A look at how, in the 19th and 20th centuries, artisans like Bernard Leach broke the monopoly of the ceramic factories by creating the studio pottery movement.
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This is a film about people who make pots.
Even pots that don't look like pots at all.
All of them crafted by hand.
One person making one pot.
This was once how all pots were made.
But then came the factories.
The Industrial Revolution
had made Britain the richest nation on the planet.
But the strength of these factories was also a weakness.
Everything coming off the production line looked the same.
Something had been lost,
and that was the artisan potter, and the hand-made pot.
So from the end of the 19th century, a fight-back began.
Not by politicians or reformers, but by potters.
They became known as studio potters,
men and women who made pots
that returned to the values that ran deep through the British psyche.
Craftsmanship and tradition.
Imagination and ingenuity.
It's the thrill of creation.
This came from somebody's hands,
and it ended that way because they wanted it to end that way.
And why did they want it? Because they thought it looked good.
They thought it had life.
By placing their work at the heart of the British home,
the studio potters were fighting for more than art.
They were fighting for the nation's soul.
If your heart doesn't get joy in making,
how do you expect people who use the things that you make
to have their hearts touched?
The story of ceramics in Britain in the 20th century
is utterly compelling.
It's a story about intimacy, and national identity.
It's also a story of taste,
of how British studio pottery
would swing between revitalising the traditional
and a search for the new.
Craft was this sort of weird dalliance for an artist.
"You're interested in craft? How very interesting."
"That's dead, isn't it? Craft's dead, I believe."
Many of the potteries
of Stoke-on-Trent are deserted these days.
But in the 19th century, they were vast factories,
churning out cups, plates and pots to fill British homes.
Pottery workers were proud of their products,
which required some flair and creativity.
But the dominance of Stoke-on-Trent and its factories
meant pottery as a great artisan craft had mostly disappeared.
In the 1860s, a handful of determined young artists
decided they'd had enough.
Spearheaded by William Morris,
it became known as the Arts and Crafts Movement,
dedicated to reviving traditional craftsmanship.
And in its ranks it had a potter.
An enterprising young man named William De Morgan.
William Morris and William De Morgan were tremendous friends
when they were very young men, living in Bloomsbury,
quite close to each other,
and both enthused with the idea
of discovering lost skills in hand-making.
Morris went on to experiment with all sort of crafts.
But De Morgan was a bit more specific.
He was really concentrated on lost techniques in pottery.
De Morgan had trained at the Royal Academy schools,
but found them too old-fashioned.
In William Morris, he discovered a kindred spirit.
He worked for him until 1872,
when he founded his own pottery studio in Chelsea.
His great passion was for Italian Renaissance and Persian designs,
but he also possessed a remarkably vivid imagination.
Inhabited by fantastical creatures, his pottery was also very English.
This wasn't ceramics from a dull production line.
This was art.
De Morgan was a great enthusiast for this sort of elaborate form
of leaves, fronds, flowers and creatures.
And this, I think, was more of an English thing than a foreign thing.
He somehow managed to fuse this love of Eastern decoration
with this very English, Victorian sense of rather whimsical humour
that you get in, say, Alice In Wonderland.
Lewis Carroll was a great admirer, not surprisingly,
of De Morgan's wonderful pots.
And beautiful as they are, they are fantastical creatures,
and somehow wonderfully Victorian.
De Morgan's works can still produce a sense of wonderment,
especially in a modern-day potter.
Well, this is the first time
I've had a William De Morgan pot in my hands,
and it's a wonderful moment for a potter.
It's extraordinary. It's so light.
It's a beautifully, beautifully balanced, lyrical kind of object.
But, and this is extraordinary, this is lustreware,
this is a pot where every single bit of shimmering iridescence,
all the way round it,
is a different kind of metal oxide that's been applied in a wash,
and each time that's been done, it's had to go through the kiln again.
So that there are four or five different firings
that have created this pot.
But it's un-warped, it's intact,
but beyond that, it's doing something quite extraordinary.
He's telling a story, but it's a simple story.
What he's telling is here, a small deer, in foliage,
just about to take flight. Hesitancy, a moment.
