Friday, 28 August 2009

Repairing Ceramics – Reader’s comment

Gabriel Newfield gives his response to Murray Cheesman’s article, Repairing Ceramics, published in the latest issue of Ceramic Review.

Congratulations to Murray in packing so much good advice into just two pages. It’s a pity that, presumably owing to lack of space, some of his advice really ought to be qualified, and in one case is positively dangerous. Examples of advice that should be qualified: 1 True, epoxy adhesives like Araldite have their uses, but they do tend to yellow with age, which has a bearing on when and where it is appropriate to use them. 2 Soaking overnight in Biotex. Always best to soak first overnight in clean (preferably de-ionised) water before soaking in any detergent. Badly stained wares (especially earthenware) may need not just overnight, but days or even weeks in soak. And after soaking in detergent, soaking again in water, to remove excess detergent from the body, is essential, and again this may require many days, and several changes of water. The advice I would regard as dangerous concerns use of bleach 'as a last resort'. Most bleaches are chlorine-based and can be dangerous to pots, causing irreversible damage. Hydrogen peroxide as a bleach is less likely to do harm, but calls for great care in its use.

My own advice to would-be restorers/conservators of pots is – don’t rush in. Perhaps do a part-time course at a college, if one is available near where you live. Or get hold of an up-to-date book on the subject, such as Practical Ceramic Conservation by Lesley Acton and Natasha Smith, Crowood Press, 2003, ISBN 978-186126483-1, or Porcelain Repair and Restoration by Nigel Williams (2nd edition, revised by Loretta Hogan with the help of Myrtle Bruce-Mitford), British Museum Press, 2002, ISBN 978-071412757-6. Both are readily available in libraries, bookshops or via Amazon.

Happy mending! Gabriel Newfield

Repairing Ceramics was published in the Sep/Oct 2009 issue of Ceramic Review (CR239). For further details please visit:

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Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Arts Minister

After having been in post as Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport for eighteen months, Andy Burnham has been booted upstairs as the new health secretary. He has been replaced by the urbane Ben Bradshaw, a slim, handsome, alert 48 year old who admits to bopping the night away to the strains of Grace Jones. Burnham, MP for Exeter, is one of few openly open gay MPs who recently had a civil partnership. In Who’s Who he lists music as one of his recreational activities; maybe not the Albert Hall kind. When I met him at the Art Fund Prize presentation (with the £100,000 awarded to the Wedgwood Museum) he assured me of his interest in crafts and his support – and praise – for the Devon Guild. Arts ministers seem to come and go with alarming regularity. If they’re talented they are moved on, if less bright they stay. Lets hope that Ben Bradshaw is both talented and a stayer. It must surely be one of the more enjoyable portfolios in government.

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Off-Centre, CR238

Inspired by the exhibition The Unexpected at the Stedelijk Museum, ‘s-Hertogenbosch, the Netherlands, Emma Shaw argues that ceramics are finding a new place in the art world.

The Unexpected was the first showing in the Netherlands of the Stedelijk Museum’s collection of artists’ work in clay (the exhibition has toured internationally), which it claims to be the only one of its kind in the world. The museum has been collecting artists’ work in clay since 1985 when it purchased Picasso’s Vase Femme from 1954. The collection includes some 150 works by 40 international artists, the oldest piece is from 1905 (Pierre-Auguste Renoir) and the most recent is by British sculptor Richard Deacon (2007).

The museum is located in ‘s-Hertogenbosch, a relatively small town which is also home to the EKWC (European Ceramics Work Centre) and boasts an established school of art and design (AKV, St Joost, which has a vast ceramics department) as well as the contemporary ceramic design company Cor Unum. This helps explain the museum’s interest in and commitment to ceramics and why Den Bosch deserves the title of City of Ceramics.

Divided into three main strands – the modernists, CoBrA artists and contemporary artists – the exhibition contains important works by established names such as Picasso, MirĂ³, Jorn and Fontana. The modern collection is equally impressive with work by international artists from across the disciplines of painting, sculpture and performance including Rob Birza, Tony Cragg, Jan van den Dobbelsteen, Jeff Koons, Antoni Tapies and Bruce McLean. Perhaps more unexpectedly, but a very welcome addition nonetheless, it also includes works by Haim Steinbach, who uses ready-made or found objects.

