Crowan Pottery pin tray (7cm diam)



Harry Davis

May Davis

Gallery of Pots

Crowan Pottery
    About Prices
Nina Davis
Lecture Tours

Phil Oliver

25 July 2011




          Handcraft Pottery Whence and Whither



The text from Harry Davis' lecture to the CPA (Craft Potters' Association) in 1984.
Published in The Studio Potter in Dec 1984 (Vol. 13. No 1) and Ceramic Review 93 May/Jun 1985.

Handcraft Pottery Whence and Whither

The craft revival movement of the nineteenth century began as a protest movement against commercialism and for a return to a less mercenary time, but this never came about. To understand why this was so and what the resulting direction became, one needs to take into account the combination of social forces that coincided and gave the movement its peculiar ethos. The founding fathers were inevitably influenced by the values and characteristics of the culture into which they were born, and one must keep in mind how class dominated that culture was. To further this understanding one must define the main strands of that culture which caused them to orient the handcraft revival in the direction they did.

The first strand, and probably the dominant one, derives from Post Renaissance attitudes to what is understood today as fine art and the general acceptance of art as a thing separate and apart from the rest of life, particularly apart from technics. This, I must stress, was not always so.

The second strand arose out of the fact that art appreciation and the acquisitive cult of collecting art became an essential element in the life of a gentleman and a deliberate and self-conscious duty. The education of a gentleman was incomplete without a study of the classics, the grand tour of Europe, and a visit to Florence. These were all very much part of, and a buttress to, the class system that also required that a gentleman should not concern himself with manual, physical, and technical things.

The third strand was that element of social protest which gave rise to the handcraft revival in the first place. This was short-lived. It was swamped by the egocentric and well-established tradition inherent in Post Renaissance thinking. That is, the replacement of a tradition of anonymity by the competitive quest for individual recognition and fame, which is now so inseparable from the arts. William Morris was the dominant figure in this protest, which was a two-pronged gesture, as much concerned about working conditions in nineteenth century factories as with aesthetic considerations including the general absence of opportunity for creative expression for the people working in those factories. One should note here that the protest came from a middle-class intellectual element and not from the factory workers who were quite unconscious of this aspect of their lot. It came in fact from a class, the members of which aspired to the status of gentleman.

This same class generated within the handcraft movement a feature which greatly moulded its character. This was a fear of machines. Those drawn to the handcraft movement associated the materialism and sheer bad taste of much of the industrial production of the time with the idea that machines were the evil influence behind all that they deplored. Out of this grew the rejection of machines which became a characteristic of the movement. This attitude toward machines was strengthened by the fact that their class background insulated them from any contact with tools and machinery.

A fourth strand that greatly influenced the character of the pottery handcraft revival was the role played by the art schools. The influence of William Morris was still flickering in art schools after World War I. Some very halting pottery classes were functioning in the 1920s. The school that I attended had one, but interest centered much more on figurines than on pots. Pottery classes increased during the '30s, a fact that was much influenced by the advent of Staite Murray as head of the Ceramic Department of the Royal College of Art in London during that period. After World War II the teaching institutions and pottery courses multiplied rapidly and finally expanded to include many secondary schools and even universities. All this became a decisive element in separating the art from the technics and facilitated the massive dependence on ceramic supply companies now so prevalent.

The final strand concerns the setting up by Leach and Hamada in 1920 of a pottery at St. Ives in England. Given unlimited technical scope it is rare that restraint and good taste will prevail, and this is where Leach and Hamada's special contribution comes in. They were inspired by elements of austere restraint in the work of potters of the past, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean, restraint essentially imposed by technological limitations. Leach and Hamada must have been conscious of this, and it stands to their great credit that they accepted these limitations as a form of self-discipline in the aesthetic which they sought to re-create. Unfortunately this was carried over into the fields of practical technology which were not relevant to the aesthetic.

