Home from Home: Crossing Borders

By CAA Admin

Home from Home: Crossing Borders
Golden Bowl by Takeshi Yasusa, 2016/17
By David Whiting

Artistic emigration to Britain has transformed its cultural life. As with other branches of the arts (and so many disciplines), one wonders where would we be without the rich intake of artists from other cultures, an integration which has helped to give studio ceramics here its philosophical, aesthetic and expressive complexity. Such infusions of foreign talent have helped to move us away from more static traditions.

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Snow Ice on Black, Standing Form by Gabriele Koch
Snow Ice on Black, Standing Form by Gabriele Koch, 2016. Photograph by Harald Brekke.

At a time of such international uncertainty and political change, not least in Europe, how timely to reflect again on the cross-cultural influences, the cross-fertilisation of ideas which have constantly reinvigorated the ceramics scene in Britain. Before World War II the fledgling studio movement was just that, comparatively insular, led largely by the Anglo-Oriental ideas and practice of potters such as Bernard Leach and his students, as well as William Staite Murray, Charles and Nell Vyse and Reginald Wells. There was a clear emphasis on Oriental exemplars, and in Michael Cardew’s case, English slipware. Shoji Hamada (1894-1978) was an early and important Japanese visitor, joining Leach in St Ives for three years in 1920. He was an energising spirit, interested in Britain’s medieval pottery and slipware and consolidating Leach’s powerful advocacy of an East-West dialogue. A more recent settler, the Japanese-born potter Yo Thom, calls Leach’s and Hamada’s tradition “rather, a philosophical and ideological understanding of the Orient”, whereas for her and another émigré, Takeshi Yasuda, it is fundamentally based on useful tableware and the ceremony of food.

It took persecution and an impending conflict to bring about a greater influx of émigrés towards the end of the 1930s, most famously for ceramics, Lucie Rie (1902-1995) from Austria and Hans Coper (1920-1981) from Germany. It is well documented how these two helped to bring a fresh modernist spirit into British studio work that reflected a sensibility rooted in a wider world of modern architecture, art and design. Their influence was felt through an important series of London gallery shows in the 1950s and 60s, and their teaching at Camberwell and the Royal College of Art. The Anglo-Dane Agnette Hoy (1914-2000) also deserves recognition. She was born in London of Danish parents, but was brought up in Denmark and trained at Copenhagen School of Art in the 1930s, going on to work for Nathalie Krebs at the Saxbo factory. By the end of that decade she had returned to England, bringing her abilities as potter and designer to work for Bullers and Royal Doulton in Stoke-on-Trent. Here was a significant collaboration between studio ceramics and industry, following the Scandinavian model. But any subsequent dialogue in the field as a whole has been fitful and spasmodic, a reflection of the British tendency to compartmentalise visual disciplines. Perhaps the purist notion of the studio-made ‘ethical pot’ has just been too pervasive?

Leipzig-born Brigitte Goldschmidt Appleby (1926-2000) also arrived in the 1930s, setting up Briglin Pottery in London with Eileen Lewenstein in 1948, introducing a modern quite Scandinavian freshness to functional wares. Seven years later the Texan Janet Darnell Leach (1918-1997) brought the fresh influence of Japan as well as contemporary American art when she married Bernard Leach and settled in St Ives. With a background in sculpture in New York and a period of study in Mashiko, Janet Darnell would introduce a new bolder expression to British thrown work, very different in quality to most of the Leach School. Stylistically there were parallels with the hand-building of the German-born Ruth Duckworth (1919-2000) who fled the Nazis in the 1930s and studied painting in Liverpool. Lucie Rie suggested she study ceramics, and Duckworth completed her training at the Central School in the late 1950s, during its most experimental and fertile period, and where she briefly became an influential teacher. Duckworth’s organic and sculptural porcelain achieved in hand-building what Rie and Coper had done in throwing, creating an aesthetic followed by many British potters into the mid-1970s. Another émigré with a modernist eye, Henry Rothschild (1913-2009) showed the work of many of these innovators in his adventurous shop ‘Primavera’ in London, recognising the value of a variety of work, from tableware to sculpture, and international in scope. Rothschild saw ceramics in the context of European design and craft as a whole, also organising enterprising museum shows of new work in Britain and abroad.

