Ronnie Watt, Art At Work Today
The foundation years of South African studio pottery had three distinctive features: potters focussed on utilitarian ware, produced those with the high-temperature reduction technique, and made use of oil or wood-burning kilns. That was simply the way things were done. The times and technology permitted little indulgence in exploring new materials, techniques and artsy oeuvres. The pot as a pot, was the quest. The potter was consigned to the rank of craftsman. Pottery was exactly that… literally and figuratively contained in time, technique and form.
That does create the impression that the pioneer potters fumbled and stumbled their way through their craft but the opposite rather holds true. The South African studio potters of the 1950s were schooled and skilled not only in the techniques and style of the Anglo-Oriental tradition but also adopted (and in time adapted) its very essence: works with meaning and of meaning for the consumer rather than for the connoisseur.
By the late 1990s, Anglo-Oriental pottery as a distinctive form and idiom, had lost its popular appeal principally because consumer tastes had shifted for reasons of fashion and cost and partly, but significantly so, because ceramic art had come to the fore. In the process of innovation of material, technique, concept and expression and the rush to claim a place on the public stage of ceramic art, Anglo-Oriental pottery was consigned to history; to be acknowledged as a historical phenomenon with which ceramics has but a casual relationship. But modern-day ceramic art did not come into the world by means of a virgin birth… it has undeniably deep roots in the Anglo-Oriental pottery legacy. It would serve ceramicists (and potters) well to reflect on what they inherrited.
One of the significant early influences on utilitarianism was the arts and crafts movement spearheaded by the British artist and writer William Morris (1834–1896), his friend William de Morgan (1839 – 1917) who could be considered one of the fathers of utilitarian pottery and the writer John Ruskin (1819–1900). Morris and Ruskin represented anti-industrialism sentiment in both form and socio-economic reform. The aspiration was to produce objects that were “… simple in form, without superfluous decoration, often showing the way they were put together. They followed the idea of ‘truth to material’, preserving and emphasizing the qualities of the materials used…”1 and their work would come from rural-based workshops in which old productions techniques were revived.
This was echoed in the mingei folk art movement promoted in Japan in the 1920s by Sōetsu Yanagai (1889 - 1961 with its quest to perfect a craft rather than create art, working“… with one’s hands, naturally and unselfconsciously, using local materials and traditional techniques to produce meaningful work for one’s fellow human beings.”2 To be more exact, the criteria were for the craft to be produced anonymously (unsigned), be functional, simple, without excess ornamentation, to be one of many similar pieces, inexpensive; unsophisticated and to reflect the region of its origin.3
The British artist and potter Bernard Leach (1887 - 1979) was by then well-acquainted with Japanese pottery, having studied and worked under the 6th generation Kenzan master potter. Leach and the Japanese potter Shōji Hamada (1894 – 1978) set up a studio at St. Ives in Cornwall in 1920 with the philosophy “…of the artist turned craftsman; or at least of the educated and thinking man perceiving the simple beauty of material, workmanship and general approach to work which had preceded the Industrial Revolution… to recapture some of the lost values through the use of his own hands. So it was with William Morris, Gimson, and Edward Johnston. East or West, this is the counter-revolution, the refusal of the slavery of the machine…”4
The St. Ives studio at first produced earthenware and then stoneware fired to high temperatures in large oil- or wood-burning kilns. Leach and Hamada “… promoted pottery as a combination of Western and Eastern arts and philosophies. In their work they focused on traditional Korean, Japanese and Chinese pottery, in combination with traditional techniques from England and Germany, such as slipware and salt glaze ware. They saw pottery as a combination of art, philosophy, design and craft – even as a greater lifestyle.”5 Though at first the studio output of functional ware was considered crude by the refined standards of the day, Leach – especially after the publication of his landmark A Potter’s Book in 1940 which defined his craft philosophy and techniques – attracted many pupils, employees and guest potters who in turn as studio potters or teachers of pottery at academic institutions, would perpetuate what by then had become firmly entrenched as the Anglo-Oriental school of pottery and spread it far beyond the borders of Britain.