You can almost feel the breeze in this wood,
and so what this is doing is making the pot as a lyrical poem.
It's a great moment.
Today, a first rate De Morgan pot would fetch up to £100,000.
But in his lifetime,
his own enthusiasm was not shared by the public.
He achieved these enormously skilful effects.
Maybe they didn't fit the taste.
People were looking for something else.
They didn't want history,
they didn't want something which was too rooted in historical shape.
They wanted something which was now becoming more progressive.
But William De Morgan had achieved more with his pots
than he would realise.
They played a key role in establishing British ceramics
as more than just manufacture, but as an art form.
And if money was no object,
then there was no end to what an art potter could achieve.
Down in the West Country, a maverick nobleman,
aided by his loyal gardener, would show precisely that.
The magical pots known as Elton Ware reveal their maker
as a forgotten genius of British studio pottery.
In 1868, Edmund Elton married his cousin Agnes
and inherited the family's ancestral home,
Clevedon Court, outside Bristol.
Wealthy, and with time on his hands,
he could've chosen idleness over enterprise.
Instead, he taught himself to make pots.
He started off putting pots in the kitchen oven,
and the cook used to be amused.
He would come in in the evening once the oven
had stopped being used for food, and would load up the oven with pots.
And he would give her some of the pots.
Well, that didn't go on for all that long,
because after a while he built a small kiln in the garden.
He started off with himself and two boot boys,
so that he had two boys from the village,
and the elder of the two, George Masters,
became his absolute right-hand man.
There's a very nice piece in the Clevedon Mercury
in which Sir Edmund is saying,
if Masters was to go, the whole concern would collapse.
He was very hunchbacked,
but clearly he was immensely talented.
And Sir Edmund and George Masters became tremendous friends,
They made an unlikely duo.
George Masters had been Sir Edmund's head gardener,
but he was now throwing pots,
which left Sir Edmund with time to concentrate on decoration.
Sir Edmund became a manic experimenter.
He developed highly sophisticated glazes,
often using gold and platinum.
They looked like nothing before, or since.
The actual work that he was producing
draws on some of the same sources
that other artist potters were producing.
But his ceramics are highly individual,
and the surfaces are almost unique
in terms of their use of crackled lustre glazes.
Quite extraordinary, ethereal pots.
One of the major distinguishing characteristics of Elton Ware
are these glorious, jewel-like colours.
They're sort of peacock colours.
He clearly had a really good eye for colour,
and mixed them very creatively.
But this very high gloss, and, in fact,
if you can see on this one...
this wonderful peacock bluey-green,
and the floriated decoration is very pretty in this green,
and then the great splodge of gold at the top.
The colours are absolutely marvellous,
with this very, very high gloss.
And once you know it, it's unmistakeable.
Elton Ware received some commercial success,
attracting buyers in Europe and America.
But for much of his lifetime,
Sir Edmund's talents went largely unrecognised.
He died in 1920,
followed within a year by the ever-faithful George Masters.
Between them, they had produced a staggering amount of pots.
I met somebody only the other day
who said that his father was employed to break up
the enormous surplus still sitting in all the outhouses in the 1950s,
to form a foundation for the pigsties my uncle was then building.
Every cupboard, every bit of storage space, is stuffed with it.
Sir Edmund Elton, like William De Morgan,
offered an alternative to the industrial production line.
Others also made their mark,
such as the Martin Brothers of Southall,
whose highly decorated wares showed a passion for the Gothic
and a dark humour that has always been a part of the British psyche.
But taste is a fickle mistress.
In the years following the First World War,
the Victorian fashion for the grotesque and the ornate
seemed dated and fussy.
As Britain struggled to recover from the trauma of war,
such frivolity appeared to belong to a long-lost era.
Life had gained a new moral purpose.
And a new generation of young artists
sought an authenticity to their work
that the frippery of the Victorian age seemed to lack.
The fashion was now for pots that were timeless and useful.
And what was needed was someone who would revolutionise British pottery,
by producing handmade pots that were both attractive and practical.
Someone who would put the handmade pot
into the ordinary British kitchen.
Bernard Leach would become not only Britain's most famous potter,
but one of the nation's leading artists.
