Art and Life 1920-1931: Studio Pottery

Until yesterday I thought a pot was a pot. What a difference a knowledgable speaker makes to the appreciation of art! In this case I’m talking about studio pottery and the pots on display at the Art and Life, 1920-1931 exhibition currently showing at Leeds City Art Gallery (but only until Sunday 12 January). The exhibition will then head down to Kettles Yard in Cambridge and thence to The Dulwich Picture Gallery in south London.

Art and Life 1

On some Thursdays throughout the year Leeds Art Gallery presents 30 minute free lunchtime talks. Yesterday the lunchtime talk was extended to 50 minutes and the visiting speaker, Dinah Winch from Gallery Oldham, told our small assembled group about the pots displayed in Art and Life. They were all made by William Staite Murray.

Art and Life 2

These pots, which I would have given barely a glance to before, I now look at quite differently. A stripey vase and a rough brown dish became works of art before my very eyes. The pots matched with the paintings and many appear in Winifred Nicholson’s paintings demonstrating the ideal light in which to view them – natural sunlight through the window – not the artificial light from above the glass cases in the gallery.

Polyanthus and Cineraria

Nicholson’s Polyanthus and Cineraria [source]

The stripey vase entitled The Bather was very tall and striking. Photography was not allowed and I have been unable to find a suitable picture to reproduce here. Most of the pots (including The Bather) came from York City Art Gallery (which is undergoing a big refurbishment over the next couple of years) and a couple from Kettles Yard. I visited Kettles Yard in 2011. It is a lovely homely gallery full of art and craft of the Art and Life era.

In Kettles Yard

Inside Kettles Yard (Ben Nicholson’s Bertha (No.2) on the right)

Here is what the Exhibition Guide says about Murray and his pots :

William Staite Murray was one of the leading artists of his time. Murray eschewed any functionality for pots and viewed pottery as a fundamental abstract art lying between painting and sculpture. Inspired by the Chinese Sung dynasty pots that had begun to appear in London, his pots are emotionally expressive with imaginative titles, all of which appealed to the Nicholsons with whom he was friends and exhibited widely. Ben Nicholson keenly distributed pictures by Alfred Wallis amongst his friends, and sent one to Murray, noting that it reminded him of one of Murray’s pots. We can only muse as to the exact link as it is not known which picture by Wallis Ben sent. Winifred gives us an idea for she wrote of one of Murray’s pots as having “the elemental depth of the sea.” When Ben Nicholson saw Murray’s solo exhibition at the Lefevre Gallery in London in 1931 he wrote “one big brown pot is one of the finest things I have ever seen.” Persian Garden was exhibited in the Lefevre exhibition, and widely seen as one of Murray’s masterpieces, it is probable this was the pot referred to by Nicholson. By the late 1920s remarkably Murray had a higher reputation than the Nicholsons. Arguably as good a potter as Bernard Leach, subsequently Murray’s reputation has suffered, perhaps partly because in 1939 he left England and with the outbreak of war settled abroad. Sadly he did not pot again.

I hope this brief introduction and excellent lecture will set me up for my visit later this month to the Matthew Darbyshire installation using the pottery collection of W.A.Ismay at The Hepworth in Wakefield.

Other bloggers have written about this wonderful exhibition here and here.