The Development of the Ceramic Collection in the Interwar Years
‘So perhaps a hundred years hence when these fine examples of craftwork are housed in a worthy building on the Hill, those who visit them will appreciate and value very greatly these generous gifts of today. Now that the foundation has been slowly and carefully made, progress should proceed in a way that will make the acquiring of new objects easier, and greater discretion and care will be possible in the selecting of the new acquisitions.’
Writing in 1926, the joint curators of the Arts and Crafts Museum, Sidney Greenslade and Dan Jones, expressed their hopes for the future expansion of Aberystwyth University on the Penglais site, envisaging an arts and crafts museum as an important aspect of the new developments. The funding for the museum had been provided by Gwendoline and Margaret Davis of Llandinam, grand-daughters of David Davis one of the leading industrialists and entrepreneurs in late nineteenth century Wales. In the 1930s the University began to develop Penglais Campus but it was not until the late sixties that there was a major expansion including Aberystwyth Arts Centre where the ceramic collection has been housed and displayed since 1980. The Ceramic Gallery, the first stage of which was opened in l986, would surely have gratified the writers, more truly fulfilling their initial aspiration. The generous bequest in 1981 from Elvet Lewis, a former student, facilitated these developments and made possible a much more ambitious acquisition policy.
The University College of Wales was founded in 1872, and from an early date began to receive donations of objects and art works which formed the basis of the College Museum, conceived mainly as a teaching museum for science and ancient history. George Ernest Powell of Nanteos was a benefactor during his lifetime and at his death in l882 he bequeathed his personal library and art collections to the College. The major part of this benefaction consisted of drawings, paintings and objects d’art, but it included some ceramics, mainly contemporary Japanese Satsuma and Imari ware imported into Europe on the wave of enthusiasm for things Japanese in the late nineteenth century. There were also examples of continental figurines and individual pieces of Islamic and pre-nineteenth century European wares. A further donation was made in 1915 when Lady Williams, wife of Sir John Williams, the President of the College, bequeathed a fine collection of Swansea porcelain. The Arts and Crafts Museum of the interwar years built on this initiative and development.
Studio Pottery 1920-1940
The interwar period is always considered to be one of the seminal periods for the development of British studio pottery although many of the central tenets of the studio pottery movement date back to the nineteenth century. Firstly there was the fashion for Japanese crafts of all kinds especially pottery and prints which arose after the opening up of Japan to the West after l860; secondly the Arts and Crafts Movement led by William Morris who believed that industrialization had brought a collapse in standards of craft skills which had to be remedied not just for its own sake but for the health of society. Thus good craftsmanship became associated with moral welfare.
All over Europe especially in the industrial nations the rural potteries were disappearing and cheap mass-produced domestic ware was widely marketed. There was also a growing demand for special more individualized ‘art’ pottery, for display rather than use. In the late nineteenth century art pottery was produced by factories such as Doultons but also in smaller enterprises such as Howson Taylor’s Ruskin Pottery and indeed the Martin Brothers who are often cited as the first studio potters. This was because they undertook the whole process themselves although in fact each of the brothers did have a specialized task. In the factories the throwing of the pots was considered a craft while the artists were the ones who decorated. This split disappeared with the development of studio pottery. Form and decoration were conceived as a totality and the whole process was usually overseen and controlled by one artist.
It is in France that one can see a distinct modern pottery developing in the late nineteenth century in the work of artists such as Ernest Chaplet and Auguste Delaherche. In their work applied decoration was much reduced in favour of an experimental approach to glazes with vivid colours or with crystalline or lustre reflections. In the decades around the turn of the century experimental glazes were a passion among many potters and chemists with the particular glaze recipes being held as a closely guarded secret and indeed the notes about them being eventually burned or destroyed by the artist so that there could be no imitator.
Many of these glazes were devised in imitation of oriental prototypes and they signify a change in taste in oriental ceramics. The elaborate figurative decoration of later periods was renounced in favour of the early Sung and Ming wares where beautiful simple shapes were glazed all over in one colour. The glaze itself would contain great subtleties with contrasting reflections or delicate shadings. Although most studio pottery is quite recognisably of the twentieth century a number of potters were heavily influenced by these wares. Reginald Wells, for example, developed bright turquoise blue colours with flashes of pink emulating a chun glaze. The forms were also of an oriental type and his pots were sold with carved oriental wooden stands.
Charles and Nell Vyse had three quite distinct sides to their business. On the one side Charles modelled his London characters which were enormously popular, their brightly coloured charm finding a ready market in America as well as Britain; on the other, the Vyses developed fine stoneware bowls and vases often in simple oriental shapes and glazed with tenmoku, chun or celadon. The Vyses were friendly with the Greek collector George Eumorfopoulos who, like them, lived in Chelsea and gave them access to his splendid collections of early oriental ceramics. It has to be noted that while Greenslade purchased many fine examples of the oriental-inspired pots there are no examples of Vyse figures in the collection which were no doubt too ‘popular’ for his tastes. In the 1930s they also made a range of more art deco-styled stoneware represented in the collection by the pelican vase.
Of all the potters influenced by the East the work and writings of Bernard Leach become the most significant. The lifelong friendship which was formed in the second decade of the century between Bernard Leach, Shoji Hamada and Kanjiro Kawai was to be the most influential fusion of East and West affecting the direction of ceramics in both Britain and Japan. In the work of these potters, especially Bernard Leach, the theories of the Arts and Crafts Movement became fused with oriental ideas and philosophy. Their influence in Japan was also important in the craft revival known as Mingei, led by their philosopher friend Soetsu Yanagi. The ceramics that inspired them are not the sophisticated wares but the traditional folk ceramics of Japan. In the early years at least, the ideal of producing hand-crafted domestic ware was important rather than one-off wares for display on the mantelpiece.
In 1921 Hamada and Leach went to St Ives where they founded the pottery which was to be the cradle for a number of young potters in the 1920s. Katharine Pleydell-Bouverie and Norah Braden were amongst these and when they set up the pottery at Coleshill it was the ideals behind the oriental tradition that were at the core of the quiet subtlety of their work. Each glaze recipe was carefully recorded in notebooks which reveal all the experiments with different types of wood ash.
Traditional British slipware also became an important source of inspiration for this group. Slipware offers the opportunity to create strong, bold designs which although traditional also appeal to modern taste through their spontaneity and gestural effect. The collection at Aberystwyth contains work by both Hamada and Kawai which demonstrate their enthusiasm for this technique. It is significant that in this period the curators were also collecting fine examples of eighteenth and nineteenth century slipware mainly from Buckley in North Wales.
Michael Cardew began to make slipware after his training with Leach at St Ives. In 1926 he set up Winchcombe Pottery in Gloucestershire. Aberystwyth has one of the finest collections of this work. In 2014 we had a further major acquisition of stoneware pottery by Michael Cardew and pupils when we accepted the Ann Carr Collection of 350 pieces of Wenford Bridge Pottery. These represent Cardew’s later work mainly from the 1960s and 1970s.
The Leach group was always wedded to the production of functional domestic ware, although in fact they produced, especially in the later years, individual pieces for an art market. Other potters however specialised in individualised pots from the start. William Staite Murray gave all his works a title after 1925, exhibiting annually alongside well known modern painters such as Ben Nicolson and pricing his pots at figures of up to one hundred guineas. By so doing he was attempting to upgrade the status of the artist potter as the equal of any fine artist. Such a position has many attendant problems. The issue is still with us today in the ever increasing range of prices that can be paid for a piece of ceramics by a well-known artist.