Mike's Pots

The International Conference of Craftsmen in Pottery and Textiles
Dartington Hall 1952

Dartington Conference 1952


By Kurt Ekholm

Neither in Sweden nor in Finland will you find any great number of ceramists working independently. The technical and economic conditions prevailing are the reasons why so few private enterprises have been able to hold their own in this field. You must consider the fact that most ceramic raw materials do not exist either in Sweden or in Finland. Thus, we almost completely lack clays for higher temperatures and the raw materials needed for glazes. In particular, the conditions due to the war have made importing very difficult indeed for the individual producer. To this fact you must add that the present contraction of the monetary value both in Sweden and in Finland makes it hard for people to pay the comparatively high prices that a ceramic luxury production is bound to ask if an individual producer is to be able to make ends meet in his production, without allowing this to be supported by a cheaper standard line. In the latter case, however, he runs the risk of competition with industrial production, and this, also, may prove to be difficult.

Thus, the ceramic production in Sweden and Finland lies mainly in the hands of the industries. But, to a very large extent, the industries have employed artists permanently, who besides their principal work for the improvement of the standard ware, also get the cpportunity of promoting products signed with their own signature. This cooperation between the industry and the artist dates, in Sweden, from the last years of the first World War. At this time the low artistic standard of the industrial products was the object of severe criticism from a Swedish national organisation, the foremost zealot for good Swedish design and form, namely Svenska Slöjdföreningen, the Swedish Society for Arts and Crafts. This association promoted a radical change in the point of view where the shape and decoration of household articles was concerned. During this period, men such as Edward Hald and Simon Gate were employed at Orrefors Glassworks, Wilhelm Kage at Gustavsbergs Porcelain Factory, Carl Malmsten became the great name within the furniture and cabinet-making trade, and Elsa Gullberg and Märta Maas- Fjetterström within the textile arts. The work carried through by these pioneers and many others with them led to the great renaissance of the Swedish art industry, which was marked by the Stockholm hibition in 1930, and since then there has been a continuous and prosperous development. Sweden is, at the moment, the Northern country with the highest standard for household articles produced on a purely industrial basis, and one may say without any exaggeration that this fact has been of decisive importance for the development of the Swedish home interiors.

In Sweden, the ceramic production is mainly concentrated in three big concerns, namely Rörstrands Porcelain Factory in Lidköping, Gustavsberge factories near Stockholm and the Upsala-Ekeby concern including Ekebybruk in Uppsala, Gefle Porcelain Factory in Gävle and Karlskrona Porcelain Factory in Karlskrona. Furthermore, there is an important ceramic production to be found in Höganäs in Southern Sweden, especially of fireproof ware.

I have already mentioned the name of Wilhelm Kage. Through his activity at Gustavsbergs Factory he has been since the early 70's a central figure in the Swedish ceramic world. His contribution to the improvement of household goods has been of great and fertile importance not only for the ceramic art, but for Swedish decorative art in general. He has recently retired from the artistic leadership of the factory, and his successor is Stig Lindberg, but when it comes to his own stoneware production, he is still in the middle of his activity and is as tireless as in the days of his youth. Out at Gustavsberg, Kage has gathered a number of young talents that he has inspired through his personality and his great ceramic knowledge. As a token of the sincere appreciation that has met his work in Sweden, he was styled professor about a year ago.

Another important Swedish ceramic artist is Gunnar Nylund at the very oldest ceramic factory in Sweden, Rörstrand, which was founded as early as 1726. After some years' work in Denmark with, among others, Nathalie Krebs at Saxbo Workshop, which these two ceramists took over from the well- known Swedish-Danish ceramist Patrik Nordström, Gunnar Nylund came to Rörstrand in 1930 as the artistic leader of the factory. He is the man who introduced stoneware to Sweden and with his all-round production he has also succeeded in making this material really popular.

Among the foremost producers of stoneware in Sweden, I must also mention the small independent enterprise of Tobo in the province of Uppland, run by the couple Erich and Ingrid Triller. Their refined understanding of the material itself and their subtle feelings for form and glaze have met with much appreciation in Sweden.

I shall be pleased to show you some slides, and in that connection I shall have the opportunity of referring to some other prominent names within the contemporary Swedish field of ceramic art.

The Finnish ceramic production is almost totally concentrated in the ceramic factory of Arabia in Helsinki which, now, is probably the biggest in Europe with about 2,300 employees. At this factory about 20 artists are working quite freely and independently, each in his or her own workshop and mainly with the production of stoneware, vases, bowls, and sculptures.

The Swedish ceramist Miss Tyra Lundgren has characterized in a very good way the Finnish creative genius in her book on European ceramists, "Clay and Fire", which appeared in 1946. She says: "As a people the Finns possess a unique power, a primitive urge to art with which they charge their works. It is a mysterious mixture of witchcraft and the melancholy of the wilderness, glow of colourings and grey poverty, heathenism, yearning for beauty and a stubborn strength. Their sense of form is not cultivated along classical prototypes, I mean to say the sense of form conceived by man for thousands of years. The prototypes of the Finns is the very primitive nature around them, the forms that their knives can carve in wood, only following their own feelings and instinct."

