Books and Pots and Emmanuel Cooper

Amongst makers, potters, it seems to me, are the wordiest, giving us stacks of books. One of the most prolific and influential was Emmanuel Cooper, the late British potter and author. I have multiple well-read editions of his World History of Pottery, that in later editions became the more lavish 10,000 Years of Pottery. And what potter does not have a copy of one of his glaze books on their reference shelves? He also wrote two of the most important biographies of potters, Bernard Leach: Life and Work, and Lucie Rie: Modernist Potter as well as a number of shorter biographies. In 1970, he founded Ceramic Review, which he edited. Philip Hughes writes, “Ceramic Review was pivotal in Emmanuel’s life and in the evolution of British ceramics.” If he never touched clay himself, he would be lauded as a major influence on 20th &  21st century ceramics.

But he did touch clay. Throughout his life, he was a maker and it is his making that informed his writing. Emmanuel Cooper OBE 1938 – 2012, published in 2013 by the Ruthin Craft Centre to coincide with a touring exhibition of Cooper’s work, celebrates Cooper the potter with essays by Chris White, Sebastian Blackie, Jeremy James, Josie Walter, Alison Oddey, a forward by Julia Pitts and Philip Hughes, Colophon by Philip Hughes and an introduction by his longtime partner, David Horbury.

We learn that, unlike so many other potters in the UK, he was not intent on a rural life, and worked instead in an urban basement studio. Sebastian Blackie writes, “An interesting aspect of Cooper’s making environment that is not evidenced in the work is the relative chaos of his studio. Cooper’s writing required a very ordered mind so it is surprising to discover this side of his character…a cramped basement littered with precarious stacks of half finished pots and other ceramic detritus.”  His partner David Horbury in describing the three basement rooms where Cooper worked says, “All around on makeshift shelves were hundreds of glaze tests, their colour and textures obscured by dust and debris, and in every space there were pots – fired and un-fired – huge thrown porcelain bowls, jug forms of all sizes and variations, large platters and hand-built work and, in the darker furthest corners, the remains of his production ware – a relish tray, a bread crock, a stack of saucers.” The keeper of a “chaotic” studio myself, in the basement no less, though a walk out basement, I find Cooper’s messiness reassuring.

Potting in an urban studio, he did not have the old barns and sheds that his rural colleagues possessed, and with no place to house large wood burning kilns and stacks of wood, he embraced the electric kiln. His glazes are proof that good glazes can indeed come from an electric kiln.

Cooper was a production potter for his first twenty years, producing tableware and dishes, selling largely to restaurants.  This work informed his later individual pieces. Blackie writes, “Cooper’s individual pots, made in small batches, have an authority and clarity that is the product of years of repetition throwing. It is an apprenticeship few of today’s makers have benefited from. His work always remained domestic in scale and it is interesting that he continued to weigh his clay for all his pieces…”

Throughout his life, he made pots while he wrote and taught and conducted his thousands of glaze tests. The book is illustrated with black and white biographical photos, two-page close-up spreads of glazes, and color photos of the jugs and bowls that were the shapes that defined him.

Long an admirer of Cooper’s research and his books, I was grateful to discover some of the man and his pots here on the page. He deserves as fulsome a biography as he wrote of Lucie Rie, but for now, Emmanuel Cooper OBE 1938-2012 is a most welcome addition to ceramic literature.

David Frith and Margaret Frith Potters

It doesn’t get more pottery-romantic than David Frith, Margaret Frith: 50 Years of Brookhouse Pottery by Jane Wilkinson. Published in 2013 by the Ruthin Craft Centre in the UK but new to me, the book is a delight. I spent an hour happily turning the pages and poring over the photos, fantasizing, before actually reading a word.

The pots are luscious: David’s stoneware, Margaret’s porcelain, meticulously thrown and glazed, pick-me-up tactile, all evoking pot envy, or at least covetousness. David’s platters are large enough to hang on an exterior wall. Margaret’s teapot invites a brew of Earl Grey. We see jugs, bottles, large jars and a wonderful array of tea bowls expertly made and photographed.

And then there is the pottery itself. Who has not dreamed of restoring a quaint old stone mill by a riverside and making it one’s workplace? Brookhouse is what you imagine when you think of a country pottery. Margaret has planted abundant gardens. There are spacious outbuildings on both sides of the river, and an airy kiln shed that is beautiful. Paths. Bridges. Potted plants. Flowerbeds. Decks. Large windows. Did I say the kiln shed is beautiful?

