Cardew’s working life spanned sixty years, (1923-83), in Britain and West Africa. Tanya Harrod navigates this vast and complicated historical terrain with formidable political agility. She applies forensic critical scrutiny to the colonial context of working, personal and romantic relationships as well as to the wider social contexts. We learn about Nigerian contemporary art movements and evolving independence movements in both Ghana and Nigeria. Cardew’s tours of the USA and Canada and his relationships there are all explored in the context of the civil rights, anti-Vietnam war, gay rights and ecology movements.

We hear the voice of Clement Kofi Athey from his letters and through others who knew him. He does not appear only as a colonial ‘subject’ but as an active player with his own concerns and priorities. We also hear the opinions and memories of the villagers at Vume and Abuja from interviews and site visits. We hear from Mariel’s friends, colleagues and associates, as well as from her own letters and diaries. Harrod brings an admirably cool head combined with considerable compassion to the complicated tangle of both homosexual and heterosexual relationships, enabling a fully rounded picture of all concerned to emerge.

Cardew eschewed industrial processes, insisting on developing a pottery ‘from the ground up,’ starting with making and firing the kiln bricks, digging up local clay and grinding rocks for glaze materials. Undaunted, Harrod deftly picks her way through the details of craft pottery - the firing temperatures, the nature and feel of the clay, the machinery and general grub and grit as well of the science and aesthetics of the business.

This is painstaking historical research combined with fluent, inspired storytelling. It’s a glorious book, one that will live near you and will be read and reread, argued over and discussed. Buy it new - second hand copies will be rarer than hen’s teeth!

Tuesday 25 September 2012

On The Record: writing my own art history


Writing one’s own art history is always going to be risky; it’s subject to human memory, which is notoriously unreliable. Fortunately, I am a diary writer and an avid collector of exhibition catalogues so there is at least some documentary evidence for the claims I might make. The following is an account of the artists, exhibitions and movements which have had a significant effect on my work and on the way I think about ceramics.

Marc Chagall

An exhibition of paintings (1967-77) by Marc Chagall, at Palazzo Pitti in Florence in 1978 was the first to make a real, memorable impact on me. I went to see it time and again over the course of a month that summer. They looked beautiful and made sense to me, more so, if I was honest, than much of the rather grandiose religious art that I was supposed to be studying at the time. They seemed to be telling a story, though what that story was, was wholly obscure to me at the time.

Later, studying ‘fine art,’ which at that time was painting, drawing and print-making, at Camberwell School of Art and Craft, (1981-85), my depraved and superficial taste for such ‘illustrational, decorative’ works as these was dismissed as woefully unserious and uneducated. I was introduced to Bonnard and got a season ticket to an exhibition of paintings by Pisarro, apparently these were the acceptable face of figurative art which Chagall, curiously, wasn’t. I was painting landscapes at this time, but I was a village girl and now lived in London and hadn’t learnt to love the London landscape yet. I was getting interested in its people though and, in particular, their stories which were so different from mine but with so many meeting points.

Kathe Kollwitz

An exhibition of graphic works by Kathe Kollwitz at Kettles Yard, in Cambridge, in 1982 was the next ‘Ah – YES!’ moment. These were intimate, everyday stories about ordinary people and their extraordinary struggle to survive. It was a struggle which Kollwitz shared, in that she inhabited the same place and time and lived through the same wars, but from a distance: she was comparatively well off and her subjects are mostly people profoundly oppressed by poverty. Even so she seemed able to capture something of their lives, experience, concerns, and above all, their humanity. They were not objectified as ‘The Poor.’ Again my interests were at odds with those of the institution: ‘Manifesto,’ hissed the head of department, with unrestrained contempt.