To clay, what Henry Moore was to stone.
But Bernard Leach's revolution in British pottery began
not within these shores, but on the other side of the world.
I was born of English parents in China, and educated in England.
By 21, I had heard a good deal about Japan,
and finally decided to go back to the Far East to find out,
if I could, something of its meaning,
and its different art and life.
For Leach, Japan offered an exciting vision of a society
untainted by the evils of industrialisation.
I came to believe that we can relearn from the East
much that we lost in the Industrial Revolution.
For the machine leaves out the heart of labour,
feeling, imagination and directness of control.
And I found that the craftsman is almost the only kind of worker left
employing heart, hand and head in balance.
Leach fell in with a group of young artists and intellectuals.
One of their pastimes was decorating and firing ceramic pots,
using a technique known as raku.
The evening that Leach joined in would change the course of his life.
There was a portable kiln with technicians available,
pots already formed,
on which these writers and actors and poets were invited to
draw a design. The technicians would then glaze them,
the pot would be fired in the kiln as the party proceeded,
and 30 minutes later,
it would be taken out of the kiln, and there was this pot.
Leach writes in his memoirs how totally amazed he was
by seeing how something,
the sketch he had done on this pot that was given him,
was transformed into this extraordinary object
that came out of the kiln red hot,
and you can imagine it was quite a dramatic experience.
He writes that is the moment he decided pottery was for him.
Leach was convinced he had seen the future for British pottery.
An Anglo-Oriental style that would recapture
the glories of craftsmanship lost to the monotony of the production line.
The challenge facing him was to achieve back home in England
what he had seen in Japan.
But returning to these shores proved a rude awakening.
He felt out of place.
Everywhere he looked, he saw the ugly, soulless modern world
encroaching on the countryside.
So when an offer came to fund a pottery in Cornwall,
Leach jumped at the opportunity.
In 1920, I had returned from Japan
with all that I had learnt during 11 years,
to start a pottery in St Ives.
It seemed an unlikely spot to ignite a pottery revolution.
He comes to St Ives for the first time,
he brings with him an idea of what English pottery should be,
and an idea of what Oriental pottery should be.
And then he has this great challenge
of trying to bring these things together...
..to a public who have absolutely no interest at all
in this young, middle-class, odd, moustached Englishman.
It was a huge risk for a man with a young family
and no previous experience of running a business, let alone a pottery.
Production began in 1921. But things quickly started to go wrong.
The Leach Pottery from the outset was really
fraught with technical problems. They had to rebuild the kiln,
they had problems maintaining a high standard of ware.
And although Leach had arguments to suggest that
perhaps these kinds of technical issues were not of prime importance,
nevertheless they affected the efficient running of the pottery
and its ability to actually be sustainable.
It wasn't a good start, and things didn't improve.
Leach had discovered, like many before him,
that it was fiendishly difficult to make a profit from pots
without a production line.
And yet his sense of what made a good pot was taking recognisable shape.
A pot is a living thing, its associations are markedly human.
We talk of the foot, belly, the shoulder, the neck and the lip,
and we intuitively feel a good pot's honesty, strength, nobility,
warmth, delicacy or charm, much as we do with people.
This stoneware bottle from that period is as alive in spirit
as the leaping fish that decorate it.
East and West are effortlessly brought together
to create something new.
Despite this, for the next ten years,
the Leach Pottery remained constantly in debt.
But Bernard Leach wasn't alone in finding the going tough.
The '30s was a decade that saw Britain as a nation hit hard times.
The Great Slump, as it became known, was the largest economic depression
experienced by this country in the 20th century.
It was little wonder Leach was struggling to make ends meet
through his pottery.
His traditional methods of production were admirable, but expensive.
On the verge of going out of business, his son David,
who had worked with him at St Ives since 1930,
decided to take radical action.
While Bernard was away in Japan, for about 18 months,
David consorted with the enemy, really,
and went on a pottery manager's course up in Stoke-on-Trent,
finally learnt some practical nuts and bolts of how to make pots
and the technical requirements that were needed.
David made key improvements,
such as converting the kiln to being oil-fired.
Very soon, Bernard's idea of producing
a range of practical, honest pots became a real possibility.
