Sunday, 22 April 2018

Celestial bodies: "…things of Beauty Growing... " Michael Cardew

Korean porcelain vase,  Choson dynasty c. 1650-1700 
© Fitzwilliam Museum

This large 'moon jar' is one of my favourite pieces in the Fitzwilliam ceramics galleries. Unlike this photo,  it shines milky white and the lighting in its display case throws curving highlights on its sides. You can see the rivulets where the viscous white glaze has run down the sides and almost see the ridge where the two thrown hemispherical halves were joined together by the potter with wet clay when leather hard.  This matching would take very great skill, but any faults resulting in the firing were accepted in Korean philosophy as nature at work.   It represents the Confucian ideals of purity and simplicity which were admired by Choson scholars and courtiers - works of art which were in fact storage jars for rice or wine.  

This one below belonged to Bernard Leach and was a gift to Lucie Rie who kept it in her studio. It shows the firing faults of unevenness around the join, the grit particles in the glaze and specks of ash from the kiln, all features admired by the Koreans for the natural freedom of the firing process.  Few of this large size survived the firing stresses intact.

18th C. Choson glazed white porcelain moon jar  (ht. 47.5 cms)  acquired by Leach in Korea, 1935
© British Museum

These rare surviving Moon jars have inspired contemporary potters from Bernard Leach to Park Young-sook today, for their serenity and their technical challenge,  and there are several interpretations in the current Fitzwilliam ceramics exhibition, Things of Beauty Growing: British studio pottery .  

  Intertidal Jar, stoneware with Waun Llodi clay,  ht. 36 cm.    © Adam Buick  2011

Adam Buick now concentrates on the challenge of creating Moon jars ('hang-ari)  from small to large, using Pembrokeshire clays from near his studio, in close relation with the landscape.   He uses local earth and stone inclusions in both bodies and glazes,  often stones and seaweed collected from the beach, which fire with very unpredictable results. 

Moon jar,  ht. 27.5 cms.   Adam Buick, 2012
© British Museum 

The inclusion stripes in this modern pot are formed by rolling brown clay into the porcelain clay before throwing, so the stripes appear randomly as the moon jar is turning on the wheel.  Compare it with this medieval Chinese vase:

Chinese Song dynasty stoneware vase, c. 960-1279 
© Fitzwilliam Museum

The unusual striped decoration shows the ancient potter's varying control of the brush-strokes, reacting  to the momentum as the vase turns on the wheel.  It is displayed next a twentieth century piece -  William Staite Murray's tall striped vase, The Bather. 

The spacious exhibition explores modern studio pottery through the basic shapes of  vase, bowl, charger, and set, and also as monument,  as well as the different techniques and materials used.  

Halima Cassell is represented by The Virtue of Unity, a current work of 36 bowls,  using clays from around the globe, which she carves when just firmer than leather hard.  Each one is different, with an origami-like complexity of folds, and interchanging positive and negative spaces, as in printmaker M.C. Escher's optical illusions. These include apertures, some of which are only seen by the shadows the lighting casts around them.

Halima Cassell at work 

The Virtue of Unity    Halima Cassell  2009- 2017
(photo from

The title of this major exhibition is taken from a the words of an interview with Michael Cardew (1901-1983). 

"…if you trust your material and you trust your instincts, you will see things of beauty growing up in front of you…"  Michael Cardew

[quoted from Simon Olding's review: see]

Thursday, 12 April 2018

Images for a wet April

April, 2002  Wilhelmina Barns-Graham 
Courtesy the Barns-Graham Charitable Trust

Here are some poems from a gentler age to console us during this endless wet, grey April,  beginning with Thomas Hardy's counterpoint second verse to his Maytime "This is the weather the cuckoo likes" .

"This is the weather the shepherd shuns
And so do I,
When beeches drip in browns and duns,
And thresh and ply;
And hill-hid tides throb, throe on throe,
And meadow rivulets overflow,
And drops on gate bars hang in a row,
And rooks in families homeward go,
And so do I."

