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?