5 min read

Journey through a century of British studio pottery

Things of Beauty Growing exhibition (c) Elizabeth Fritsch (c) The estates of Lucie Rie and Norah Braden

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.

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.

Small stoneware footed bowl, with oval rim. Matt brown/black. . Vertical lines are scribed through the glaze on the outside.

Studio Ceramics. Bowl. Rie, Lucie (British, 1902-1995). Small stoneware footed bowl, with oval rim. Matt brown/black. Vertical lines are scribed through the glaze on the outside. Acquisition: Dr John Shakeshaft Bequest.

Round white ceramic jar with heavily textured surface

Akiko Hirai Moon Jar 2016 (c) The artist photography Jon Stokes

Three ceramic objects, two large grey vases and a white bowl

Collection of Jennifer Lee

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.

White ceramic breakfast set by Lucie Rie

(c) Estate of Lucie Rie

Vase with disc-shaped rim. Of swelling inverted ovoid form with shoulders at the top, cylindrical neck, and wide, flat rim.

Hans Coper (British, 1920-1981). Stoneware, thrown, decorated with manganese-brown and white slips, height 43.3 cm, 1972. On loan from The Keatley Trust.

bowl with grey squiggles

(c) Estate of William Staite Murray

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.

Large multicoloured vase

Grayson Perry In Praise of Shadows

Collision 1984, (c) Jacqueline Poncelet

(c) Nao Matsunaga

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

Cambridge, Cambridgeshire

From Egyptian coffins to Impressionist masterpieces – the Fitzwilliam Museum's world-class collections of art and antiquities span centuries and civilizations.

Add your comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *