Recent Essays

Selected Writing



Recent Essays

Selected Writing

Shoji Hamada Master Potter


Critical Writing on English Studio Pottery 1910 – 1940



This interpretative historiography investigates and examines the precepts and critical writing on English Studio pottery between 1910 and 1940. It argues that Roger Fry’s formalist theories provided the critical framework for the appreciation of early studio potters such as William Staite Murray, Bernard Leach, and Reginald Wells. Through his inclusion and appreciation of Fauve ceramics in the exhibition Manet and the Post Impressionists to his primitivist interpretation of early Chinese and English mediaeval pottery, Fry identified the main idioms of early studio pottery. This realigned individual artistic ceramic practice from being the focus of Antiquarian appreciation to being a subject of contemporary understanding.


Herbert Read’s ideas of Mediaeval pottery as ‘plastic art in its most abstract form’ augmented Fry’s Formalist theories and facilitated the Modernist appreciation of pottery as a form of non-representational art during the 1920s and early 1930s. William Staite Murray, in particular, adopted these ideas and his monumental stoneware pottery and membership of the Seven & Five Society led to Read describing him as ‘a canvas free artist.’


In parallel to Read and Staite Murray, Bernard Leach’s advocacy of neo-vernacular slipware and ‘Sung Standard’ stonewares promulgated Ruskin and Morris’s social concerns and ideas on utility and craft. This led to the emergence of the Leach school in the late 1920s with the work of Michael Cardew, Katherine Pleydell-Bouverie and Norah Braden. Leach positioned this production of innovative domestic pottery as a bridge between English handicraft and design and it became part of the discussion about English national identity, which culminated in the exhibition English Pottery Old and New at the V & A in 1935.


Beginning with the critical response to Manet and the Post-Impressionists in 1910, and concluding with the reviews of Bernard Leach’s A Potter’s Book in 1940, this thesis has undertaken a comprehensive literature search of writing on studio pottery in the English art, design and national press. The primary texts reveal the voice of critics and potters over three decades, and chart the development of studio pottery from a nascent discipline in 1910 to a coherent movement at the outbreak of the Second World War.





This thesis is an interpretative historiography of critical writing on English studio pottery covering the years between 1910 and 1940. The historiographical element consists of an extensive survey of critical writing on studio pottery and related subjects compiled from articles and reviews in the main art journals and newspapers of the time, supplemented by exhibition catalogues and books. The interpretative element determines the type of ceramic work considered as studio pottery, identifies the major critical themes in the written texts and discusses the significance of these themes to the development of studio pottery. The intent of this thesis is to re-present the long neglected critical writing from this period and let the  voices from the formative years of English studio pottery speak again for themselves.


This research grew out of a desire to gain access to the ideas and writing that had shaped the critical identity of studio pottery at its inception. No critical anthologies of writing on British 20th century studio pottery1 exist at the moment and, until relatively recently, studio pottery and the crafts have been under-researched and theorised. As Oliver Watson wrote in British Studio Pottery in 1990  ‘Most of the discussion on the relations of crafts to art and industry is polemic rather than analytic in nature’ 2. Rising above polemic requires certainty of knowledge. As a practitioner (see CV, Appendix ??) interested in reinterpreting historical precedents, the process of making informed decisions about the past when access to primary written material is still difficult is problematic. The relationship between studio pottery and modernism is a case in point. As Tanya Harrod writes, ‘Until recently it would have seemed absurd to consider the crafts in such a relationship.’ 3


