Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Mug's Mug

Writing in the January issue of Icon magazine, editor Justin McGuirk describes going into a shop in Tokyo that sold Japanese handicrafts. Inside one particular cabinet he saw a handmade mug made of black clay with a white glaze. It was, he says modestly, ‘rather beautiful’. The crunch, however, was the price tag – nearly £30 – and he hastily put it down thinking it was way over the top. Several minutes and two streets later the mug remained in his memory as he recalled the pleasing way that the dark clay resonated behind the milky glaze, the uneven surface, a base that was not quite circular and the handle not perpendicular. ‘Eloquently imperfect, the mug lingered with me’. McGuirk contrasted the quiet beauty of the mug with the ‘factory-smooth and mute’ mugs he used daily, adding how much he would rather have the black and white one than all of his own.

It is a paean of praise for the discretely handmade, for the quality of individual expression, for an awareness of character and the pleasure of intimate contact with an object that performs a simple but important task. McGuirk’s reluctance to buy was down to perceived worth or value when contrasted with functional mugs produced by industry that could be purchased for a fraction of the price. Yet, in terms of satisfaction value, he makes it clear that the handmade product far outweighed any material cost, its intrinsic worth more than justifying the higher price. He concludes by saying that, in his opinion, ‘the only way forward for us as a consumer society is to buy fewer things that we value more’, a statement with which it is hard to disagree. When Icon magazine features the best/liveliest/inventive/pleasing/beautiful handmade mugs from the UK then this will, indeed, be a sign of change.

Should you want to support Justin McGuirk in his appreciation of the handmade his email is

Monday, 8 December 2008

Save Harrow Ceramics

It has come as a shock to hear from the ceramics course team at the University of Westminster, Harrow, that, after working to create a beautiful, well-equipped new department after last year’s devastating fire, management has prepared a case for the closure of Harrow’s world-renowned BA Hons Ceramics course. Recruitment of new students has been suspended in a run-down to closure, which is planned for 2013 – the fiftieth anniversary of ceramics teaching at Harrow.

The University of Westminster has taken the closure decision despite the national and international reputation of the course, its first-class academic standing and its huge significance for British art, craft and design. Far from its standards being questioned, it is said to pose problems because it takes up too much space. As a senior manager justifying the course closure said: ‘the trouble with clay is you can’t store it on a memory stick’.

This issue appears to not only be London-centric, but nationwide. A feature in the forthcoming edition of Ceramic Review (CR235, Jan/Feb 2009) reports on Mapping Current Activity and Sustaining Future Making, a symposium called in response to the recent closure of Glasgow’s BA Hons Ceramics, the last dedicated ceramics course in Scotland. It seems that ‘bums on seats’ is the priority and ceramics departments are being pushed out as a drain on resources. As Jane Cairns, spokesperson for the Ceramics Students Action Committee says: ‘This is an appalling act of cultural vandalism – it is all about balance sheets, square footage and accountancy, not art. It is a betrayal and a disgrace.’

Current students and staff have embarked on a determined campaign to save Harrow ceramics and are seeking as much support from the wider ceramics/arts/education community as possible to stop the closure. Please write or email your views to Vice-Chancellor Geoffrey Petts (, with a copy to the Dean of Media, Arts and Design, Sally Feldman (, and also to the Ceramics Course Leader, Kyra Cane (

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Real Wages

Following on from my piece about potters’ income, I was fascinated to see a quote by Roger Deakin, offering a somewhat different perspective.

‘The real wages of the potter are in the daily silent appreciations of each of their customers as they pour tea from their teapot, or drink coffee from their mug, or eat dinner off their plate.’
From Notes From Walnut Tree Farm

It is true that the ‘use value’ of tableware is likely to far outweigh any financial cost or worth. As a maker of domestic ware for many years, customers write to me after a gap of twenty years or more asking for replacements for broken pieces. Alas, materials have changed and, try as I do, the results barely match the older wares. However, what was bought for a few pounds many moons ago has consistently given pleasure to the user. This is ‘real worth’. It does not help to pay my bills, nor do I get PLR or any other rights on it, and I like the fact that the pots have been and still are in use.

