Finding Some Oldies But Goodies

I was prowling around Powell’s with a close knit group of independent booksellers and supposed to be looking at things like signage and displays and floor coverings, when I slipped into the room with the ceramics books and did a bit of private browsing and yes, shopping. After years of obsessive-compulsive ceramic book buying, it was no surprise that many of the tomes on their shelves were back home on my shelves too. I already own most of the books this world famous City of Books offered. But not all.

Years ago I took Dennis Park’s A Potter’s Guide to Raw Glazing and Oil Firing out of the library and read it carefully, but could not afford to buy it at that time. I do own his delightful memoir, Living in the Country Growing Weird: A Deep Rural Adventure. Powell’s copy was in excellent shape, and since I have single-fired all these years, I thought it would be fun and maybe useful to reread.

It was fun to reread. What a different world we lived in then. There’s innocence to the book and a refreshing sense of optimism. To my surprise, I don’t raw glaze at all the way Parks does (or did then). I glaze my pots in the leather hard or green stage by pouring. I always pour the inside first and wait a day or two before glazing the exterior. For my glazes and my clay, this has been problem free. He advocates glazing pots when they are bone dry, which works for him, but is disastrous for me.

I also found a beautiful hardcover 1886 edition of The Art of the Old English Potter by L. M. Solon. It is a wonderful object in and of itself, with a gold stamped cloth cover, sewn binding, and smooth creamy paper. Solon, whom I know nothing about, except what can be gleaned from reading the book, made detailed etchings of the pots he discusses. He was a very close observer.

He loves the old English country pottery, and collects slipware himself. Relishing in the old names for pots, he tells us that a cruske, cruskyn or cruche is a jug; that a gallipot is a small mug; and a costeril is a flask to be slung over the shoulder.

Here is his description of a typical seventeenth century pottery in the Moorlands cribbed, he confesses, from Miss Meteyard’s biography of Wedgwood:

“The oven – only one – was eight feet high and six feet wide. It was surrounded by a wall of broken saggers to keep the heat in, and this wall, later on became the hovel. It stood in a secluded spot, most often at the crossing of two roads, near a little stream of water. Round the oven clustered the open sheds where the different operations necessary to complete each piece were performed, and the family dwelling, a small thatched cottage. The thrower worked in one place; the contrivance he used was of the simplest description, being rather a ‘whirler’ than a potter’s wheel. The potter’s wheel is kept in rotation, while the hand that fashions the clay into shape remains fixed; the whirler differs from the wheel in this respect, that one hand turns it at intervals, bringing successively before the other hand the parts that have to be rounded. Next to the thrower sat the handler, sticking on the handles and spouts; what tools he used were certainly very primitive, being nothing more than a pointed bit of iron and a flattened strop of wood. In another shed were the man who traced upon the best pieces fanciful scrolls and lines of slip, and he who through a course cloth dusted upon them the pulverized galena for glazing. Very often the same man performed all these different tasks. Close by, the diluted clay was evaporated in the sun-pan, until it became thick enough to be conveniently worked, or else the moistened clay was thrown against a dry wall, from which, the water becoming evaporated, the lumps fell upon the ground, ready to be stored in a damp place for further use. Isolated from the rest of the world the potter worked there, attended by his sons and his wife. Sometimes a labourer or two completed the staff, which never seems to have numbered more than eight people. When the stock was ready for sale, the wife took it to the nearest fair, leading, pipe in mouth, the double-panniered asses, and there either sold her goods to the cratemen, or exchanged them at the town shops for such articles as she wanted to take back home.”

Solon gives his history in chronological order, beginning with the Roman occupation and ending with the ornate molded pots made in Industrial age potworks. Though he likes the early pots, he clearly thinks the fancy pots are superior, an opinion with which many of us today, including myself, would vehemently disagree.

Curiously, both Parks and Solon show the heartbreaking sculpture the 17th century potter John Dwight made of Lydia, his baby daughter while grieving her death. Parks has a photo in his book and does not comment except to say in the caption that Dwight was credited with introducing salt glaze to England. Solon made an etching of the piece and tells us that the sorrowing father also made a cast of his baby girl’s hand.

