“The necessary amalgamation between science, machinery, organisation, distribution and the capital necessary, even for a small experimental venture, cannot be expected of the hand craftsman working in comparative isolation. At Dartington, this is the best environment I have seen." Bernard Leach, 1931, quoted in Dartington, 60 Years of Pottery, 1933 1993. Dartington Cider Press.
The offer of a working area in the Dartington pottery studio founded by Bernard Leach was an opportunity not to be missed, especially as the studio’s development of colour in stoneware glazes for ceramic decoration was far ahead of my own experimentation. Spending two months in Devon had definitely not been on my agenda, but I decided to stay.
The Dartington Pottery has undergone many changes and vicissitudes since it was started around 1930, changing management or ownership several times and it was with some surprise that after several weeks working there I found that the stool which I had chosen to sit on while working had been designed and used by Bernard Leach himself. Not quite in the footsteps of the master, but near enough.
Leonard and Dorothy Elmshirst purchased and restored the ancient Dartington Hall in the 1920s and undertook a variety of idealistic initiatives on the estate including the support of artists and the establishment of craft studios. They turned to Bernard Leach to establish the pottery, eventually settling on a site at Shinners Creek. Leach intended to move there from the isolation of St. Ives, both for the convenience of obtaining materials and the possibility of attracting more visitors to his studio. In fact he worked at Dartington only intermittently, the actual establishment of a working production studio being left to his son, David Leach. David undertook a year's study at Stoke-on-Trent to learn commercial production techniques, and the pottery has always had elements of both a comrnercial pottery and the smaller artist pottery studio.
Both the Dartington Pottery and the St. Ives studio were supported financially by the Elmshirsts during the depression in the 1930s. Bernard Leach was living in a cabin at Dartington while writing A Potter's Book. With David in the army during the war and Bernard back at St. Ives, the pottery at Dartington closed its doors until reopened by Sam Haile and his wife Marianne de Trey in 1947, with Marianne de Trey working there for 30 years despite Sam’s tragic death in 1948. Many well-known potters have worked, taught or exhibited at Dartington since the war, and Marianne de Trey, now in her 80s, still lives and works nearby. In 1984 the pottery became independent of the Dartington Trust, and the designer, Janice Tchalenko, developed a range of designs which took the pottery away from the style established by Leach. Stephen Course now manages the pottery and it was he who kindly offered me a working space when I visited the studio in June, 1997.
My work in decorating ceramics has been primarily in tin-glaze maiolica, painting metallic oxides on an unfired white glaze and firing the work at earthenware temperatures. I have called maiolica a painter's medium but I realise now that in comparison to stoneware decoration it is a graphic medium, allowing precise delineation and brushwork. Using colour at stoneware temperatures is much less precise, forcing the artist to be more painterly. The process of learning this was a slow one, and there were rather a number of seconds for the seconds shop at the pottery before I started to achieve the results that I was after. The designers and decorators at the pottery helped me as far as possible but it is only after the kiln is fired that the lesson is learnt. I liked the idea of working with English subject matter but a red-breasted robin with the red burnt out is not interesting, nor Mr Punch without his red cheeks.
The Elmshirsts were philanthropists but were not interested in projects which could not be put on a sound economic footing. The crafts, including the pottery, were expected to be financially viable, and Bernard Leach considered introducing a range of porcellaneous tableware and looked to Staffordshire as a source of ideas. To balance a craft-based industry with commercial reality is not easy but the current working arrangements at Dartington Pottery, in my observations at least, attempt to address the problem of matching a craft environment with financial viability.
The pottery currently employs 15 people, with occasional students on work-experience or blow-ins like myself adding to the numbers. The modern 100 c.ft. gas-fired glost kiln is awesome for a craft-based artist like myself and it is usually fired at least once each week. A smaller electric bisque kiln is in constant use. Slipcasting and jigger/jolley work is carried out as well as hand-throwing, and a recent introduction has been a press for producing geometric shaped vessels
and tiles. Pots are decorated by hand. Although visitors to the Darhngton Pottery Seconds shop can and do peer through windows at the decorators, the workshop areas are closed to the public. This avoids the atmosphere of a 'craft zoo' which is common in other English ceramic factories. The haphazard development of the buildings over the years might seem inefficient but it creates the atmosphere of a series of studios rather than a factory which is probably important for the morale of the people who work there.
The output of the Dartington Pottery is based to a large extent on designs by Janice Tchalenko but employees are encouraged to develop designs both for the shapes of the pots and the glaze decoration. Most employees are trained potters and have the use of the facilities of the pottery outside normal working hours. The tedium of factory work is avoided as far as possible by varying the work each person does, although the division of labour is generally that which is natural for a pottery - throwing, firing, decorating, etc. The glaze decoration of the pots is not done on a production line basis but rather with each decorator being responsible for a whole pot. Although they are copying designs created by others, each pot varies and is signed by the decorator. The result is that the pots do not look repetitive or mechanical but belong to the artist/craftsman tradition.
The advantage of having a pottery of this size is that there is time for experimentation and new ventures. Dartington Pottery has worked in collaboration with Finnish and Chinese potteries and there is a constant program of development of new glazes and new ideas. Recently they have developed a range of 'Ruskin' glazes, and worked on sculptural limited editions. With the wealth of glazes and pots which the pottery made freely available to me and the limited time I could spend at the pottery, I opted to experiment as widely as I could. By the time I had to prepare to leave for home I felt I had found a few ways of working which I can use in the future. It would not have been possible for me to spend the time and money in my own studio to develop the colourful and effective glazes in use at Dartington, and I would not have contemplated trying.
One of the pleasures of working in Devon was the discovery of a sort of international freemasonry of potters, with interchange between potters of many different countries who share ideas or simply observe each other's work. Sometimes I feel that working in Melbourne, Australia, I am cut off from much that is happening in the world.
[Alexandra Copeland is a ceramic artist living in Melbourne, Australia.]
Ceramics: Art and Perception, No. 32 1998]