THE POTTER'S ART: A COMPLETE HISTORY OF POTTERY IN BRITAIN
By Garth Clark
Phaidon Press (London)
240 pp, $59.95
There is little doubt that the untutored peasant potters of old would find it hard to understand some of the ceramic fantasies of today that go under the heading of pottery. Not only the peasant potters, in fact, but the industrial potters that largely replaced them.
Even the artist-potters of the late 19th century arts and crafts movement would scratch their heads over the eccentric and egocentric directions taken in recent years by what Garth Clark calls "the potter's art."
This is the title of his book, and even this title is a sign of the times: It is no longer the potter's craft. It is art.
The book has a subtitle - "A Complete History of Pottery in Britain" - since it is not a world survey but traces the story of pottery in one small country. "Complete," even then, is quite a claim. In fact, as Mr. Clark admits, he has chosen to concentrate more on key individuals or styles than attempt to mention every last industrial potter at the time of Josiah Wedgwood, for instance, the dominant figure of his period, or to touch on more than a select few of the hundreds of British potters producing notable work today. Inevitably, then, some superb studio potters of the 1980s and 1990s are not named.
To Clark's credit, though, this is a competent, clearly organized, readable, and informative survey. It is like a series of good lectures, with an adequate surge of photographs alongside. It is persuasive, too: Britain can be seen to have made a variety of impressive and original contributions to the world's ever-changing, but still somehow traditionally based concept of this earthbound art, craft, what-you-will.
Surely the world would be poorer without the naive, yet self-confidently inventive English slipware of the 17th century. And what would it be without Wedgwood? And if such modern potters as Bernard Leach or Lucie Rie were absent from the scene, there is nobody who might fill their shoes.
If our consciousness of the value of pottery is to be raised, if it is to be thought of as art, then the British might be prouder of their often denigrated contribution to art history.
Clark points out, however, that in the earliest periods, and up to the Middle Ages at least, potters - erthpotters - could hardly have had a lower status. They were, frankly, illiterate, clay-grubbing peasants. A far cry from the art school/university graduates who pursue vessel-making and the ceramic arts in the 1990s and sell them in galleries for thousands of pounds.
The medieval rich preferred their vessels to be made of anything but clay: They liked leather, metal, wood, or glass for their tables. So pottery was for the poor. One result of this was that while potters on the Continent developed the use of the wheel, used grates in their kilns, and made shelters for them, all these technological advantages took forever to be adopted in Britain.
The occupying Romans had introduced sophisticated pottery, but once they left, the native potters simply forgot whatever they had learned. All the same, there were moments when British pottery began to achieve a boldness and a sense of form and balance that were more than mere utility. It was from this gradually emerging character that the slipware pottery of the 17th century developed.
A 20th-century writer called it "the purest work of the English potter." The exuberant and artless "Mermaid Dish," (top photo) made in Staffordshire around 1670 by Ralph Toft, is an engaging example.
This kind of work was a manifestation, in reality, of a craft under threat of extinction. Clark calls it "a golden period of folk-pottery" but also "a short-lived reprieve" for the medieval heritage of the peasant potter whose wares, in competition with delftware and new, more sophisticated stoneware pottery, were being overtaken by a demand for "lighter, refined and more resilient ware."
The admiration for this slipware in our century was not confined to collectors and writers. Mr. Leach (although he was a prolific writer) was principally a potter, and he admired its "homeliness, breadth and redolence of the English countryside." But Leach also admired Korean and Japanese pottery, and it is partly this cultural breadth of influence that made his work - and the work of a number of his contemporaries and followers - more than some modern perpetuation of the arts and crafts opposition to mass producing by machine.
It was in Leach's period that the seeds of the potter-as-artist were sown, though he was sensitive to the dangers of pretension.
Some of the potters in Clark's chapter on the Modernists - including Rie and the much less adulated Yorkshire-born potter Joanna Constantinidis - have made work that seems to stick in the memory as a refined abstraction and a purity of controlled form, with decoration that is not so much added as an almost integral part of the pot's structure.
In Rie's case, when she escaped the Nazis and left Austria for England, she was overwhelmed for some time by the forceful convictions of Leach. But her individuality resurfaced, and Leach came to admire her work although it was quite different from his. She never admitted to being an artist, however "modern" and spare her work might be.
She disliked theory. She just made pots. Pots that could be used. But what pots!
She was endlessly re-inventive, very aware of older and different pottery cultures, yet never so refined that the feel of her hand and her love of the freedom of glaze, color, and the fiery unpredictabilities of the kiln were not always present.
Ms. Constantinidis is also a down-to-earth maker of useable pots. But she has also what amounts to a sculptural side. What might appear to be a group of vases are more like a small crowd of curious (though much abstracted) people. Function or utility is hardly involved at all. Yet these are still unmistakably clay and glaze. They may be art, but they are definitely still pots.