search  current discussion  categories  teaching 

ceramic history in schools

updated sun 8 feb 04


The Chapel of Art on sun 8 feb 04

One thing about ageing... Suddenly you find what you have
experienced first hand, took an active role in and/or heard about
at the time it actually happened is all part of a continuous
movement which is labelled "history"!!! No wonder I sound more
and more like my grandmother with each passing day!

Time is truly a tremendous leveller... Only time will tell who
are genuinely significant and who are only good at
self-promotion. Because let's face it, names which "everyone"
knows now or knew 10, 20, 30 years ago suddenly become
insignificant "also-rans". The greatest names which made a huge
impression and were extremely famous in any age can fall into
complete obscurity in the shortest time possible. Reading the
obituary pages of newspapers is a salutary lesson on that! Just
as those gallery retrospectives or museum exhibitions which
"rediscover" past stars who were household names practically
within living memory... Someone mentioned Clarice Cliff in the
famous women thread... A good example.

I would say most potters pick up a great deal along the way,
because (the best of them) are not confined to their own work,
tradition or "school" but are inquisitive about others. Most of
them work in isolation, so this reaching out to others and the
influence of all other work (contemporary and historical) is
perhaps a necessary balance? I believe that the work of
individuals as well as "fashions", techniques and designs through
past ages is of a great deal more interest and relevance to
potters than many other artisans or artists working in other

This is not least because the practicalities of working with the
same materials as past generations are just as valid now as 100s
or 1000s of years ago. Whether a contemporary potter up the road
or a Mesopotamian working 3,000 BC the work each produced/s is
very similar and each could speak to the other understanding the
problems faced in design, techniques, making and firing... Just
about all the technical practicalities. They are also solving
design problems which are remarkably similar... Perhaps the
fashion/clothing industry is the only one with a longer tradition
of catering for the constant and unchanging needs of fellow

Yes, eating and drinking, cooking and serving, ablution and
hygiene. They remain pretty much constant and always will! Man
has not found too many new solutions through his evolution
either... A keen interest in how various individuals, whole
generations and cultures solved these self-same problems becomes
"history" and is classed as a "subject". Whether it would add to
a potter's skill if it were to be treated in isolation as a
separate aspect? Is it really necessary? I don't think it would
be, except perhaps for the "specialists" who collect, trade or
work in museums and institutions cataloguing, researching,
teaching, quantifying and qualifying... But makers? Probably
falls into the "interesting" rather than the "necessary" to know

From what I see and hear from students around the country, the
historical aspects have been reduced to elective at best (when
art history is even offered as a subject) to incidental and
completely by chance at worst. Most courses seem to include the
expectation that students will learn by some sort of osmosis or a
side-effect when researching for their set examination pieces and
course projects... As the content of their courses depends a
great deal on the interests of individual full & part-time tutors
or department heads and not some previously considered, balanced
and well-defined curriculum, there are some vast and fairly wide
differences from place to place... And of course most tutors have
their own strengths and weaknesses, including interests and
prejudices which they effectively pass on to their students...

In my time Leach & Cardew were the heroes at the end of a long
Euro-centric history, as the bias of both tutors and the very
narrow selection in the school library showed. Very much based in
the tradition of the Master Craftsman and only very slightly
coloured by the influences and styles introduced through trade
and commerce... My head of department was a contemporary of David
Leach and practically from the same mould! He had absolutely no
time at all for my interest in Rie and Coper although they were
also a product of their own historical roots, which in turn had
less slightly less overt Far eastern Oriental and more Near
Eastern Oriental influence. Just another example of how much
national traits and trends varies from country to country, never
mind continent to continent.

As far as I recall, the formal "ceramic history" content
taught/offered by the ceramics department through my time as an
undergraduate (both in the UK and the USA) was pretty much
confined to being sent to the local museum to observe, make notes
and draw; a few comparative lecturers showing slides of work from
various epochs, countries and cultures and then odd projects like
being told to "research" teapots, then use the sketches,
historical references, etc. etc. to make "an innovative design"
for (a) a fictitious new cafe called Daffodils (b) a
commemorative edition for a National Institution or the upcoming
Royal Jubilee in 1977 (c) ... sorry, don't know what the other
options were, if any.

I am certain that theorists such as curators, antique dealers and
collectors will know and care much more about "ceramic history"
than the average maker or practising potter.


Janet Kaiser

The Chapel of Art : Capel Celfyddyd
8 Marine Crescent : Criccieth : Wales : UK
Home of The International Potters' Path
Tel: ++44 (01766) 523570

************* Virus Protection by AVG *****************