In fact, it superceded any indigenous (but not ethnic) pottery in those countries where it took root. As was the case in Australia where “One couldn’t tell whether a faceted celadon glazed jar was made in Melbourne or London, and even when [Harold} Hughan produced a magnificent late series of tenmoku glazed platters with decorations based on Australian wildflowers, the actual origin of the flora was not at all apparent, buried as they were in a calligraphic cipher of brown on black. These were international pots made in response to Leach’s philosophy of a timeless standard in ceramics and the primacy of traditional Oriental techniques and they were made in Australia just as they were made everywhere A Potter’s Book was read.”6
Anglo-Oriental pottery can be defined as high-temperature reduction-fired utilitarian ware that was wheel-thrown with the emphasis on understated but quality of form, subtly glazed and minimally decorated. The materials were preferably locally sourced and blended by the potter and forms were achieved through repetitive throwing. Appreciation of the intrinsic qualities of a pot came via its utilitarian value and as a rule the potters would not identify their work with their monograms or marks. It was the pot rather than the potter, that commanded respect.
By the 1950s, other potters had came to the fore at British art schools and influenced the next generation. William Staite Murray (1881 – 1962), who was head of the ceramics department of the Royal College of Art, treated his pots as works of art, exhibiting them with titles in galleries. Dora Billington (1890–1968), head of pottery at the Central School of Arts and Craft, produced tin-glazed earthenware. Lucie Rie (1902–1995) experimented and produced new glaze effects. The work of Hans Coper (1920–1981) was non-utilitarian, sculptural and unglazed and influenced Ewen Henderson (1934–2000) who taught at the Royal College of Art and there from 1966 to 1975 and steered his students towards non-utilitarian work.7
In South Africa at that time, pottery production studios rather than studio potteries, had the edge. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, local pottery production studios were set up to compete with foreign producers, particularly the English potteries. Items manufactured in those production studios included dinner services, ashtrays, jugs, platters, candelabra, egg cups, bowls, sculptures, wall plaques and tiles. Some wares, besides being decorative, were even used as substitutes for paintings.8 Amongst those was Linn Ware where Marjorie Johnstone (1904 – 19—) and Gladys Short (1892 – 19—) designed and created domestic ware in distinctive style and glazes 9 The Kalahari Ware studio in Cape Town was established by the Russian sculptor Alexander Klopcanovs (1912-1997) and his ceramicist wife, Elma Vestman (1914 – 1997) and exported a selection of sculptures, candelabra and dinner services to a number of countries around the world.10. Others were Crescent Potteries, Dykor, Drostdy Ware,11 Lucia Ware, Hamburger Ware and Lieberman Pottery, the latter established by Sammy Liebermann (1920 – 1984) and Mary Liebermann (1929 – 2007) in Johannesburg in 1952 “… following the Bernard Leach – Shōji Hamada tradition with an extensive range of traditional handmade cottage tableware and dinnerware and ceramic picture tiles.”12
Esias Bosch (1923 - 2010) was the first of the South African studio potters to become intimately familiar with the Anglo-Oriental style and then assimilate those ethics and aesthetics in his work. After studying under Billington in London he secured an appointment with Ray Finch at Winchcombe Pottery, Gloucestershire. Finch was a student of Michael Cardew (1901 - 1983) who was Leach’s first apprentice at St. Ives from 1923 to 1926. Bosch later worked with Cardew at his Wenford Bridge studio in Cornwall where he learnt the basics of wood-fired kilns and in 1959 he worked with Cardew at Abudja in Nigeria.
Another South African, Bryan Haden had less but nevertheless significant exposure to British studio pottery and production pottery with his work in 1953 under Harry Davis (1910-1986) of Crowan Pottery, Cornwall. Davis was a former thrower in Leach’s studio. In 1964, Haden gained experience in stoneware production at Aylesford Monastery Pottery, Kent.
The third of the notable early South African studio potters to benefit from an association with British potters was Hyme Rabinowitz (1920 - 2009) who worked for six months during 1956 under Kenneth Quick (1931 – 1963) at the Tregenna Hill Pottery, Cornwall where Quick was specialising in oxidised stoneware. Quick was a Leach apprentice from 1945 to 1955. During 1966-1967, Rabinowitz worked with Cardew at the Wenford Bridge studio and later also visited Cardew in Adjuba.
Bosch, Hayden and Rabinowitz set up their final studios – making high-temperature reduction stoneware and porcelain initially in wood-fired kilns - respectively in White River, Gordon’s Bay and Cape Town. Bosch and Rabinowitz shared the White River studio during 1961 and the latter, on his return to Cape Town, had a life-long association with Hayden.