From the time of Josiah Wedgewood's rise to fame in the second half of the eighteenth century and continuing through the nineteenth century, the traditional handcraft potteries of the English countryside underwent a steady decline. By the end of World War I, very few were left with a viable socioeconomic role or a credible aesthetic. Some, however, survived by switching to the gift and tourist souvenir trade, and a number of establishments came into being to exploit this new development. It was a totally unrestrained and undisciplined phenomenon that used every available resource twentieth century technology and chemistry could offer, without sensitivity or restraint, and the social idealism and aesthetic sensitivity of William Morris played no part in it.

Top of page

When I was sixteen I worked in such an establishment as a decorator. There I also acquired some of the potter's basic skills including throwing, but none of the values taking root in, the embryonic pottery craft movement. I was in fact unaware of its existence. However, there was an element in my background which rendered me susceptible to those values when I was finally confronted with them.

My home was an incredibly cluttered place. The emphasis was on "art" with Victorian overtones. My father's first wife had been a portrait painter of some standing and my father was a prolific Sunday painter with the result that every inch of wall space was covered with oil paintings in elaborate gilt frames. My mother was Swiss and so I was able to glimpse the interiors of mountain farms in that country, and I liked their honest simplicity, so unlike my home. This aesthetic simplicity became something of a yardstick for me and has remained so ever since.

My confrontation with the pottery craft movement came after the economic slump of 1929 when I was unemployed. I received a letter from my former employer telling me that a Mr. Bernard Leach was seeking trainees for a pottery project about to be established at a place called Dartington Hall in Devonshire and that, if interested, I should write and apply. This I did. This was a wonderful opportunity for me and a major turning point in my career as a potter. It was also an important educational experience, but it is paradoxical that this turn of events should have been the outcome of experiences of such negligible worth. I had, however, learned to throw from a skilled old-timer and it was that which made me acceptable as a trainee in a setting, incidentally, where throwing skills were not of a high order. Michael Cardew used to denigrate his skills as a thrower remarking that there was at least one thrower less competent than himself and that was Bernard Leach.

Dartington Hall itself is a beautiful manor house dating in part from the twelfth century. It struck me at the time as another instance in which great beauty was the consequence of technological limitations peculiar to the times in which it was built. It had, and still has, a magnificent and austere simplicity conceived in stone and slate and wood and blends perfectly with its beautiful surroundings. The hall had been restored by Dorothy and Leonard Elmhirst to become the vortex of a group of industries and crafts and at the same time a centre where the arts could be fostered for the benefit of all those participating in these developments. The concept was that of an antidote to the drab and unaesthetic congestion of industrial cities and had affinities with the social and cultural concerns of William Morris. I felt excited and privileged to be able to participate in this. After a short period of work at Dartington I was required to go to St. Ives where Leach and Hamada had set up a pottery a decade earlier.

Thus at the age of twenty I was introduced to an altogether different sort of pottery in which those qualities of aesthetic restraint and austerity were cherished. This time that familiar but sordid preoccupation with the making of things solely because it was assumed they would sell, seemed to be absent. Bernard Leach, saturated as he was in aspects of Oriental pottery and mainly familiar with high temperature ware, was much committed to certain austere qualities which that implied. His home reflected this too; its furnishings were simple and sparse. There were rustic beds that Hamada had made, and such pictures as there were, were few and well placed. The house itself repeated that respect for ungarnished stone and wood and slate peculiar to another and less developed age. I was impressed with the way it contrasted with my own.

Bernard Leach was an inspiring interpreter of the work of potters in widely separated periods and places. He was also a brilliant draughtsman in the Augustus John tradition, having worked at the Slade School of Art about a decade after John was a student there. This gave his decorating on pots and his drawings a stamp which I greatly envied and admired. He introduced me to pots in a way entirely new. for me, and I began to see things that I had not seen before, including pots that were unfamiliar in England at that time.