The methodology for this research consists of an extensive survey of published writing on studio pottery and related subjects which, it will be argued, were relevant to debate on ceramics. Unpublished material has been excluded on the grounds that it was not a part of the open debate which formed the public critical identity of studio pottery. As there were few books published between 1910 and 1940 and no specialist ceramic publications, the literature search has surveyed the art press. Certain important periodicals have been assessed and selected for full scrutiny, and every single issue has been examined; others have been selectively surveyed, as have national broadsheets. The periodicals selected for a complete survey include Apollo, The Arts and Crafts Quarterly, Artwork, The Athenaeum, The Burlington, Connoisseur, Design For Today, Transactions of the English Ceramic Circle, The Studio and The Studio Yearbook. Some of these magazines such as The Studio were published throughout the whole of the period, others such as Design for To-Day were only published for part of it. In terms of coverage of studio potters, The Times was the most important newspaper of the period and its index has been scrutinised for individual potters and ceramic themes; over forty related articles and letters have been found. Archives such as the Craft Study Centre, the Art and Design Archive, Blyth Road, London, York City Art Gallery and the V & A Ceramics Department have produced important material, and many references from secondary bibliographies have also been followed. A full list of the publications referred to is provided in the Index to the thesis.


The thesis has been structured chronologically with separate sections for each decade. Themes appropriate to each decade are discussed in individual chapters and follow a chronological format in order to keep the sequence of publications as intact as possible. There were over forty public references to Leach and his colleagues in the 1920s, so for example, a review of Hamada written in May 1923 will be followed by one written in November 1923. It is intended that this process reflects the evolution of critical attitudes to individual studio potters. The disadvantage of this approach is that some material overlaps into different categories and that certain themes are discussed in parallel with each other. However, it is hoped that the advantages outweigh any disadvantages and that readers will be able to make cross references when necessary.


This thesis is primarily concerned with writing on studio pottery, but inevitably it includes writing on design, fine art and historical ceramics. These subjects are discussed when appropriate; for example the exhibition English Pottery Old and New at the V & A in 1935 included contemporary industrial design, mediaeval English earthenware, early Oriental stonewares and studio pottery. This thesis will argue that the critical precepts of studio pottery were a combination of a rich mix of factors ranging from Arts and Crafts theories to early Modernism, so critical writing associated with these movements is also discussed  when appropriate. The evolution of studio pottery is also closely connected to the rediscovery of early Oriental and English pottery during the 1910s and critical responses to this work are considered important enough to warrant separate chapters for each decade. Scholarly writing by curators such as R. L. Hobson of the British Museum and individuals such as Charles Lomax who wrote for the collectors’ market will, for ease of identification, be referred to as Antiquarian.


The subjects of this thesis are the primary texts written between 1910-1940 but certain secondary material has been included when relevant to debates about Modernism, fine art and design. These include contemporaneous publications such as Nicholas Pevsner’s survey of design from 1937, An Enquiry into Industrial Art in England 4, and Robert Goldwater’s seminal text Primitivism in Modern Art 5 of 1938. Secondary publications by contemporary authors have also been consulted to establish broader arguments relating to issues beyond of studio pottery, for example Charles Harrison’s revised edition of English Art and Modernism 1900-1939 6 which is a proven text on Modernism and early 20th century English art. Stella Tillyard is a recognised authority on early English Modernism and the Arts and Crafts; this thesis refers to arguments in her book The Impact of Modernism: The Visual Arts in Edwardian England 7. Other authoritative figures referred to are curators from the Ceramics and Glass Department at the Victoria & Albert Museum, Jennifer Opie, Robin Hildyard and Oliver Watson, whose important book British Studio Pottery 8, first published in 1990, has become the standard reference for English studio pottery. Tanya Harrod’s The Crafts in 20th Century Britain 9 has proved to be the most authoritative history of the crafts since its publication and this thesis has relied on the broad sweep and fine detail of Harrod’s arguments. Two unpublished works have also been helpful in shaping this research. Rachel Gotlieb’s M. A. thesis The Critical Language and Aesthetic Criteria of Art-Pottery Manufacturers and Studio-Potters 1914 - 1934 10 and Jeffrey Jones’s PhD thesis Studio Pottery in the Age of Modernism 1920-1955 11.


