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 He has been replaced by the urbane Ben Bradshaw, a slim, handsome, alert 48 year old who admits to bopping the night away to the strains of Grace Jones.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.