But a place such as Brookhouse, and such great pots, do not just happen. They take imagination and years of hard work and dedication. David and Margaret Frith began working together more than fifty years ago, starting with a line of slipware. In 1975 they bought a semi-derelict 18th century woolen mill turned brewery called the Malt House and began arduous renovations, converting the property into a home and workshop. They renamed their picturesque North Wales haven Brookhouse Pottery. Here they have raised a family, made pots, entertained guests such as David Leach, Michael Cardew, and Mick Casson, hosted exhibitions and taught workshops. Their work continues today. The book is a nice look at the Friths lives and work together.

Edmund de Waal on Porcelain

Three hundred years ago the Jesuit priest Pére J’Entrecolles wrote letters to his superiors describing in rich detail the manufacture of porcelain. The Catholic priest had been sent to Jingdezhen to proselytize to the local residents of this bustling eighteenth century Chinese city. Many of his potential converts worked with porcelain. His reports described all aspects of porcelain production from digging the special materials to firing. At the time how to make porcelain was a mystery to potters at home. A few years ago, Edmund de Waal, the acclaimed British author and potter, who has had a long obsession with porcelain, “brought” Pére J’Entrecolles along as his initial guide on his pilgrimage to discover the roots of porcelain. He carried and consulted marked up copies of the letters during his trip to Jingdezhen. He tells the story of his search in The White Road: Journey Into an Obsession. “This journey, “ he says, “is a paying of dues to those that have gone before.”

His quest takes him to China, Germany, South Carolina, and through his own England. The book is peopled with fascinating characters. Even if you have read numerous accounts of the alchemist Johann Frederich Böttger and his keeper/overseer Ehrenfried Walther von Tschirnhaus and how, while desperately trying to make gold, they discovered the secret of porcelain, you will find de Waal’s chapters about them worth reading. In his mind he is there too, with them, trying to understand what they were thinking, feeling what they feel, and he brings the reader along.

I was fascinated with the chapters on William Cookworthy, the Devon pharmacist who also was obsessed with making porcelain, and who succeeded, only to be outwitted by Josiah Wedgewood. And then there is Thomas Griffiths who, after crossing the Atlantic,  travels hundreds of miles into the wilderness of the American south, suffering rain and cold, to obtain “white earth” from the Cherokees and ship it back to England. The Cherokees, it turns out, also valued the clay and preferred he not make holes in it.

De Waal nicely intersperses his personal artistic journey – youthful years making stoneware, his struggles with firing, and thoughts on his studio practice – throughout the narrative. The book is divided into cups so that you feel he is not only making a book but that he is making pots to coincide with each section. The cups symbolize the book. Or perhaps the book follows the cups.

“You drop the lid of the huge lidded jar you have finally made,” he writes, “and it becomes ‘Jar for a Branch’. And you move on.” He shares his philosophies.  “Sets are a way of controlling the world. If you need this mortal world to reflect another kind of order, then things must match.”

I was immersed from the first page of the book. I love history. I am  intrigued by descriptions of how other potters work. He gives us both. The book is episodic, often written in the first person, so you feel immediacy. Towards the end, while he is writing, he is also in the process of moving his studio to a new spacious location. He tells us what he is reading. What he is thinking. How he works. “I sit at my wheel,” he says. “It is low and I am tall. I hunch. There is a ziggurat of balls of porcelain clay to my left, a waiting pile of ware boards to my right, a small bucket of water, a sponge, a knife and a bamboo rib shaped like a hand axe in front of me.” He has a space upstairs where he writes. There are books. Oh dear! Is that jealousy I am feeling?

Two complaints: The book does not have an index. Yes, I am an index junky, but really a book with this much history, so many facts and locations, and such intriguing characters, should have an index. And though de Waal read deeply and did extensive research, the book has neither endnotes nor a bibliography. Instead, the reader is directed to his website, where indeed you can find all that you want to. Still, I found this annoying and hope that other publishers do not go this route in an effort to save money. I suspect these were publisher decisions and not de Waal’s, but who knows.

Wherever you are personally in the pottery world, and whether you admire de Waal’s installations or eschew them, you will want to read The White Road. It is an insightful and deep examination by an artist into his antecedents and the inspiration that sprung from them. The book is rich, multi-layered. Refreshingly, there is no art speak. Instead, it is a personal telling of well-researched history. It is an important book for the field, and the larger world.

Note: Edmund de Waal’s The Pot Book was released in paper late last year. I wrote about that in 2011 (Nov. 6) when it came out in hardcover.

The Marks of Potters

A few years ago my son Dan asked me why I don’t sign my name on my pots. He worried no one would know or remember that a particular bowl or jar was made by me from the mark I use to sign them.