Top of page

Then in 1935 something momentous happened, especially for me. There came to London an exhibition of the arts of China through the ages. A gathering of potters and pottery students was organized, and we all met in London at Burlington House to spend several days looking at this wonderful collection together. The memory of it stands out as a landmark in my development. There I met Michael Cardew for the first time. He too was seemingly overwhelmed by the simplicity and the exquisite combinations of vigour and refinement. That exhibition was a most exciting and stimulating experience; I was amazed that so much delicacy and sensitivity could be expressed with a floppy brush or a bit of bamboo. Here we thought we saw a prototype or a model of vigour and sophistication appropriate to the needs of our time and therefore a yardstick for what was theoretically going to happen at Dartington. But somehow it never did.

I began to realize we were involved in some sort of a protest movement, almost a crusade to rescue the potter's craft from the clutches of mammon, to show a way out of enslaving uncreative commercialism. I was swept along by the eloquent social criticism of people like Eric Gill and R.H. Tawney, and I was young enough to anticipate a tremendous impact from writings of that calibre. But who knows or even mentions either of them today. There was also the record of earlier protesters like William Morris and Ruskin who, one knew, had cried out in vain. Now one thought, albeit naively, that something radical was about to happen to recapture the spirit of less mercenary times. Even Michael Cardew was optimistic enough to go up to Stoke-on-Trent and challenge the high priests of commerce and tell them they should stop and look where they were going. He would show them, he thought, what real pots were and what design was about in human terms. But they only laughed, though they did let him do his thing-hoping, I presume, that, when he had done it, he would go away. Such is the naivety (or is it the arrogance) of youth, but I admired his courage tremendously.

For me it was a most stimulating period as we set our sights on imagined events about to take place. But all the talking never brought us to concrete plans, nor to the sheer practicality of ways and means. The sweat and chores of background work were scarcely mentioned. I worked with Leach on two of his bouts of hectic preparation for London exhibitions of his work, but I did not yet appreciate the significance of the seemingly total centrality of this side of things.

Here a glance at strand one will remind us of something which has affected every level of our culture for a long time. One that is still not widely understood. I refer to events which took place about five hundred years ago when a coterie of successful autocrats, businessmen, and bankers in Florence attracted to their circle some outstandingly talented craftsmen and elevated what they did into a new category which became known as Fine Art, and these talented men and their descendants were henceforth known as Artists. This period, one may say, marks the point at which the great split began, between the practical side of life for the commonality of people associated with the arts of man, and the imaginative and creative side.

Although the word "art" had been in general use for a very long time, it had had a different connotation. Prefixed with the word "fine," it acquired that exclusivity difference which has dogged it ever since. This was summed up with telling relevance and clarity by Walter Gropius. He referred to what he called "a fatal legacy from a generation which elevated some branches of art above the rest, as 'Fine Art,' and in so doing robbed all arts of their basic identity and common life." In the 1930s the potter was about to develop similar ambitions.

Here we are touching on a theme that underlies so much of contemporary thinking about what is art and what is craft. Perhaps one should not call it thinking, but rather pigeonholing; a process of thought by cliche that facilitates quick categorization but fails to take into account that boundaries are not always clear-cut and sometimes are even nonexistent. Andre Malraux has indulged some specious thought in this direction to separate the artisan from the artist. The gist of the idea is the artist is one who creates forms and the artisan is one who executes them.

This formula ignores the effects of the employer/employee relationship, primarily a social division and only secondarily a separation by talent. This is really what separates the artisan from the artist. Employee status requires repetition and obedience, and no innovation and no complaints. This relationship has been consolidating for half a millennium. The story of the weavers of Florence in the fourteenth century is symptomatic. They had the audacity to down tools and to make complaints, in other words, to strike. To quell this revolt the immense power of papal authority had to be invoked. The weavers were threatened with excommunication if they did not go back to work. Clearly, they were artisans, not artists. No question of artistic license and idiosyncrasy there. Even then, an artisan was expected to do what he was told. Also worth noting in this context is Josiah Wedgewood, some three hundred years later, who promptly dismissed workers who dared to ask for material improvement in their lot. There again artisans were obliged to do what they were told with no freedom to create forms.

