Saturday 23 October 2021
Ceramic (defiantly singular) is an ambitious and important book that Paul Greenhalgh, a former Deputy Keeper of Ceramics at the V&A, has been planning for decades. It is both a celebration of and an impassioned plea for things made in clay, the most ubiquitous but underrated of materials.
Every chapter is generously illustrated with single pieces and interrelated groups, from both public and private collections. Chapters 7 (spanning Victorian excess to Art Nouveau), 8 (charting the emergence of the artist-potter) and 9 (dealing with modern and contemporary practice, abstraction and conceptualism, mainly in the USA) are probably those of most interest to DAS members.
Victorian eclecticism is introduced by the hideous Rhinoceros Vase, made in 1826 at Rockingham. It encapsulates all that both Morris and Modernism found abhorrent: huge size, formal incoherence and decorative excess. Design reformers reacted against such ‘ornamental abominations’.
Travel and trade in the later 19th century offered direct access to more exotic cultures and styles. Lord Leighton collected pots and tiles on trips to Turkey, Syria and Egypt, which he used to create his ‘Arab Hall’. Dr Christopher Dresser spent months touring Japan, informing his pioneering practice as a professional designer. In addition to the Art Pottery departments set up by established manufacturers, a new vocation emerged, that of the individual artist-potter.
Bernard Leach was by far the most influential of these. Regarding the potter as an artist who made pots, he was a great proselytiser, inspiring followers and establishing studio pottery as a global phenomenon. Many of those to benefit were emigrés and exiles from the political turbulence of 20th-century Europe. Meanwhile, renowned artists such as Gaugin and Picasso were producing a significant body of work in clay. At last, ceramic enjoys the status it always deserved, as a material frequently used by numerous artists.
Ceramic, Art and Civilisation
Paul Greenhalgh, Bloomsbury, 2021, £30 hb
Condensed from a review by Stella Beddoe in DAS Newsletter No. 123