From the late 1930s, Bernard and David Leach began to make
what they termed standard ware.
Everyday pots for domestic use,
they captured the essence of Leach's philosophy.
And the business finally began to make money.
The Leach Pottery inspired others
to try and breathe new life into a lost art.
His first pupil at St Ives, Michael Cardew,
was also devoted to reviving the vernacular style
with his own useful pots, made in the slipware tradition.
They possessed a wonderful coherence,
with the body and the glaze united
by being fired together in a single kiln firing.
The transparent honey glaze enhanced and revealed
the warmth of the red clay itself.
But there was an alternative vision for British pottery.
William Staite Murray was an artist potter inspired by
the simple elegance of Song Dynasty Chinese pots.
Staite Murray believed that ceramics was the most radical art form,
and every bit the equal of painting or sculpture.
His pots were not useful.
They were for the art gallery, and priced accordingly.
He was a true artist potter. And he did the most wonderful work.
And I think one has to see him more as an artist.
He didn't try and set up a school of potters,
he didn't have an idea of pots in relation to lifestyle, if you like.
He was just interested in the piece of work.
He was a really important and incredibly impressive potter.
Together with Bernard Leach,
William Staite Murray achieved the extraordinary,
by turning the making of pottery into both an intellectual pursuit
and a serious artistic endeavour.
"A child may ask when our strange epoch passes,
"during a history lesson,
"'Please, Sir, what's an intellectual of the middle classes?
"'Is he a maker of ceramic pots?'"
But Leach's most significant production would come not with clay,
but with words.
In 1940, he published A Potter's Book.
More than just a technical manual, A Potter's Book was
a powerful assertion of the art and philosophy of the potter.
When it was published, it was regarded as the potter's bible,
because it describes, to begin with, the aesthetic approach.
It describes how to set up a pottery.
It gives you a bit of history, it tells you how to make clays,
how to make bodies, and so the whole thing is 90% a how to do it,
but it's all imbued with a rather elegant way of working.
If you just sit reading A Potter's Book,
especially the last chapter, which is a kind of idealised account
of his workshop, in which he is working in harmony with his sons,
and a few likely lads who have been trained up locally,
then you do get a sense of an art that's embedded in a moral framework.
1940, though, was not a good year to publish your first book.
But when the Second World War ended, the values of A Potter's Book chimed perfectly
with the mood of the new austerity Britain.
It had a massive impact in the post-war period,
because I think it offered something
that people felt had been lacking in their lives.
Perhaps it was a return to some form of simplicity, of a rural ideal.
You can imagine the power of this book
for servicemen coming back, coming back deracinated, footloose,
in need of a sense of direction.
You pick up this book and you know what you can do.
You can go off and become a post-war English potter.
Pottery has always been a communal activity,
and pots were made to serve a need at once utilitarian and aesthetic.
Today, in the background of mechanisation,
the handworking potter is being
pushed away from utility, towards artistry.
And there is a danger of craftsmanship becoming
over-conscious and eclectic.
He came forward with a philosophy,
he came forward with an aesthetic view,
and that caught people's imagination.
For the next 25 years, he was the major guru of pottery.
Leach's philosophy would come to dominate post-war British ceramics.
It resonated with the back-to-basics mood of the public.
Leach's production of standard ware had a huge influence
in the post-war period with a public
that had an interest again in peasant cooking,
in the recipes of Elizabeth David,
and further on into the 1960s and '70s,
in the whole countercultural movement that celebrated
the environment and vegetarianism.
And restaurants such as Cranks would use these kind of plates,
these robust stoneware plates, for their hearty vegetarian food.
Bernard Leach himself had become the standard.
The question, "To Leach or not to Leach?,"
had been resolved, it seemed.
But the pendulum in British pottery was swinging once more,
this time away from the traditional and towards trying something new.
And a young Viennese woman and her devoted apprentice would bring
some welcome fresh air into
the brown world of British studio pottery.
I got married in the beginning of the '50s.
And when you're newly married,
you're going to start off on something new,
and you buy all your crockery and so on.
And I saw some extraordinary cups
and mugs in a shop in London,
which were unlike anything I'd ever seen before.
