by Roderick Conway Morris

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Private collection
Michael Cardew at work, c.1982-3

Things of Beauty Growing

By Roderick Conway Morris
CAMBRIDGE 11 May 2018


'Pottery is of all the arts the most intimately connected with life,' wrote the artist and critic Roger Fry in 1914. One could add that it is also the most spiritually resonant, dating back to the very dawn of civilization.

But in the early 20th century there was an increasingly widely held view in artistic circles that this precious link had been broken by wholesale industrialization. Or, as a Danish observer bluntly put it: 'The development through more than a thousand years of all ceramic arts…was brought to a standstill by the great English industry.'

This sense of loss gave birth to the British Studio Pottery movement, which is now the subject of an engaging exhibition of over 100 works by more than 50 artists at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, 'Things of Beauty Growing'. It takes its title from the words Michael Cardew - one of the leading exponents of the movement - used to describe the almost miraculous way a lump of wet clay takes on life and form on the potter's wheel.

In search of inspiration in the pre-lapsarian, pre-industrial era, Britain's studio potters first sought inspiration in Japanese, Chinese and Korean bowls and vases, stunning examples of which are juxtaposed with the earlier works of British studio potters. Bernard Leach spent over a decade in Japan and in 1920 brought Shoji Hamada back with him to establish a pottery in St. Ives.

The pursuit of pristine authenticity also revived an interest in historic British wares, which Roger Fry placed alongside Tang pottery as 'some of the greatest ceramics in existence' - a sentiment echoed in Michael Cardew's belief that it would be by 'developing our native pottery tradition that the very best hope for the future lies in the long run'.

Although British Studio Pottery represented a reaction to mass production, the pioneers were obliged to turn to traditional, small-scale, industrial potters to study the basic skills of throwing pots on the wheel. Michael Cardew, Roger Fry and Denise Wren all initially learned from serial makers of flower- and chimney-pots.

This was also the era of avant-garde movements in all areas of the arts. And the primary advocate of pottery as an ideal modernist form, that should be displayed alongside contemporary painting and sculpture, was William Staite Murray, who was described by a critic of The Times in 1927 as 'one of the most distinguished artists in Europe'. As Staite Murray declared in 1935: 'Pottery is by nature the most abstract of the plastic arts, it does not explain, it only indicates, its usefulness is in its emptiness.'

While Staite Murray was at the heart of the London art world during this period, Bernard Leach struggled for recognition in his remote pottery in St. Ives. But in the end it was Leach who, through adept self-promotion, sheer longevity and the world-wide success of his 'A Potter's Book', made his name a household word.

Changing fashions are reflected in the display of a series of tea and coffee sets spanning half a century, designed for various manufacturers by Roger Fry, Keith Murray, Susie Cooper, Bernard Leach, Lucie Rie and Ruth Duckworth. All were studio potters with impeccable credentials who found producing a coherent variety of forms for a single set a worthy (and potentially financially rewarding) challenge.

The notion of the set has since been used for more purely artistic purposes, as striking examples on show here illustrate. Jennifer Lee groups exquisitely balanced, banded and speckled hand-built stoneware beakers and bowls into mysterious and intriguing ensembles. And Gwyn Hannssen Pigott uses monochrome glazed porcelain vases and bowls to create strangely atmospheric effects reminiscent of the Italian painter Morandi, with elusive narratives, as in her 14-piece 'Kinder Trail', which takes its title from the Kindertransport that rescued Jewish children from the Nazis.

Clare Townley's 'Made in China' (2010) installation embraces industrial mass production in a manner that earlier 20th-century studio potters would surely have found alarming. This group, which spills out from the exhibition to invade the Fitzwilliam's surrounding galleries, consists of eighty enormous, bright-red vases, manufactured in Jingdezhen. All of Townley's commissioned vases have identical floral patterns, except for one that has hand-applied decoration in 18-carat gold by the artisans at Royal Crown Derby in Stoke-on-Trent in Staffordshire, once the epicentre of British pottery production. The gilding of this last vase cost than the making of all the others put together.

According to the artist, this conceptual stunt was inspired by a lovely 16th-17th-century Chinese porcelain bowl, painted in underglaze cobalt blue, currently on loan to the exhibition from the V&A. This visitor at least has few doubts as to which of these two works is 'a thing of beauty' and 'a joy for ever'.

Things of Beauty Growing; Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge; 20 March - 17 June 2018

First published: The Lady

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023