In contrast, a person in a nonspecialist tribal society was (and is) automatically both artist and artisan, but we can no longer credit that it is perfectly possible to be both. Many years of initiation and practice are required, even for those born with what it takes-the talent. In our age of specialization we train people for one or the other whereas so-called primitive people with less sophisticated "ways had the time and leisure to be both.

Top of page

To return to the personal aspects of my theme, Leach then suddenly went to Japan with Mark Toby, the painter. This was a two-year trip financed by Dartington, ostensibly to gather further stimulus and ideas for the forthcoming project. In the meantime it was arranged, on the suggestion of Leonard Elmhirst, that David Leach should attend a course of technical study at the North Staffordshire Technical College, the teaching centre for the ceramic industry in Stoke-on-Trent. The plan was an obvious indicator that some doubts were felt about our capacity to handle the technical aspects of the project. At the same time another prospective participant in the project departed and I was left to keep the Leach Pottery going with the help of the odd-job man, George Lunn, and the secretary, Laurie Cooks.

At about this time Staite Murray was made head of the pottery department of the Royal College of Art in London. I know that this was something of a blow to Bernard Leach, because he had been hoping the job would be offered to him. For some years, Leach and Murray had been rivals as leaders in quest of fame and status, both holding periodic exhibitions of their work in London galleries. Murray, it seemed, had managed to make the bigger splash and had landed the job at the Royal College. Murray's pricing, as everybody noted, had been substantially more audacious than Leach's.

Gradually, and now in some alarm, I became conscious of something which had at first not been apparent to me. This was strand four, evident in the fact that my mentors hated machines to a man, including Cardew. I soon realized this was because they feared them and again because their ignorance of them was total. Coming from middle-class backgrounds, they looked on tools as alien things and on machines as something worse. They had no interest in or understanding for either. While I worked for Leach (nearly five years), there were no mechanical aids of any sort in the pottery. The nearest thing to a machine was a potter's kick wheel. How Leach was able to reconcile himself to something as sophisticated as a crankshaft, I never did understand.

Slowly I became conscious of something else which I found perhaps even more disquieting. This was the growing preoccupation with status which was apparent in several ways. The work effort rose to a feverish pitch in preparation for exhibitions, and when they were launched things slumped into inactivity. They seemed to be the real if not the only stimulus for making pots.

Michael Cardew was seemingly quite unaffected by all this, or maybe he was as yet unaware of the status-oriented twist things were being given. He had revived Winchcombe pottery and was working away quietly as country potters had done through the ages, and with admirable disregard for mercenary considerations. His lifestyle was extremely simple and, when I visited him for the first time round about 1935, he and his wife Mariel were living in a loft in the old pottery building. When he finally did hold an exhibition of pots in the Brygos gallery in the spring of 1937 he made an interesting comment, which when reminded of it in the 70s, he was to deny hotly. He said, "When they come at some future date to assess this event, they will call it Michael Cardew's ambitious period." I didn't press the point further but clearly he was fully conscious of the turn that events had taken and his own involvement.

Long before this Leach had been saying repeatedly that pottery and potters must be given the status and prestige accorded to painters and sculptors. The title "artist potter" began to be heard more and more, and it was clearly here that the pathetic obsession with the whole sad business of the desire for recognition began for potters. Staite Murray, now installed at the Royal College, was soon saying that an artist potter must at all costs avoid involvement with function. All this was gradually reflected in the use of language. Things were renamed and acquired subtle overtones of class. An apprentice became a student, a shop was called a gallery and the potter's place of work became a studio. Recognition at any price had become the rule.

Top of page

The potter's craft through the ages has had a special quality in that it performed a double function. It supplied a range of domestic and ceremonial pots essential to the daily life of ordinary people, and at its best it enriched their common life on a spiritual plane as well. Potters have done this for a long time, and often in more sensitive mood, obvious joy was taken in doing so. The pots (often quite mundane functional pots too) were imbued with a beauty and subtlety of the highest order. As we all know, the technique is an inexpensive one; the raw materials used are abundant and common and therefore cheap. Thus delightful things could become a life-enriching experience in anybody's daily life. Making this benign contribution to the domestic and social scene has been the potter's role and privilege for millennia, but to do this and do it well, the potter had to be both dedicated and hard working, and to have the wit to control his mixtures and kilns.