Thomas Hardy (1840-1928)

Budding elms, Mayfield, April 1901   Sarah Paxton Ball Dodson 1847-1906
© Manchester City Art Gallery

If Hardy does not lift the spirits a little, Gerard Manley Hopkins' "Inversnaid" is a great poem to recite to vent frustration:

"This darksome burn, horseback brown
His rollrock highroad roaring down,
In coop and in comb the fleece of his foam
Flutes and low to the lake falls home.

A windpuff-bonnet of fawn-froth
Turns and twindles over the broth
Of a pool so pitchblack, fell frowning,
It rounds and rounds Despair to drowning.

Degged with dew, dappled with dew,
Are the groins of the braes that the brook treads through,
Wiry heathpacks, flitches of fern
And the beadbonny ash that sits over the burn.

What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet."

Inversnaid  G. M. Hopkins  1876-1889

And writers and artists travelling in distant countries dream of English springs:

Taj Mahal from the Fort,  April 1878,    Marianne North, botanical artist
On loan to the British Library from Kew Botanical Gardens

"Oh shall I never, never be home again?
Meadows of England shining in the rain
Spread wide your daisied lawns: your ramparts green
With briar fortify, with blossoms screen
Till my far morning - and O streams that slow
And pure and deep through plains and playlands go,
For me your love and all your kingcups store,
And - dark militia of a southern shore,
Old fragrant friends - preserve me the last lines
Of that long saga which you sung me, pines,
When, lonely boy, beneath the chosen tree,
I listened, with my eyes upon the sea.
Brumana   James Elroy Flecker

This month too saw sailors, far from home, fight the deciding battle of the American War of Independence, when Admiral Rodney defeated the French in the West Indies in 1782.

Battle of 'the Saints', April 12, 1782    Thomas Lunn
©  National Maritime Museum   Greenwich

Sunday, 1 April 2018

April Labours: the promise of abundance

These April flowers come from the Labours of the Months series in the famous Rose Window of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Lausanne, Switzerland.  It is the work of an intinerant artist from Picardy,  one Peter of Arras,  dated c. 1231-35.

And here I show my ignorance:  is this man bringing spring flowers indoors from the outside to welcome spring, or even to store like herbs in a rather grand cupboard, or is that a window shutter he is opening to show the new clover growing in abundance?   His headdress could be a crown or a garland,  personifying April, holding large bunches of purple trefoil and perhaps alfalfa, or other fodder plant; his gown is also decorated with flower patterns.

Figure of April, from the Rose Window, Cathedral of Notre Dame, Lausanne, Switzerland 

It is a masterly piece of design, interpreting the typical April Labours motif of spring flowers in an unusual style, to suit its ecclesiastic setting.  Notice how his foot brings him outside the circular frame and the sense of movement in the plants and his robes.  

Set in the Cathedral's great Rose window, and its detail not all visible to the naked eye, its christian message seems to read of good husbandry and the promise of abundance.

Today is Easter Sunday in the UK and although some snow is forecast, primroses are blooming at the end of my road.  Happy Easter!

Monday, 26 March 2018

March 1947: Plus ├ža change...

Back in March 1947, Britain suffered from severe gales, snowstorms and three times the normal rainfall.
There were also other problems looming in Europe, but everyday life was measured in small comforts, including of course, a cuppa.

Marylebone Station, built 1899 for the Grand Central Railway, London

On 26th March 1947,  Maggie Joy Blount, a Mass Observation contributor,  recorded:

"In London since Saturday.  Saw S.  Thinks that Russia will soon withdraw altogether from Europe and retire behind impenetrable 'iron curtain' to prepare for war.  Says they, (Russians) are realists, out for the good of their own country and their unborn millions, determined to get it in their own way and just think us foolish.  He said ' I don't like the Americans, but I'd rather live in America than a Soviet-controlled Europe.'
London cold, drab as ever.  Worked in libraries. Best reference library I know is at Marylebone.  Convenient, comfortable, a desk for each worker, light, shelves, ink*.  Have discovered a tea room in Marylebone main railway station."
*[ the forerunner of wi-fi access?]