Many of the works have been previously ignored in the histories of art. Indeed, the power of the collection lies in its ability to reaffirm clay’s position as a vital and legitimate medium within the visual arts, representing part of a wider trend to reclaim artists’ works in clay as seen, for example, in Tate Liverpool’s A Secret History of Clay in 2004. One criticism concerns the title The Unexpected. Although these works may be less well known, such a title only serves to reinforce the attitude that one does not expect serious artists to work in clay. It also, perhaps, reflects continuing anxieties over the value and status of clay. The old art versus craft debate, although declared long dead, still gasps a last few breaths.

A one-day symposium, with presentations from art critics, historians, collectors and artists from across Europe, explored the use of clay within the visual arts. I presented a paper that provided a British perspective. A key talking point concerned the perceived differences between works in clay by fine artists and works made by ceramic artists. The majority of works in The Unexpected were by fine artists. Important ceramic artists were excluded, as were women artists, with only one female artist being represented in the exhibition, a gender bias equally evident in A Secret History of Clay. In a discipline dominated by women there is a shocking lack of a female, let alone feminist presence. The museum’s collection, however, does contain works by female ceramic artists including Cindy Sherman, Lucie Rie and Betty Woodman but these were not in the exhibition. The omission of works from the ceramics canon, I suspect, was not because of their perceived lower status or the quality of their work, but more likely to be simply because these artists are not well known to the art world (or to the public) as they operate in the ceramics world.

The issue here is one of context. The majority of ceramic artists choose to stay within the craft world and marketplace, where they will be less well known to the art world. Some artists, such as Andrew Lord who is in the exhibition, successfully moved into the fine art arena. Context defines value and art continues to have a higher status than craft. Content is another key issue. To have the intention to make art is clearly not enough. Ultimately art is classified by the art world and in order to be seen as art it must use its language.

Historically, the economic and cultural hierarchies imposed by the art world undoubtedly marginalised the crafts. Fortunately, exhibitions such as The Unexpected suggest that prejudices against ceramics/clay are beginning to break down. Contemporary art practice has seen a renewed interest in the use of traditional craft materials and techniques (and particularly clay), which, to some extent, has displaced craft from its traditional ground. This has forced craft practices to reassess their own position within the visual arts, which has resulted in different approaches and new ways of working. Traditional attitudes are being overturned and ceramic histories are being rewritten. I suspect it will not be long before we see more works by ceramic artists appearing alongside artists’ works in clay. Ceramic artists need to ensure they make work which is both relevant and of sufficient quality to be included.

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Lucie Rie and my mother

By an odd coincidence, my mother and Lucie Rie share the same birthday (16 March) but not the same year. My mother was born in 1901, one year before Lucie Rie. But there the similarities end. My mother was one of eleven children born in a tiny Derbyshire village to a coal-mining father who preached the Methodist message on the Sabbath. She entered ‘service’ in nearby Nottingham in her early teens, where she remained until she married my father. By contrast Lucie was born into a well-to-do Viennese, Jewish family and was one of three children. Educated by a private tutor and then at a fashionable girls' school, she attended the progressive school of arts and crafts in Vienna where she trained as a potter. Her life was comfortable and privileged though not without its sadnesses. Her younger brother, of whom she was very fond, was killed on the Italian front in the First World War while four years later a man for whom she had a passion was found frozen to death in the Austrian Alps. Most of my mother’s siblings became coal miners and hence excused army service.

I was musing on these similarities and differences partly because I am currently researching Lucie’s life and writing a biography of her, and partly because I recently met the veteran artist Ruth Duckworth who, at the age of ninety, reminded me of both Lucie and my mother. Although Lucie left a fine legacy of pots she was a private person, so no diaries and few letters have so far come to light. My mother’s legacy was a family of five children and a host of grandchildren. But she too left little for a biographer to scrutinise, as letters were rarely kept or records made. Such ruminations led me to ponder whether a biography of my mother or Lucie – though both very different – would be more fulfilling. Maybe there are two books to write.

