Watts Ceramics 2019: Opening Speech

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Posted 9th October 2019

Watts Ceramics 2019
Opening Speech

Professor Simon Olding
Director, Crafts Study Centre
University of the Creative Arts

This speech was read at the opening of Watts Ceramics 2019 on Saturday 7 September

I am so glad to be able to join you this morning at the auspicious, celebratory opening and private view of Watts Ceramics 2019.

I see this new venture as an inspiring way of using ceramics to look towards the future; with the past, like a guardian, not a yoke, on our collective shoulders. The pots laid out here, it seems to me, acknowledge where they have come form; and where their direction of travel might be.

My own summer holiday has been spent writing about pots, as it happens. In the unlikely surroundings of the departure lounge of Luton Airport, and the rather cramped circumstances of seat F10 on an Easy Jet flight to Ljubljana on 12 th July, I was compelled by a deadline to write an essay on the remarkable new vessels of Emilie Taylor, who takes a deliberative yet quixotic approach to melding the past and the present.

And on the last day of my holiday, on 26 th July, I found myself, through an unexpected invitation, previewing with great interest a new body of work intended for a September exhibition. This was a delight, as I was off duty. However, halfway through the presentation, unplanned, I believe, the maker asked if I would write the catalogue essay; and so, in a twinkling, this time without pen or paper, duties returned.

So I can only applaud my colleagues here at the Watts Gallery for giving me such an exceptional period of notice to prepare for this short opening speech, and I have been able to do so from my desk, rather than in the field; though I did apply the finishing touches in the gallery earlier this morning.

The literature of British studio ceramics is marked by several seminal texts. Bernard Leach's A Potter's Book is an instructional manual and a manual for living. The exhibition catalogue for The Raw and the Cooked transformed the way that many people saw ceramics, with vital, sculptural agencies. The magnificent catalogue by Oliver Watson, British Studio Pottery outlined the shifting seas of ceramic history through the brilliantly focused exposition of the holdings of the Victoria and Albert Museum.

I am going to quote a brief passage from the distinguished potter, educator and writer, Alison Britton, entrusted as the author of the introduction to Peter Dormer's influential and astute book The New Ceramics, published first in 1986. She talks about the relationship of ceramics to the work of bearing ideas and meaning; as well as the work of daily use.

'Some potters are dealing first of all with formal ideas and a kind of commentary, and others are dealing first of all with practicalities. For those who enjoy ambiguity there are all the things in the middle with a double presence, prose and poetry, that intrigue most'.

Britton achieves that 'double presence' in her own work by alluding to function and often gesturally painting her idiosyncratic surfaces.

In this fine exhibition we can find ourselves considering differing modes of expression. Functionality is a strong presence: one with attitude and complexity; with restraint and exuberance; with the swoop mark, the rigorous line, the understated surface and the surface abandoned to colour. We might make up our own imagined series of vessels, following the still life assemblages of Morandi or Hanssen Pigott. We see here abstraction and representation: the painter's swift brushstroke; the tensile line, the modelling of a figure.

The authors of these works are doing more, I think, than the regulation distribution of pots in an exhibition gallery.

They are honouring place.

They are considering Compton as a site of special (not scientific) interest but ceramic interest. They do this to applaud Mary Watts, and her Arts and Crafts inheritance. But they are also, however subliminally, honouring Denise Wren, who is regarded as the first independent female studio potter in England. So these contemporary makers mark her ceramic modernism. Denise Wren set up her influential studio in Oxshott, just 17 miles from here. Perhaps both Compton and Oxshott may be designated Surrey's sites of special ceramic interest.

Both places have been led by pioneering women: makers, educators, writers, business leaders and entrepreneurs for ceramics.

The leadership of Mary Watts and Denise Wren foregrounds all the makers in this notable exhibition, with its orchestral colourings, tonal subtleties, orderings and striking representations. In this way we may hear an echo of the collegiate intentions and the support for individualism written into the constitution of the Potter's Art Guild.

Denise and Henry Wren wrote in 1928 in an important instructional manual that 'it is essential to think of the pot and its decoration as one indivisible thing, like the vocal and instrumental scores of a song'.

So we may see here, not simply fine contemporary pots, by ten outstanding contemporary artists, but a lineage of pots.

We can see, in fact, a ceramic history being re-enacted, and the present playing its melody to the past.

Image: Andy Newbold Photography

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