Rupert Spira and the English Ceramic Tradition

Rupert Spira and the English Ceramic Tradition
To understand the philosophy expressed in Rupert Spira's work one has to take a somewhat broader view than is general in discussions of contemporary ceramics.

In Western societies, the artist potter is a comparatively recent invention. As a personality, he or she springs from the mid-nineteenth-century rebellion against categorisations promulgated during the Renaissance, which sought to divide forms of making into higher and lower spheres. The higher sphere contained the architect, the sculptor and the painter. The lower sphere contained all the rest.

This rebellion took place in Britain, the most advanced industrial society of the time, and was focused on the personality of William Morris (1834–1896). Though Morris was a man of protean talents, ceramics were not among his many areas of expertise. The ceramic artists linked to the Arts and Crafts Movement in its early stages were influenced chiefly by British medieval pottery, and also by richly decorated majolica wares. The most famous Arts and Crafts designer of pottery was William de Morgan (1839–1917), Morris's close contemporary, and it is notable that much of his creative effort went into designing not dishes and vessels but tiles. That is, the emphasis in his work was on decoration rather than on form. De Morgan rediscovered the technique of making lustre ware, with a reflective metallic surface – a form of decoration found in both Italian majolica of the Renaissance period and in Hispano-Moresque pottery, but not in the Far East. He was also greatly influenced by what he called 'Persian' wares – the richly decorated Iznik pottery produced in the Ottoman Empire during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

The Arts and Crafts Movement was the forerunner of the great stylistic revolution we now call Art Nouveau – the great rebellion against nineteenth-century historicism. Another powerful influence within Art Nouveau was the European discovery of Japanese art. The term 'japonisme' was coined by the French art critic Philippe Burty as early as 1876 to describe the craze for all things Japanese that was already sweeping artistic circles in Europe. The main vehicles for conveying Japanese aesthetics to a European public were ukiyo-e woodblock prints. However, Europe also began to import Japanese ceramics in quantity. Perhaps the greatest impact was made by the highly decorated Satsuma wares. These had been relatively plain until the Kansei era (1789-1801), but after that employed both a very full range of colours and much gilding.

It is easy to see the influence of ceramics of this sort on the work of one of the most innovative British industrial designers of the late nineteenth century, Dr. Christopher Dresser (1834-1904). Dresser's designs covered a very wide range – textiles, wallpaper, furniture, glass and metalwares in addition to ceramics. During Dresser's lifetime, information about non-European cultures was continually flowing into Britain, thanks to its success as a colonial power. Persia, China, India and Ancient Greece provided suggestions for Dresser's designs, but the ceramics that interested him most were those made in Japan. He first saw a large selection of these at the International Exhibition of 1862, held in London as the successor to the original Great Exhibition of 1851, whose contents had outraged William Morris and set him on the path towards reform. Later, Dresser was to work with a number of leading commercial firms, chief among them Minton and Co. and the Linthorpe Pottery; in the 1880s he created a series of extremely innovative and radical forms for the latter. Dresser was brilliantly gifted and imaginative – one of the great forerunners of radical twentieth-century Modernist design – but his approach was also quite different from that of the context to which Rupert Spira belongs. The wares Dresser designed were industrially produced, under standard factory conditions, and the forms were usually made using moulds, so that each piece in a series was identical. The declared aim was to make beautiful objects that could be financially available to large numbers of people. There was no suggestion that the making process was one of fulfilment for the designer himself, who played no part in the physical process of manufacture.

It is nevertheless against this background that one has to see the much briefer Bernard Leach/Michael Cardew tradition. This tradition is essentially concerned with two things – first, and most obviously, with a search for self-fulfilment. This quest was certainly not unknown to Morris and his immediate followers, who saw the Arts and Crafts Movement as a revolt against the fetters placed on the human spirit by the triumph of industrialism. The search has now, however, broadened considerably under the impact of Modernist and Post-Modernist philosophies of art, which have tended to shift the emphasis from what the artist produces to the artist's own personality – that is artistic production is seen as a way of validating an inner spiritual condition. Secondly, it has been concerned with an effort to break down the Western categorisation that insists that ceramics must remain a minor art form.