In my early pottery years, I did sign my name, at first with manganese dioxide. Soon though, I switched to incising my name on the bottoms of pots with a needle tool: sometimes “Suzy,” sometimes “Staubach,” always printed because my handwriting is so horrible. Later, after turning the narrow attached-garage where I lived at the time, into a studio and the separate double garage into a shop, I began to incise “The Stone House Pottery” in an arc parallel to the foot ring.

But like many potters, I fell in love with the notion of a mark. I thought that marks were beautiful themselves and added to the charm of a handmade piece. I began to experiment with designs and made a few stamps but was not happy with any of them. Around the same time, during a visit to the Minnesota Center for Book Arts I noticed a package of old lead type for sale and bought it. After more experimenting, I began to mark my pots with a small round button of clay that I impress with the lead S from the type collection.

Of course Dan is still correct. One does not automatically know who made a pot from a potter’s’ mark.  Happily, James Hazlewood has edited and updated the classic British Studio Potters’ Marks by Eric Yates-Owen and Robert Fournier so for British ceramics, collectors can easily determine who the maker is from the mark. There are books on the marks of American studio potters available, but unfortunately, nothing as comprehensive and up to date as this.

British Studio Potters’ Marks is not a book to leave on the shelf, however, and use only for reference. It is a pleasure to turn the pages and study the various marks. There are plenty of potters who use a signature, though it is surprising how many are impossible to read. The majority, however use marks, many based on their name or initials.

Potters are listed in alphabetical order with images of their marks plus, and this is especially fun to read, dates and names of the potteries where they worked, birth and death dates if known, and a short description of the types of works made. It’s a wonderful way of looking at the history of British studio ceramics.

The index is organized into three sections, Creatures, Monograms, and Signs and many subsections. So, for instance you could turn to the subsection Triangles in the Signs section and see a two-page spread of marks that incorporate a triangle and the potter who used it. Or take a look at the subsection Birds under Animals and realize how popular bird imagery is for potters’ marks

British Studio Potters’ Marks is an excellent resource and for potters, a delightful read. I have spent many pleasant hours leafing through the pages.

The Beauty of Craft

Richard Batterham Jar

The Beauty of Craft: A Resurgence Anthology, a collection of essays edited by Sandy Brown and Maya Kumar Mitchell, examines the place of craft in today’s world from many perspectives. “Some time in the middle of the fifteenth century, painters, sculptors and architects, among them Leonard da Vinci and Michelangelo, Brunelleschi and Masaccio, began to question their status and demand equality with the poets. They began to disassociate themselves from the workers of the manual crafts,” John Lane writes in the opening section. “…In due course they were to be accepted as full members of Humanist society, and in the process to establish a hitherto inconceivable concept and realm: the idea of Art as a self-validating, self-referential domain…In consequence, this was the turning point that marked the end of the anonymous craft traditions and the beginning of the Artist as hero, the Artist with his or her unique vision, the Artist as genius – the Artist with clean hands.”  Alas, and some of us would say unfortunately, Artists were now seen as superior to (mere) makers.

Prior to this separation of craft and art, people had been making things of beauty for millennia. Potters, weavers, house builders, carpet makers made objects that were an integral part of daily life, that functioned well yet were also a pleasure to behold. The incised lines on a bowl, the carved beads on a wooden door, the vibrant colors of a blanket were not necessary for functionality but gave both the users and the makers aesthetic pleasure.

Today, the need for handmade objects for daily living is deeply diminished from da Vinci’s era. “Practically every artifact a person uses today, can easily be made from oil-derived plastic, in a large factory, by machine-minders whose chief quality is their ability to survive lives of intense boredom,” John Seymour writes in his essay. In her thoughtful entry Contemporary Concerns: What is the place of craft in a full world? Tanya Harrod writes, “Today more of us are consumers than producers,”

The book is divided into six major sections: World of Craft, Ways of Living, Culture of Community, Caring for Nature, Enduring Skills, and Seekers of Meaning.  Within each of the sections are essays by various authors. Happily, seven of the essays in the book are specifically about pottery, plus two more look at cob (doesn’t everyone working with clay dream of building with cob one day?), and potters slip into a several other chapters. Edmund de Waal discusses the benefits of an urban studio. Geraldine Norman enthuses about the earthenware that Clive Bowen makes in his rural North Devon shop. David Whiting brings us Richard Batterham, whom he calls “both the most faithful and least imitative of the Leachean potters.”

The Beauty of Craft is a project of Resurgence, a magazine The Guardian calls “The spiritual and artistic flagship of the green movement.” The book is not easy to summarize. It contains differing viewpoints. I found it soothing and celebratory.