Suddenly in our day the potter became ambitious and decided to make a bid for a place in the world of fine art. In consequence everything had to change. The potter's social status and the kind of pots made and the attitude to the repetition of shapes and designs, together with the need for skill and training in order to be able to do so, all underwent a rapid and total change. The potter had to invade a new marketplace, and ingratiate himself with a new clientele, and above all take an entirely new attitude toward price. The new client was no longer of the common people, and price was pitched at such a level that an ordinary home could no longer afford the pottery. Instead it was destined for the collector's drawing room or a museum. Skill, if not positively denigrated, became unimportant. The extraordinary thing is that, despite all these changes, the pots insofar as they remained pots (which in many cases they soon ceased to do) were not one whit better than countless pots made unself-consciously in other times and places by unknown peasant craftspeople without pretence at status, either artistic or social.

The upshot of all this was that the potters no longer needed to be aware in any practical, technical, or functional sense. If the pots were Art the rest was for naught, and price or a teaching job would take care of the rest. In fact the none-too-subtle evidence that these aspects had been set for naught often became the hallmark and guarantee that the work in question was Art, which then was further underlined by the price tag. The same evidence for some was also proof that the work was handmade and that authorized similar special pleading.

There were thus two basic trends at work together, both pulling in one direction, and both likely to have the same sort of impact. On the one hand, there was the growing preoccupation with status for both potter and pot, and, on the other, there was this Luddite mentality rejecting machines and tools, which seemed to sanction an indifference to practical and economic issues. It is small wonder that, for many, making pots soon ceased to be the aim, and the acquisition of skill as possessed by that Unknown Craftsman so much admired in those days no longer held interest. Similarly the more mundane needs of daily life (dinner plates, for instance) could hardly be tackled, let alone given that extra shot of vitality to enrich the experience of day-to-day living, without pricing them as Art objects out of the reach of common people.

Top of page

In the meantime, the Elmhirsts had ceased to administer the Dartington Estate themselves and had appointed a group of professional trustees to do it for them. The trustees may have had reason to doubt the practicality of the scheme; at any rate the dream project was quietly dropped.

Lewis Mumford has made an important analysis of man's attitude to machines and the machine age in a book entitled The Myth of the Machine. This has a bearing on attitudes that have greatly influenced trends in the handcraft movement, especially pottery-attitudes based on fallacies. Many eminent men have pointed the finger on this theme, but mostly in the wrong direction. Ruskin, William Blake, and J.J. Rousseau all had their mistaken rant about machines. A machine can be a benign labour-saving device. Its misuse is what makes it malignant. When people are made to tend its monstrous and monotonous demands or starve, when it is used to get more out of fewer people for less money, that is when it becomes malign. The real foe, as Mumford makes historically so clear, is that great invisible organizational machine called variously "the system," "the establishment," for which Lewis Mumford has coined the phrase "the Megamachine." The megamachine is that ruthless instrument of collective coercion once used to build the pyramids under mortal threat and more subtly applied in later times to man the factories for a pittance, or starve. It is essentially a product of civilization, and also the prolonged event that led to the widespread view that work is a curse to be avoided if possible. Only when men were free to work outside this megamachine or were given freedom to work within it was creative craftsmanship a possibility and work a joy. For the fact that at times this did happen we are grateful.

