The evolution of British studio pottery explored in new exhibit
” 'Things of Beauty Growing': British Studio Pottery,” a new exhibit at the Yale Center for British Art, is the first major survey of British studio pottery ever organized in the United States.
Bringing together nearly 150 ceramic objects — including vases, bowls, chargers, and monumental forms, as well as a range of historic works from China, Japan, and Korea — the exhibition traces the evolution of the vessel form, which has defined the ceramic medium from the turn of the 20th century to the present.
This exhibition demonstrates that the story of studio pottery is a global one, as these pots and potters have travelled between England, continental Europe, Asia, Africa, and beyond. It also illustrates how studio pottery is an ongoing practice. The display includes works created especially for the occasion by contemporary artists, as well as drawing from distinguished private and public collections in the United States and the United Kingdom.
“The antiquity of the vessel, the familiarity of its shapes and forms, provides a ready-made language, which ceramic artists have for decades invoked and emulated but also distanced, transformed, and renewed. This exhibition seeks to shed new light on the development of British art and culture, while placing it in an international context,” said exhibition co-curator Martina Droth, deputy director of research and curator of sculpture at the Yale Center for British Art.
In the early 20th century, Bernard Leach (1887-1979) saw himself as a conduit between East and West, promoting pottery as a combination of both cultures, as well as a lifestyle that married art, philosophy, design, and craft. For several decades his studio, Leach Pottery, founded in 1920 with the Japanese ceramist Shoji Hamada (1894-1978), served as a training ground for many influential potters, including Katharine Pleydell-Bouverie (1895-1985), Michael Cardew (1901- 1983), Norah Braden (1901-2001), and Richard Batterham (b. 1936). Leach has been widely regarded as the “father of British studio pottery,” in large part due to the influence of “A Potter’s Book,” which he first published in 1940, and which has never been out of print.
“The exhibition considers the influence of the pioneer studio potter Bernard Leach but casts a new light on his role as a collector — we will present important ceramics Leach had personally owned in juxtaposition with the innovative pots that were the ‘exemplars,’ or standard-setting works that underpinned his beliefs and lifetime’s work,” said exhibition co-curator Simon Olding, director of the Crafts Study Centre, University for the Creative Arts, in the United Kingdom.
In addition, the exhibition and its accompanying book will include the first public display of photographic portraits of the potters themselves. Many of these portraits were taken by the photographer Ben Boswell (b. 1961), who has been photographing potters for some 30 years. His early portraits of potters, including those of Pleydell-Bouverie and Cardew, will be placed alongside those of contemporary makers, which were taken especially for the occasion of the exhibition.
Glenn Adamson, senior research scholar at the Yale Center for British Art and a co-curator of “Things of Beauty Growing,” stated that “despite the firm aesthetic resolve of British studio pottery, the field has been marked by vibrant debate since its inception.”
This exhibition will be organized chronologically, in the following sections:
Moon Jar: One of the iconic works in the history of British studio ceramics — a 17th-century Joseon dynasty moon jar — demonstrates the continuing importance and influence of this form to artists working today and how British studio ceramics have historically incorporated forms from other cultures. The opening section of this display presents a series of recent moon jars, some made specially for this exhibition by Gareth Mason (b. 1965), Akiko Hirai (b. 1970), Adam Buick (b. 1978), and Nao Matsunaga (b. 1980).
Vase and Bowl: Focusing on the early history of studio ceramics, these two sections features the Eastern origins of studio pottery in Britain. In the hands of pioneer makers such as William Staite Murray (1881-1962), Leach, Hamada, and Pleydell-Bouverie, traditional forms were reinvented for a modern aesthetic. Vases and bowls made in Britain in the 1920s and 1930s will be positioned alongside influential historic works from China and Korea, including several from Leach’s personal collection.