Soviet Porcelain

In 1984 the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford in partnership with the Crafts Council in London, mounted an exhibition entitled, 'Art into production: Soviet Ceramics and Textiles.’ The ceramics, Soviet Porcelain, was breath taking. The Imperial porcelain factory in St. Petersburg had been requisitioned by the Bolsheviks, in 1917, and hordes of young, idealistic, revolutionary artists eagerly joined the factory to paint the porcelain ‘blanks.’ These works were explicitly propagandist and magnificently designed and painted. Here was an extraordinary moment in art history, quietly overlooked by established art historical discourse, which fused revolutionary fervour with art – or rather craft and industrial production – but it was painters, Kandinsky, Goncharova, Popova and the constructivists, Suetin among others, who were the main exponents of this work. I remember thinking I had found the answer to all my questions about how to proceed as an artist. I was, by then, working towards my final degree show, but in the back of my mind, simmering quietly, was a growing understanding that, contrary to the tired dogma of the art school I attended, there was a way to bring political activism and art together. I had seen two examples in as many years, both recognised by highly respected and authoritative art institutions and both had stood the test of time.

Taking action

After four years at Camberwell, I understood that painting was not for me, but what to do? I had learnt which medium I didn’t want to use, but not which ones I did. I continued drawing. After graduation I joined a women’s life drawing group. There were five of us. Buoyed up with voluminous feminist idealism and determined to rip through every last thread of the patriarchal fabric, we decided that the notion of the artist’s model was a grotesque misogynist conspiracy and we would boldly challenge the entire concept and, in so doing, rock the history of art to its roots. Thus it was, that in the top room of the squat in Peckham, in summer 1985, the five of us got naked and drew each other drawing each other. I do still have the documentary evidence. It is in my shed and there it will stay. Charmingly absurd though it may seem in some respects, it was an immensely productive time as well as being probably the best life class I have ever attended – we were meeting for at least a year. The history of art plainly didn’t register so much as shiver never mind anything else but, for my part, a new chapter of art practice opened up. 

The Think Black Line and so much more

The life-class was on Monday. On Wednesdays we went to exhibitions. ‘The Thin Black Line,’ curated by Lubaina Himid, was at the ICA that year. The first exhibition of the work of black women, it was, both explicitly activist, on the part of the artists, something which we well understood, and ‘notoriously tokenistic,’ on the part of the institution. Either way, it was a hugely exciting exhibition. Himid’s magnificent cut-outs, (Tate Britain), and Sutapa Biswas’ now famous image, ‘Housewives with Steaknives,’ (Tate Britain), burnt themselves into my consciousness and have never departed. Four years later, ‘Along the lines of Resistance,’ also an explicitly feminist show, introduced me to the work of Nina Edge, the first contemporary potter I came across whose work truly excited me. It looked good, was colourful, decorative, ornamental and told stories – interesting ones. Lubaina Himid later became a much needed adviser for my PhD. One of the most significant aspects of this strand of contemporary art practice was its non-hierarchical position on craft, shaped largely by anti-imperialist / post-colonial politics combined with feminism.

By means of a mildly eccentric life-drawing class, and a series of important exhibitions of work by contemporary feminist artists, I had found a way to be an artist that could embrace both ceramics, which I now loved, and other peoples’ stories, which I also loved and understood in their wider, socio-political contexts. The repeated mantra I had received at art school which stated that ‘art and politics don’t mix,’ was plainly bunkum. The key was a sophisticated, educated understanding of all the elemental parts: art, narrative, and the social impact of politics on the lived experience of people.

The Country Potter

It was September 1985, with the new term starting, that one of the life-class women announced she was going to a pottery class and asked if any of us would come with her. We all went but I was the one that continued for next three years. I had found the medium that was, without question, the right one. In 1989 I moved to Oxford and started an apprenticeship at Winchcombe Pottery with Ray Finch. To say the least it was a culture shock. I was back in the village. It was a sharp reminder of why I had moved to London. The landscape was like something out of Thomas Hardy at times but so were the social attitudes – it was sometimes depressing, other times highly entertaining.

Yorkshire - and the Hungarians

The subculture of ceramics was also a culture shock. This was an art practice apparently untouched by feminism or, indeed, any of the social movements or art discourses which had become part of my social and artistic norm in London in the 1980s. So here I was, first in Oxford, then in Yorkshire, in the 1990s, wondering in which part of the 20th century I had landed. My nine years in Yorkshire were highly productive in terms of my own work but something of a desert in terms of influences. Ceramicist Paul Scott, who has pioneered and popularised the development of printmaking techniques for potters, was an important teacher and introduced me to the work of Hungarian maker Maria Geszler. A visit to Hungary and to her workshop included a trip to Szentendre where I found and was captivated by the work of Margit Kovacs, (1902-77). The museum in Szentendre holds almost all of her work which has not, to date, been seen in this country. The Zsolnay Museum in Pecs, home of the Zsolnay Factory, introduced me to the work of the estimable Therese and Julia Zsolnay, the Zsolnay sisters, in whose name I produced a collection of work: 'Collection for the Zsolnay Sisters,' (1999).

Arguably, my most important encounter during my time in Yorkshire was with Lubaina Himid and the late Maud Sulter, (1960-2008), then both living nearby, in Preston. I was meeting two of the most important and inspirational women of my art-life. Maud was opening a new gallery in London, 'Rich Women of Zurich,' and invited me to do a show there. There gallery was short lived but the friendship endured until Maud's death in 2008. They helped to take me out of the then somewhat parochial world of craft pottery and return me to the wider art world from which I had come. It was in their gallery that I showed 'Collection for the Zolnay Sisters,' my first London solo show in a private gallery. 

My one other memorable ceramic encounter of this time was when my sister sent me a newspaper cutting, a review of an exhibition by someone called Grayson Perry who was showing pots at Anthony D’offay Gallery in London. ‘Someone’s stolen your ideas!’ she exclaimed in the accompanying note. There was just one tiny picture. My heart sank and I felt sick. I worried about this apparent incursion for days. After the initial shock, however, I quite quickly came to the conclusion that there was nothing I could do about it even if it were true, which, I suspected, it probably wasn’t, and resolved to continue with what I was doing, and let life take its course. I also resolved not to look at the imposter’s work, and that included looking at pictures of his work. A couple of years later, in 1999, I had a show in London at a gallery called, Rich Women of Zurich, (directors Maud Sulter and Lubaina Himid,) and two people came in wanting to meet Grayson Perry. They had looked through the window and thought my work was his. I was told there were a couple of his pots in the Crafts Council Gallery down the road and the following day I went to see them, in person, as it were. The personal encounter was hugely reassuring. They were completely different. They were big painted pots, and had printed images on them, which mine did too at that time, but there the similarity ended.

Back to London

The move back to London in 2001 was prompted by a trip to Australia in summer1999 where I met Edmund de Waal, who was giving the key-note speech at a conference. He talked about Bernard Leach in ways I recognised, in the same way that Nina Edge had talked about Leach-influenced pottery in an essay in Feminist Art News in 1988[1] and, rather more damningly in, ‘Your Name Is Mud,’ (Sulter, 1990: 155-67). Ceramics, it seemed was beginning to acknowledge the twentieth century, just in time for the twenty-first.

In the last ten years, I have encountered a few truly inspiring contemporary ceramicists. They include, Tehran based, Iranian artist, Bita Fayyazi, whose work I first saw in Contemporary Iranian Art, at the Barbican, 2001, and who I now count as a good friend; Klara Kristalova, whose magical fairy-tale, figurative work is represented in London by Alison Jacques; and Israeli / Australian potter, Avital Sheffer, represented by Beaux Art in England and numerous outlets in Australia. I am eternally grateful to Grayson Perry for his success since, I suspect, it has opened doors for me. It has certainly made it much easier to tell people that I make pots with pictures, (as opposed to patterns), painted on them, and that I show this work in art galleries. There was once a time, not long ago, when that was considered inconceivable, it is now regarded as almost normal, a process of change in which he has played a significant part alongside increasingly open minded curators and institutions.