The elegant tableware of Lucie Rie
was much sought after by young homemakers.
But when she'd first arrived in London in 1938,
it had been a very different story.
So Lucie Rie, who comes with gold medals in European exhibitions
for her work, she arrives in England, and shows her work to Leach,
who says, "This is terrible, they're too thin, they're not proper."
And people don't get what she wants to do.
It doesn't fit the form of proper pottery.
Leach didn't say this, but what he meant was,
you've got to make pots like me.
So despite her renown in Europe, Rie tried to adapt her refined style
to the prevailing Leachian philosophy.
Bernard Leach became a great friend, but he didn't like my pots.
Only later, after my first exhibition, he liked them.
The first ones, I tried to follow Bernard Leach's rules,
make heavier pots.
Heavier shapes. Make earthenware that was uninteresting anyway.
Rie reverted back to the style she knew best.
And soon, there was no shortage of admirers for her refined pots.
But the delicacy with which the rim...
There's this lovely, lovely white.
The feel of the weight of the pot, and so on. And that shape.
That's a very...
You wouldn't find Bernard Leach producing a shape like that.
Um...and it has this, um, elemental beauty.
As David Attenborough's passion for her pots grew,
he found Rie herself just as captivating.
I have to say, I was always on my best behaviour
when Lucie was around.
She was utterly charming, and extraordinarily sweet,
but a marvellous, strong character who knew what her standards were,
and you wouldn't budge her from those by a millimetre.
Is that pink just the colour you expected?
Not precisely, but nearly precisely!
Her determination was legendary, as Attenborough was to discover
when he filmed with her in 1982.
There is a moment in her studio when she has been unloading a kiln,
and showing me what had come out,
and then she got right to the bottom,
which was quite a deep electric kiln,
and reaching for one of the pots, she got stuck.
We were filming away, and this was a long time she was down there
at the bottom with her feet on the top,
and eventually, this ghostly voice
from the bottom of the kiln said, "I think I am stuck, can you help me?"
-Or something like that.
-Thank you. I got stuck.
And so I had to pull her out by the feet.
Afterwards, she said, "You won't show that, will you?"
Rie's work opened up new possibilities for British ceramics.
Pots could be cosmopolitan and modern.
But there was another man in Lucie Rie's life,
one who had turned up on her doorstep after the war,
looking for work.
He would, more than anyone,
take British pottery to another level, instilling it with
the confidence to be an expressive art, a sculpture in ceramic form.
His name was Hans Coper.
When Hans Coper came to her door in 1946,
it rapidly became clear that he was intelligent and ambitious,
and he said to her, "I want to become a potter."
He became a potter, and they then started to make pots together.
Coper was 26, Rie a 44-year-old divorcee,
yet they had much in common.
Both were Jewish, both forced from their homeland by Hitler,
and both had found a new life in London.
They understood each other,
and the bond between them would last for the rest of Coper's life.
And Rie remained his most passionate advocate.
Hans was really the superior guideline in more or less everything.
-You mean, he looked at your pots and advised you?
Because he criticised. He was very correct and sharp
and to the point.
-Did you criticise him?
-In the beginning, yes. But then, never.
There was nothing to criticise.
Lucie revered Hans as an artist to an extraordinary degree,
and diminished herself whenever she spoke about him.
"Oh, I am nothing, Hans was the talent". That is not actually true.
I mean, Lucie was a huge talent.
So was Hans, but they rubbed off onto one another.
Did she fall in love with him? Yes, she did. But it wasn't sexual.
But she fell in love with him, which was respectful,
and he respected and loved her in the same sort of way.
While Lucie Rie's work remained domestic and functional,
as Hans Coper's confidence grew,
he became increasingly sculptural in his ambition.
This piece, nominally a vase,
was made by throwing separate stoneware pieces on a wheel,
then altering and assembling them by hand.
Glazed in white, a black underlayer shows through in places.
It's a handsome vessel,
in a European tradition of sculpture as much as ceramics.
The only person brave enough to put flowers in a Coper vase
was Lucie Rie.
Hans Coper actually understands, right from the very beginning,
that ceramics don't belong in one place,
but can belong in a much, much wider scale.
