The Fitzwilliam Museum takes us on an engaging journey through a century of British ceramics
In 1935 Bernard Leach brought a traditional Korean 18th-century storage jar to England from Seoul, which he later gave to fellow ceramist Lucie Rie. Known as a moon jar because of its round shape and traditionally white glaze, the vessel soon became an iconic object that influenced the course of British studio pottery.
Today the form continues to be reinvented by contemporary artists, and pieces by Akiko Hirai, Nao Matsunaga, Adam Buick and Gareth Mason have been commissioned for this new exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum.
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Things of Beauty Growing tells the story of British studio pottery in eight chapters – exploring the changing physical shape of eight key forms, from the moon jar to the ceramic monument.
Featuring more than 100 objects, some of the most famous British-based potters are on show here, including Bernard Leach, Shoji Hamada, Lucie Rie and Hans Coper, as well as the ceramic superstars of today, such as Alison Britton, Julian Stair, Edmund de Waal, Grayson Perry and Clare Twomey.
Taking its starting point in 1920, the exhibition celebrates almost a century of British studio pottery, and Glenn Adamson, who curated alongside Martina Droth and Simon Olding, says the aim is “to bring out a history of ceramic forms – to focus not on a canon of makers but on a canon of vessels.”
This canon progresses via vases, bowls, chargers, sets, vessels and pots, with the audience moving thematically through different sections dedicated to different forms.
During the early twentieth century pottery revival many British artists looked to Asia for inspiration and the bowl section of the exhibition features Leach’s signature Japanese tea ceremony bowls displayed alongside contemporary British potters’ work, including Katharine Pleydell-Bouverie, Norah Braden, and Charles Vyse.
The Japanese focus on humble, functional, but beautiful objects inspired British studio potters to create functional vessels while keeping artistic form, at a time that saw a growth in the heavy industrialisation of ceramics.
In fact, twentieth-century British ceramics existed in a constant state of tension between the handmade and the industrial. This divergence can be seen in the coffee and breakfast sets made by Leach, Rie and Ruth Duckworth alongside the industrially-produced tableware designed by ‘signature designers’ such as Keith Murray for Wedgwood. The ‘imperfect’ uniqueness of the handmade objects acts as a direct counterbalance to mass-produced industrial ceramics which were becoming common at the time.
Moving from the functional to the ornamental, the final display, ‘monuments’, showcases ceramics as sculpture – breaking away from more traditionalist elements of the British studio pottery movement. Works by Julian Stair, Grayson Perry, Martin Smith and Halima Cassell are featured.
The exhibition also includes the striking installation, Made in China, by Clare Twomey, which comprises 80 large red and gold porcelain vases, which were made and fired in Jingdezhen, China. The installation, which features Twomey’s now familiar take on massed ceramic forms, is a comment on the international ceramics industry and the differences in labour between East and West.
One of the vases was shipped from China to Stoke-on-Trent to be decorated by Royal Crown Derby employees using 18-carat gold applied by hand – the decoration of this one vase cost more than the decoration of the other 79 vases combined, which were finished in the Chinese factory using decals (transfers).
Whereas once British potters took inspiration from handcrafted Asian pottery to escape mass-produced British goods, today’s assembly processes in China offer few opportunities for individual creativity. One hundred years later, it seems the opposition between the handmade and the industrial has not gone away.
Things of Beauty Growing: British studio pottery runs until 17 June 2018, admission is free.
The Fitzwilliam Museum
From Egyptian coffins to Impressionist masterpieces – the Fitzwilliam Museum's world-class collections of art and antiquities span centuries and civilizations.