[1] Also in ‘Artists Stories,’ A-N publications, 1996

Wednesday 15 August 2012

A Wedding and a Funeral: two pots in my forthcoming show at Francis Kyle Gallery


Images from top:
1. St. Mark of the Farm (left) and Wedding Procession (right)
2. St. Mark of the Farm
3. St. Mark of the Farm 
4. Wedding Procession
5. Wedding Procession
6. Wedding Procession, (detail)


Two pots, both based on classical storage jar shapes and painted around the circumference as a frieze, depict verdant landscapes, dominated by tall trees against blue-grey, English skies. Both feature teams of white, plumed horses, swanky cars and quantities of bling. They appear similar at first glance but the events taking place within the landscapes could hardly be more different. ‘Wedding Procession,’ commemorates the marriage of Prince William to Catherine Middleton in April 2011. The event and the way it was mediated affirmed the continuity of monarchy and the power of the state. ‘St. Mark of the Farm,’ is a record of the funeral of Mark Duggan, who was shot by police on August 4th 2011, precipitating four nights of rioting. Duggan’s story is still extensively mythologised. He is, at once, the Hero: ‘people looked up to him;’ Villain: ‘Starrish Mark, leader of the notorious Star gang;’ Saint: ‘he was a lovely guy, everyone knew him, he wouldn’t hurt a fly;’ and Martyr: ‘a fallen soldier.’ His funeral, all in white, with white lilies on the casket like the virgin bride, was in September, six months after the wedding. The similarities in appearance were beguiling but they served only to emphasise the vast social difference. It was a spectacle of inequality, a mis-matched pair that bookended the summer and seemed to define the troubled social politics of the time.

Wedding Procession

The Royal Wedding was a brilliantly choreographed spectacle and a thoroughly crafted conceit, where sharp contrasts and rigorously controlled separation together defined the illusion of a shared national drama.

The pot form provides a stage where the separation and contrasts become visible. We cannot see the bride in her carriage because she is obscured by trees. At the event itself, the public were separated from royalty by both the physical barriers and the carefully mediated story, a richly embroidered fairy tale. The public are ‘below stairs’ on the pot - below the outermost curve. The separation is emphasised by the receding perspectives above and below the curve. The wedding procession itself takes place on the upper section among the trees, reaching up towards the skies.

This was the first of the English royal weddings to encounter and be captured by popular mass communication. The public are depicted photographing the event, a forest of outstretched arms pointing their camera phones towards the glimpses of procession visible through the trees. Of the images uploaded to the internet, the most photographed part of the wedding was the runaway horse whose journey was captured at every stage. The official ‘central’ figures were marginal by comparison.

To make the pot, I looked at an endless stream of flickering, moving, transitory and, often, ephemeral images and painted and fired a selection of them into a material that lasts for thousands of years – icing on the fictional cake perhaps.

St. Mark of the Farm

Set in and around Tottenham and the Broadwater Farm estate, St. Mark of the Farm shares many visual and narrative elements with Wedding Procession. The trees, the procession and the white, plumed horses suggest a wedding, but this is a funeral. It is a deeply personal, family event where sorrow and loss mix with pageantry, spectacle and a suppressed public interest. Duggan’s story is also highly fictionalised, the romance of the ‘villain’ who dies a saint. The landscape, which embraces this drama is, par excellence, a romantic urban construction, simultaneously historic and contemporary. It is the landscape through which I walk daily to work, from my house in Tottenham, right by ‘the Farm,’ as the estate is known locally, to my studio in Wood Green.

Standing in Broadwater Farm, which wears its inner city notoriety like a badge of honour, is a confusing experience, particularly at dawn or dusk in winter when it feels mysteriously rural. At these times, this large estate often falls silent. The Moselle river, which was once reduced to a foul, concrete lined ditch in the 1960s, is now being retrieved with help from a lottery grant, and snakes along the bottom of the willow-tree lined valley with Alexandra Palace glittering in the distance. The last of the day light glows pink in the damp, starting-to-flood, valley floor and the moon appears above the roof tops to the south. At these times you can almost hear the cows mooing – it was a dairy farm until well into the mid-twentieth century and was then converted to allotments. Because of the flooding, there were no buildings until the estate was built in 1965 and the Moselle was forced, reluctantly, underground. Like all rivers it refuses to stay there and reappears every winter in the form of floods which, in turn fill with geese, gulls and migrating birds, adding the extraordinary rural illusion. Mark Duggan grew up on this estate. His family are still there.

