Mike's Pots

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

Dartington Conference 1952


By Peter Cox

THIS EXHIBITION has been arranged in connection with the International Conference of Craftsmen in Pottery and Textiles taking place at Dartington Hall from July 17th to 27th. It brings together a selection of the best work done in hand-made pottery and textiles in this country since 1920 and should be of interest to a wide public, because it reveals not only a high standard of workmanship but also aesthetic quality and inspiration.

The organisers of both exhibition and conference believe that one of the urgent problems to-day is to find a rightful place for craftsmen in our industrialised society. Out of the craftsman's urge to create something new has come much of the invention on which industry itself depends, and it is still through the craftsman's hands that many new ideas and fresh possibilities occur. As an artist the craftsman has also an essential contribution to make.

The Arts and Crafts movement has not yet had the success it deserves. Conditions have been against it and too many craftsmen have seemed to escape into the past rather than to be looking forward to the future. But the principles upon which the movement was founded have continued to gain acceptance during the last thirty years, not only in Britain but in the world at large. We are beginning to realize that society cannot be healthy unless it offers outlets for the imagination and opportunities for artists and craftsmen to live and work as part of the community. The achievements of craftsmen themselves have shown that the machine, despite its usefulness, cannot produce all that society needs, and even in industry itself, there is growing realization that with his all-round knowledge the first-rate and adventurous craftsman can break essential, new ground.

Encouraging though this change of attitude is, the craftsman still faces this fundamental problem: he must produce something which cannot be as well produced by industry and something which at the same time the public wants and can afford to buy. He must possess a considerable degree of originality and his products must, however simple and unpretentious they may be, have a real aesthetic appeal.

In industrialised countries the challenge would be easier to meet if the indigenous tradition of craftsmanship had not already been lost and with it many hundreds of years of inherited knowledge. A measure of rediscovery can take place through experiment, research and scientific study but much of it can only be learnt again intuitively. This is not easy for the craftsman of to-day coming to his craft self-consciously, often with a background of an almost exclusively intellectual education. He is, moreover, subject for the first time in history to a bewildering variety of inspiration and knowledge derived from all ages and cultures and not least from the many movements within the world of modern art. For the few, with a real gift of creative power, this process of selection, digestion and personal integration is difficult enough, but for the majority it will probably present an insuperable difficulty until a new tradition of craftsmanship has been established.

In addition to these fundamental problems, craftsmen to-day inevitably face, along with other creative people, many practical difficulties in working in a world geared for mass production. They have to have training and capital, find ways and means of economic production and distribution, and work within government regulations and restrictions designed mainly to control industry. Genuine raw materials and good equipment have for many years been getting more and more difficult to obtain.

These difficulties did not in any way prevent the growth of the crafts movement in Britain between the wars and there emerged not only a number of outstanding craftsmen but also workshops associated with personalities, like Ethel Mairet or Bernard Leach, which maintained regular production and became centres where the younger generation could get training and experience. Since the war the number of practising craftsmen has increased considerably and many have sought in the crafts a way of life which, while offering but a meagre income, gives fundamental satisfaction. This new generation has likewise been. undeterred by great practical difficulties but these have often adversely affected their work. Too much professional craftsmanship being offered for sale to-day has insufficient technical quality and little or no original inspiration.

The raising of existing standards, both aesthetic and technical, is of the utmost importance, because on the standard of craftsmanship depends among other things the future of patronage. During the present century the main patrons have been a comparatively small number of people, many of them wealthy, who have bought from a small number of craftsmen. These patrons are now disappearing but the effect of this has not yet been fully felt. With the war the market for crafts widened but this was due more to shortages generally than to any preference for hand-made goods; as the shortages cease the market may well dwindle. The few first-rate craftsmen will always have the which is beginning to grow apace now that art is taught more imaginatively in the schools. Craftsmen have also to forge a closer link with the world of architecture and to lay claim to their proper function of meeting the special needs of public buildings. In Great Britain some progress is being made to help craftsmen through this difficult period of transition. The Rural Industries Bureau, the British Crafts Centre, the British Council, the Circulation Department of the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Ministry of Education and the better Art Schools are all in their respective ways making a contribution. In other parts of the world, both East and West, efforts are being made to assist this new movement of craftsmanship and to preserve and resuscitate an indigenous tradition where it still exists. The time seems ripe therefore for some international pooling of experience and consideration of problems. With a view to achieving this some 80 craftsmen from all parts of the world are gathering at Dartington Hall in Devonshire this summer for a ten-day conference. It seemed appropriate on this occasion to have an exhibition of work done by artist-craftsmen who have worked in this country over the last thirty years. This exhibition can at the same time act as a landmark from which new developments may arise and be of use to the large number of young British craftsmen who have not had a chance of seeing some of the distinguished work done before the war.

As the exhibition is of interest to a wider public, the Arts Council of Great Britain is undertaking to show it in Edinburgh, London and Birmingham. Both conference and exhibition are being sponsored and organised by the Arts Department at Dartington Hall, since it seemed that the Department, though not itself an active participant in the Crafts, could make a useful contribution in this way. Experts were invited to form a panel to advise the Department, the panel consisting of Philip James, C.B.E., Chairman (Director of Art, Arts Council of Great Britain), Bernard Leach (Potter), Muriel Rose (Officer for Crafts and Industrial Design, British Council), The Lady Sempill, A.R.C.A. (Member of Scottish Committee of the Council of Industrial Design, and Member of Council, Royal College of Art), Marianne Straub, F.S.I.A. (Textile Designer to Messrs. Warner's of Braintree), Robin Tanner (H.M.I.), George Wingfield Digby (Keeper of Textiles, Victoria and Albert Museum), and Alec Heath (exhibition designer), who has designed the exhibition. The Arts Council, the British Council and the Ministry of Education all gave their encouragement to the enterprise.

The Panel agreed from the outset that owing to limitations of space, time and money the exhibition should be restricted to Pottery and Textiles and also to the work of artist-craftsmen who had worked in Great Britain. This latter restriction fortunately did not exclude Shoji Hamada of Japan, who worked in England for a time between the wars and had, as the exhibition shows, a considerable influence on British potters. It also allowed the inclusion of several important craftsmen of foreign origin but of British naturalisation. The selection of the exhibits has been in the hands of two sub-committees: for pottery, Bernard Leach, Muriel Rose, The Lady Sempill, George Wingfield Digby; and for textiles, Muriel Rose and Marianne Straub. As the exhibition had to be of a limited size it seemed impractical to offer a general invitation to craftsmen to send in exhibits or to try to include the work of a large number. Conse- quently, each selection panel invited only some twenty to thirty craftsmen to send in examples of their work. Meanwhile, the members of the panels concentrated on collecting, mainly from private collectors and museums, a good representation of the work of the few leading craftsmen of our time.

This may well mean that some genuinely good work has been omitted, but the selection panels hope that they have achieved their aim of providing the public with a good review of work over the last thirty years which at the same time shows some eye to the future. Small though this exhibition is, it has involved the willing collaboration of a large number of people-craftsmen, private collectors, the British Council, the Arts Council, committees and officers of museums and others, who are mentioned by name throughout the catalogue. To these and to members of the Advisory Panel the Dartington Hall Trustees wish to offer their thanks. They hope that the exhibition will help to increase public appreciation of the crafts and be a stimulus and encouragement to craftsmen themselves.

JUNE 7, 1952

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

Dartington Conference 1952