Rather than thinking ‘real wages’, maybe it would be more helpful to talk of ‘real satisfaction’, an alternative way of describing both the enjoyment of making and the pleasure of using pots.


To quote a truism, Stoke-on-Trent is not what it was. In the 1960s it was one of the world’s major producers of ceramics, and was the UK’s single biggest manufacturers. Giants like Wedgwood, Spode and Worcester were unstoppable, secure in buoyant sales here and overseas. The old, smoky, inefficient but, to us, romantic bottle kilns were pulled down to be replaced by gas and oil-fired continuous tunnel kilns. The air cleared, order books were full, there was work aplenty. Workers were skilled, and much of the making was done by hand.

As Harold Macmillan remarked, the industry was overtaken by ‘events’. Overseas manufacturers, working with a vastly cheaper labour force, started to produce similar items at much lower cost. Few factories seriously researched the changing market as the traditional wedding present – the dinner service or teaset – went out of favour for something less formal. Like the redundant bottle kilns even many of the factories have now been reduced to rubble.

Now comes welcome news of a phoenix rising from the ashes. Later in 2009 a giant ceramics biennale is planned for Stoke that will look at the new while acknowledging the past. An inventive series of exhibitions, events, happening etc will occur throughout the city that will reenergise and transform the area. Maybe they will even fire one of the few surviving bottle kilns.

Watch this space.

Issue 235 latest

The January/February 2009 issue of Ceramic Review is in the final stages of production. A set of colour-accurate proofs were delivered to the CR offices today, and these have been pored over by the editorial team in order to tease out any errors that may have escaped our collective gaze, and to check that the colour and quality of photographs are as expected.

The next issue features the annual Gallery Map, which has been reformatted into an A5 booklet after 7 years as a fold-out sheet. An essential guide to nearly 200 ceramics galleries in the UK and Ireland, the new format allows space for a larger map (which, at the very least, will make my job easier when I come to plot the locations of the galleries), as well as a calendar giving details of all the main ceramics fairs taking place in 2009. (A good point at which to plug London’s premier selling fair for ceramics, Ceramic Art London, which takes place 27 February – 1 March 2009 at the Royal College of Art. See for full details.)

Carrot, Spinach and Walnut Salad

Another in our occasional series of recipes served in handmade pots (in this case a John Butler dish), this is a fusion of Japanese and western cooking. You can alter the amount of mustard and give it a bit more kick!

1 large carrot
1 bunch of spinach (about 100g)
1 handful of walnuts (about 20g)
Soy sauce
English mustard

1 Grate the carrot into a bowl.

2 Boil or steam the spinach and lightly squeeze to drain the water. Pour a little soy sauce on the spinach and lightly squeeze again.

3 Cut the spinach into smaller pieces and mix with grated carrot.

4 Chop the walnuts into small bits and add to the carrot and spinach.

5 Add one tablespoonful of mayonnaise and one teaspoonful of English mustard to the mix.

6 Mix well and serve.

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Potters' Income

It’s always difficult/fascinating to talk about money, and, like sex, people do not always reveal all. So it was with some scepticism that I read about a recent survey conducted over a period of three years by Cockpit Arts. This concluded that the average income for a potter was £13,000. Cockpit Arts ‘the UK’s only creative business incubators for designer-makers’, is one of the largest providers of communal workshop space in London, with buildings in Holborn and Deptford. It offers workshop space mostly to makers at the start of their careers, though some tend to remain. The studios house makers involved in thirteen different craft disciplines, with over a third working in textiles and a fifth in ceramics. Some 30% work full-time, the rest taking part-time employment such as shop or bar work, teaching, lecturing or designing. Although 50% of businesses report a turnover of between £10-50,000, ceramic businesses have the lowest turnover at £13,000.

