Modern British & Irish Art

James Tower - The Unsung Hero of the British Art Scene

By Robin Cawdron-Stewart

T oday the lines of ceramics and the so called ‘fine arts’ are inseparably intertwined. Artists and makers such as Grayson Perry, Edmund de Waal and Antony Gormley all make use of the medium of clay, but are more broadly speaking recognised as artists. Yet this blurring of the lines is nothing new in the British art scene – owing much to the likes of William Staite Murray, Lucie Rie and Hans Coper. But perhaps the most influential figure is that of James Tower, a name widely recognised and celebrated within ceramic circles but nowhere near as well-know as he deserves to be outside of this tightly-knit group of enthusiasts and aficionados. This is perhaps surprising considering that in the 1950s and ‘60s Tower was the artist to collect, represented by the fashionable Gimple Fils gallery. His works – executed in ceramic, bronze and even fibreglass – pushed boundaries and brought about a new way through which to appreciate sculptural form in Britain, much like two of his greatest contemporaries Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth, with whom he was regularly shown at the gallery. In many ways Tower is the un-sung hero of the British art scene. But this is all about to change, with an exhibition to mark the centenary of his birth planned for next year at the Victoria Art Gallery in Bath.

James Tower in his studio at Barcombe, Sussex, circa 1982. Photograph Courtesy The Estate of the Artist.

Tower trained at the Royal Academy Schools following service in the Second World War, and later the Slade School of Fine Art, and after initial experimentation with painting found his voice with the medium of clay. Drawn in the late 1940s to Seventeenth-Century English Delft Ware, Tower was amongst a group of artists taught by William Newland that looked to the ceramics of Picasso at Vallauris. The group, dismissively nicknamed ‘the Picassiettes’ by Bernard Leach, trod a unique path in the ceramic scene in Britain, neither aligning themselves with the often heavy, domestic approach of the Leach school or the London-centric work of Rie and Coper.

James Tower beside his electric kiln, 1980. Photograph Courtesy The Estate of the Artist.

As with many of the greatest artists of the period working in Britain, Tower was, throughout his career, a celebrated teacher, first at the progressive Bath Academy in Corsham (where he taught alongside the likes of William Scott, Peter Lanyon, Kenneth Armitage and Howard Hodgkin) and later Bright Polytechnic where he ran the sculpture department. Friends with the leading sculptors and artists of the day – including sitting for Hodgkin in 1962 alongside his wife Maureen - Tower’s work was exhibited across the world, finding homes in some of the most prestigious public and private collections.

Bowls and a foot ring drying in moulds, circa 1982. Photograph Courtesy The Estate of the Artist.

Favouring the medium of clay, Tower worked largely with press-moulded bowls and forms, glazed with black and white tin glazes and decorated with a sgraffito technique, by which the top layer was scratched or wiped through to reveal the reverse colour below.

‘The magic of his work is that the relationship between figure and ground is always open. It is not clear whether we are invited to look at the negative or positive; the black of white.’
Antony Gormley on James Tower, 2012

As Tower commented ‘The inter-relationship of form and decorative is of paramount importance to me’ and this is so eloquently displayed in the present work Ribbed Chest Form from 1984, appearing in Sotheby’s forthcoming Made in Britain auction on the 18th September, and requested for loan to the 2019 retrospective exhibition.

James Tower, Ribbed Chest Form , 1984. Estimate £6,000–8,000. From Made In Britain , 18 September 2018.

Tower began to explore this technique of gouging into the thick wet clay to produce a ribbing effect in the 1950s and returned to it again in the 1980s when he produced some of his boldest and most striking works. The present work, although appearing for the first time at auction, is, however, no stranger to Sotheby’s as it was featured in the 1984 touring exhibition Artist Potters Now.

James Tower, alongside contemporaries including Ewen Henderson, Gordon Baldwin, Alison Britton, Carol McNicol, Janice Tchalenko and Robin Welch outside Sotheby’s in 1984.

The front cover of the catalogue produced to accompany the exhibition depicts Tower alongside a number of his contemporaries, including makers such as Ewen Henderson, Gordon Baldwin and Alison Britton standing, clutching their works on the Sotheby’s steps. Looking at the photograph your eye is drawn at once to the ageing figure of Tower, standing in the centre at the back holding an impressive black and white form. It is no lie to say that he stands out amongst the crowd – but then he always had – finding his own, unique path and in turn creating some of the most captivating and compelling works of the post-war era.

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