This thesis argues that Roger Fry was a pivotal figure in the establishment of the critical precepts of studio pottery. From the inclusion of Fauve pottery as an example of non-representational art in his 1910 exhibition ‘Manet and the Post-Impressionists’ to his interest in Sung Dynasty stoneware and English mediaeval earthenware, Fry identified many of the themes later taken up by studio potters. His Modernist ideas marked a new phase of critical theory in England and laid the ground for the writing and theorising of studio pottery. The universal nature of Fry’s Formalist criticism was suitable for the appreciation of contemporary and historical pottery. This interest in new and old, and the repositioning of pottery within the parameters of contemporary debate, was the first step in establishing the aesthetic identity of the studio pottery movement. Fry’s achievements led directly to Herbert Read’s ideas of abstract form which he built around mediaeval pottery, and Staite Murray’s Oriental-inspired but emphatically Modern stoneware pottery. Secondary sources of contemporary writing such as Christopher Green’s Courtauld exhibition catalogue Art Made Modern: Roger Fry’s Vision of Art 12 and Frances Spalding’s biography Roger Fry - Art and Life 13 have been invaluable in unlocking the critical ideas of this immensely complex and prolific critic. Herbert Read’s ideas of plastic art and pure form from the 1920s and 1930s also played an important part in forming the critical identity of studio pottery. The exhibition catalogue ‘Herbert Read : A British Vision of World Art’ 14 edited by Benedict Read and David Thistlewood summarised the ideas of this equally important and original critic.


This thesis begins its survey in 1910 with two exhibitions which were instrumental in shaping early studio pottery. Fry’s exhibition Manet and the Post-Impressionists at the Grafton Gallery introduced a new Modernist debate while Early Chinese Pottery and Porcelain at the Burlington Fine Arts Club showed Tang and Sung stoneware for the first time in England. This form of early pottery became the core element of studio pottery’s material identity, for Bernard Leach, Reginald Wells and Staite Murray were all inspired by these impressive, monochrome forms. The thesis concludes with the publication of Bernard Leach’s A Potter’s Book 15 in 1940 which marked the end of the inter-war years and the first phase of studio pottery. With Leach’s celebration of the Sung Standard and determined self belief, A Potter’s Book anticipated the immediate post-war period an and confirmed Leach’s position as the dominant studio potter in England.


This thesis will follow established conventions in its use of the terms modern, modernism and Modernism. Adopting Charles Harrison’s models, the use of ‘modern’ with a lower case refers to work produced outside of the early 20th century Modernist movement which broke with the conventions of 19th century art. ‘Modernist’ with a higher case refers to work self-consciously produced within this movement and includes the theoretical models promoted by Fry and his colleagues. As Harrison explains ‘Thus a ‘Modernist’ form of criticism is one which offers to isolate and to identify ‘modernist’ art as a distinct qualitative presence within the modern.’ 16 The thesis will distinguish the European wide architecture and design movement of the 1930s as the Modern Movement.  The use of the title ‘English’ has been chosen in preference to ‘British’ to reflect the critical practice of the period. The majority of references to national identity used ‘English’ or ‘Englishness’ and for reasons of consistency the thesis follows this convention. Similar arguments apply to the order of Japanese names. While recognising that modern Western usage now follows the Japanese convention of placing the surname before the Christian name, e.g. Hamada Shoji, this thesis will follow the practice of the period and use the traditional Western order, e.g. Shoji Hamada. Likewise, conventional use of Tang and Sung will be followed. Author’s credits are always acknowledged as printed, with the exception of Charles Marriot. Marriot was The Times art critic from the early 1920s and throughout the 1930s. Although The Times did not acknowledge staff writers by name, research credits him as the author of the twenty eight articles referred to in the thesis.