In a different kind of environment.
And right from the beginning, he's interested in...
the architectural possibilities
of what he's doing, and this leads him to make
the most extraordinary architectural ceramics of the twentieth century.
The city of Coventry was devastated by heavy German bombing
in November, 1940.
Among the architectural casualties
was the 15th century St Michael's Cathedral,
reduced to a smoking ruin.
But Coventry would rise again.
In the years following the war, a new cathedral would take shape,
under architect Sir Basil Spence.
And for the altar candlesticks, he turned to Hans Coper.
So you have to imagine, 1962, Basil Spence's cathedral opens up.
There's the windows,
there's this great Sutherland tapestry behind us,
and there is Coper enshrined on the high altar.
And they're pots. That's the extraordinary thing about them.
This is a vessel, you can see it's a thrown vessel
on top of another one,
down to here, and then another one down to there, and so on.
All the way down, threaded together on steel poles.
Somehow, he managed to keep that vigour going, even though
these are engineered pots.
You have to look, and there's the surface, it's abraded,
he's managed to put great surface into this.
There are marks of the wheel, there's marks here where he's turned it
very loosely, and then he's rubbed in oxides
and here's a bronzy glaze applied.
So they are absolutely pots.
This is ceramic sculpture that looks to other sculpture.
This is like Giacometti, this is like Brancusi,
this where ceramics belong, says Hans Coper,
and they are absolutely wonderful, wonderful things.
Down in St Ives, Bernard Leach, who had done so much to liberate
English pottery from the production line, was now an old man.
Yet in his final years,
it was his pots rather than his words
that once again caught the eye.
There's a wonderful freedom at the end of his life.
There are pots that he makes where he really is quite old and quite shaky,
and they don't obey the prescriptions that he has built up,
and they don't seem to channel any of the stories
and the dogmas that he has developed.
But they are very, very beautiful objects,
and there is the sense of someone who has spent
a whole lifetime making pots.
And I think that they are the best pots he ever made.
I see things in dreams sometimes, and when I wake, I think,
"Oh, that's only dreamland.
"Would that I could go to my wheel
"and try that dozen pots that came into my mind's eye."
How do you react when people talk of you as being great?
There is an assurance that life
has had some meaning for you,
that you have made some kind of contribution to it.
What more joyful thing can you think of?
When Bernard Leach died in 1979,
something of 20th century British ceramics also died.
He had towered over it for over half a century.
And in doing so, he had succeeded in transforming
the making of handmade pottery into a worldwide movement.
At the end of the '60s,
a mood of radicalism swept through Britain's cities.
The Summer of Love was over, and what many wanted was change.
What was good enough for your parents' generation
was now the very thing to be snarled at.
And a new wave of potters rebelled with clay.
Alison Britton studied under Hans Coper
at the Royal College of Art in London.
She and others, such as Jacqui Poncelet and Carol McNicoll,
railed against Leach's narrow definition of a good pot.
In response, they would stretch ideas of ceramic form into new,
Their expressive pots came to be known as the New Ceramics.
There were quite a few pots like funguses in the '60s,
or rock formations, and we were very against them.
That just seemed like a cul de sac.
We wanted much more allusion to European architecture, modernism,
saucepans, air vents, anything that was an exciting form was stimulus.
So Leach was probably horrified by what was happening in the '70s.
Alison Britton and her fellow firebrands wanted to shake
British studio pottery out of what they saw as its creative torpor.
We began looking much more at colourful things that weren't green
and brown and things that weren't thrown, it just got much livelier.
That's my perspective on it.
Some people thought, "Oh, my God,
"they're losing all the...
"All the things that matter are being thrown away."
But I felt that great things were found.
The potter's wheel was the first casualty of this new approach.
One of the things that is very common in her work
is the use of slab building technique,
taking a big flat, piece of clay, maybe cutting it into a form,
and then building it, almost like someone modelling something
in cardboard. That gives the pots a kind of swerve, and a kind of lean,
and a dynamism that, of course, a thrown pot is not going to have,
because it is of course symmetrical and it can capture a lot of motion,
but it's this motion, you know, whereas an Alison Britton pot
has this kind of motion, it goes where you don't expect it to,
it's like ten Leaning Towers of Pisa colliding in one object.