The studio potter who brought experience and exposure of more contemporary British pottery to South Africa, was Tim Morris (1941 – 1990). Morris graduated from Central School of Art, London where he studied under Ruth Duckworth, Ian Auld, Kenneth Clark, Dan Arbeid, Gordon Baldwin and John Colbeck and came under the influence of the potters Dan Arbied, Hans Coper, Lucie Rie, John Colbeck and Ruth Duckworth. He was also exposed to Middle Eastern neolithic pottery and visisted Hamada. Morris eventually set up his Ngwenya studio in Muldersdrift.
Similarly, Andrew Walford became acquainted with contemporary trends when visited Europe in the 1960s where he was invited to work at the Gustavberg factory near Stockholm, Sweden and later established a studio in Germany as well as taught at art academy in Hamburg. Walford too befriended Hamada. On his return to South Africa, he established a studio at Shongweni.
The appeal of handmade pottery caused the numbers of hobbyist potters to swell in the 1960s and 1970s and pottery schools and treaching studios popped up everywhere. From the ranks of hobbyists, the graduates of art schools and the acolytes of the established studio potters, there would emerge a new generation of potters who would in time find and express their own interpretation of utilitarian pottery. Morris was generous in sharing knowledge with all. Rabinowitz and Walford were mentors. Haden and Liebermann took on apprentices. Bosch was the guiding star, setting standards which everyone admired but few could emulate. Their teachings and mentorships live on in the present day work of David Walters, David Schlapobersky and Felicity Potter and Lindsay Scott, to mention but a few.
Walters reflects that “… people like Morris, Rabinowitz, Bosch - even me, to an extent - recieved the Anglo Oriental ‘feel’ second hand, so to speak. The traditions brought to the pottery world by Leach et al, had already become a part of the ‘language’ of clay by the time we came along. I am not sure how conscious we were of that influence - we were thoroughly aware of it, of course, but I dont picture myself in a bamboo grove on ‘Mount Fujiyama’… If one is tempted to imitate - well, I have always thought of that as sincere flattery - and also, lets face it, there are only so many ways to throw a pot! The bloody things are all round, for a start, and gravity is distictly not on your side.”13
The British influence persevered via community pottery projects initiated and run by potters from Britain. The Finch and Cardew influences via Bill van Gilder, Toff Millway, Malcolm Bantock (1941 - 1988) and others were evident in the production of functional pottery at Kolonyama and Thaba Bosigo in Lesotho, Mantenga in Swaziland and Malindi in Malawi. There was also a free exchange of knowledge and ideas with the South African studio potters. It is important to note that the South African pottery community did not slavishly follow the Anglo-Oriental school but whilst emulating the work ethics, aesthetics and techniques of Leach & Co., claimed and gave an own interpretation within context of their own reference worlds. The South African studio potters enjoyed the liberty of exploring and developing local materials, reflect their environments and express themselves in their forms and decorative work and address consumer and collector audiences that had their own needs, expectations and limitations. Nor were they elitist isolationist but explored, shared, traded and mutually benefitted from interacting with indigenous potters such as at the Rorke’s Drift Art and Craft Centre which was a meeting ground of ethnic Zulu culture and American influence via Marietjie van der Merwe (1935-1992) and Danish influence via Peter Tybjerg, then later Ole and Anne Nielsen. The Canadian potter Anita Hutchings helped establish the Thamaga studio in Botswana. South Africans were active in community-based pottery projects such as the work of Joe Faragher (1943 – 2009) at the Ikhwezi Lokusa Rehabilitation and Development Centre in Mthatha (the former Umtata in Transkei). The integration of a Western approach with Zulu tradition and culture is the foundation at Ardmore Ceramics that was established by Fèe Halsted-Berning in 1985. Ardmore produces “… a unique art form which has earned Ardmore’s ceramics the description by Christie’s of London as `modern collectables’”.14
In 1972 the Association of Potters of Southern Africa (APSA), now known as Ceramics Southern Africa (CSA), was founded as “…a representative forum for the encouragement and fostering of the art and craft of ceramics in Southern Africa. In particular, it encourages and fosters the creation of awareness of the aesthetic, artistic, cultural and utilitarian value of ceramics.”15
The country’s leading galleries did not stint in hosting exhibitions of the work of the premier potters. The Goodman Gallery, Helen de Leeuw’s Craftsman’s Market and later Helen de Leeuw Gallery, the Yellow Door Gallery, Everard Reid Gallery, Studio 101, the Beuster-Skolimowski Gallery were some of the best known and eagerly supported venues. APSA staged regional and national competitions where many young potters made their debut. In the ranks of the new generation were potters of later stature such as Digby Hoets, Chris Green, Chris Patton, Ian Glenny, Walters, David Wells, Anton van der Merwe, Schlapobersky, Potter, Neville Burde, Bruce Walford, Steve Shapiro, Rosten Chorn (1954 – 2005), Edu Vaughan-Scott, Lindsay Scott, etc.