Bernard Leach (1887–1979) was the pioneer in this, and one major factor was his sustained personal contact with Japan. His original lessons in ceramics were with Kenzan VI – a very direct link with a part of the Japanese ceramic heritage that had, up to then, been largely neglected in Europe. Leach also, however, had important intellectual, artistic and spiritual affinities elsewhere. Through his association with Leonard and Dorothy Elmhirst at Dartington, he met the American painter Mark Tobey (1890–1976), and it was in Tobey's company that he made the visit to Japan that led to the publication of A Potter's Book (1940), which became a Bible to the generation of ceramic artists who followed in Leach's footsteps. It was Tobey who converted Leach to the mystical and quietist Baha'i faith.

One of Leach's students at St Ives was Michael Cardew (1901–1983). Like Leach, Cardew was not only a major potter but also an influential writer whose instructional text Pioneer Pottery (1968) has been as influential in its way as Leach's A Potter's Book. Cardew represents both a continuation of Leach's aesthetic and, to some extent at least, a reaction against it, towards something rougher and more spontaneous. Just as Leach was influenced by his contacts in Japan, so too Cardew was formed by the many years he spent in Africa, first at Achimota College in what is now Ghana, and later at his own Vumë pottery. Cardew developed an element which had been latent in Leach's production by returning to the specifically English slipware tradition, which he had loved ever since he was a boy. He was also, perhaps more confidently than Leach, a notable decorator of pots.

Rupert Spira is the third generation in this line of descent. He saw a retrospective of Michael Cardew's work in 1975 at the Camden Arts Centre in London, and, though still only in his teens, was immediately struck by it: 'Cardew's pots had a raw, vital, organic quality I'd never seen before. What struck me was their potency, their capacity to communicate.' (interview with Daphne Astor, Modern Painters, Summer 2001). In 1980–2, just before Cardew's death, Spira trained with him at the Wenford Bridge Pottery.

If we look at these three British artist potters we immediately note that they have a good deal in common with one another. One element is the fact that they cling to vessel form. Cardew was emphatic on this point: 'Pottery in its pure form relies neither on sculptural additions nor on pictorial decorations, but on the counterpoint of form, design, colour, texture and the quality of the material, all directed to a function. This function is the uses of the home. Compared with most of the other arts it is a private and domestic art'.

Someone who would have agreed with this formulation was Lucie Rie (1902–1995), even though she was something of an outsider in the story of British studio pottery since she was trained not in Britain but at the Vienna Kunstgewerbeschule in her native Austria and was thus the inheritor of many of the ideas of the Vienna Secession. When she came to England in 1938 to escape the Nazis, she was already a mature artist. What Spira shares with her is a detached sense of elegance not always present in the work of Leach and Cardew. Oddly enough this can also be seen as an unexpected link between Spira and Dresser, whose work fed into Secession design at its beginnings.

It is worth taking a sideways glance here at what has happened to ceramics in the United States. The work of Gertrude and Otto Natzler was in some ways the transatlantic equivalent of Bernard Leach, even though their background was closer to that of Lucie Rie, since they too were Austrian refugees from Nazism. Although their achievement is still much respected in the American craft community, they have few followers in the United States, where handmade ceramic pieces on a domestic scale nowadays tend to be revivalist versions of once popular domestic wares like Philadelphia spongeware. American ceramic artists anxious to make an impact on the contemporary scene have tended to move into the realm of what is recognisably sculpture. Peter Voulkos (1924–2002), a partial exception to this, tended to push his ceramic work (he also made paintings on canvas and sculpture in metal) to swaggering extremes of size and technique – something quite foreign to British attitudes. Voulkos was seen, and perceived himself, as the equivalent in the field of ceramic art of American Abstract Expressionism, and his public demonstrations of his prowess in throwing very large forms were a kind of performance art. There is, however, a link between the American and British craft scenes, which is that the practice of craft is often seen as being essentially a spiritual quest. This, for example, explains the immediate sympathy between Leach and Mark Tobey, who was pre-eminently an artist whose main aim was to reflect his own spiritual development. This quest is also visibly a product of Western individualism.