The other thing that the work of these potters called into question
was the function of function itself.
They were subverting not just the pot, the functional pot,
but the whole idea of the woman as the homemaker,
as the person who's making and pouring the tea.
And it links in to me very interestingly
with what was happening in literature at that time,
with the whole feminist outpouring of slightly crazy books.
I mean, these were wayward girls, weren't they,
like an Angela Carter heroine doing this completely subversive pots.
Function was a kind of challenge word, in a way.
We thought, well, there are lots of kinds of function.
It's not simply about domestic function.
There's the function of visual delight,
there's the function of aesthetic pleasure, and so on,
and the function of objects that sort of represent something,
that are communicating.
There's something really cagey about Alison Britton's pots.
They are a little bit bigger than you'd expect.
So you couldn't really lift them and use them very easily.
And they usually refer to some kind of form or some kind of function,
so maybe pouring, or containment of some kind,
but they are never things that you would really want to use.
They are things that I suppose make your wheels spin.
And they are always a bit surprising, you know,
they are in some ways meta pots. They're pots about pots.
By the end of the 20th century, British art was in rude health.
More assured, more provocative than ever before.
And studio pottery in Britain, more than in any other Western country,
was primed and ready to share the limelight.
Grayson Perry won the Turner Prize in 2003.
Well, it's about time a transvestite potter won the Turner Prize.
He is an artist from Essex who rides motorbikes, wears dresses,
and makes pots.
I learnt pottery at evening classes.
I was living in a squat, I didn't have a studio,
so it was somewhere to keep my hand in.
I think I sold my first piece of pottery for, like, 35 quid,
which was more than a week's dole money.
So I thought, you know, I thought the market
at that price range was more likely to buy a piece of ceramics
than a bit of art. So it was purely pragmatic at that point, I think.
But then I very quickly learned that pottery was discomforting
to my fellow artists, which was most appealing.
Edmund de Waal is a writer and potter.
His work is much sought after by collectors
and galleries around the world.
I started making pots when I was five.
For some reason I got it into my head that this is what I wanted to do.
There was an evening class and I persuaded my dear dad
to take me to this evening class.
I remember throwing a pot on the wheel, this shape,
it was a kind of...it was a bowl,
and then I remember it being finished,
and everyone saying, "And now you're going to decorate it."
And I went, "No, it's going to be white, I want it white!"
So I remember my first pot was this white bowl.
I coil my pots, in the ancient way of making sausages
and going round and building it up slowly,
partly because I just never want to sit at a potter's wheel.
It ranks up there with finding myself holding a golf club.
What I feel when I'm making pots is just pure, pure pleasure
to be at my wheel. I mean, it is absolutely the best bit.
Most of the kind of colour in my work is in the slip.
And I build up layers and stencils and carve the slip,
and so a lot of the imagery is fixed before it's even been fired once,
and I have one bucket of glaze. I'm not a fancy glaze person.
I have one bucket of glaze that I use as high temperature varnish,
really, because, again, I'm working with an archetype.
I want people to look at my pots and go, "Oh, that's an interesting pot."
Not an unusual pot, an interesting pot. I'm not pushing the envelope
of what ceramics can be, that's what ceramicists do.
Edmund de Waal trained as a potter in the Bernard Leach tradition.
I set up my first authentic pottery in the Welsh borders,
and made Leach-y pots, very badly, I have to say.
No-one liked them, and they are pretty ghastly.
And I was in Japan, and that's when I started using porcelain.
I started to realise that porcelain did something completely different for me.
It had a kind of purity, a sort of exposed quality,
which I hadn't found in the rough clays I'd used before.
Grayson Perry is finishing a pot
for his forthcoming exhibition at the British Museum.
This is a picture of inside my head, in a way.
Well, I've never been to Africa. My idea of Africa,
this entire continent and all these billions of people,
is just through the media. Which is, you know...
So I have this probably completely false idea of Africa in my head.
The two emotions I have when I think of Africa are guilt,
as a kind of white European, and fear,
because of all the horrible, scary things that seem to happen there.
so I'm sure that's completely distorted,
but I thought it would be interesting to make a pot about it.
