- The ceramics most people are familiar with is commercial and is therefore functional rather than aesthetic/sculptural. This industry is dominated by Staffordshire companies including Wedgwood. Although these are technologically innovative, advances in design are fewer than in the nineteenth century. For example, at Josiah Wedgwood’s Etruria factory, modellers and artists created a series of fine figures and the firm produced outstanding wares in creamware, jasperware and Parian. Contemporary ‘non-commercial’ craft ceramics, on the other hand, very often sees itself as a poor relation to the fine arts, in terms of its profile in education, its funding from government and its public esteem. It has gone through the doldrums, and there is a consensus that the 1980s were more dynamic than the 1990s. However, where exhibitors can provide the space, the interest is there. For example, in 1993 the Ceramic Contemporaries exhibition of work by art school students and recent graduates at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) was visited by 12,000 people.Arguably, the two major institutional influences on British ceramics are the V&A and the Craft Council, though the former is better known to the public than the latter. For generations, the V&A has been the place to visit for an overview of the history of ceramics from Britain and abroad. Under its Chief Curator of Ceramics and Glass, Oliver Watson, the V&A Ceramics department has 70,000 objects in its care. However, despite its crucial responsibility, the V&A only has £12,000 a year to spend on acquisitions (aside from some private help) and this has to cover the fields of ceramics, glass, stained glass and plastic. Hence it will always be a record of ceramics from the past rather than a determinant of the direction of the contemporary. The Crafts Council, on the other hand (which has an annual budget of £3.2m), attempts to fund individual potters working in the here and now. It disbursed £175,000 to individuals setting up as potters in 1996–7. By deft administrative manoeuvring, it has managed not to be subsumed into the Arts Council, but ceramists complain that it lacks the creative vision to supply leadership to the field of ceramics. Its current remit controversially includes the promotion of fashion. As regards individual potters, perhaps the best known and most influential figure this century has been Bernard Leach. The major exhibition ‘Bernard Leach—Potter and Artist’ toured six Japanese museums and ended at the Craft Council in 1998. Leach studied at two art schools in London and went to Japan in 1911, and ‘discovered’ pottery as a medium capable of expressing universal values. On his return to England he established the Leach Pottery at St Ives, Cornwall. His essay ‘Towards a Standard’ and A Potter’s Book were well regarded for the rigour and philosophical basis on which they sought to place ceramics, and they became highly influential. Practitioners became more aware of the philosophies behind the works they were producing. Leach applied Zen to the practice of the craft. History has not been kind to his ideas in the sense that the dispersal of the ‘stable self’ and ‘grand narratives’ has empowered the marginalized, and he can thus now sound patriarchal and authoritarian. However a potter like Terry Bell- Hughes who feels that his own work is about the reconciliation of conflicting ideas of modernism and contemporary rapid change (that is about the selfconscious rather than the un-self-conscious) nevertheless acknowledges Leach’s influence and pays tribute to his opening up of British ceramics to an oriental vision. After some uncertainty about the Leach Pottery in St Ives following the death of Janet Leach in 1997, English Heritage has designated it as a site of historic interest. A contrasting influential figure was the German immigrant Hans Coper, whose approach was intellectual and urban where Leach’s valued the instinctive, rural and natural world. Coper’s work was closer to that of the modernists Brancusi and Mies Van der Rohe. His friend Dame Lucie Rie, a Viennese refugee, produced colourful, urban and sophisticated new wave vases which now achieve the highest auction prices. The influential collector Liliana L.Epstein bought her work and that of the abstract, sculptural potters Gordon Baldwin (former head of ceramics at Eton College) and Ewen Henderson (who was taught by Rie at Camber-well). Baldwin and Henderson transcended the vessel shape at a time when, in the eyes of the art market, pots were pots and when the craft-versus-fine-art controversy seemed incapable of resolution.There are some positive straws in the wind for ceramics. The University of Sunderland has launched a £16 million scheme to develop a glassmaking facility under Dan Klein, Professor of Glass. The project includes a National Glass Centre. An example of the kind of work likely to be produced is that of Anna Norberg. She made fifty-one glass chairs, one for each day of the 1998 Sunderland Glass Season exhibition. Titled: ‘I Do Not Know What It Looks Like When Someone Dies: Electric Chair’, a tiny, 10.5 inch tall chair consists of glass tubing containing a glowing electric filament. When the hot filament is turned off at the end of each day, the glass shatters and the chair dies. A heap of glass accumulates around the chair’s plinth. Rising British glassmakers, in cast rather than blown glass, are Colin Reid, Peter Layton, Lucien Simon and Emma Woffenden. Ceramists include Joanna Constantinidis, Morgen Hall and Edmund de Waal. An attempt has been made to replicate the kind of arrangement common in painting galleries where artists are ‘tied’ to the gallery. The Barrett Marsden Gallery in Islington, under its co-founder, Taijana Marsden, formerly director of the charitable crafts organization Contemporary Applied Arts (CAA) and now a ceramics consultant to Christie’s, has taken the controversial step of making London-wide exclusivity agreements with thirteen artists, including such established names as Alison Britton and Martin Smith, head of ceramics at the Royal College of Art.Further readingCeramic Review, London: The Craft Potters Association of Great Britain (the most widely circulated and authoritative journal of ceramics).MIKE STORRY
Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . Peter Childs and Mike Storry). 2014.