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  • Cracking Up, Hans Stofer. Part of Many a Slip, a group show featuring ideas about cups from 50 makers, curated by Alison Britton. Photo: Philip Sayer

Understanding a symbol of domesticity

Alison Britton is curating Many a Slip, a group show featuring ideas about cups from 50 makers

I have been collecting cups from foreign cities and flea markets and china shops for over 40 years. There is some tension in loving a type of ceramic object but not producing it, even though you are a potter. I don’t have a designer’s understanding of its requirements and stipulations through practice, though I do have ideas about the formal conditions of the cup through seeing and using it. To me the cup is a fundamental thing, a basic prop of human culture and civilization, and everyone everywhere has some sort of recognition of it as a necessary object, slaking thirst.

When I was a first year art student in the Sixties I wrote a poem in a notebook that had ‘the clearness of a china cup’ as a sort of symbol seen on a solitary walk through streets near where I lived – so I have had the cup somewhere in my metaphorical sights for a long time. Independent travel also began for me as a student – quick forays to parts of Europe for museums and exhibitions, and later going abroad to be in exhibitions, or talking about work, myself. I began to delight in the foreignness of cups found in street markets, hardware and junk shops and factory showrooms, in the simplicity and unfussiness of the modernist design tradition so ordinary and available across Europe, mostly made in porcelain. So in an undetermined way I sought out a white cup here and there on journeys, always liking the cup alone, to compare with others, and not bothered about the saucers.

I did care to notice the processes, clay bodies, vitreousness, finesse of form, the relationship of body to handle, the edge quality, the weight, the kinds of white, and whether you could see through the glaze to the body. Also of course the feel, empty and full of liquid, in the hand, and on the lip. It became a furtive sort of collection, always used, sometimes broken, but also a souvenir system of my travels in general, and going to Italy a lot in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Most of the cups are porcelain, a material I have no desire to work with but love to drink out of and wash up.

Installation view of Many a Slip, a group show featuring ideas about cups from 50 makers, curated by Alison Britton. Photo: Philip Sayer

Despite the common ground of clay, for ages the cups seemed to be part of my life and nothing to do with my work. The accumulated cups made no links with what I make, I thought, because they were domestic and designed for purpose, when in my pot-making I juggled with ‘the outer limits of function’, spontaneous irregular forms and painted surfaces. I used the title Form and Fiction for an exhibition in the 1990s precisely because it involved leaving the words ‘function’ and ‘fact’ out of those habitual pairings.

But in 2009 when I curated the exhibition Three by One for the Crafts Study Centre, drawing on major public craft collections in the UK, I explored the study collections of Bernard Leach and Ethel Mairet held in Farnham and included pieces from each of them. When I had the chance to exhibit my own work at the CSC in Life and Still Life in 2012, I decided to include objects that I had lived with and made use of, conceptually and physically, as a surrounding correspondence with my ceramics. I too had a study collection, I realised, and the cups, my domestic props of every day, were a consistent part of it. In the essay I wrote for the catalogue I described that shift as a celebration of ‘the intrusion of living into work’. This sensation persists. I won’t be making cups, not even one for the Marsden Woo show, but they are part of my thinking about form and material and containment, which stretches from home to studio and back again.

Laying the table with cutlery and crockery (both good ancient words) used to be one of the first domestic jobs given to children, and I remember the pleasant ritual of doing it in anticipation of the meal; sometimes overdoing it and laying several rows of cutlery for too many courses – ‘being posh’. Some of this formality and routine is still a sensual ordinary experience in choosing a cup from a glass-fronted cupboard; handling, drinking, washing up, putting away, all to be done again and, again, with many a slip, no doubt.

Many a Slip is at Marsden Woo Gallery 22 July to 5 September


9 variations, Karen Bennicke , 2013. Photo: Dorte Krogh