Charger: The charger, or plate, served as a “painting in the round” for British potters in the first half of the 20th century. Made to be shown on walls, mantelpieces, or sideboards, the charger was more decorative than functional. This section contrasts different types of painterly treatments used on the charger’s surface, including slipware dishes by Leach, Hamada, and Cardew, which reference 17th-century English examples, as well as avant-garde works by Sam Haile (1909-1948) and Hans Coper (1920-1981), created under the influence of Pablo Picasso.
Set: In the mid-20th century, British ceramics existed in a constant state of tension between the handmade and the industrial, according to the curators. This section juxtaposes handmade coffee and breakfast sets by Leach, Lucie Rie (1902–1995), and Ruth Duckworth (1919–2009) with serially produced tableware designed by Keith Murray (1892–1981) and Susie Cooper (1902–1995). Together, these works demonstrate the exchange, rivalry, and continuity between “one-off” pots and commercial wares.
Vessel: This display examines the emergence, beginning in the 1970s, of vessels that signaled a declining interest in function and a departure from traditional forms. Painterly surfaces exploring pattern, texture, and optical illusion became as important as the expressive, organic form. The works selected here demonstrate the vitality and sculptural possibilities of clay in the hands of practitioners such as Gordon Baldwin (b. 1932), Elizabeth Fritsch (b. 1940), Angus Suttie (1946–1993), Jacqueline Poncelet (b. 1947), and Alison Britton (b. 1948).
Pot: Pots by Ladi Kwali (ca. 1925–1984), Gwyn Hanssen Pigott (1935–2013), Magdalene Odundo (b. 1950), Jennifer Lee (b. 1956), and Edmund de Waal (b. 1964) will stand in contrast to the dynamic painted surfaces of other artists working from the 1980s to the present day. Rather than being symbolic objects, these works are grounded in process and the experiential aspect of the potter’s practice.
Monument: The exhibition concludes with a series of large-scale contemporary vessels by Duckworth, Felicity Aylieff (b. 1954), Julian Stair (b. 1955), and Lawson Oyekan (b. 1961), among others, which underscores a desire to take the vessel into the realm of monumental sculpture. Some of the artists included in this section continue to draw their inspiration from historic slipwares; others look to contemporary sculpture, and some, like Britton, fuse creative techniques from past and present into a hybrid form, unique to the ceramic discipline.
The U.S. debut of Clare Twomey’s (b. 1968) conceptual work “Made in China” (2010) has been installed throughout the center’s Louis I. Kahn-designed building. This work comprises 80 large-scale porcelain vases, each over five-feet tall, which were fabricated in Jingdezhen, China, and all but one was decorated there. The last vase was gilt by hand at Royal Crown Derby in England — the cost of which was equivalent to the production costs of the other vases combined. The project highlights the asymmetrical labor conditions in East and West, providing contemporary comment on the traditions traced throughout the exhibition.
This exhibition will be on view through Dec. 3, and will subsequently travel to The Fitzwilliam Museum at the University of Cambridge.
“ ‘Things of Beauty Growing’: British Studio Pottery” has been organized by the Yale Center for British Art in partnership with The Fitzwilliam Museum. The exhibition is accompanied by a publication of the same title, co-edited by the curators. Co-published with The Fitzwilliam Museum in association with Yale University Press, this book features contributions by an international team of scholars and the biographies and portraits of artists presented in the exhibition.
On Sept. 12 at 5:30 p.m., the curators of the exhibit will host a panel discussion chaired by Adamson. Following an introduction by Droth, artists and the exhibition’s co-curators will consider the history, present position, and possible new directions of studio pottery in Britain. Simon Olding, Magdalene Odundo (a potter who synthesizes a myriad of sources into serenely resolved sculptural forms), and Twomey will participate in the panel.
The Yale Center for British Art, 1080 Chapel St., houses the largest collection of British art outside the United Kingdom. Presented to the university by Paul Mellon’29, the collection reflects the development of British art and culture from the Elizabethan period onward. The center is open Tuesday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m., and Sunday, noon- 5p.m. For more information, visit the center’s website.