The pot uses all the elements of the landscape and exaggerates and idealises them to enhance the narrative. The idealised Mark, the saint, the ‘family man,’ is suggested by the evening landscape with the river, which is borrowed from the background landscapes of pre-renaissance, religious paintings. The three distinct scenes are those of the birth and early life, the death, and the funeral. The death landscape is Tottenham Hale, a low horizon line, bleak, empty and soulless, a reality of the place itself and an inescapable metaphor. The Farm is, co-incidentally, the lowest point in the landscape for some miles around, so the only way out of the estate is up hill.  The blocks of flats were built on giant concrete stilts, with aerial walkways instead of streets because of the flooding and these too have become part of its notoriety and mythology. The cemetery at Wood Green, where Duggan is buried, is, by contrast, on the brow of a hill, commanding a fine view across north London. It is here, at the funeral in white, that Duggan completes his transformation from villain to hero to martyr and finally to saint.

The Role of Landscape

I made the pots to remember and to witness the events they depict. I chose to emphasise the image of the landscape in which they occurred as a metaphor for the construction of social myths. What constitutes an urban or rural landscape cannot be taken for granted. Urban landscapes can be much more verdant than their rural counterparts and are often, wealthier, less industrialised and more nurtured. The rural ‘idyll’ is more apparent in the wealthier parts of London, with its carefully selected native English trees and artfully tended ‘wild’ areas, than in small-town England, where industrial farming is in a state of decline and rural poverty results in neglect. The Royal Wedding took place in central London, the centre of power and wealth and the seat of government and monarchy. In this setting, it also resembled a magnificent mythic hunting scene from a Renaissance tapestry – a resemblance I sought to repeat on the pot by introducing exotic birds in the trees and flattening the perspective.

Mark Duggan’s funeral took place in one of the poorest parts of London. One might have expected a landscape of bleak estates, broken windows and impressive graffiti. But this kind of grit-chic is another romantic urban construction, generated in the studio for music videos. There is certainly nothing like it in Tottenham in late summer. On the contrary, the traces of its rural and prosperous past are splendidly visible at this time, in both parks and streets, where the vast mature Willows, Oaks and Ash dominate the landscape. Wood Green also carries the memory of a prosperous suburban history. ‘Arcadia Gardens’ is not a fiction – or not on the pot anyway. That really is the name of the road.

Landscape does, however, become a part of the political analysis of spectacular inequality if we compare the image of the Royal couple in the Aston Martin in the Mall with the remarkably similar image of Tottenham Hale, where Duggan was shot. The low horizon lines are similar and both images are framed with abundantly leafy trees. While the Aston Martin and balloons are the decorative feature of the royal landscape, the road at Tottenham Hale appears to go nowhere and the only decoration is the cascade of synthetic flowers adorning the railings, a shrine to the ‘fallen soldier,’ or rehabilitated ‘saint.’

Thursday 19 July 2012

Collect 2012

I have reviewed Collect twice in its illustrious history – ok, once, (2008) and a brief comment at the end of another post, (2009). I then forgot about it until last year when a kind soul reserved complimentary tickets for me and I managed to be away the entire weekend.  I have been inattentive, to say the least.

My first visit to Collect was also its first outing. It was at the V&A and still had the feel of ‘tarted –up’ clutter. It was too crowded – with stuff I mean - and the standard was inconsistent. After another year at the V&A, it moved to the Saatchi gallery near Sloane Square. It was a bold and, in spite of my acerbic comments in 2009, an inspired move. By all accounts it has improved steadily since and, while I cannot comment on any of previous shows, 2012 was a triumph.

The Saatchi gallery is a beautiful, elegantly proportioned space, graced with high ceilings, magnificent wooden floors and plenty of natural light. It is the perfect venue for the display of beautiful objects. The exhibiting galleries all had plenty of room so the work displayed had room to breathe and the audience had enough space to walk around it. In practice, this means that the viewer moves much more slowly around the exhibition than is the case in more crowded venues. It allows one time to think and reflect of the work.

Collect is a serious selling show. That is its primary purpose. It is also a showcase but makes no pretence to being either representative or a survey show. The galleries select their highest quality work and the organisers, by bringing in collectors and media, facilitate the bringing of ‘museum quality’ craft to its potential buyers. In doing so, they are starting solve one of the most persistent and seemingly intractable problems of craft: how to bring the goods to market.