The building of machines in the benign sense started very early. There is the record of the poet Antipater of Thessalonica writing a eulogy of the waterwheel as a domestic appliance relieving women of the burden of grinding corn. This was in the first century of our era somewhere in the mountains of Greece though waterwheels have a history much older than that. The real boost came with the Benedictine monks in the sixth century. That order with its working day of voluntary discipline divided into mental, spiritual and manual duties had a vested interest in the invention of labour-saving devices, if only because there was no place for either slaves or masters in their way of life. Lewis Mumford has calculated that the cumulative effect of their efforts bore such prodigious fruits that by the time of the Norman conquest, England with its population of only one million had the labour services of 8000 waterwheels. These he further estimates yielded energy annually far in excess of the reluctant labours of the 100,000 slaves that the Egyptians used to build the great pyramids. Such an achievement as early as the eleventh century is impressive engineering, no matter how negligible it may seem by modern standards. To have all that sawing of wood and milling of grain done for them, to say nothing of devices for harnessing a horse to chop or to cut, or to stir, enables one to begin to understand how a town of 10,000 people could raise one of those magnificent cathedrals without resource to slaves and the lash. That was a cultural peak in the remote past, but proof enough that the machine can be benign in the hands of free men. Since then the megamachine has reappeared in a new guise and the words "wage" and "industrial" have been prefixed to new and subtler forms of slavery.

Bernard Leach again saw clearly the vicious break between the generations of potters associated with the English slipware tradition, culminating with Thomas Toft in the mid-eighteenth century, and the generations of industrial workers starting with Josiah Wedgewood's employees, that followed. There exists an amazing milestone to mark this event. This is a letter from Wedgewood to his friend and public relations man Thomas Bentley in which he writes of his dream and ideal, "to make of men, such machines that cannot err." A century and a half later William Morris began to protest at the social and aesthetic outcome of that "dream," so effectively fulfilled, not only by Wedgewood but by others as well.

Top of page

The craft revival movement was essentially a gesture of protest from the start, based on a criticism of things as they were at that time, contrasted with what had been in other times and places. There was no isolating those contrasts from the social conditions that gave rise to such startling results. An awareness of the sordid dreariness of nineteenth century industrial conditions and the tasteless ostentation of its products provoked indignation and varying degrees of resolve to take some part in a solution. That was the mood of the handcraft pottery revival as I experienced it in the '30s. There was no escaping the fact that the tastelessness was linked with unprecedented material wealth and that anything artistically and aesthetically inspiring out of other ages was associated with what today would be called poverty. What was the factor producing such differences between the sterile quality of artifacts in nineteenth- and twentieth-century urban life and the aesthetic vitality of artifacts that came out of material poverty in primitive tribal conditions at other times? My conclusion is that it had to do with a social ethos which yielded or denied people the freedom and satisfaction of expression in simple humble acts, regardless of material rewards or status. The essence seemed to have to do with simplicity and austerity, and many of us realized that to recapture anything of that vitality would only be possible through a voluntary acceptance of what some called poverty, but what others called simplicity.

To me there was something contradictory and repellent about striving for a simple and vital aesthetic in what we made, and then selling it in places where only the wealthy would go to buy it and, one might almost add, at no matter what price. Some of us believed that vitality and simplicity needed to be brought back into the humbler things associated with ordinary living and available to all. Clearly price had a lot to do with this, and inevitably competition even more.

The question was: how to do anything to counteract the characterless products churned out by industry with its immense material resources. What one did would have to be the outcome of a radically different approach. That the emphasis in motivation must be reversed was agreed. It meant putting the emphasis on giving and not on taking, something craftspeople worthy of the name do anyway, usually with a generous mental idea about price. They may never have tried to define this, but others have. In the days of the cathedral builders it was called the "just price." What that is, is not too easy to define either, but it differs greatly from that other and more recent definition of price which postulates that "the price of an article is what it will fetch," a yardstick soon to invade the world of potters as well. This view of price was not overlooked by a group of prisoners in an English gaol recently. They were given pottery classes in the prison rehabilitation programme and were in the habit of sending their pots home to their families with false signatures on them. Someone took the next obvious step, and for a time they managed to fool the famous London art dealers, who were well versed in defining price by the "what it will fetch" rule, sometimes to the tune of millions. The prisoners however overlooked one important point-the exclusivity principle. They made too many Bernard Leach pots.