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

A S Byatt

Published amidst much acclaim, A S Byatt’s latest novel The Children’s Book well matches its publicity – at least in length. Weighing in at over 600 pages it promises to be a long read. I am just starting on it and will report as I go along. But why read it? you might ask. Well, it features amongst its main characters a potter, apparently beautifully and convincingly woven into the narrative. The Acknowledgments mention Edmund de Waal, who not only invited the author to visit his studio but ‘allowed me to put my hands into a wavering pot’. Another adviser and helper was Mary Wondrausch, ‘whose book on slipware – apart from being full of interest – was also full of technical information and delectable vocabulary’. All very promising.

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

High camp/high art

Love it or loathe it there is no denying the sheer splendour of the Baroque, which the current exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, exemplifies in good measure. Several years in the making, it looks at the way the Roman Catholic church, the aristocracy and the state saw the Baroque as a way of exhibiting and reasserting their power and authority at a time of great scientific and technological development. Armies of architects, painters, sculptors, musicians, actors, writers and craftsmen produced work that was lavish, ornate, highly detailed and ostentatious in its use of precious material. Pottery, then relegated to second place by the sheer beauty and technical sophistication of imported Chinese porcelain, does find a modest place in this confection, namely in the Tulip Vases. Standing some five feet tall, the impressive structures, intended to show off the newly imported tulips – and other flowers – was built in sections and decorated with highly detailed blue and white patterning, While the form was essentially European, the decoration was a liberal interpretation of Chinese blue and white. Despite forebodings before I went, fearing too much sweet and not enough angst, I enjoyed the show, partly because the work had the courage of its convictions – it found little support in the more puritan atmosphere of Britain – and partly for its sheer celebration of skill. High camp or not, it unashamedly revels in the material world. Baroque 1620-1800 continues at the V&A until 19 July.

Tuesday, 5 May 2009


Where there’s a will there’s a way, so the old saying goes. Such determination was given a new twist when drug smugglers, intent on achieving their aim, constructed a 42-piece crockery set, complete with plates, bowls, cups and saucers, fit to grace any table, made out of compressed cocaine. Spanish police seized 20kg of the pots, which had been sent from Maracaibo, Venezuela’s second largest city, to Barcelona via London. The cocaine was intercepted following a tip-off about the suspicious looking package that had been sent by recorded delivery. The consignment was intended to be reprocessed and sold in Catalonia in northeast Spain. A man is being questioned. If the pots in question had been used for making tea, what a high old time the tea party would have been.

The ‘pottery’ was not the only ingenious ruse invented by devious smugglers. Spanish police detained a Chilean man aged 66 with a broken leg whose ‘plaster cast’ was made out of cocaine. The man, arrested at Barcelona airport, was also found to possess six beer cans and two hollowed out stools that contained the drug. The broken leg proved to be genuine and the police think it may have been specially broken to legitimise the cast. In all 4.8kg of cocaine was found – quite a haul.

Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Empty Shops

In the heady days of the sixties, with ‘happenings’ and impromptu exhibitions in far-flung redundant industrial buildings that then no one wanted, the artistic enterprises survived in a mad mix of experiment, innovation and indulgence. Even London’s Roundhouse, then run down and dilapidated, was occupied by avant-garde performance and arts groups. The hard-edged eighties brought an end to such freedom. Today the situation has shifted again. The ‘credit crunch’ has resulted in many empty shops premises as retailers have been forced out of business by the economic downturn.

All of which makes the recent pronouncement by Hazel Blears, Communities Secretary, about proving funds to help people to temporarily convert such empty shops into such things as ‘community projects’ or even short-term businesses, too good to bypass. As temporary art places – for the whole range of visual arts – they could be effective in moving art/craft out of the gallery and into the High Street, introducing the work to a new audience. Galleries brighten up the street, avoid grim-looking and depressing empty premises, and are a good thing all round.

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Breath of the Spirit

‘The work of the artist’, wrote John Maynard Keynes when setting up the Arts Council of Great Britain in 1946, ‘is, of its nature, individual and free, undisciplined, unregimented, uncontrolled. The artist walks where the breath of the spirit blows him.’ It is a thrilling assertion of the idealistic role of the artist in a modern, civilized society, evoking an unfettered freedom that is both inspirational and challenging. Today, such high-minded views may seem out of touch, too idealistic for a more earth-bound society, yet they still convey some of the key aspects of the life of the artist. ACGB did not specifically include the crafts in its remit, though it did not preclude it. Retrospectives of Bernard Leach and later Lucie Rie were mounted at the Arts Council’s London gallery in the 1960s. The crafts came under the Board of Trade and received government support for its ability to generate income and, more importantly, exports. What if ACGB had consciously embraced all the visual arts rather than focusing on painting and sculpture? Craft would have developed in a different way, maybe freer from the ghetto many see it occupying. The ‘breath of the spirit’ is there but sometimes it takes some finding.