The final point of clarification concerns the use of the terms ‘studio potter’ and ‘studio pottery’. The derivation of ‘studio pottery’ is rooted in the period itself and the earliest use of the term found so far dates from 1923. Given the proliferation of terms used by writers and potters during this period, ‘studio pottery’ will be used throughout the thesis for reasons of clarity and consistency.  Although this means using the term retrospectively for the first twelve years, it should enable distinctions to be made between the Art Pottery made by firms such as Ruskin Pottery, Linthorpe Pottery and the Della Robbia Pottery. For the commercial manufacture of pottery, labour was generally divided between designer and skilled craftsmen. In contrast, the studio potter both designed and made his or her own work. This was described by Dora Billington in 1937 as ‘The brain which conceives the pot controls the making of it also.’ 17


As this thesis surveys writing on Orientalism and primitivism (as these subjects were referred to at the time) the issue of postcolonialism arises. Edward Said in his book Orientalism 18 and Susan Hillier in The Myth of Primitivism 19 argue that it is no longer possible to separate aesthetic issues from political concerns regarding colonialism. Kenneth Coutts-Smith wrote that one cannot ‘accept the idea of the extra-historicity of art and the notion that artistic events take place in some manner in a continuum that is divorced from social and political dynamics.’ 20 This presents a dilemma: viewing Roger Fry and Clive Bell’s writing through the eyes of contemporary terms of reference would distort their meaning. The intention of this thesis is to survey and interpret writing from the early phase of studio pottery, and an ahistorical judgement of issues such as Orientalism and primitivism would, by nature, be critical of most of the writing as Eurocentric, distracting from the main aim. Research and knowledge of writing from this period is of primary concern, after which further interpretations can be applied.


Part I briefly reviews late 19th century critical writing on pottery and ceramics before going on to assess Roger Fry’s Modernist theories in relation to contemporary and historical pottery during the 1920s. A thorough survey of the press response to Fry’s exhibition ‘Manet and the Post-Impressionists’ is included in order to determine the exact nature of the response to Fry’s inclusion of Fauve pottery. This thesis argues that Fry’s theories of primitivism informed his understanding of historical pottery and contemporary art. Fry’s response to the ceramics produced by the Omega workshops is discussed in the light of his previous writing on pottery.  Antiquarian writing on early Oriental ceramics and English vernacular pottery is included because of its importance to studio pottery. Part I concludes with a review of the literature relating to early or proto-studio potters such as Charles Binns and George Cox.


Part II charts the development of critical writing on studio pottery during the 1920s. It includes reviews and articles written on, and by, Bernard Leach, Shoji Hamada, Reginald Wells and Staite Murray. The continuing growth of interest in early Oriental and English pottery shown by Antiquarian writers such as R. L. Hobson and contemporary writers such as W. A. Thorpe is examined. Herbert Read’s theories of abstraction and their adoption by Staite Murray are discussed. Finally, Part II analyses the revival of figurative modelling and the growing relationship between studio pottery and industry.


Part III surveys the progression of critical writing on studio pottery during the 1930s. It then charts reviews of Staite Murray’s work from the peak of his reputation in 1930 to his subsequent decline. The growth of interest in early Oriental pottery and the Chinese exhibition of 1936 is discussed as is the continuing interest in early English pottery. The spread of the Modern Movement focused the relationship between studio pottery and industrial production and this is discussed along with the exhibition ‘English Pottery Old and New’ at the V & A in 1935. The final section surveys critical responses to Leach and his first generation of students, Michael Cardew, Katherine Pleydell-Bouverie and Norah Braden. The thesis concludes by discussing Leach’s A Potter’s Book and its reviews in the press.


Since it was only towards the very end of the 1930s that the first tentative account of studio pottery was written with Dora Billington’s The Art of the Potter 21 (the first substantial histories of studio pottery such as George Wingfield Digby’s The Work of the Modern Potter 22 and Muriel Rose’s Artist Potters in England 23 were not written until the 1950s) the sources for this thesis range from articles by authoritative writers in reputable magazines to the output of working journalists in the national press. Discretion is necessary when determining the veracity of all primary material, as a dispute in 1990 between the writer Gore Vidal and an American historian reminds us. Vidal wrote