The third book I found was John Spargo’s Early American Pottery and China, published in 1926. Also written for collectors, it is illustrated with nice black and white photos of some truly wonderful pots. Like Solon, Spargo believes that the fancy molded pots of later years were a step forward in the potter’s art, but he spends considerable time on early American redware and stoneware and the potters who made it. He has done extensive work researching potters and offers several charts such as one titled, “A Chronological List of Potters Known or Believed to Have Made Slip-Decorated and Sgraffito Wares” with potters’ names, locations, the dates they worked, and any marks if any.

No one would mistake any of these books as being written today, but I think they were each a good find, and the perfect prelude to reading The Last Sane Man, the biography of Michael Cardew which just landed in American bookstores and of course, my own reading pile.

Ethel Sets the Table

Edwin Beer Fishley bowl

The third and last of the books I ordered from Cotswolds Living in the UK is Michael Cardew, Ethel Mairet and the New Handworkers Gallery: The Hill Collection, again by John Edgeler. In this monograph, Edgeler looks at the collection of pots, originally amassed by Ethel Mairet but passed into the hands of her heirs the Hill family, residents of New Zealand.

Mairet was a weaver. She married Ananda Coomaraswamy, an art historian and philosopher but the union was short lived. She then married Philip Mairet, a draughtsman, and together the couple built a comfortable Arts and Crafts style house called Gospels. She was an excellent weaver, studied the weaving of many other cultures, and wrote articles and books.

What makes her interesting to us is she was deeply appreciative of not only her own craft, weaving and spinning, but in everything handmade. She had an eye for excellence. She set up a gallery in her home and sought out talented craftspeople. She was particularly interested in pottery, and ended up deeply influencing three of the most influential potters of the twentieth century; Bernard Leach, Shoji Hamada and Michael Cardew. She did this by serving dinner.

The country potter Edwin Beer Fishley, whose shop was nearby, was one of Mairet’s friends. She collected and used his pottery and, when she later became friends with Leach and Hamada and Cardew she introduced them to his work. She invited Hamada and Leach to dinner at her house. She set her large oak table with pitchers of various sizes, oval dishes, and green plates, all made by her friend, the slipware potter E.B.Fishley. It was a table setting the men never forgot and which Hamada still exclaimed over years later. When Hamada was about to return to Japan, she gave him a woolen suit she’d sewn from cloth she’d woven, seen in many subsequent photos of him. And he brought English slipware to Japan so he could continue look at it.

Leach declared Fishely the “last peasant potter” and praised him in his books. Cardew wanted to make pots that were as strong, and asked Fishley’s grandson, William Fishely Holland to teach him to throw.

The book is actually a catalog. Many of the photos are of early Cardew pots, which dominate the collection. The Cotswolds Living books are small, nicely produced affairs with good quality photos. Reading the book, I liked being reminded what an impact a table set with beautiful handmade dishes can have on the dinner guests.

The Slipware of Michael Cardew

I have continued with the three books I ordered from the UK by the collector, writer, dealer and publisher John Edgeler. After reading about the Fishleys, I turned to Michael Cardew, Edgeler’s passion, and read Michael Cardew and the West Country Slipware Tradition. Much has been written about Cardew, including his own books, but Edgeler is still worth a look, especially because his focus is on the country slipware potters that influenced Cardew and Cardew’s interpretations of their work.

“In his slipware pots at Winchcombe, arguably his best work,” Edgeler writes,  “Cardew has instinctively put truth to materials as his first priority in throwing wares of great beauty, but his lack of technical knowledge led to unpredictable results. The pots that were born in his firings had an accidental aesthetic, a quality of the kiln that was not controlled or controllable but was accepted by Cardew. Yanagi in the same way saw quality in misfired pots made by Kawai Kanjiro that were regarded as ‘imperfect’ by their maker; as did the Japanese Tea Masters in their admiration of particular misshapen and cracked water jars and tea bowls.”

By the end of the thirties, Cardew, wanting more durability than he could achieve with earthenware, and having vastly increased his technical skills and knowledge, turned to stoneware. After flirting briefly with factory design for the masses at the instigation of communist Henry Bergen, he introduced stoneware in his Wenford Bridge pot shop and produced stoneware for the rest of his life, including his years in West Africa.