In the process, every aspect of craft exhibiting and selling, from display to the attitude of the gallerists, has become palpably more professional. Collect is also truly international now. It is probably the only high-end, international applied arts fair in Europe. The Scandanavian galleries and artists are particularly well represented and are also a breath of fresh air. There is a strong focus on the ‘upcycled’ work, where ‘trash’ or discarded ceramics, in particular, are remade, reinvented and become entirely new works. In most cases this is the only chance Londoners have to see this kind of work. Craft in London is otherwise parochial, poorly exhibited, (with one or two notable exceptions,) and largely very conservative.

La Ceramica Gallery was a welcome new addition, bringing the work of internationally acclaimed Nicaraguan potters to London for the first time, and Hanart TZ was the first Chinese gallery to show at Collect, bringing ceramics and laquer work  - the latter is a particularly exciting development since, as far as I know, we have not seen contemporary laquer work in this country before. If I were handing out prizes, it would go to the Japanese gallery, Yufuku. All of the work on this stand was breathtaking. Every piece shone with the sheer strength and conviction of its own presence. Graceful, classical, poised - even when entirely un-classical – it was all work you wanted to come back to again and again, just to make sure you really had seen such a thing. The ceramic works of Nakamura Takuo were unforgettable. The colour and patterning was reminiscent of early 17th Century Japanese silks, glistening, strong colour but subtle – mostly tertiary colours -  and faultlessly composed with a painterly vision. How anyone brings together soft ripe pinks, sombre but glowing maroons, lime-ish greens edged in something darker, and bright ultramarine, is beyond me. I could gaze on this work for the rest of my life and, as soon as I have any money at all, I’m going to make sure I can.

Monday 23 April 2012

Edmund de Waal at Waddesdon - (or come dine with me)

 Who would have the chutzpah to take on a Rothschild ‘chateau’ in Berkshire? Why an Ephrussi of course! Or a potter. Edmund de Waal is still a potter although many now know him as a writer and, oh the romance, a descendent of an outrageously exciting family of bankers and art collectors who competed with the Rothschilds and knew everyone who was anyone. Now he has quietly infiltrated the very inner sanctum of the competition and sneaked his own work in among their fabulous collections.

Breezing through the first of a trail of rooms, blazing with gold twirls and red velvet, and feeling a strong sense of belonging in a matter of seconds – self delusion is encouraged in these houses – I just kept going until I was brought up short in what was, by now, my dining room. I was expecting guests apparently. The table was bristling with red and pink roses, there were marble cherubs clinging to the mantelpiece, gorgeous embroidered curtains and mirrors stretching up to the ceiling, topped off with paintings of naked beauties, just in case there was any doubt about what sort of dinner party this would be. The reds and gold of the carpet glowed warm in the gloom. Turning to check all was as it should be, I noticed the plates piled up on a side table backed by another vast mirror which reflected itself a thousand times with all its plates in the mirror opposite. A great many guest were coming then. There was a rogue gold plate in the pile I noticed. Someone important was expected.

Returning to the breakfast room, I looked again at the small vitrines of rather delicate porcelain cylinders regarding a weighty nanny-goat, suckling her kid. On the other side of the room was a similarly solid looking peacock, heavily built in porcelain. It had a slight tear among the carefully moulded feathers which seemed to bring it alive. The animals are MINE by the way, NOT de Waal’s.

These interloping vitrines, beautifully constructed and unyieldingly rectangular with fine, straight lines, were dispersed among the rooms as though silently commenting on the situation in which they found themselves. One of my favourite desks in the Grey drawing room, a drop-front with gorgeous blue Sevres roundels inlaid, had acquired a set of inky pots, dark and mottled gold. They glimmered faintly in the dim light. I noticed two more of these on the desks on the other side of the room. Writing paraphernalia in the form of trays of shallow inky dishes were also placed on the mighty, Russian imperial writing desk, and four more had been secreted into its shelves. Eat yer heart out Putin! You’ll never know true greatness -Pah! Couldn’t even sit at a desk like this.