Quoted from Our Hidden Lives,  S. Garfield

And a glimpse of spring's return, despite international problems.

Inside  Marylebone Station

Thursday, 15 March 2018

"The Price of Shrimps" -- and some cautionary tales for adults

This poem by Paul Dehn was tucked in my old student commonplace book:

" All my life long Since I was thirteen,
Loved by St Francis Is what I would have been.

The fish still scatter, The pony shies,
The snake bites And the bird flies.

Yet here is one who is What I would have been
All my life long;  And he is thirteen."
Circus Hand  

It was possibly taken from one of those idealistic children's annuals of the 40s and 50s.  You would never imagine (apart from its neatness of structure), that it came from the man who wrote apocalyptic poems like these in the 1960s:

From Quake, Quake, Quake*, poems by Paul Dehn, illustrations by Edmund Gorey

Journalist and film critic,  Paul Dehn is probably better known as the script writer for films such as Goldfinger, The Spy who came in from the Cold,  and the many Planet of the Apes sequels.

Born in Manchester in 1912, he was writing as a film reviewer in the late 1930s, and then served in Intelligence in World War II.  He was very affected by the Cold War and the nuclear threat of the 1960s, and published his parodies of classic English poems, memorably illustrated by Edmund Gorey, in Quake Quake Quake, A Leaden [not "Golden"] Treasury of English Verse in 1961.

A parody of "Oh western wind", an anonymous love poem from the 16th century

A parody from Tennyson's poem in "The Princess, III."
*(Quake, quake, quake is also a parody of Tennyson -- "Break, break, break)

The Cold War was a very real threat, and influenced writers, artists and film-makers.  I recall seeing Peter Watkins' The War Game in the 1960s. Creating a documentary-style imagined account of Britain, invaded after a nuclear attack from the Communist East, he mixed news clips with searing acted scenes all in black and white. The film was planned to be shown on BBC TV in 1965, but was cancelled as too "horrifying" to broadcast.  It was later shown by the British Film Institute and at other carefully scheduled screenings; it was a chilling experience. (see

From Paul Dehn's A Soviet Child's Garden of Verses, illustrated by Edmund Gorey

His sister, Olive Dehn (later Markham) was also an anarchist poet and feminist writer.
As a nineteen-year old she was escorted  from Nazi Germany in 1933 for writing a satirical poem about Hitler, and in later life she was again expelled from the Soviet Union for human rights campaigning.
Her stories for children reflect these concerns.  Come In (1946) is a realistic picture of family life in the 1940s, where the housewife has no freedom from domestic chores. Like her brother's poem Circus Hand, her stories (with a twist) feature in children's annuals.  In The Price of Shrimps, eighteenth century satirists Joseph Addison, Richard Steele and Jonathan Swift combine to rescue the heroine (and the secret shrimp recipe) from a life of drudgery with the wicked witch - by inveigling the witch to read Gulliver's Travels.  But there is a consequence for the fishing port of Parkgate on the Dee: the witch conjures up a furious storm in retaliation and all the Dee estuary is silted up.

Olive Dehn's stories featured alongside those of Enid Blyton and Eleanor Farjeon in the 1940s and 50s.  Odhams Annual 1948

For Paul Dehn, see also sports  (Poems © estate of the writer)
For Olive Dehn, see

Thursday, 1 March 2018

March Labours: a foretaste of summer

Despite the daffodils, as the winter chill continues into March, many of us are dreaming of summer holidays and enjoying a glass of wine in the sunshine.  But that depends on those in wine growing regions working on the spring pruning which ensures a fruitful vintage.

Book of Hours, March Pruning   Master of Mary of Burgundy and others, Ghent or Bruges, 1500s 
© Houghton Library, Harvard University

It is often the southern countries of Europe which portray pruning vines as the Labour for the month of March, while colder northern regions focus on digging and delving, as in this sculpture from Carlisle Cathedral.    The twelve Labours of the Months are carved into the capitals of the pillars in the choir, images of devotion for the majority, who could not afford illuminated prayer books and their own stained glass. These vignettes of the agricultural year would illustrate many Bible references in the prayers and preaching for the whole congregation.