The combined effect of the changed attitude to status and the quasi Luddite thinking was soon to be strengthened by educational circles. This area was already hopelessly committed to the split between technics and aesthetics, technical colleges to teach technics and art schools to teach art having long been in existence. The craft movement should have been chiefly concerned with bringing these two together again, but it was not and the two continued to drift apart. I have already drawn attention to what was in fact the central concern, which was that an artist potter should avoid all involvement with function, as so outspokenly emphasized by Staite Murray. That message spread rapidly through the Anglo-Saxon world of teaching institutions at the time when the teaching of crafts was about to undergo a tremendous upsurge. The very multiplicity of the institutions and the great number of courses introduced meant that henceforth the destiny of the craft movement was to be in the hands of educational institutions and no longer in the hands of working craftspeople. This ef-fectively diverted attention away from the capacity craftspeople in previous cultures had for avoiding a split between the practical and the creative, for keeping them facets of a whole.

This rapid stimulation of activity meant that the institutions had first to produce a generation of teachers; they did not, and could not, produce a generation of practical craftspeople. Whatever may be said to the credit of such institutions (and I'm sure there is much that should be), it does not include the making of a craftsman or a tradesman in the full and best sense of those terms. The term "tradesman" is so irrevocably associated in our minds with the idea of trade and commerce that only when its archaic usage is brought to our notice do we realize that it implied a certain dignity with ethical overtones. The prefix "trade" had originally an altogether different and dignified meaning, which was to tread or walk as in a calling. This was bound up with the trio "apprentice," 'journeyman," and "master" and conveyed the idea of the master craftsman treading on a way of life with a sense of mission. It is interesting that in the German language the word Beruf, which equates exactly with the English word "calling," is used to denote what a person does whether he is a potter or a university professor and carries none of the mercenary overtones. Undeniably, to tread, or walk as in a way of life, stands poles apart from the idea of to trade as in the marketplace.

In a class-ridden society like that of England in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, the loss of the tradesman's dignity and the splitting apart of the two halves of a craft could happen and not be noticed, even by thinking people. Given the thinking of leaders of industry like Josiah Wedgewood, that cleavage was inevitable. Equally inevitable was it that those more sensitive people who became aware of this affront to human personality and dignity were from among an intellectual minority that was insulated from those lowly occu-pations dealing with the mere practical and technical sides of life. When they stopped in their tracks, as Morris did, saying "Hey, this must be changed. Craftspeople once made beautiful things and now look what people are made to do," they were ill-equipped and their understanding of tools and technics was minimal. Their background and education had given them instead a grounding in Latin and Greek and some familiarity with what are called the fine arts and literature. In addition, their thoughts were coloured by a succession of thinkers who had misconstrued the very nature of what they knew as the machine age. Educated gentlemen that they were, they would have felt the influence of Rousseau, William Blake, Ruskin and others, all of whom detested machines. Jean J. Rousseau has even been described by one authority as the original Luddite, but one and all confused the labour-saving benefit of wheels and shafts and pulleys with the vicious organizational machine of workers, foremen, managers and bureaucrats (to say nothing of shareholders). That is what regiments the worker and leaves no room for imagination and spontaneity, to say nothing of his growth and dignity as a person.

The educational institutions were saddled with this misconception and instead of accepting the two halves of a craft as complementary to each other, (like the material and spiritual sides of human personality), they persisted in denigrating the one and worshipping the other. Even now it is rare to find any attempt being made to find a balance. With the basic technical and material aspects thus ignored for perhaps two generations the door was left wide open for enterprising supply companies to render the whole craft movement pathetically dependent on their services. In the 1920s technical know-how and resources appropriate to the needs of the movement abounded, and had there been the interest and the receptivity a whole battery of simple technology could have been harvested to strengthen the arm of a generation of revivalist craftspeople. But the specialist syndrome was already dominant and education did absolutely nothing to heighten receptivity to this know-how. Only when Schumacher said his piece about small being beautiful did people wake up.

