I n May 1940 Bernard Leach, the 'founding father' of the British Studio Ceramic movement wrote that: "very few people in this country think of the making of pottery as an art". But the pottery that Leach wrote of – rich with its 'own language and inherent laws' – had been a growing presence in the broader art scene since the end of the 19th Century, with the popularity of Robert Wallace Martin's famous Wally Birds, which delighted and amazed in equal measure. September's Made In Britain auction charts this journey and the changing attitudes and approaches used by artists, potters, ceramicists and makers throughout the course of the century, celebrating a century of ceramics in British art in all its glory.
Contemporary and Studio Ceramics in Britain have never been more popular, with the Yale Centre for British Art opening Things of Beauty Growing: British Studio Pottery in September this year, which will travel to Cambridge's Fitzwilliam Museum next year, and Sotheby's September sale will look at the way that artists, potters and ceramicists made use of the earth's most basic material in all its glory.
Having originally trained as an etcher, Bernard Leach stumbled across ceramics whilst visiting Japan – a visit which set him on a course to becoming not only a great writer on the subject, but also a leading practitioner, setting up the Leach Pottery in St Ives upon his return with the assistance of Japanese potter Shoji Hamada.
"I would ask you to consider Pottery not only for its utility, but also to see it as an abstract plastic art. It is in fact a very pure art, a direct formal expression …"
It was to Leach that the Austrian émigré Lucie Rie made a pilgrimage upon her arrival in England. Yet the ceramics that Rie, and later Hans Coper – also an emigre from war-torn Europe – produced were inherently different from the ceramics of Leach and his close contemporaries including Michael Cardew. Instead they trod their own path, inspired by a more European, Modernist ideal with rich, bold colours, thick volcanic glazes and brightly bronzed rims.
"Her work, timeless and majestic, remains a lasting and enduring testament to the art of the potter."
The post-war period saw a new approach to ceramics, both in terms of their display and their teaching, with one of the then most progressive art schools, Corsham, listing the ceramicist James Tower (then represented by London's most stylish contemporary gallery Gimpel Fils) on its teaching staff, alongside the likes of Howard Hodgkin and Peter Lanyon (both of whom experimented with the use of clay within their work).
Rie, Coper and other mid-century ceramicists had an immense influence over a generation of later potters, not necessarily in terms of the nature of the physical work produced, but the environment that they helped to nurture and develop; an atmosphere in which ceramics were not only taken seriously, but were seriously celebrated.
"Pottery is at once the simplest and most difficult of arts. It is the simplest because it is the most elemental; it is the most difficult because it is the most abstract."
Through the ceramics of Ewen Henderson, Elizabeth Fritsch, Gordon Baldwin and Gabriele Koch Britain continued to be at the centre of the global ceramic scene, with their works shown in leading commercial galleries and museums across the world.
This rich ceramic heritage has paved the way for contemporary makers and artists – such as Grayson Perry and Edmund de Waal – to work in an artistic environment in which the lines between these different mediums are blurred.
"De Waal speaks of the light in the spaces between figures … I remember once in an exhibition of the paintings of Patrick Heron in the Tate Gallery, realising that afterimages of the colours I was seeing – in complementary colours – were floating all around me in the air of the room. Something like that happens when I look at these pots – they make an earthly/unearthly light of their own."
Clay is a wonderfully diverse material that over the course of the past century has leant itself to some of Britain’s most powerful and progressive artists, potters and ceramicists. It is a medium with endless possibilities and opportunities, and one which continues to provide a rich source of inspiration for artists and makers yet to come.
MAIN IMAGE: LUCY RIE, WHITE BOWL WITH BRONZED RIM, 1970S. ESTIMATE: £7,000–10,000.