The potters were also represented in exhibitions at international level. Two of those were Morris and Walford. Morris exhibited at the International Arts and Crafts Fair, Florence; the Museum of Contemporary Craft, Los Angeles; in Namibia, Italy and Germany. Walford’s work was seen in group exhibitions at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London; the Hamburg Museum fur Kunst und Gewerbe, Germany; the Smithsonian Institute, U.S.A. and at the Florence Biennale, Italy. His solo exhibitions in Germany were in Freiburg, at the Hamburg Art School and the Deidesheim Museum fur Moderne Keramik and other solo shows were in Wahington, Amsterdam and Tokyo.
The start of a national collection of pottery was sponsored by Oude Libertas when in 1977, the winning pieces from the APSA National Exhibition were purchased. These included a porcelain bowl by Bosch, a stoneware vessel by Elsbeth Burkhalter and a sculpture by Ronnie van der Walt.16
The 1970s’ academic push towards liberation of creative thought and innovation with ceramic materials was pronounced by Malcolm P. MacIntyre- Read of the University of Natal Art Department in his article “Colour me clay – please” in which, with scathing satire, he refered to “Hairy Brown Stoneware” and “… an occasional flash of green or deep red thrown in by [his mate] Happy Accident…” to “… choruses of eulogist falsetto gasps at the wonder of it all.”17
But reduced stoneware under the seminal influence of the philosophies of Leach held its appeal throughout the 1970s and the early 1980s. It was, wrote Wilma Cruise: “… a mixture of art and craft idealism… in the hands of myriad enthusiastic followers who adopted the outward form of the language with little of its underpinning idealism, Anglo-Orientalism soon degenerated into a hollow copy of itself.”18
Cruise’s reference to a “myriad enthusiastic followers” was an exaggeration but her reference to “the outward form of the language” did apply to many. Schlapobersky comments that: “There really weren’t very many potters in this country in the 1970s that were pursuing reduction-fired stoneware and porcelain. The work being produced by many at the time was largely electric-fired stoneware and earthenware. It is true to say however, that those personalities of the pioneering generation [Bosch, Rabinowitz, Walford, Haden] and including others such as Liebermann and Maarten Zaalberg [1924 – 1989], exercised great influence on what was being made at the time and even selected for APSA regional and national exhibitions, but not necessarily on the how or why. Very few of those influenced by that first generation went on to make high temperature, reduction-fired studio pottery a full-time or professional pursuit. Not forgetting the impact of the very fast pace of developments in ceramic materials and equipment: bright, low-temperature overglaze and underglaze colours; the ready supply of a vast array of bisqueware; prepared clays and glazes. It was no longer necessary for people to build their own kilns or mix their own clays and glazes, industry was beginning to take care of that, and the new generation was gaining freedom to explore new forms of inspiration, and taking aspects of studio pottery and ceramics in general into a variety of new avenues of expression. Teaching was changing too. Technique and tradition seemingly inferior to notions of freedom to express oneself; and the environment which was characterised by the demanding requirements of acquiring the necessary context, conventions and grounding in aspects of basic design, skills, science and technology, and traditions, had given way to a totally different milieu with quite new priorities and possibilities.”19
The Anglo-Oriental aesthetic could not hold its ground against the groundswell of ceramic art and by the mid-1980s “… the influence of the art schools made a great impact on the work being created around the country and more and more potters started to experiment with different firing techniques, to explore colour and more conceptual themes for their work.”20 The new trend was towards the “super object” which Yochi Silove described as a style that “… accented super realism, tactile illusion and fetish finish, to make contextual art statements.”21 At last, claims the fine and decorative arts consultants Gilfillan Scott-Berning, “… the boundaries that had confined ceramics to the craft arena were broken and local ceramics were ‘let into’ the art galleries and museums of the country.”22
Modernist pottery had evolved into post-modernist ceramic art. “Fortress Ceramica”, the metaphor used by the American ceramic historian, Garth Clark, to describe its mud brick walls to protect a self-contained potter society, had fallen and was banished to be a historical theme park. To which Mark del Vecchio, the American promoter of ceramics scholarship added: “Authorship is a modernist concept. The artist owns the piece by making it by hand and inventing its shape and surface. Postmodernism’s great shift was the concept that one could appropriate an object and, through manipulating its context, make it your own.”23