What is not clear from the survey is whether the £13,000 represented full- or part-time commitment, but in London, while a possible ‘living wage’, it is modest. Few potters survive on potting alone – though some do and do so handsomely – and few enter the crafts to get rich quick. Notoriously, income from making tends to be limited, and potters eke out a living from their often hard work. The question of finance is one still shrouded in mystery and clarification would be welcome. The world, as they say, does not owe potters (or any other maker) a living, but it would be good to know that they do not starve.

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

London Calling

Looking through the latest broadsheet – a ridiculous unmanageable size – from Haunch of Venison, a trendy newish gallery in London, my eye was caught by an illustration of a bronze by William de Kooning, Hostess (pictured), which is 124.5 cm high. This large sculpture is so obviously modelled freely in clay in the first instance then cast in bronze that I wanted to see the original rather than the cast. What is so engaging about the piece is the freedom of the modelling suggesting that de Kooning allowed his fingers rather than his head to find the form. The piece itself, like many of de Kooning’s paintings, combines freedom with control, tension with calmness and angst with abandon. Without sounding too much like Pseuds Corner, it is a piece that captures some sort of ‘essence’. The reason I am writing about it is that it would be great to see established sculptors using clay as a material in its own right. Occasionally the great modeller Rodin allowed clay pieces to exist, but in the art world these have little value in comparison with bronze. Yet clay carries such resonant associations with the earth, with something primal and basic, that it adds further layers of meaning to studies of the figure. Using clay as the ‘staging post’ for bronze and other metals is an age-old process, but soon clay will be rediscovered by sculptors and galleries with the realisation that it can be just as, if not more, powerful a medium as any other.


Synonyms can be as helpful as they are confusing. The recently opened mima (lower case is house style) is useful shorthand for Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art. The splendid new building houses the long-established collection of studio ceramics, which is one of the best in the country, though alas, only on show from time to time. The most recent synonym is MAD, short for museum of arts and design (again lower case, which is obviously in fashion). Quite what to make of MAD as a title is open to question. It is certainly memorable but does not immediately suggest the eloquence and sensuality of art or design. Nevertheless, it may catch on – ‘See you at MAD’ may become a sort of catchphrase, rather like the V&A’s ‘great cafĂ© with museum attached’ (now abandoned). MAD does promise great things including the piece by Haruymi Nakashima, Struggling Form (pictured). The intriguing assembly suggests both organic and manufactured form, and the blue and white takes us back to Ming Dynasty China.
While the US has several major museums devoted to craft, some solely to ceramics, the UK languishes hopelessly behind, with sporadic shows in various galleries but no national collection that offers regular displays, changing exhibitions and a ‘craft culture’ to initiate debate, discussion and information. Maybe it could be part of the Olympic bid?

Tuesday, 21 October 2008

Grayson Again

It sometimes seems that hardly a day passes, a TV programme issued, a radio feature broadcast, a newspaper published or a magazine issued without wise words from Grayson Perry. As far as the media goes he is hot stuff, his opinion sought, whether on art of every shape and type, or on the concept of originality (he thinks it’s overrated – and may well be right – but I suspect that’s the view of a media star). In the latest utterance (‘How we got started’, The Times, 29th September 2008), he gives as Grayson’s tip: ‘Hone your personal skills. You have all the technique and originality in the world, but if you’re not fun to be around, nobody will want to work with you. Go to openings and meet people.’

Whether this applies to artists in clay – many of whom seem to prefer the sheltered cloister and hermit’s cell rather than the social whirl – is not clear, but it suggests that it is the artist as much as the art that leads to success.

Recipe for Saba-dango (Mackerel Balls)

This dish (pictured on a stoneware plate by Yo Thom) is a traditional Japanese recipe, using mackerel and miso (soya bean paste). It’s easier than it looks, and tastes delicious. You will need:

1 mackerel (around 650g)
1 small carrot
3 spring onions
1 egg
1 tsp grated ginger
2 tsp miso
1 tsp soya sauce
1 tbsp flour
oil (for deep frying)

1 Take the skin and main bones off the mackerel and mince the fish meat with either a knife or blender (better to keep some lumpy bits).

