In 2015 Aaron Angell, founder of Troy Town Art Pottery, visited The Camberwell ILEA Collection. The visit formed part of his research for a forthcoming ceramics exhibition at Tate. Angell selected 2 raku-fired stoneware elephants, made by Denise Wren at the Oxshott Pottery in c.1960-1970. Last week, our Object Collections Archivist visited Tate St Ives to see the resulting show That Continuous Thing: artists & the ceramics studio 1920-today.
The journey to the South-West was also an opportunity to visit the infamous Leach Pottery. The Camberwell ILEA Collection contains work by Bernard Leach, who is often hailed as the father of studio pottery, and his wife Janet Leach. Established in 1920, the Pottery now offers artist residencies (including Angell who is making work on site as part of the Tate programme), courses and a small museum.
That Continuous Thing, curated by Sara Matson and Aaron Angell, presents three distinct snapshots in the history of the development of ceramics practice. The first concentrates on St Ives in the 1920s. It explores Bernard Leach’s impact on studio based (or ‘non-factory’) pottery in Britain. Leach was involved in the Mingei movement, which contributed to the revival of clay as a medium, and he disseminated these ideas through the tutelage of emerging potters.
Before moving to St Ives, Leach had been living and practicing in Japan. His relationship with master potter Shōji Hamada had a significant impact on his work. Leach fused ideas of English art & crafts, with Japanese folk craft movements to bring about his signature style. These ideas were realised at the Leach Pottery; he created functional vessels using local Cornish clays and glazes. Colours were often muted and decoration was simple.
Bowl, Bernard Leach, c.1960. The Camberwell ILEA Collection (P542A)
Leach was a craftsmen, he was responsible for an influx of artists and makers to St Ives during the period. His students included Michael Cardew, Sylvia Fox-Stangeways, Charlotte Epton and Katherine Pleydell-Bouverie, all of whom went on to have successful careers in ceramics.
The Camberwell ILEA Collection contains numerous examples of Janet Leach’s work (P1060A, P1390A, P1062A, P1063A).
Bernard Leach’s potter’s wheel, tools, and kilns are preserved at the Leach Pottery. Visitors to the Pottery can walk through The Clay Room, where Leach would have prepared clays and glazes from local dry ingredients. For Leach, the form of the pot, choice of glaze and decoration were together of great aesthetic importance. In its heyday each potter was expected to produce between 70-100 identical standard ware items. Leach fired pots in a large oriental climbing kiln – still in situ, and now recognised as a scheduled monument. The climbing kiln has three chambers, each attaining a different temperature. The separate chambers allowed glaze firing and biscuit firing to occur simultaneously.
The second snapshot in That Continuous Thing focusses on California in the 1950s. The exhibition argues that at this time artists were revolutionising the idea of clay as a sculptural form. There was a rejection of the mediums association to craft, and to the limits of producing functional vessels. Artists including Peter Voulkos moved away from the traditional potter’s wheel and developed hand-building and slab-building techniques. Sculptural forms were created using experimental techniques including “forcefully denting slabs of clay by hand”.
Elizabeth Rompala, c.1960. An example of hand built sculptural work, from The Camberwell ILEA Collection (P1243A).
The final snapshot in That Continuous Thing was curated by Aaron Angel. It presents the recent ‘material explorations’ of artists and makers producing work at The Troy Town Art Pottery in London. These material explorations suggest the limitless nature of clay as a medium. Within the gallery Angel methodically presents Troy Town pieces among a choice selection of historic ceramic objects– the oldest dating to the Roman era. The result is a visually appealing magpie-approach that celebrates clay’s possibilities. It is in this final gallery that Denise Wren’s elephants can be seen, loaned to Tate from The Camberwell ILEA Collection.
Installation photo of That Continuous Thing: artists & the studio 1920-today at Tate St Ives.
Raku-fired stoneware elephants, Denise Wren, c.1960. The Camberwell ILEA Collection (P1450B, P1373D)
Denise Wren studied pottery at Camberwell College of Arts, enrolling for part-time lessons in around 1915-1920. Pottery classes were first offered at the College in 1914. Initially lessons were aimed at those already employed in the building trades. Wren represents one of the earliest students whose work became increasingly focussed on art and craft – a trend that would go on to define the profile of the subject at Camberwell. These raku-fired stoneware elephants were made towards the end of Wren’s life in the late 1960s.
The history and development of ceramics teaching at Camberwell will be explored in a forthcoming Collaborating Collections display in the Library at Central St Martins, opening 3rd October. There will be an opportunity to see the elephants in the CSM display after their return from Tate.
Email the Object Collections Archivist for further information about studio pottery within The Camberwell ILEA Collection firstname.lastname@example.org