If one reverts for a moment to Abstract Expression, it is worth remembering that the movement has sometimes been described as a 'conversion phenomenon'. What is meant by this is that each major member of the movement seemed to reach a point where he suddenly switched into a new and much more radical style. Pollock, for example, began his career as a rather fumbling disciple of the American Regionalist painter Thomas Hart Benton. Conversion often took on a quasi-religious aspect. Mark Rothko said of his own mature works that he wanted people to sit in front of them and weep, without knowing precisely what they were moved. There is an element of this in Rupert Spira's work, with the difference that, in his case, the conversion seems to have gone through several stages. If his teenage encounter with Michael Cardew's work prompted the initial coup de foudre, his work since he established himself as a professional potter has not remained static. Clearly he associates these changes with a process of spiritual development. In a catalogue statement written for an exhibition held at the Oxford Gallery, Oxford, in 1998, he said: 'I want my work to touch that moment in which the distilled essence of my experience is held. A pot should be like that moment, cutting through our experience, not necessarily by using shock tactics or flouting the known in obvious, exaggerated gestures, but by intensifying the known to a point where it becomes abstract and yet strikes one as being still strangely familiar.'

Clearly there is a big difference here from the attitudes of a brilliant industrial designer like Dresser. Dresser formed a rational view of what seemed to him good, and used the industrial design process to put this into material forms that would be accessible to his intended audience. For Rupert Spira, the process of creating form is meditative and internalised. He aims to share something extremely intimate, one might even say something ultimately indefinable and elusive, with others, but without compromising its integrity. The existence of these 'sharers' is nevertheless an essentially part of the creative process.

Dresser and Spira do, however, have things in common, and it is worth pointing out what these are. Neither of them is a design primitive – false primitivism has been the nemesis of much recent work in clay. The work of Peter Voulkos, for instance, is not completely free of this fault. As a young man, Spira was an ardent visitor to museum collections, looking at ceramics from many different cultures. In his present work, the impact made by the ultra-refined wares of the Song Dynasty is clearly apparent., His bowls inscribed with poems also seem to owe a debt to Persian Nishapur ceramics, though both the forms and the actual glaze and body are very different.

Nishapur plates and bowls used a bold version of Kufic script, which is not the most easily read version of Arabic writing. Many of the texts on Spira's bowls are quasi–illegible. It is their presence that counts, not the fact that they might perhaps be read. It is worth quoting a few lines one of the texts he has used, in this case written by himself, though he also makes use of poems written by other people:

I am the sun in the moon
I am the friendship of friends
I am knowing and unknowing
I am dark in the day and bright at night
I am luminous
All colours borrow their light from me
All mothers borrow their love from me
All things borrow their existence from me
I am abundant

The potter and his creation both achieve utterance here.

If one looks at Spira's most recent production several things become apparent. One is that, though some of his pieces are quite large – a few recent jars are as much as 1.2 metres high – there is an increasing urge towards what will seem weightless and ethereal. Foot rims, for example, are notably small, in comparison to the actual volume of his bowls. He also has a taste for very tall, thin bottle shapes, like wavering stalks. If one put a flower into one of these, the vase would seem like a direct, organic continuation of the plant's stem.

Another is that many of his pieces acquire additional meaning when they are grouped together. He very seldom makes pieces that are true pairs, virtually identical in size and shape. He does frequently create pieces in related series. Size and shape are subtly varied. A set of bowls, ranging from larger to smaller, will make the effect of a descending scale in music. When one sees these series one is struck, not only by the beauty of each individual item, but by the way in which the shapes interact with one another. Of course these arrangements of forms are aleatoric, and can be varied at will – not only at Spira's will but at the will of anyone who has physical access to the items concerned. In fact, in this sense, they almost invite the physical involvement of the spectator.

There is, however, something about these series, and the way in which they come together visually, that reminds me of a great painter in the Western tradition, Giorgio Morandi (1890–1964). A typical Morandi composition consists of very simple bottle or vessel forms, locked together to make what seems like an inevitable rhythm. Morandi's paintings, like those of his great eighteenth-century predecessor Chardin, are object lessons in the most literal sense. They demonstrate both what painting can do, reduced to its simplest terms, and also what language cannot encompass.There is something like this at work in Rupert Spira's pots. It is significant that when asked to define himself, he quotes a saying by the poet William Blake: 'An artist is not a special kind of man, but rather man is a special kind of artist'. Spira adds: '[Blake] meant that man is one of the vehicles through which consciousness is capable of recognising itself'. This is what his own pots are about.

Edward Lucie-Smith is a leading British art historian. 


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