W hile exploring the many pottery museums of Stoke-on-Trent, once the ceramic capital of the UK, I learned a new word: ‘paintress’. This quaint term refers to the women tasked with painstakingly painting decoration onto mass-manufactured ceramics. Actually making the dishes? Man’s work. It’s a gendered division of labour that disappeared with the birth of Britain’s studio pottery movement in the late 19th century. No longer a cog in a multi-part machine, the studio potter can do nearly every task themselves: from processing clay and throwing pots, to glazing, decorating, and firing. Early pioneers such as Dora Lunn, who founded the all-female Ravenscourt Pottery in London in 1916, proved that sisters could indeed do it for themselves.
Today, there’s no doubt that women artists are – for want of a better word – trendy. Books on female-focused art history are proliferating (I count my own here, part of Eiderdown Books’ Modern Women Artists series); feminist podcasts and pink-covered coffee table books are multiplying daily. What perspective do we gain by looking at British studio pottery through this gendered lens? For one, it gives the opportunity to resituate the centre of power away from pottery’s presiding patriarch, Bernard Leach.
For much of the 20th century, Leach was the arbiter of aesthetic quality. When the potter Lucie Rie arrived in London in 1938, a Jewish refugee from Nazi-occupied Austria, Leach dismissed her sleekly elegant earthenware pots. He described them as "too thickly glazed, thinly potted, too much like stoneware [. . .] with no humanity", and offered to give her pottery lessons. (Rie had, by this point, been winning awards across Europe for her work). Equally unimpressed, ceramic artist William Staite Murray – the other great figurehead of the day – refused her handshake.
Today, Rie’s pots wield undeniable power. They are the subject of The Adventure of Pottery, a touring solo show that opened at MIMA in Middlesbrough, and is now at Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge; their sale regularly breaks auction records; her illustrious collectors include such figures as David Attenborough and LOEWE’s Jonathan Anderson. After early years of struggling to adapt to the British artistic context, and handmaking buttons to make ends meet during the war, by the late 1960s Rie had risen to the very top of the pottery profession.
Her elegant tableware, created in collaboration with Hans Coper in a palette of black, chocolate and cream, soon gave way to increasingly experimental work. By the 1970s, her signature vases and bowls bore a rainbow of glazes – from gleaming emeralds to vibrant yellows, often set off by a dripping rim of bronze-coloured manganese.
Other potters took an altogether earthier approach. Unlike the cosmopolitan Rie, who fired pots in an electric kiln in a tiny central London studio, potters working in the Leach tradition believed in a rural working life.
Leach preached the value of digging one’s own clay, making glazes from local, natural materials, and firing kilns with wood. Few did it better than Katherine Pleydell-Bouverie and her partner Norah Braden.
While Rie was using a chemist’s-worth of glaze ingredients, the couple were experimenting with glazes made from wood- and vegetable-ash. As Pleydell-Bouverie put it, the aim was to create "things like pebbles and shells and birds' eggs and the stones over which moss grows": a spectrum of quiet beauty in soft natural tones.
Into the 1970s, hand-thrown tableware with an earthy aesthetic – created by wood-firing stoneware – enjoyed mass popularity. Stout, wholesome pots, suggestive of the rural Good Life, filled homes and restaurants alike. Yet at the same time, its polar opposite was emerging. With the dawn of the decade came the ‘New Ceramics’, a movement born largely from the Royal College of Art in London.
Ceramic artists such as Carol McNicoll, Alison Britton and Elizabeth Fritsch turned away from the wheel, instead reimagining mass-production techniques such as slip-casting, or choosing to hand-build. McNicoll – who also designed costumes for her then-boyfriend Brian Eno of Roxy Music, and sewed for Zandra Rhodes – created witty, postmodern pottery. Her vases unravel like a spool of ribbon; surreal dinner services mimic crumpled paper or pleated fans. At the same time, less categorisable artists such as Gillian Lowndes experimented freely, firing compositions of clay mixed with other materials including wire, bricks, tins and spoons: ceramics recast as a purely sculptural medium.
This raucous chorus of pottery practises were joined in the 1980s by a powerful new note. Magdalene Odundo rose to fame for her faultlessly crafted vessels, which – with their wasp waists, curvaceous forms and the occasional bone-like bump – are balanced between anthropomorphism and abstraction.
No noisy witticisms here: instead, a poise as polished as their burnished surfaces, ornamented only by smokey clouds of orange, carbonised charcoal and black. Odundo trained in the pottery traditions of both England and Kenya, and takes inspiration from a wide range of references – from ancient Egyptian and Greek vessels to modernist sculptures by Constantin Brâncuși.
A return to archaic references also appeared that decade in the work of Jennifer Lee. The simple outlines of her unglazed vessels draws from pots by the Beaker People of early Bronze Age Europe; other inspirations include the prehistoric pottery cultures of Arizona and New Mexico. Each piece is made painstakingly slowly, built up by hand from flat straps of clay. These straps create floating bands of colour, like a striated cliff-face or freckled, weathered rock – Edmund de Waal has described them as ‘echoes of stones.’ The clay is the key: Lee mixes in mineral oxides to create hundreds of blends, which she then ages for up to 20 years, exploring how the raw clay changes over time.
In the ensuing decades, an abundance of approaches have blossomed. These include such practises as Felicity Aylieff’s, whose painterly porcelain vessels are created on a monumental scale – up to three metres high – by Chinese artisans, and then decorated by the artist.
Clare Twomey explores industrial-scale manufacturing and globalisation through works such as Made in China (2010), which saw her outsourcing the making of 79 huge identical vases to factories in Jingdeszhen, China, and one to Royal Crown Derby in England. Producing the latter cost as much as all the other 79 combined, making a statement about production in a globalised world.
Others take a more hands-on approach. These include the potter Akiko Hirai, who reimagines historic forms – such as Korea’s iconic globular vessel, the moon jar – with the addition of craggy accretions of glaze and rock-like chunks of clay. Or industrial ceramicist-turned-artist Alev Ebüzziya Siesbye, whose minimal vessels are created through a meticulous process of coiling rolls of clay.
Others combine craft with a variety of artistic disciplines. Take Serena Korda, for instance, who mixes ceramics and sound art by creating pieces designed to be played as musical instruments; or Lindsey Mendick, who places cartoonish ceramic sculptures among furniture and props to create immersive tableaux.
Earlier this year, Korda and Mendick featured in Strange Clay: Ceramics in Contemporary Art, a major exhibition at the Hayward Gallery. They were shown alongside more established ceramic artists such as Rachel Kneebone, whose bone-white porcelain sculptures of writhing limbs have long been fixtures at museums. The show marked something of a watershed: a long-overdue institutional acknowledgement of the current status of ceramic art.
Unsurprisingly, this change in fortunes is reflected in the secondary market. Prime examples of Rie’s work regularly break auction records – a bowl sold at Sotheby’s New York last year for $340,200 – while Odundo’s pieces command similarly staggering prices. Far from being defined by their gender alone, these are artists whose value is being recognised on their own terms.
Main image: Jennifer Lee, Vessel, stoneware, height: 22cm. 8½in