I think Cardew’s stoneware is beautiful. I like the well-balanced forms, the dark glazes, and the simple decorations. Yet I understand the sentiment that the slipwares he made at Winchcombe were his best works. Perhaps they were. They are deeply human pots, emotional. They speak of white washed kitchens, rustic tables, rural gardens and farms. In the beginning he was imitative of the traditional potters around him, of course, as that is how one learns, but he soon made the pots his own while managing to keep them traditional.

Cardew made jugs, mixing and washing bowls, lidded jars, plates, platters and chargers, tankards, cider jars, teapots, coffee pots, cups and saucers, handled casseroles, thrown and ovalled dishes, moulded dishes, vases and other domestic wares. He was more interested in form than decoration and is best known for his meander, a wavy line across the base of a bowl or belly of a jar. He used finger and stick wipes, sliptraililng, brushwork (from Chinese wares rather than West Country pots), sgraffito, chevrons and incised lettering.

Edgeler pays close attention to the styles of the West Country potters and what Cardew took from them. He includes photos of both Cardew’s pots and those he admired. Most interestingly, he provides two “interpretive charts of the early studio pioneers.” These are reminiscent of family trees, but they are influence lines and lines of “cultural osmosis” rather than bloodlines, beginning with English Medieval forms. He also offers a short bibliography which was a reminder to me of how many books are published in the UK that do not get published in the US. Many do, but many do not. Of course I want all the books I do not already have on my shelves. Some old time slipware pots would be nice too. I am dreaming of a jug but a small bowl would do.

The Slipware Potters of the Fishley Family

Bernard Leach called Edwin Beer Fishley (1832-1912) “the last peasant potter.” It’s true that old time country potters who dug their own clay and threw it by the ton in rural workshops were dwindling in number but Edwin Beer Fishley was not the only one left. Indeed, Edwin Beer passed on the tradition to his grandson, William Fishley Holland (1863-1944) whose son, George Tonkin Holland (1950-1959) also became a potter. Still, one can see what Leach meant. Edwin Beer was a talented thrower and decorator descended from the fabled family of slipware potters, the Fishley brothers, fathers, sons, and occasional daughter. He produced big-bellied harvest jugs inscribed with poems and images; baking dishes that he made oval by cutting out a leaf shaped hole in the base and squeezing the hole closed; and an astonishing variety of pots to suit the changing tastes. Leach was impressed with his work and later, Michael Cardew learned from his grandson William Fishley Holland.

The collector John Edgeler tells the stories of the many generations of Fishley potters in The Fishleys of Fremington: A Devon Slipware Tradition. Retired from a career in finance and a collector since his early teens, Edgeler has devoted himself to the pots of Michael Cardew, Ray Finch, and the work of the early slipware potters who preceded them. He founded a small press, Cotswolds Living, in honor of his bookseller dad, Bill Edgeler and has published a carefully researched and interesting list on English slipware. I will look at a few more of his books in upcoming weeks.

Before writing of the Fishley potters, Edgeler describes the countryside and the glacially deposited beds of red and white clays that enriched the area and enabled a thriving pottery industry. He gives an overview of North Devon slipware, the manner of making, and the typical shapes and methods of decorating thus placing the Fishleys in the context of their time and surroundings.

Edwin Beer Fishley

There are maps, old drawings of the pot shop and kilns, and lots of color photos of the lively old pots. I love the black and white photos of the potters dressed in tweed jackets or vests, caps on their heads, their torsos wrapped in generous aprons that almost reached the floor. How could they work in such attire? But work they did. Harry Juniper, the traditional slipware potter whom Edgeler interviewed in the summer of 2007 when he was in his sixtieth year of potting said, “I knew Fishley Holland very well. I rather liked him, a cocky little bugger…he was great, he turned up at Yelland and started criticizing Michael [Leach] as being too slow and laid back. The Fishleys worked – they bragged of a thousand plant pots a day. This was what they were like, they boasted about the work, they loved it, it was damned hard work.”

Well yes, “damned hard work.” And we might add they made, “damned nice pots.”