Top of page

As for myself, it was not until I was thrown on my own resourcesin West Africa at the end of the 1930s that I became conscious of the abysmal ignorance that prevailed among my generation of revivalist craftspeople. Not just the ignorance that defined my limitations as a potter, but my ignorance of so much that men in other callings in the years of my early adulthood could have bequeathed to me had I but asked. Those were opportunities lost because when the second world war was over, those men were gone and their workshops were no more. But long before that it became apparent to me that the craft movement was confronted with a choice-either acquire those supporting skills and get acquainted with some aspects of more specialized fields of knowledge, or abandon the early ideal of linking high quality in its broadest sense with moderate price. In no other way can potters hope to fulfill the simple socioeconomic service that was traditionally their role. The alternative is a great public relations act of self-advertisement and much subtle manipulation of language to create an illusion of exclusivity to justify inordinate price levels beyond the reach of most.

For me in West Africa during the war these choices became part of the day-to-day challenge. The war had cut off all the normal sources of expertise and prepared raw materials, as well as the range of ready-made equipment. Either one improvised solutions from whatever was at hand or one capitulated. I chose to improvise and carry on, and from then on my potting life has had what in modern jargon would be called a "research department." For over forty years a continuous side interest has been discovering ways and means to strengthen a potter's arm in practical terms to compensate for the disadvantages, albeit voluntarily accepted, of moderate scale and hand-craft methods. This has added up to a vast amount of information, both theoretical and practical, and for the last two years I have been busy putting it all on record in a book which I hope to publish.

Someone once defined an educated man as a person who knows everything about something and something about everything. This is, I think, an apt definition of a well-trained potter. He needs to know everything about his chosen field and something about even-body else's. As it turns out, his calling, as defined before the industrial revolution, can scarcely be pursued at all today without a partial overlap with other specialized fields. This was brought home to me during the war in another sense as well. The attempt was made by the authorities in West Africa to find me an assistant from among the British servicemen stationed in the three colonies, Nigeria, the Gold Coast (now Ghana), and Sierra Leone. The opportunity attracted many applicants from men formerly in the pottery industry, but one and all were qualified only in some minute fragment of the skills practiced in that industry. They were all factory workers, and there was not a craftsman in the full sense of the term among them. Such is the scope for human fulfilment inside the megamachine.

In short, what distresses me about this story of fifty years of craft revivalism is the fact that handcraft pottery with its complacent standards of doubtful competence and extravagant pricing only flourishes because it is functioning in a society of extreme affluence. That affluence is the direct outcome of outrageous resource usage by the developed western world to the detriment of less developed societies. There is a bandwagon quality about all this which, I submit, is not what the hand-craft movement was about.

Top of page

So much for the "whence" in my title. The "whither" is another matter. In my opinion the prevalent direction is explained by the values and motives which guided the handcraft pottery movement in its formative years. I have indicated what these were and it seems almost certain that they will continue to dominate its future despite the efforts of a minority struggling to find a way to operate on a healthier value basis. The prevailing attitudes and values have been instrumental in diverting the movement away from any urge it may have had toward creative expression while meeting the needs of the commonality of people. A heavy bias in favour of aesthetics, as the only field of excellence worth pursuing, has for most potters become an exclusive bias, and one often transparently confused with a concern for fame and name. This is not new, but it has culminated in an extraordinary complacency. In fact the movement has become content with very low levels of skill and is positively indifferent to practical considerations that could lead to a more holistic and socially purposeful role, a role that need not mean a loss of creative expression. This state of affairs could only have come about in a society where the extreme affluence of a minority wields an influence out of all proportion to its size. Worse still this complacency renders the movement unaware of, and even indifferent to, the basis of this extraordinary affluence which persists in spite of recessions and much unemployment. All this is sad in a movement which began in a mood of idealism with a broad social and human concern.

Harry Davis
April 1984

Nelson R.D: 1
New Zealand