Medieval carved figure for March   © Carlisle Cathedral 

Whether digging or pruning, it was all hands to the work;  the smaller sickles suggest skilled pruning of valuable vines, or grafting trees, not just lopping dead branches, although the important Church symbolism of wine and vineyards would be a reason for vines to feature in these luxury devotional manuscripts. 

Page heading for month of March,  Queen Mary's Psalter,  English, c. 1310-20 

This manuscript was thought to be made for Edward II or his Queen, Isabella.  It was seized from the Earl of Rutland in 1533 when Mary Tudor, Mary I, succeeded to the throne and was presented to the Queen  by the Customs officer.  It was given to the British Library in 1757 by George II as part of the Old Royal Library.                
 © British Library Royal Collection

Wednesday, 21 February 2018

Debenham House: the colours of the peacock

I used to pass this eye-catching house in North Kensington as I walked from my bedsit to the red telephone box to ring my boyfriend.  Years later I visited the house with a private group and remember the interiors were just as striking, with brilliant William de Morgan tiles and mosaics.  

Debenham House (the Peacock House), 8 Addison Road, Kensington

It was built for Sir Ernest Debenham (of the department store) by architect Halsey Ricardo in 1905.  He was one of the circle of forward-looking artists and designers building in Holland Park (like R. Norman Shaw, Philip Webb, or William Burges) and had designed Nos. 15 and 17 in Melbury Road ten years before.  These were clad with red glazed terracotta bricks,  an innovation to withstand the corrosive effects suffered by brick, plaster and paint from the foul, smoky London atmosphere.  The Builder, in July 1894 noted they were "faced externally with salt-glazed bricks…proof against the disintegrating forces of the London air."

Decorative tiled interiors had been promoted by the South Kensington Museum (now the V&A) since 1865 and by designers like William Morris, friend of de Morgan, but these tiled exteriors were a new idea.  Sir Ernest had lived at No 17, and he must have found it comfortable as well as practical, for he chose Ricardo's plans for his new large house nearby.  It is faced with Doulton cream glazed terracotta -"Carrarra Ware"- and blue and green Burmantofts glazed bricks*, with roof tiles from Spain.

The interior must have been inspired by Leighton House (built in the mid 1860s), for there are the same peacock blue tiles in the passages and hall from Willam de Morgan's factory. De Morgan supplied these for Leighton House in 1879-81, for he was employed to conserve and display Frederic Leighton's spectacular collection of middle eastern tiles. When de Morgan's factory closed in 1905, Ricardo bought up the stock to complete Sir Ernest's Addison Road house.

Entrance hall, 8 Addison Road (Bridgeman images)

More de Morgan tiles decorate the passageways, as well as blue and green tiles edging the garden paths. This panel shows the influence of the collection of Isnik tiles at Lord Leighton's house

A wall panel inspired by Isnik tile patterns and colours © Getty images

Perhaps the mosaic central dome is the most splendid part of the interior, designed by Ricardo with later additions from other artists, in Byzantine style.  You can also see a peacock carved in the balustrade.

 View of the Dome at the Peacock House (photo M. Jenner)

The interchanges of the the artistic Holland Park circle brought Gaetano Meo, a studio assistant and artists'  model, to direct the application of the mosaic work, each glass tessera from Powell's of Whitefriars individually applied, which increased its light reflecting qualities.  He had previously worked on William Blake Richmond's mosaic decoration in the quire of St. Pauls' Cathedral.

This was a house with no expense spared, a palace of art, but a place to live, with state of the art tiled bathrooms and kitchen.  During a chequered history as a teacher training college and home of the Richmond Fellowship, it is now in private ownership again, but is recognisable in shots from films and television (Poirot, Wings of a Dove ) from the past, and its green and blue tiled exterior still reflects the trees and the sky in this part of Kensington.

*Burmantofts tiles were used for the exterior of Michelin House on Fulham road, in 1911.  Debenham House usually takes part in the London Open House programme each September.
Further information on the Holland Park houses can be found at and information on their artistic styles at