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  • Devil's Marble, Pippin Drysdale. Image: Robert Frith Acorn Photo

Collect Papers III

Collect foregrounds makers working with a host of different materials and techniques. In anticipation of Collect 2018, gallerist Joanna Bird describes her love of ceramics, and wonders where the next generation of artists will come from

In anticipation of 2017’s Collect, we’ve asked a group of gallery owners to tell us about their favourite material. Joanna Bird describes her love of ceramics, but questions where the next generation of artists will come from

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I grew up with my parents and grandparents near Plymouth. The first ceramics I noticed were pretty Limoges plates and Crown Derby in use in the house. Each set had a place in the ranking order – best for Sunday lunch, dinner party services and a shelf full of interesting odd bowls and dishes that had particular appeal for certain recipes.

In Plymouth Museum I saw much of William Cookworthy’s porcelain and noted the occasional piece of slipware. Looking for Samuel Palmer paintings a little later in my teens I came across the excellent collection of slipware in the Fitzwilliam Museum. 

Fast forward to my late 20s, I was offered a place at Kings to read philosophy, but for some fateful reason dropped into Goldsmiths to read sociology. From there, I gravitated up the hill to the pottery – which I found to be addictive and compelling. There was a small group of us, very motivated and autonomous. We worked all the hours we wished. We fired the gas kiln and took our pots to Greenwich market every Saturday. This informal learning time blossomed into the offer of a place at Farnham Art College to study ceramics. However, having visited Michael Cardew’s Wenford Bridge Pottery and been invited to help Michael O’Brien with a firing there, I declined my place at Farnham and arrived instead at Wenford in February 1973. 

My earliest encounter with Michael Cardew was walking through the garden on my initial visit. He stood crumbling a clod of earth in his left hand with a fork in the ground beside him, a robin perched on the handle. He was lean and wore an African Fulani smock. I was struck by this first – and lasting – impression.

The memories I have taken from those years are colourful: outings with Michael to geological sites, visits to Bernard Leach about once a month, and exhibitions including the firing of the last bottle kiln at Stoke. There was music one afternoon every week with visiting musicians joining us. 

Our little world at Wenford genuinely felt like being at the centre of the universe. We were partially self-sufficient: we grew vegetables and herbs, cream cheese was made every other day and there were apples from the garden. Once a week Michael made us his special fish pie and rice pudding, and we drank unlimited amounts of Chilean red. 

We put all our pots into the showroom for sale and if we wanted to keep any, we bought them. Otherwise, living was free and mostly easy. We talked endlessly about pots, their virtues, civilisations, journeymen. Michael had opinions on everything. That was 40 years ago. We learnt by osmosis, seeing the good pots in Michael’s own museum, watching him at work, carrying the pieces to the kiln and unpacking them once fired. 

Michael Cardew in the studio at Wenford, c.1977. Image: courtesy of Joanna Bird contemporary

This is subliminal learning – absorbing – which can teach you a great deal. Michael never set out to educate us; he believed in the materials being as good as he could get them and the importance of fostering an environment that could nurture creativity. 

What do we have now to replace this invaluable experience of gaining knowledge? Much tradition will die with those who practise it. Many courses in ceramics have closed, and there are but a handful of places where it is possible to become a journeyman apprentice.

I think it would be possible to create some workshops with a contemporary ethos, supported by traditions and promoting good standards of workmanship. Michael O’Brien is intent on doing just this at his Michael Cardew Trust at Addlestead Farm, Surrey. If a few other dedicated people were to set up similar establishments with high standards, the existing knowledge and traditions could continue to develop along the lines of contemporary ethos
and practice. 

There is no substitute for hands-on experience. I am aware of several mid-to-late career potters who would be willing to give time in their own studios – say, four days every few months – to aspiring potters with a few years’ experience. The Crafts Council’s Hothouse scheme, the Adopt a Potter initiative and Svend Bayer’s communal kiln for four potters outside Okehampton are all good examples of skill sharing.  

Under the aegis of existing art courses, if the teaching strategy could include a master demonstrating to small groups of students, who then went on to watch that master at work in his or her studio, then such an exchange would open doors and broaden outlooks for aspiring makers to follow in the footsteps of the artists I represent in my gallery such as Halima Cassell (see page 50), Jacob van der Beugel, Pippin Drysdale, Carina Ciscato and Chris Keenan.

Whatever develops, new chapters and fresh blood are the very things we need, and teaching by example speaks louder than words. The voice of authority thunders but the power of example roars! I hope mine is not a sole voice in the wilderness.

www.joannabird.com

Collect 2018, Saatchi Gallery, London SW3, 22-25 February 2018.

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