The ceramic artist took to the stage and with liberal abandon to self-expression and socio-political commentary, developed their brand of organic abstraction, figural and architectural sculpture, realism and super-realism and post-industrialism. The “vessel” rather than the pot, dysfunctional in form and utility, represented and interpreted time and thought. This was, wrote Cruise, the “renaissance in ceramics.”24
The Corobrik Collection as the national collection became known in 1983, reflects the introduction of “…expressions of colour that started to appear in the late eighties and nineties”25 and is intended “… to cover aspects of traditional utilitarian pottery as well as newer exploratory forms of ceramics related to the fine arts.”26 Amongst those potters represented in the collection are Bonnie Ntshalintshali, Austin Hleza, Henriette Ngako, Rebecca Matibe, Josephine Gesha, Peter Mthombeni, Andile Dyalvani, Madoda Fani, Vusi Ntshalintshali, Mthavini Masnanganyi, Mavis Baloyi, Nesta Nala and Thembi Nala.27
The three mainstreams of influence at the start of the 1980s were defined by Esther Rousso as the “Japanese/English Stoneware of scale, energy and refined virility” as evident in the work of Bosch, Rabinowitz and Walford; the “porcelain school of nature and geometry” spearheaded by Thelma Marcuson and Barry Dibb; and “the earth firing of Africa” of which Lesley-Ann Hoets was the flagbearer.28
By then the already small number of the “old school” studio potters had waned for several reasons: industrial-produced functional ware was preferred over handmade ware, rising production costs limited studio pottery output and the disdain of the established the art community towards an earlier aesthetic, robbed the studio potters of the recognition they ought to have claimed. Shapiro lamented the dominance of objects over sculpture and of vessels over pots at the 1987 Corobrik National Ceramics exhibition and “… the measure of success achieved by the ceramicists in their relentless campaign to drive the potters to some dark places where presumably tenmoku is the colour and function is the purpose.”29
Even so, amidst the hullabaloo of post-modernism ceramics, recognition was forthcoming for at least some of the early potters. Rabinowitz was awarded a a silver medal for Singular Merit and Rare Achievement by the University of Pretoria in 1990, a honorary Masters degree in Fine Art by the University of Cape Town in 1992 and the award of “Master Potter” by APSA in 1990. The latter distinction of master potter was also awarded to Bosch in 2000. (Ironically, Morris who was such a major figurehead, was never awarded that accolade and at best, he received awards of merit at APSA’s national exhibitions.)
Referring directly to the work of Rabinowitz, Prof. Ian Calder, Director of the Centre for Visual Art at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, wrote: “… [Rabinowitz’s] work continued developing… it was not cast in that modernist conception of a single unitary tradition of form that had no change… [his] work shifted in subtle ways in response to changes in his environment. No tradition is unchanging.”30 and “… have succeeded in personalising the medium to the point where references to transposed forms of orientalised calligraphy are extraneous to their work.”31
In 1990 with ceramic art in ascent, Cruise cautioned against “… a tendency to forget ‘the bloody horse’. There is so much polishing of the saddle and dressing the bridle that the gutsy, breathing, living, animal is forgotten. Technique becomes subordinate to the real thing. Instead of being in service to a visually exciting object it becomes and end in itself – the horse is forgotten or at least neglected.”32 The warning went largely unheaded and in 2009, Cruise voiced her criticism of the post-modernist ceramic movement for having reached a stasis and that in retrospect the Anglo-Orientalist baby was thrown out with the bath water: “In disregarding the stringent formalist precepts of Anglo-Orientalism we came to neglect form itself…” and that “… [Anglo-Orientalism] belongs in its time and place, but it does hold object lessons for contemporary ceramicists to revisit the formal properties of their work.”33
Only a few of the earlier potters remain active and continue to produce work with the same challenging ethics and easthetics of times past but not necessarily in the idiom of form and decoration of that era and a handful of the younger studio potters perpetuate the production of functional work even if dressed up in a post-modernist look. As for working exclusively in high temperature, reduction-fired stoneware and/or porcelain… that remains the domain of but a brave handful.