About this post:

Author: Chris Yeo

Date: 7th July, 2017

Category: Design

Feats of Clay

With exhibitions taking place nationwide, studio pottery is lining up to be this summer’s hot art topic. Painting’s former poor relation has undergone a radical change of image that has seen it move out of the classroom and into the art gallery. But this isn’t the first time the art world has flirted with the potter’s wheel. “Antiques Roadshow” expert Chris Yeo tells the intriguing story of Picasso and the coffee bars.

Have you noticed how pottery seems to be enjoying something of a renaissance? After decades of being indelibly associated with the c-word (craft) and synonymous with evening classes, muesli bowls and men with beards lovingly tending their kilns, pottery is finally shedding its homespun image. On television, BBC2’s The Great Pottery Throwdown has been doing for the ceramic arts what Bake Off did for the Victoria Sponge and regularly attracts audiences of more than two million. Elsewhere there are signs that pottery has made the move from homely world of craft to high octane reaches of fine art. In the space of a few years demand for work by the most celebrated potters has seen prices go from a few hundred pounds to a few hundred thousand, while all over the land, museums and galleries are soon to be hosting exhibitions that put ceramics firmly in the spotlight, making 2017 the Year of the Pot. Of course, studio pottery has always been more than just a load of brown pots. In the 20th century it was part of a movement against standardisation and mass production, aiming to reconnect people with traditional materials and celebrate the unique and authentic – a credible art movement worthy of no less than the most influential artist of the century.

At this point I should declare an interest. Blog readers of long-standing will know that in my other guise as Curator of the Ken Stradling Collection in Bristol, I care for a collection that includes over 600 pieces of studio ceramics. As I write this, I have just finished putting the final touches to an exhibition that will be my contribution to 2017’s national clay fest – a smorgasbord of plates, vases, bowls and sculpture by some of this country’s greatest artist potters. And that, I promise, will be the extent of my plugging my own show. Suffice it to say, by the time I’ve finished I’ll be ready for a holiday and where better to head than York where the city art gallery will be hosting a major exhibition of ceramics from the collection of the late Richard and Lady Attenborough. The Attenboroughs began collecting ceramics in 1954 and, like many of us, their collection began with a few holiday souvenirs bought on their annual trips to the south of France. The artist in question was one of the most prolific ceramic artists of the 20th century. It’s a name we all know but one few of us would associate with pottery: Pablo Picasso.

In the art world few names loom as large as that of Picasso, yet how many of us realise he was also one of the 20th century’s most prolific potters? He came to ceramics in his mid-60s, embarking on a new stage in his career just at the point when most people would be thinking of retiring. In 1946 while holidaying with his lover and muse Françoise Gilot at Golfe-Juan in the South of France, Picasso met Georges and Suzanne Ramié, the owners of the Madoura pottery studio in the nearby town of Vallauris. This was the start of a friendship and creative partnership with the Ramiés that would last until Picasso’s death. The Ramiés welcomed Picasso into their workshop where the artist created three ceramic objects, a head of a faun and two bulls. While Picasso had experimented with clay almost 40 years earlier, this encounter at Madoura so captivated his interest that the artist returned a year later, sketches in hand and his head brimming with ideas. Having began with simple utilitarian objects, such as plates and bowls, he then proceeded to create more ambitious forms, such as pitchers and vases, where the handles became facial or anatomical parts of the animal or person. Picasso’s subjects are very playful and creative, and include animal shapes, such as fishes and owls, Greek mythological figures, among others. He began working at Madoura daily, completing over 1,000 unique pieces between 1947 and 1948. Over the course of the following two decades, Picasso created over 3,500 works fired in clay. Vases, pitchers, jugs, plates and zoomorphic and anthropomorphic sculptural forms abound with animal and classical imagery, mythological creatures, playful and whimsical faces and explorations of the human figure.

With his daring, colour-sense and imagination, Picasso shocked the arts establishment and changed the direction of pottery towards something more colourful and playful. The impact of his new forays into clay made a big impression – particularly in England where three young artists, talented but broke, were fired with a burning ambition to take up Picasso’s challenge of making pottery artistic, expressive and exciting. William Newland, Margaret Hine and Nicholas Vergette started working together in London in 1950, the same year that Picasso’s pottery was first exhibited in London, where it caused a sensation. By the early 1950s, the three young artists were exhibiting their work and had become known as the Bayswater Three by some, but by most people and the Press as ‘the Picassoettes’. Newland, Hine and Vergette took Picasso’s lead and ran with it, using the bright tin-glaze colours of Mediterranean peasant pottery decorated with imagery taken from a welter of sources, including classical mythology and contemporary illustration, to create ceramics of that were startlingly fresh and original. Chances are you’ve never heard of The Picassoettes but they played an important part in creating the “look” of 1950s design and it was all to do with a hot drink.

Every artist needs a good patron. In previous centuries the head of the church or an enlightened aristocrat would have provided the support for young talent, both were in short supply in the grey, blitz-scarred London of the early 1950s so Newland, Hine and Vergette had to look elsewhere. They found it in a very new but unlikely place. In the early 1950s coffee was fashionable and coffee bars were springing up all over the capital as places where young people (still yet to gain the moniker “teenagers”) could meet their friends, drink coffee and listen to jazz. The first coffee bar, the Moka, was opened by the Italian film star, Gina Lollobrigida, in 1953 and by the middle years of the decade they seemed to be taking over the city. Newland said that the ‘fifties coffee bars were the first places young people could go to and sit in without having to spend a lot of money or getting thrown out. Newland, Hine and Vergette set about making themselves the decorators of choice for London’s burgeoning coffee bar scene. In their hands the décor becomes part of the entertainment: Figures on horseback, all sorts of whimsical animals and birds were used to decorate the counter, while the walls of the bar would become a gallery for plaques, plates, or, in the case of the famous Moo-Cow bar in Piccadilly, near life-size comical cow’s heads, displayed like antique hunting trophies. Like Picasso, their pottery is fun, bright and irreverent. Newland himself said, “I like to be happy,” and he liked to make happy pottery. The colourful glazes and comic book subject matter would have offered light relief to the drabness of a London still mired in post-war austerity. Newland’s and Hine’s pottery speaks of optimism and a world of expanding horizons – of Italian coffee and American jazz. It could be said that what Elizabeth David did for British food, Newland, Hine and Vergette did for the country’s interiors.

Fashions fade and by the 1960s, as the coffee bar gave way to the discotheque, so the pottery of the Picassoettes disappeared from view. The coffee bars and milk bars which had been Newland, Hine and Vergette’s version of the Uffizi closed in their hundreds, their interiors ripped out and all that pottery, so thoughtfully crafted, ended up in workmen’s skips smashed to smithereens. Now, with this exhibition, it’s getting the attention it deserves, bringing a smile to our faces to our faces once more. Just a load of brown pots? I don’t think so.

Picasso: Ceramics from the Attenborough Collection is at York from 28 July to 5 November 2017 https://www.yorkartgallery.org.uk/

A Life in Clay: Studio Pottery from the Ken Stradling Collection is at the Ken Stradling Collection, Bristol from 20th July until 22nd December 2017 http://stradlingcollection.org/