There are more, many more visiting vitrines. Frosted secrets, still untold, a collection of promises, doubtless unmet, are scattered among the collection of magnificent French furniture, Dutch paintings and Venetian glass. And of course there’s a riot of porcelain of the opulent kind as well the kind in vitrines.  Once there, you wont want to leave, and it shouldn’t be too hard to find a place to hide, should you wish to stay.    

Thursday 26 January 2012

Emmanuel Cooper, 1938-2012

Emmanuel Cooper, potter, writer, historian, teacher, friend and mentor, died on the 21st of January, 2012.  He was, and will remain, one of the central figures in British twentieth century ceramics. He was the alchemist who transformed studio pottery from its marginal position with of a handful posh English blokes making wholemeal brown stoneware and a sprinkling of precious pottery ladies pursuing a wholesome hobby in the garden shed, to the fully fledged, vibrant, professional craft that it now is, thriving in the art world and imposing itself on the reluctant consciousnesses of the literati and media-ristocracy.

In 1970, with Eileen Lewenstein, he founded Ceramic Review, which evolved into one of the most respected art magazines on the market with an international readership and profile. As a historian and glaze technician he was second to none. Go into the studio of any working potter and you will find at least one of his books, if not the dictionary of glaze recipes, then one of the histories. He did not restrict his research and writing to ceramics. His publications include: ‘Fully Exposed: Male Nude in Photography,’ (1995), ‘People’s Art: Working Class Art from 1750 to the Present Day,’ (1991), and, ‘The Sexual Perspective: Homosexuality and Art in the Last 100 Years in the West,’ (1994).  He brought this extensive knowledge to his writing and teaching. Under his influence ceramics became a discipline able to flourish in a contemporary art context. Without Emmanuel Cooper, we probably would not have either Grayson Perry or Edmund de Waal, at least not as we know them. Both, doubtless would be successful artists and de Waal, in particular, would still be a potter and writer but their work would have so much less meaning and resonance. Perry would not have his adversarial opposite which would deny his work much of it’s ‘charge,’ (his word), and de Waal, too would lack an opposing context – his would be a much lonelier body of work.

Cooper was born in 1938 and during his early years, during the post-war era, studio pottery, under the auspices of Bernard Leach, grew steadily. It become fashionable in the1960s when the quasi-rustic, back to nature aesthetic was part of an anti-establishment life-style. Numerous potters associations sprung up, sharing information and resources, each with its own newsletter, annual conference and exhibition. There was a corresponding growth in availability and quality of materials as the industry reached out to the burgeoning market of hobbyists. Classes mushroomed and potters acquired an increasingly professional training. In the midst of this maelstrom of activity, was Emmanuel Cooper who had that rare and extraordinary gift of being able to connect across the full range of makers and designers that emerged during this period. From the most conservative makers of garden and tableware, toiling in barns in the rural shires, to the most outrĂ© and rarefied of post modern academicians, producing dusty ‘installations,’ and museum ‘interventions,’ he inspired equal respect and affection in us all.

Cooper the potter was tenaciously 'urban.' He developed a range of glazes tailored to the needs of urban surroundings, in particular the use of a compact electric kiln. Not for him the roar, smoke and melodramatics of the wood-fired beasts beloved by rural potters. I will always think of Emmanuel Cooper pots as either bowls or jugs, but primarily as shapes which could show off his latest glaze like some kind of grand new apparel, a volcanic swathe of blistering, bubbling colour - usually a monochrome but rarely the same thing twice.  Delicate and elegant, they were and are instantly recognisable as his.

Emmanuel Cooper was true democrat, a unifier among the cliques and factions which so often proliferate in marginal subcultures. He diversified the discipline in all senses of the word, bringing together industry and studio, academics and makers, and above all, consistent with his egalitarian activist politics, he brought in people from all backgrounds ensuring that it could grow beyond the effete circle of posh blokes in sheds which characterised the early years, and become the highly respected art form it now is, one in which we can all be proud to participate. In a word, he is irreplaceable. In his case, the cliches are right: it is the end of an era and we  probably will not see his like again, but that does not need to be a reason to mourn. Rather we can celebrate his colossal legacy and build on it. There could be no better way to honour his extraordinary life and work.