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

The Porcelain Project

After sitting through one and a half hours of The Porcelain Project at the Barbican Theatre last night I doubt if I will ever look at a porcelain – or, in this case, a bone china vase – in the same way again. The Belgian dance/performance group Grace Ellen Barkey & Needcompany filled the stage with hundreds of porcelain objects, mostly abstract-type vases but one or two teapots. The six dancers, some wearing what looked like space saucers, danced around, lifted up, moved and occasionally smashed pieces of the porcelain forms. The tale, of couplings and uncouplings, involved much simulated hetero and homo sex as well as much interaction with the porcelain. The soft tinkling of china fragments gently bouncing off each other was pure magic, as were some of the sequences. The strongest of these were the couples, where inventive choreography created both sensuous and crude interactions. Perfect timing, close contact and controlled movement conjured up the power of human relationships.

With no identifiable narrative, other than images of the real and the imagined, The Porcelain Project moved from sheer delight to moments of ennui. Within the performance I am still working out the role of the porcelain, though responding to its fragility and strength, its pure white translucency and its often phallic shapes seems relevant. The mixture of the surreal, the absurd and the silly made for a memorable, if over-long performance, but as Grace Ellen Barkey notes, ‘the spectators themselves have to decide the purpose of it all’.

As an alternative to the merry junketing at the International Ceramics Festival, Aberystwyth, I think The Porcelain Project could well find a place in the programme – a welcome broadening out of our understanding of the interconnectivity of the arts.

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

Shakespeare in Clay

The hunt to find an accurate image of the Elizabethan wordsmith has taken on a new urgency. The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust recently put their faith in a portrait of what it claims to be the ‘only authentic image’ of the great man. Hot on its heels comes a recent find of a 16th century fragment from Beauvais featuring the image of a man with a ruff (above), found on the site of the Tower Theatre in London. Shakespeare is known to have performed at the theatre between 1594 and 1597, and Romeo and Juliet was probably premiered there. The pottery fragment, with its crazed glaze, could be almost any male of the period but whether the bard ever got to Beauvais and impressed the potters with his skills seems unlikely, but it’s a good story. Shakespeare, Shakespeare, wherefore art thou Shakespeare?

Leeding the Way

When I was in the middle of writing my biography of Bernard Leach, the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds organized a conference on twentieth century sculpture for which contributions were requested. When I suggested a paper on Leach as a sculptor, after a long silence the convenor, clearly embarrassed, said that the view was that this topic would not fit the agenda. That was nearly ten years ago.

It was with something of a surprise, and with great pleasure, therefore, to see in the recent copy of the Henry Moore Institute Newsletter (April/May 2009 Issue No. 83) that two of the fellows appointed 2009/10 are to develop research projects on aspects of ceramics. Independent art historian Simon Ford is to look into ‘Sculpture in a Purely Abstract Form’: William Staite Murray and Modern British Sculpture. Ford will examine the work of Murray and ‘document, contextualize and interpret his many connections with the sculptors of his day’ with the aim of demonstrating that ‘pottery played a key role in interwar debates about modern ands abstract British sculpture’.

Jeffrey Jones of Cardiff School of Art and Design, UWIC, is to consider ‘The Relationship of Sculpture to Pottery in British Art from the Early Twentieth Century to the Present Day’. His argument is that at certain periods the interests of sculptors and potters in Britain have either overlapped or come into sharp focus. ‘My research will use case studies to track and interpret these relationships in order to provide an historical; context in which the work of contemporary practitioners can be better understood and appreciated’.

I hope they are talking to each other.

