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Beauty and function: a potted history

Think of pottery and the image of Demi Moore being cradled by Patrick Swayze in the hit film Ghost springs to mind. But how did pottery make the transition from being purely functional to being a celebrated art form? This week the BBC's arts editor Will Gompertz gets hands-on behind a potter's wheel as part of his Get Creative series on BBC Radio 4.

We asked Get Creative champions Leach Pottery to put pottery into perspective. Arts writer Mercedes Smith gives us a simplified view of a complicated subject, and points us to where she considers is the epicentre of the UK’s ‘pottery as art’ explosion.

The Leach Pottery team at work. Photo by Matt Tyas

If you had been born into a third century settlement you would know exactly what a pot was for. Today, particularly if you peer into the windows of some of the UK's leading ceramics galleries where, say, a mid-20th century ‘studio’ pot by a celebrated maker may cost you upwards of £10,000, you may not be so sure.

Leach potters. Photo by Matt Tyas
Pottery is the most marvellous vehicle for the coming together of real beauty and genuine function

Functional pottery, designed for storing grain or water, is thought to have originated around 9,000 BC. Today, pottery has an altogether different place in society, and in some areas of the world, such as Japan, pottery has been elevated to the pinnacle of cultural importance.

Pottery, in contemporary terms, is a nebulous field. Even current wording is confusing on the subject. The term ‘pottery’ which used to be reserved for functional pieces like cups, bottles and bowls, also now includes pots whose single function is to look beautiful. The term ‘fine art pottery’, in theory, refers only to non-functional pots – except that over the last hundred years the line between functional and fine art pottery has been deliberately and successfully blurred.

The term ‘studio potter’ can drive even the most qualified arts writers mad – having an entirely slanted meaning that can only be understood in context: a ‘studio potter’ is typically understood to be an independent maker of one-off ‘fine art’ pieces, an ‘artist potter’ if you will – as distinct from a ‘production potter’ who repetitively makes similar looking functional pieces which in themselves make up a collection.

But the term ‘studio potter’ can also include makers of both single or grouped pieces of functional pottery, and by the way they aren’t always independent but often form studio groups or collectives. I know. Your head is spinning. But the good news is that actually none of these definitions really matter, and here’s why.

Throughout history the development of pottery has been influenced by many forces, but in essence has developed in response to the needs of mankind. Once practical considerations were everything. Now, in contemporary times, many cultures have practical needs in the bag and have the luxury of moving on to aesthetic considerations. And, as it turns out, pottery is the most marvellous vehicle for the coming together of real beauty and genuine function – something painting, sculpture and drawing could never achieve. Hence pottery’s unique place within the arts.

Lidded Pot with Bird by John Bedding

A creative perspective

Pot with Liquid Lines by John Bedding

It’s possible to weave practicality, aesthetics and cultural relevance together in a single pot, and here’s the real crunch - any one of these three factors can be the catalyst for the other two. It’s an endless circle, and learning to spot these threads in any one pot can become a pretty addictive sport with tremendous ego appeal for collectors: see the £10,000 price tag, if you’re wondering what I mean by that.

Leach Pottery tableware. Photo by Matt Tyas

I can make all this even simpler for you by pointing you to the one place in the UK where, in 1920, I believe all these factors were drawn together, and where the defining concept of pottery as art was born: Leach Pottery in St Ives, Cornwall.

One of the great figures of the 20th century, Bernard Leach played a pioneering role in creating an identity for artist potters across the world. Leach firmly believed that in a western society where the term ‘artist’ had come to mean only painters and sculptors, potters deserved equal status alongside artists, and that all non-industrial pots should be judged as works of art.

By ‘non-industrial’ he referred simply to pots made entirely by hand from start to finish, whether fine art or functional. This was an idea that swiftly influenced ceramic cultures across the world and prompted an endlessly diverse flowering of modern and contemporary pottery that continues today: see your nearest MA in Art History, by the way, to get your head round the difference between modern and contemporary – because that’s a whole other story we don’t have time to cover here, believe me.

Often described as the ‘father of the modern studio ceramic movement’ Leach’s ethos, in the wake of the late 19th century industrial revolution, reaffirmed the cultural value of handcrafted work. What more important influence could anyone have had on the future of pottery than that?

His pottery remains open today as a museum, gallery, pottery school and - get this – almost one hundred years after it was founded, a working studio pottery which continues to make functional pottery in the Leach tradition. Exhibitions trace the Leach influence through time and place from 1920 to now, and from here to as far west as Canada and as far east as Japan.

In conclusion, here’s the upshot. Today pottery, in all its forms, is one of the defining areas of the arts, one that perhaps has the greatest story to tell, and is populated with works which hold within their form and function every detail of the cultures which originated them. Pots ancient and new are now truly considered works of art, whatever they cost and whatever you use, or don’t use them for. To paraphrase a well-known poster campaign I’ll just finish by saying: join [your nearest pottery class] today - your [culture] needs you.

Leach Pottery tableware. Photo by Matt Tyas

Leach Pottery workshop fireplace 1946

It was customary for potters to gather around the fireplace mid morning for a cuppa and listen to Bernard critique pots and discuss his theories. Photo: Leach Archive
Photo by Matt Tyas

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