‘[he] affects not to understand what I mean by “agreed-upon facts” as the stuff of history. He would like the reader to think

that I invent something and get someone to agree to it. The point to my long disquisition on The New York Times is to show

that one cannot trust any primary source. If the Times says that I said Thoreau wrote something that Henry Adams actually

wrote, my “error” became a fact because the Times is a primary source for scholar squirrels - scholars, too. To take at face value

any newspaper story is to be dangerously innocent. But one can’t challenge everything that has ever been printed. So, through

weariness and ignorance, there is a general consensus, which then becomes what I call an “agreed-upon” fact. We all decide not

to worry it.’ 24


Vidal’s reminder that it is impossible to achieve a definitive understanding of history is timely. Some primary sources quoted in this thesis, particularly those derived from the popular press, may not be entirely ‘trusted’; however, this thesis also includes writing of the highest standard by some of the most influential critics in British 20th century art. between the two, it is hoped that they will help to provide a new set of “agreed upon facts” about the early history of studio pottery.






  1.   Garth Clark’s Ceramic Art: Comment and Review 1882-1977, New York, E. P. Dutton, 1978., is compiled from British and American texts but has few examples of early critical writing.
  2.   Watson, O., ‘British Studio Pottery : the Victoria and Albert Museum collection, Oxford, Phaidon Christie's in association
      with the Victoria and Albert Museum, London , 1990, note 9., p.41.
  3.   Harrod, T., The Crafts in Britain in the 20th Century, Yale University Press, 1999, p. 10.
  4.   Pevsner, N., An Enquiry into Industrial Art in England, London, Cambridge University Press, 1937.
  5.   Goldwater, R., Primitivism in Modern Art, Cambridge Massachusetts & London, Harvard University Press, 1966, (1938).
  6.   Harrison., C., English Art and Modernism 1900 - 1939, New Haven and London, Yale, revised ‘ed’ 1994, ( 1981).
  7.   Tillyard, S., The Impact of Modernism : The Visual Arts in Edwardian England,  London & New York, Routledge, 1988.
  8.   Watson, 1990.
  9.   Harrod, 1999.
  10.  Gotlieb, R., ‘The Critical Language and Aesthetic Criteria of Art-Pottery Manufacturers and Studio-Potters 1914 - 1934’,  MA Thesis, V&A / RCA, 1987.
  11.   Jones, J., Studio Pottery in the Age of Modernism 1920-1955, PhD thesis, University of Wales, Aberystwyth, 1999.
  12.   Green, C., ‘ed’, Art Made Modern : Roger Fry’s Vision of Art, London, Courtauld Gallery, 1999.
  13.   Spalding, F., Roger Fry - Art and Life, Norwich, Black Dog Books, 1999 (first pub. 1980).
  14.   Thistlewood, D., ‘Herbert Read : A New Vision of Art and Industry’, Herbert Read : A British Vision of World Art, ‘eds’ Read, B., Thistlewood, D., Leeds, Leeds City Art Galleries, 1993.
  15.   Leach, B., ‘Towards a Standard’, A Potter’s Book, London, Faber & Faber, 1977, (1940).
  16.   Harrison, C., Preface to English Art and Modernism 1900-1939, New Haven & London, Yale, second ed. 1994, )1981), p. xi.
  17.   Billington, 1937, p. 108.
  18.   Said, E., Orientalism, London, Penguin, 1984, (1978).
  19.   Hillier, S. ‘ed’, The Myth of Primitivism,‘, London & New York, Routledge, 1991.
  20.   Coutts-Smith, K., ‘Some General Observations on the Problem of Cultural Colonialism’, The Myth of Primitivism, ‘Ed’ Hillier, S., London & New York, Routledge, 1991, p. 14,
      originally published Artery, 1976.
  21.   Billington, D., The Art of the Potter,  Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1937.
  22.   Wingfield Digby, G., The Work of the Modern Potter, London, John Murray, 1952.
  23.   Rose, R., Artist Potters in England,  London, Faber & Faber, 1955.
  24.   Vidal, G., ‘How I do What I Do If Not Why’, At Home, New York, Vintage, 1990, p. 293.