Equally surprising is the announcement that the Leeds City Art Gallery are to explore the close relationship between ceramics and other art forms. A small display will set twentieth century ceramics alongside sculptures from the collection. The majority of the ceramics are from the 1970s and 80s, and include work by Hans Coper, Lucie Rie, Elizabeth Fritsch and Martin Smith as well as more recent pieces by David Roberts, Dan Fisher and Nicholas Portella. The collection, stored at Lotherton Hall, has rarely been shown. The ceramics will focus on the ‘vessel’ and will be shown alongside sculptures by Paule Vezelay, Nicholas Pope, Richard Long, Stephen Cox and others.

Someone in Leeds clearly has their finger on the trigger.

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Fired Up

The department stores have suddenly become enamoured of the handmade look in ceramics. Sainsbury’s (advert, left) has a range of Sung-type bottles in pale celadon green, a candle-holder in the shape of a pebble and an oval shaped dish that might possibly pass for studio pottery. Meanwhile the Conran shop have a cup and saucer in speckled creamy-white and black (below) that definitely takes on the ‘craft’ mantle, on offer at £19. Quite what all this means I am not sure, but where there is a market there is a supplier. Large companies are adept at appropriating ideas and goods, but need to produce it at department store prices. Studio potters cannot hope to compete quality with quantity – nor should they. What we have to do is to forcefully argue our case for products that are superior in every way.

Staffordshire Oatcakes

With the ‘credit crunch’ continuing to bite, newspapers and magazines are full of advice of ways to save money and reduce expenditure. One topic that arose was the Staffordshire oatcake, not to be confused with the pikelet, a stauch, filling and healthy standby, traditionally eaten by workers in the ceramic industry. Unlike its Scottish equivalent, a Staffordshire oatcake is a type of pancake made from oatmeal, flour and yeast. It is cooked on a griddle or ‘baxton’. The oatcake is a local food, normally referred to as Staffordshire oatcakes or possibly Potteries oatcakes by non-locals, because they were made in this area. In and around Staffordshire they are simply known as oatcakes. Each baker or even each household has their own recipe and these are jealously guarded secrets. It was once common throughout the Potteries for oatcakes to be sold directly from the window of a house to customers on the street. Few such producers of this style remain, their role being taken over by more commercial producers; they are, apparently, now available in supermarkets. Recipes are notoriously hard to find but one on the web gives the following mixture for serving two people.

50g wholemeal flour

50g fine oatmeal

½ tsp dried yeast

15g melted butter

Rapeseed oil for shallow frying

Mix together the flour, oatmeal, yeast and season well. Whisk in the butter and 125ml of tepid water. Cover and set aside in a warm place for 30 minutes.

Heat the oil in a frying pan and add 4 large spoonfuls of the batter into the pan to make 4 oatcakes. Fry for 2 minutes on each side until golden.

Maybe others have better alternatives.

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

Eating Clay

There is an amusing photograph of David Leach looking up from making one of his rounded ‘egg’ pots immediately after he has blown into it. Around his mouth is a ring of clay, in this case porcelain, forming an extra pair of lips. Whether he licked his lips to remove the clay, and hence swallowed it, or wiped his mouth clean is not known, but in the course of their lives potters must, accidentally, ‘eat’ quite a bit of clay. This is quite different from breathing in clay dust, which is not good. The question of whether consuming clay is beneficial has been around for many years. The medicinal qualities of kaolin – as hot poultices for easing boils or as a stomach calmer for jippy tummy – are well known, but there are serious clay eaters who advocate consuming clay for the wider health benefits. This is the topic of a fascinating article in the South African magazine National Ceramics by H Klump, emeritus professor of biochemistry. Quoting pacifist and vegetarian Mahatma Gandhi, who ‘advocated eating dirt to clean your body and relieve constipation’ the article discusses the value/relevance of eating clay.

In a recent gardening programme, the experts were asked whether they would garden with gloves to protect their hands. All were adamant in expressing their belief that no gloves were required except for rough work, and all expressed their belief in the cleanliness of soil. After growing tomatoes in his greenhouse my grandfather used to sterilize the soil to kill off any possible infection, a process that may also have killed off anything useful to human consumption. There is a difference, of course, between clay and soil, the latter containing vast amounts of organic material. I doubt whether eating any old clay can be safely recommended, but despite the crankiness of the concept, maybe the answer does lie in the soil.