Traditional Earthenware of Britain

Andrew McGarva tells us in his read-me-again book, Country Pottery: Traditional Earthenware of Britain published a dozen years ago, that a boy (no girls allowed)* signing on for an eight to ten year apprenticeship had to agree to certain standards of behavior: no fornication but no marriage either; no card playing nor haunting of taverns or visiting playhouses. There was, however, a long workday, with little time for such temptations. At Ewenny in the south of Wales, the apprentice’s day began at eight in the morning and ended at seven in the evening on weekdays and at four on Saturdays.  This was typical.

Ewenny Jugs

A potter himself, McGarva defines country pottery as that made in the rural areas of the UK from the end of the nineteenth century to the middle of the twentieth. Sadly, by World War II, many of the potteries had been demolished or converted to other uses. A few persisted with a handful continuing to this day, though some that were in operation when he published the book in 2000, such as the steam-powered Wetheriggs at Clifton Dykes have since closed. Fortunately, Wetheriggs is now a museum.

He looks at the pots and the subtle difference between their shapes from one pottery to another. There are horticultural wares including flowerpots, strawberry pots, rhubarb forcers, seedpans and even pigeon nesting bowls and chimney pots. And there pots for domestic and dairy use: pancheons, wash tubs, mixing bowls, colanders, bread crocks, baking dishes, ham pans, salt pigs, poultry waterers, pipkins, bottles and more.

Reveling in the robust beauty of these old pots he writes, “…  any potter can see that what these old potters made best, with skill and spontaneity, were the ‘ordinary” pots for everyday use. Through their simplicity and directness, they represent a honed tradition of functionalism: design of the kind where nothing superfluous exists. Plain pots have a tendency to be valued only when sufficiently distanced in time, place of origin or rarity. A continuation of tradition is less noticed than innovation or change.”

There are wonderful old photos of these potteries, clusters of brick buildings with tiles roofs, men stacking the huge round kilns or throwing on their wheels. One whole chapter is devoted to A. Harris & Sons, Farnham Potteries, Wrecclesham (now closed), which had the last bottle kiln to be fired in England. It was still in use in the late seventies. Another is devoted to Soil Hill and the legendary Isaac Button and includes a floor plan of his shop.

The last chapter is a hopeful  “In the Footsteps of the Country Potters.” Happily, most of the potters listed are still making pots.

* Women in the family might deal with the business aspects of the shop, such as writing out invoices, especially if their husband was (not atypically) illiterate. On occasion, a woman took over the running of the shop after the death of her husband. This was true at Wetheriggs, which Margaret Thornburn ran after her husband died.

Voulkos Reexamined

When I was in Pennsylvania with Ann Stannard and Maryon Attwood selecting pieces for an MC Richards exhibit, we came upon her small collection of other people’s pots, haphazardly wrapped in paper. She had a Lucie Rie teacup and saucer which I scarcely dared to hold in my hand it was so delicate, so thinly potted, so luminous, white with a metallic band around the rim, a small chip. And she had a very tall, beautifully thrown, covered jar, which was not wrapped in paper it was so big. It just stood out of the way, against the wall. It was by Peter Voulkos. Both were immediately identifiable to me, even though I had never seen more than photos of works by either Rie of Voulkos. Ann confirmed that the pieces were what I thought they were, and of course, with her encouragement, I did touch them.

Later in the year, Yale will publish a book on Rie that I am very much looking forward to. This morning I finished reading a book on Voulkos, Clay’s Tectonic Shift: John Mason, Ken Pric,e Peter Voulkos 1956-1958, a collection of essays edited by Mary David MacNaughton for The J. Paul Getty Museum and the Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery of Scripps College.

We all know at least the outlines of Voulkos’ story: his youth in Montana, his extraordinary throwing abilities and the early tall, covered jars that he made and won prizes for; his California years; and his abrupt change from functional, carefully crafted pots to abstract expressionist clay sculpture on a massive scale. The essays are wide ranging and frame the three men in their time period.