The idea of function in the work of both Grayson Perry
and Edmund de Waal has moved on radically from the simple usefulness
advocated by the likes of Bernard Leach.
The function of my pots is different. They function,
in the sense that they're still vessels.
You could pour liquid into every single one of them,
and it wouldn't leak.
But that's a very kind of thin way of thinking about function.
There's a piece recently I've done which is based around a Bach cantata.
It's as functional as a teapot. It just functions slightly askew.
Grayson Perry's pots are often not what they first seem.
You always feel lulled into a sense of decorative security
by looking at Grayson's work.
They're very pretty objects, but then of course the impact comes
when you look closely, when you see the decoration in detail.
You see what the narratives are,
and messages that are quite dangerous.
He is doing something which takes nerve. And I like it.
So, do your pots have a function?
Do my pots have a function?!
Keep me in motorbikes and dresses, that's the function of them.
Edmund de Waal's work in recent years
has become increasingly site sensitive, as he puts it.
In 2009, he was commissioned by the V&A to come up with a work
to mark the opening of its new Ceramics Galleries.
He called it Signs and Wonders.
425 porcelain vessels coyly arranged on a red metal shelf
beneath the dome of the museum's main entrance.
It was really my kind of take on how you remember objects.
That you look at an object,
then you turn away and you remake it,
you make it as you remember it.
And it's got that sense of an afterimage,
of a memory of something that was there.
So it's my afterimage, my take on the Chinese pots, and the Meissen,
and the modernist pots in the collection.
I think what Edmund is trying to do is use a pot
as something like a word in a sentence.
You know, on its own, it has a kind of self-evident quality,
so you look at the one pot, but when it's put into that context,
it builds into something that feels like a short story,
or perhaps feels like a kind of narrative poem.
There's an absolutely wonderful poem by Wallace Stevens,
'I Placed A Jar in Tennessee', and the jar stands on the hill
and is different from all the natural objects round it.
And it changes the whole of the world it's in.
And this, of course, is also a favourite poem also of Edmund's,
and I think he has now reached a time in his work
when he can place a cylindrical object
and change all the things round it.
His latest commission is on a more domestic scale
than Signs and Wonders.
That's my coffee. That's not part of the installation.
A centrepiece for a dinner table.
It's wrong. I mean, the very first thing is that it's wrong.
It's both too empty and too congested at the same time.
And that's about scale, and it's about colour. And tone.
There aren't enough matt pieces in it,
that actually I'm going to need to make
a whole series of other pots again,
with one of the more quieter, softer glazes.
The competing forces in British studio pottery in the 20th century,
of expression and function,
seem to come together in Edmund de Waal's work.
If you think of 20th century ceramics as being built around
an opposition between something traditionalist,
that's Bernard Leach, and on the other hand,
people like Lucie Rie and Hans Coper,
that looks like an insoluble contest
between two completely different world views.
I think what you have in Edmund's generation,
not just him, but many of his colleagues as well,
is a resolution of that seeming problem.
The understanding, really, is that the historical qualities
of the Leach tradition, and the progressive qualities
that we might associate with someone like Lucie Rie,
can actually be forged into a unified style,
by creating these more complex narratives,
around and through ceramics.
The confidence displayed by British studio potters in the 21st century
is the culmination of more than 100 years of experimenting with clay,
making, by hand, thousands of pots.
Studio pottery has become Britain's greatest triumph
in the story of modern art.
And today, our potters are amongst our most celebrated artists,
a unique marriage of art and craft.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
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Towards the end of the 19th century, a group of craftsmen decided to break the monopoly of the great ceramic factories. Studio pottery was born, a movement that celebrated traditional artisanship and decorative flair over the monotony of the production line. Through practitioners like William De Morgan, Bernard Leach and William Staite Murray, studio pottery was soon recognised as a powerful and uniquely British contribution to the story of modern art, drawing disciples from all over Europe.
In the second half of the 20th century, female ceramicists like Lucie Rie and Alison Britton re-energised the movement. The programme ends with portraits of Grayson Perry and Edmund de Waal, two of the greatest potters working anywhere in the world today.