Museum Crush talks to Helen Walsh, Curator at the Centre of Ceramic Art in York about Picasso, ceramics, studio pottery and the extraordinary Attenborough Collection
Lord and Lady Attenborough began collecting Picasso ceramics in 1954 after meeting the artist whilst on a family holiday in the South of France.
At the time Picasso was experimenting with clay and producing his own ceramics at Georges and Suzanne Ramié’s Madoura Pottery in Vallauris, and the Attenboroughs were soon hooked by his witty and vibrant designs.
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The film star and his wife returned to Vallauris year after year, purchasing many more pieces and creating one of the most significant private collections of Picasso ceramics in the UK. Now this highly personal collection, which was bequeathed to the New Walk Museum and Art Gallery in Leicester, is celebrated and explored in the context of British ceramics in a major exhibition at the the UK’s new epicentre for all things ceramic, the Centre of Ceramic Art (CoCA) at York Art Gallery.
But as CoCA curator Helen Walsh explains, the ceramics Picasso created through the 1950s and into the 1960s have not always been regarded favourably by the craft establishment and British studio ceramicists in particular.
“I have to admit I was quite sniffy about them to start with, too” she admits. “I had this notion of how some studio potters actually went out and dug the clay, processed it, put all that effort into actually making the pots themselves, using all those skilful techniques, methods and recipes. Then this famous artist comes along and gets other people to do the really hard work, and decorates them at the end.”
But as she has got to know them and appreciate the kind of impact they had, Walsh says she has definitely changed her mind. “The way he was doing things with clay really changed a lot of people’s opinions – particularly critics – about the fact that pottery could be art,” she says, “so I quickly became a lot more open minded.”
Admittedly Picasso, as befitted his status, didn’t really get his hands stuck into the clay in the way a British studio ceramicist might. Never learning how to throw a pot, he preferred instead to direct the work of Vallauris workshop potters who would throw and create the shapes he wanted.
“He would then start incising them, getting sculptural and digging into them and gouging them,” says Walsh. “He spent his first year working just on plates and practising all these different decorative techniques.”
Picasso’s intention was to produce pieces that were relatively available and affordable, often in editions of 500 or more. These were then purchased directly from the workshop offering a feasible way to get your hands on a Picasso. He is reported to have said how he “would have liked to take all these pots and drive them to market to sell them for 100 francs each.”
Fanciful perhaps, but even in their day they were relatively affordable – certainly when compared to the thousands they can command at auction today. Little wonder the Attenboroughs became hooked and spent nigh-on five decades collecting them.
Their collection is displayed alongside some of York Art Gallery’s British studio ceramics collection, offering the public the opportunity to compare and contrast the works of Picasso’s contemporaries and those that were influenced by his work.
In Britain, just after World War II, during which you couldn’t make or sell decorative ceramics, the work Picasso created embodied a sense of starting again with a new spirit of freedom and enthusiasm.
A 1950 Arts Council exhibition ‘Picasso in Provence’ featured Picasso ceramics made in the South of France and it grabbed the imaginations of many young British potters. A small group of them became known as the Picassoettes, a slightly dismissive label bestowed by the doyen of British studio ceramics, Bernard Leach.
“It was meant to be a slightly mocking term from Bernard,” says Walsh, “but actually William Newland, who was one of the Picassoettes, was quite proud of it and wore it as a badge of honour.”
Together with his wife Margaret Hine (1927-1987) and former student Nicholas Vergette (1923-1974) Newland had already travelled to Málaga in Spain in 1949 where he saw examples of Picasso’s ceramics as well as traditional Mediterranean pottery.
They filled their sketchbooks with drawings of what they had seen and ideas of their own and on returning to the UK, they began experimenting with the materials and techniques Picasso had used, making what they described as “happy pots”. Their first exhibition included figures and tiles – pottery that was no longer tied to the potter’s wheel – and led to them being commissioned to make murals for London’s new, fashionable coffee bars.
“There are all these potters who were working along at the same time as Picasso, some of them before him, some of them after him, but they were inspired by similar ideas,” says Walsh.
“The idea of creating anthropomorphic pots has been around for ever, but the idea of creating pots and making them to represent other things but still being functional certainly influences many British potters in the early 1950s.”
British potters like Gordon Baldwin, who remembers being a student in the fifties and going to see an exhibition of Picasso’s ceramics and just being “gobsmacked” by it, didn’t know what to make of it at first says Walsh, but they felt inspired that they could make pots that would become art, not just pottery.
The Picasso exhibition is CoCA’s first major change in their temporary exhibition space since they opened in 2015 and for Walsh it marks the beginning of a long exhibition programme that she hopes will similarly challenge people’s perception about what ceramics can be.
“Picasso is a good place to begin,” she says, “the way he was using pottery at the time and the things he was creating were very, very different. He caused people to look at things in a very different way.”
PICASSO: Ceramics from the Attenborough Collection, is at York Art Gallery from July 28 – November 5 2017.
York Art Gallery
York, North Yorkshire
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