Voulkos was invited to Black Mountain College by Karen Karnes and David Weinrib. MC was there then and that’s probably when she got the covered jar. Voulkos was electrified by the Black Mountain College experience, and especially taken with MC, John Cage, David Tudor, Merce Cunningham, Charles Olson and Esteban Vicente and the new work they were doing. Speaking of Cage, Tudor and Cunningham, Voulkos wrote, “I had never been exposed to that kind of work at all, and it was sort of eerie… Coming from Montana, I’d just never seen any of it, heard any of it…. And it was so beautiful and so new to me that, gee, I just really got turned on.”

Voulkos was also inspired by Picasso and by Shoji Hamada. Indeed some of his work is reminiscent of Picasso’s ceramics. That Hamada inspired him surprised me. When Bernard Leach, Shoji Hamada and Soetsu Yanagi made their famous tour of the US in 1952 and conducted a workshop at the Archie Bray Foundation, Voulkos kicked the wheel for Hamada. “I was right there,” he said “and had my head down with his, and he’d tell me to kick faster or slower, so I was just watching his hands.” Voulkos was impressed with the economy and looseness of Hamada’s throwing and the spiritual connection he had with the clay. Many young American potters of the time, and in years since, have been inspired by Hamada, embracing the concept of Mingei, even traveling to Japan to apprentice. Voulkos took that inspiration to turn away from pots and craft to make gigantic ceramic sculptures.

The book talks about the relationship between Abstract Expressionist painting and Abstract Expressionist ceramics, about the influence of the East on both, apparently acknowledged by those in ceramics but not by the painters, the reception that each of the men’s work received and their influence on and relationship with each other. I found the essay that discusses the men’s appearance or nonappearance in the press particularly telling and had to smile that early stories would be put in such newspaper sections as Hobbies or Interior Decoration. And I very much like the conceit of an essay that looks at the press coverage of an artist over time. I may have to steal the idea.

There are many full-page color plates of the sculptures plus black and white shots of the artists in various places, but what I enjoyed was reading about the social context for the work they were doing. I do have to wonder what Hamada thought of the work that young man who kicked his wheel for him ended up doing and becoming famous for, or if he thought about him afterwards at all.


Literary Gluttony

Shay Amber Wall Pocket

A plethora of new books on ceramics were published these past few days — exhibition catalogs, how to books, a bit of history — and I greedily want to devour them all in one reading gulp. They are stacked beside me on the red couch, along with seed catalogs, some gardening magazines, and a few other books.

When a book is lavishly illustrated, as ceramics books usually are, I have a habit of looking at all the photos and reading the captions before actually reading the book. And then, when I do read the text, I reread the captions. I read magazines this way too, especially gardening and pottery magazines, but worse, I flip through them from back to front.

I don’t know how I got into this habit.  You needn’t tell me that it’s crazy. I realize that. Now though, with the wealth of new clay books enticing me, I allow myself to read the captions in the entire stack. It’s quite an indulgence when there is so work to do but honestly, how much harm is there in a little literary gluttony now and then?

Finally, I choose one, Hand Building, by Shay Amber, to read through. I pick it because I primarily throw and I think it will be good to read about something else. It’s an attractive book, with French flaps and excellent photography. It’s meant for beginners. For someone new to clay, it would be very helpful.

I enjoy looking at the projects and the gallery pages. I am always interested in how others do things. The how-to sections are clear and offer step-by-step photos. Amber’s interpretation of the once ubiquitous wall pocket is quite original, with a stained applique rim and a combination of rough clay and glazed panel. I do not foresee anyone sticking dried weeds into it! Her footed square plates would be nice for serving cake and ice cream or perhaps appetizers at a party. I also liked her emphasis on surface decoration. So yes, a book worth spending time with.

Now, I will go glaze the large plates that have been drying and ponder which book I will read next.