Another approach to hand-building was encouraged by another Central School student, the Sudanese-born Siddig el Nigoumi (1931-1996). After the Central he returned to Khartoum, but settled for good in Britain in 1967, and became a teacher at Farnham School of Art. His work broadened the language of traditional burnished earthenwares, helping to introduce an African-influenced aesthetic into the British studio (the Nigerian potter Ladi Kwali made a similar impact during her memorable tour of demonstrations the UK in the early 1960s). Other leading smoke-firing hand-builders associated with Farnham, Magdalene Odundo and Gabrielle Koch, also had stylistic affiliations with African pottery. But the German-born Koch found that it was time in Spain that clarified her ideas before she discovered the “fertile ground” of the UK, where she was able to develop her strong elemental forms. Odundo’s source material was more direct. She was born in Nairobi, but only decided to study ceramics in her homeland after a period in England, so her inheritance is, like so many artists here, a hybrid one. Her complex pots draw on her African roots, but they are equally those of a Western sensibility, with all the sculptural expression of a European studio.

The subtleties and contradictions of this eclecticism and hybridity are touched on by the American-born Charles Bound, who points out that Svend Bayer, Danish but in fact born in Uganda, is actually more clearly indebted to ‘West Country jugs and large Asian pots”. Bayer regards his peripatetic background and upbringing as “bewildering”, seeing nothing of his Danish-ness in his pots. But is there no trace? I still find a functional power and simplicity there which is Scandinavian in ethos if not in direct style. Influence can be subliminal, implicit rather than explicit. As Ferri Farahmandi was told by her ceramics teacher after her arrival from Iran, “We can never take the Persian out of you”. Karen Downing acknowledges her American-ness as an internalised quality, perhaps more a feeling, one that is expressed in the clear-cut solidity and sense of purpose in her porcelain tableware. Cultural perceptions are a complex issue too. Takeshi Yasuda says, “All cultures are made by reacting to stimulus from outside and from within. Understanding those cultures has nothing to do with it”. For example the co-option and adaptation by some Western potters to Oriental styles and ideas has not necessarily appreciated their complexity. Our perception can be superficial, even simplistic. I like Akiko Hirai’s analogy, that actually “native cuisines change a little when they are imported”, and Yasuda makes a similar, slightly tongue-in-cheek point about the West’s ready consumption of sushi.

That Britain became such a fertile ground for new thinking in ceramics was due largely to a comprehensive and adventurous educational structure, from the evening class upwards, that gained momentum through the 1950s and 60s. Technical and imaginative exploration stretched clay as never before. As Jin Eui Kim says, it was the British emphasis on developing ideas that made such a difference after learning his traditional techniques in Korea, and several artists here talk of the liberating aspects of our teaching culture. Ashraf Hanna states that identity is not a static thing, but evolves and changes, part of the landscape of migration. Settling in a new place allows you to see from the outside in, to view your original culture with a new clarity and perception. Bonnie Kemske has been able to repossess her American self with her ‘Cast Hug’ pieces, objects about sensual touch made in an adopted land not famous for its demonstrative qualities, concerns amplified by her interest in the tactile aspects of the tea ceremony in Japan, where she was born. Israeli-born Kochevet Bendavid’s colourful and luxurious porcelain tableware also responds in some ways to British reserve, yet paradoxically it has echoes of the elaborate dining pieces produced by the 18th century English factories.

Jar by Svend Bayer
Jar by Svend Bayer. Photograph by Vanessa Champion.

These issues touch on one of the old dichotomies of the British studio world. It remains stimulating and is now over a century old, yet it exists in a broader society that still marginalises such activity. We have a great plurality in clay, but it goes hand-in-hand with the serious erosion of the ceramics education we hold so dear, of years of amalgamation and closure. That the scene remains lively is thanks in no small part to new blood, to those ceramists who continue to settle here. Artists are essentially travellers of course, metaphorically as well as literally. Sometimes force of circumstance and displacement has brought them here, for others it is a matter of choice, all part of the currency of a globalised world and its shifting populations. In the end creativity in clay is another act of resistance in an age of conformity, the mediocrity to which we descend if independent voices are no longer heard. How more fertile this conversation is when the voices are many and various. And as Helmet Schmidt once observed, we cannot fully understand our own culture unless we look at it through the eyes of others.

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