These very telling words give you a good picture of Finnish arts and crafts in general and of the ceramic and the textile art in particular. It is hardly possible to trace any strong influence from Russia in the Finnish creative mentality, in spite of the contact through many years that, especially the population in the Eastern part, had with Russian elements. In this district which was ceded to Russia after the last war a very peculiar rural ceramic art was produced for many years in the small village of Kyyrölä - especially household goods in natural red clay with a lead glaze. There was no more ceramic production of any importance, until Arabia was founded in 1874 by the Swedish house of Rörstrand from the 18th century that I have already mentioned. The idea was that Arabia should produce goods to be exported to the Russian market. They started very modestly with 150 employees of which 30 were specialists from Rörstrand. For 42 years Arabia was a Swedish enterprise, until the factory, in 1916, was passed over into Finnish hands.

The English-born ceramist A. W. Finch can be considered as the father of Finnish ceramic art. From Belgium, where he had been working for years, he came to Finland in 1901, called there by the Swedish artist Count Louis Sparre, who was a prominent figure in the young history of Finnish decorative art. Through his marriage to Baroness Eva Mannerheim a sister of the Marshal of Finland, Gustav Mannerheim he got deeply interested in making a contribution to the creation of a more national trend in Finnish decorative art. To that end he started, towards the end of the last century, a small workshop in the Finnish town Borga for the production of furniture and ceramics. The production of ceramics was led by Finch. This activity was, for economic reasons, of very short duration, but Finch stayed in Finland until his death in 1931, during the last thirty years as a teacher in ceramic art at the Central School for Decorative Art, the only school in Finland in this field. As a teacher he was extremely inspiring, and as a ceramist he had a deep knowledge of everything pertaining to this field. A number of the foremost Finnish ceramists still active in our days, for instance Elsa Elenius and Toini Muona, were pupils of Finch, and they have passed on his feeling for the pure simple form coordinated with a discreet glaze-treatment. The ideas and teachings of Ruskin and William Morris were, in this way, brought by an Englishman to practical results in Finland. Professor Finch was deeply devoted to Finland, and Finland to him, and he is still considered a prominent figure within the Finnish art of painting, which he cultivated with the same sureness and delicacy as his ceramics.

I shall not dwell any longer upon the development of the Finnish ceramic art before the war of liberation in 1918. This war, as you will know, had the widest and most important consequences for Finland. Liberated from the Russian dependency which had lasted a hundred years, the nation marched towards a brilliant future, or so it then seemed. The period of 20 years that followed became the happiest in Finnish history. A strong rebuilding of the industries and a securing of the defence were two of the aims of this period. Both proved to be well-advised in 1939 the country was, again, at war with its mighty Eastern neighbour-land, a war that was to last nearly six years and was to cost the most unbelievable sacrifices in men, in land and in material losses.

But during this happy time between the wars, Arabia was enlarged to become one of the country's most important industries, thanks mainly to the energetic and warmhearted work of the director at this time, the engineer Carl Gustav Herlitz. Even as a boy he had taken part in the activity of the works led by his father, and when, in the beginning of the 20's, he took over the leadership, he had a deep inside knowledge of everything pertaining to ceramic production. This great man in the ceramic industry remained until 1947 as the leader of one of the biggest ceramic factories in the world, developed by himself in the small country of Finland and which, in spite of all difficulties, is still developing and is, nowadays, exporting 60% of its production to other countries in Europe and to America.

In connection with the pictures that I am going to show you today, I will come back to the different artists working at Arabia. And finally, I want to mention that, besides Arabia, there are only two small industries existing, one near Helsinki and one in Turku. They both work with natural Finnish clay for decorative articles and tiles and also produce household goods.

I hope that I have given you, with these pictures I have shown, an idea of the conditions in Swedish and Finnish ceramic arts. My imperfect knowledge of English must be blamed for my not being able to make this lecture as interesting as it could have been, but it is to be hoped that you have at least received an impression that the ceramic arts are the centre of great interest in Sweden and Finland, an interest which grows from year to year among the general public. I think that my friend Mr. Bernard Leach will endorse this. When he showed his extremely beautiful work in Gothenburg in 1949, great interest was shown by the public in his display and in his lecture at Rohsska Museum (Sweden's only Museum of Arts and Crafts). This proved to be one of the greatest occasions in the field of ceramics in Sweden. I am grateful that I have today, at the end of my presentation of Swedish and Finnish ceramics, the opportunity to express my gratitude to Bernard Leach for his inspiring production, which has been of the greatest importance in the development of modern European ceramic art. And to this I also want to add my hearty thanks to Shoji Hamada for what he has given me at this Conference.

Reproduced from the conference report with the permission of the Dartington Hall Trust Archive.

Dartington Conference 1952