2 Cut the carrot into thin shreds, wrap in a cling film and microwave for 1 min, or boil for 5 mins and drain. Cut the spring onions into small pieces.

3 Mix the minced mackerel, broken egg, miso, soya sauce, pinch of salt, grated ginger and flour.

4 Add the carrot and spring onion into the mix.

5 Scoop the mix with a tablespoon and make a small ball and deep fry in oil (160°C) until it’s nicely coloured.

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

London Life

With such an intriguing title as Thinking is Clay, which features the work of Nobuko Tsuchiya, a trip to the fashionable (ring the door bell for admittance) Anthony Reynolds Gallery (60 Great Marlborough Street W1, until 4 October) was one I could not refuse. Although making use of such diverse materials as metal, wire, wax, resin, fabric, plastic, there was no clay in sight. One piece, North West Passage, suggests a wealth of associations – direction, chill, sea, transit, change, endurance, labour, discovery – though the sculpture, illustrated, has an intriguing anthropomorphic quality, which I enjoyed. Standing in the centre of the downstairs gallery, it also recalls a slightly dishevelled ship of state, but one with which I could identify. The artist does confess to responding to ‘a material through its very nature and the “mindset” I perceive embedded within it’. She goes on to say that she uses ‘the texture of thought as a primary material, trying to use “thinking” as a kind of “clay”.’ I enjoyed the show, but did wonder if at some point Nobuko Tsuchiya would be drawn to discover the subtleties of clay and thinking and material could be united. Why don’t ceramists tax us with such thoughts?

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

Issue 234 Update

As I write we are deeply involved in planning the November/December issue of CR, even though there are still whiffs of summer in the air. We try to avoid any seasonal references, so we do not feature Christmas gifts, though Contemporary Ceramics and other galleries have this in mind for their December exhibitions. Along with featuring inventive tableware by four highly talented potters, the issue has a global reach, with accounts of a potters’ tour in Thailand, African potters in South Africa, sculptural ceramics in California, pottery in India and a potter in Mexico. While contributing to the ‘international language’ of ceramics, all relate closely to the country in which they work, suggesting that there may be something of a common language, but regional and national dialects prevail.

The Ceramics Book

For addicts, the new edition of The Ceramics Book has just been published. Fully revised, with some 260 new images of current work, the book gives a flavour of what is happening in the ceramics world in the UK, as well as listing addresses and contact numbers for those who want to go on a pottery tour. An ideal companion.

In the Pot

At this time of year, when corn on the cob are at their best – full, ripe and a golden yellow – they are delicious, far superior to anything found in a tin or frozen packs. My local market was selling three for a £1. To cook, if you have a microwave, is simple. Wash and place in a casserole such as those made by Jeremy Steward, Josie Walter or Jonathan Keep, cover loosely with a lid and microwave for five minutes. The corn should now be even more golden and tender, according to age. Five minutes I find just right. Smother with butter and black pepper and eat with fingers. For a more sophisticated dressing try virgin olive oil and black pepper – delicious as a starter or as vegetable, but chew thoroughly to enjoy the full, golden flavour and the heat of summer. Good old fashioned boiling in water for around 25-30 minutes will work, but slightly dilutes the flavour. One up for the dreaded microwave.


Welcome to Ceramic Review’s blog site. As communication becomes quicker, easier and more interactive, we thought it time CR moved out from the office and communicated directly with readers, and you with us. We welcome your ideas, thoughts, news and above all your response to what you see in Ceramic Review. Sometimes the team here in the office long to know what you think, how you think some articles work, what is missing, what issues concern potters today. We are here to produce the magazine that you want; we talk to potters, collectors, enthusiasts, teachers and writers, but it is you the reader whose views we value more. Join in the debate, as Mrs Merton observed.