edited by Glenn Adamson, Martina Droth, and Simon Olding. Yale Center for British Art and The Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge, in association with Yale University Press, October 2017. 472 p. 316 ill. ISBN 9780300227468 (h/c), $65.00.
Reviewed September 2018
Things of Beauty Growing: British Studio Pottery explores nearly a century of British studio pottery looking across studios, time, and continents, “invigorat[ing] traditional ceramic forms by developing or reinventing techniques, materials, and means of display.” It is not a comprehensive history, offering instead a “canon of vessels.” Both the introduction and the bibliography provide suggestions for traditional surveys of the topic. The effort is generally successful, offering a refreshing respite from Bernard Leach’s centripetal force without unfairly minimizing his role as “the Father of British Studio Pottery.” The introduction by Glenn Adamson is helpful in explaining and justifying the nontraditional approach and organization.
The six essays are entirely distinct, offering a varied if not flowing read. Julian Stair provides a straightforward chronology of foundations and progenitors. Edward S. Cooke Jr.’s consideration of the bias toward the wheel, the cult of individuality, and imperial acculturation is engaging. Tanya Harrod explores the studio’s and factory’s mutual rejection, adaptation, and fascination. Imogen Hart examines three exhibition case studies from the 1920s to 1940s, discussing the biases and motives behind exhibiting objects made dynamic by their utility. Sequoia Miller contextualizes British studio pottery in popular culture, a fun alternative to the museum context that could benefit from even more illustration. Penelope Curtis goes furthest in exploring invigoration of form and tradition by tracing the influence of the ceramic vessels on 1980s sculpture.
The subsequent interview with collector John Driscoll offers a unique human perspective to the collection and display of objects at once hugely personal and separated from that personal context. Following the catalog are biographies and a chronology providing a pared-down survey of the kind eschewed by the scholarly contributions.
With 157 objects photographed in color occupying whole- and half-matte pages, the catalog is an exceptional and beautiful resource, though it cannot be considered exhaustive. It is organized into sections by form: moon jar, vase, bowl, charger, set, vessel, pot, and monument. Each section includes a loose chronology of the form in question from ancient to contemporary and, where appropriate, from East Asian traditions to studio exploration. This scheme beautifully illustrates the “canon of vessels” and emphasizes the idea of seemingly universal traditions invigorated and adapted by different makers within the British studio pottery movement.
The catalog, profuse illustrations (mostly in color), and extensive notes and bibliography recommend this volume for libraries in universities teaching fine art, decorative arts, and design history at the undergraduate level or for museum libraries with similar collections.