Mike's Pots

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

Dartington Conference 1952


By Patrick Heron

I've often wondered to what extent I have myself been influenced, as a painter, by the 14 months I spent at the Leach Pottery at St. Ives in 1944 and 1945. Until fairly recently the idiom which I made my own was the idiom of still life: that is to say, the sort of spatial organisation which I most habitually constructed in my canvases was an organisation involving the limited spatial sequences typical of still-life painting. It is possible to argue that all painters are primarily concerned with the definition of space it is possible to believe that all painters - whether they are representational or avowedly "abstract" (or "non-figurative", as I prefer to say) - it is possible to believe that they are all more vitally concerned with giving concrete, tangible reality to certain abstract rhythms, certain patterns or formal configurations, than to specific, individual forms. The actual single forms which a painter uses to create that characteristic rhythm of spatial definition which is typical of his work - which, indeed, is his work the individual forms he uses are of less significance, considered separately, than the total configuration in which they are set. In the final analysis, of course, it is impossible to separate the two. Individual forms in a canvas are not individual: they have already suffered a transformation as the result, simply, of various kinds of pressure which the total composition, the total design, inflicts upon all its components. Incidentally, this is one major cause of what is popularly known as distortion in figurative painting. A pictorial image of, say, a candlestick may lurch to the left at its base, to the right at its middle, and to the left again at the top. All this may be attributable to the various horizontal thrusts exerted upon the vertical candlestick by adjacent objects or forms in the composition. However, what I am trying to lead up to at this point is not some conclusions on the nature of space- relationships in modern painting. I am hoping to suggest certain parallels which exist between contemporary pictorial and ceramic aesthetic. In my own early post-war pictures if I may refer for a moment to my own experience there appeared a number of still-life objects amongst which were some jugs, coffee pots and vases. These pots looked remarkably like Leach pots. They also bore some resemblance to jugs in pictures by Braque. Critics of my paintings have been very conscious of this second influence but, I think, not of the first. Nor have I ever heard anyone speak of the extraordinary similarity which exists between the actual jugs of Bernard Leach and the pictorial jug-image which Braque has slowly evolved since about 1924, and which, in a famous picture painted in 1942 was almost identical with the waisted stoneware "lemonade jug" which features in the Leach Pottery's catalogue.

But this example of an actual and a pictorial pottery sharing many of the same qualities does not point, I am convinced, to the simple case of a direct influence (at any rate where Leach and Braque are concerned). Leach's significance is not merely that of an individual artist he is typical of a whole movement, a movement, of course, which he has done more than anyone else in England to establish. Braque, on the other hand though so personal a painter that his direct artistic descendants are a mere handful Braque is one of the great pioneers of moder.: painting. Potter and painter, each in his own sphere, has created, or released, a new rhythm. Perhaps that sounds simple or easy. Let me say, then, that I do not believe any achievement in the visual arts to be greater than this. One may think up a new subject for painting, one may concoct a new formal synthesis out of familiar components, or one may replace identifiable forms by unidentifiable ones (that is all that a good abstract painter has done he has stripped his forms of their recognisable, identifiable "faces" and presented them in a faceless guise: what a bad abstract painter does - and there are thousands of them about now - does not concern us. But what one cannot do, without drawing on the deepest and most unexpected resources of human feeling or consciousness, is to create a rhythm which is a new rhythm. I am not claiming that Leach or Hamada or Cardew or Staite Murray is comparable, as an aesthetic innovato, to Braque. What I do claim is that these potters have re-established an ancient valid formal rhythm which precisely coincides with the formal rhythm of certain modern painters, and notably of Braque. Now rhythm cannot be pin-pointed. It pervades a picture, or a pot, dominating its forms, dictating its character and, above all, determining its intervals. Rhythm in painting is that logical force which suddenly gives the subject whether still-life, landscape or figure its new identity as a pictorial image. On the one hand, the artist may be in love with his subject and want to paint it. And, on the other, he may only have at his disposal certain habitual, if not exactly mechanical, rhythms, certain reflexes of eye, arm and hand; certain rhythmic gestures of the brush. While this is his condition the sort of marks he makes on his canvas will be one thing and the sort of picture he is trying to paint will be quite another. This state of affairs will persist unless, and until, that sudden experience arises in which he surprizes himself by seeing, for the first time, a new rhythmical statement (in terms of his medium) which embodies his beloved subject-matter. Personally I believe that we shall not be deluding ourselves if we insist on the physical nature of this whole. experience. Speaking as a painter, I can testify to the following sequence of sensations: the sudden apprehension of the form of a new picture is first registered, in my own case at any rate, as a distinct feeling of hollowness somewhere in the region of the diaphragm. I am noting possible subjects all day long, every day, quite involuntarily. Thus it is not a question of painting when I see a subject: it is a question of calling up a subject (or to be more precise of calling up an immense variety of remembered subjects simultaneously) when I am ready for action with my brush and palette. So I begin with this hollow feeling. Next, this uncomfortable sensation in one's middle grows into a sort of palpitation, which, in turn, seems rapidly to spread upwards and outwards until the muscles of one's right arm (if one is right-handed) become agitated by a sort of electric energy. This energy in one's arm is the prelude to painting because it can only be released by grabbing a brush and starting to paint.

This means allowing one's arm and hand free rein to weave upon the canvas a complex of forms which will, as likely as not, be decidedly problematical and surprising to oneself. Conscious thought about design or form or structure simply does not enter into it at this stage. One's arm has been given its freedom and it discharges its twitching energy upon the unfortunate canvas one's conscious mind, at such a moment, is probably doing no more than observe the swiftly changing tangle on the canvas. What time it can spare from doing this is taken up in contemplating not design but the subject of the picture. When I work I am thinking of one thing, but feeling and doing something else. My mind, when I am painting, is completely engrossed not by the painting itself but by something beyond my painting: something I will call the subject, though I do not mean that in quite the ordinary sense of the term. I might be in London, and the subject of my picture might be a room in St. Ives, Cornwall. It is a room with a view: a room with a huge window overlooking the harbour; and beyond, the harbour, the bay; and beyond the bay infinity (plus an island with a lighthouse). Now while I work away, there in London, I cannot think with my conscious mind of anything but my St. Ives room, with its window. While I paint I Am in St. Ives. Meanwhile, however, the picture is being constructed very rapidly by my right hand my hand hardly pauses to consult me, because I am lost in an intense reverie of a remembered place.

From all this I conclude that, if one focuses the whole of one's conscious mind on one aspect of a creative problem, one's natural instinct will thus be freed to resolve things on another level and in its own terms. And I think this means, in relation to painting, that if the artist concentrates his mind upon his vision, his hand will take care of all those complex matters of design of which the finished painting primarily consists. One cannot consider a question of pictorial architecture in cold blood - one cannot measure one form against another, as a cold calculation of mere design. The result will always be a dead design. One can only record the pictorial configuration from the standpoint of one's vision, one's deepest feeling. And, as I've tried to suggest, one's vision may be felt before it is seen. The unborn image, which is one's new picture, is something which first announces itself to one - as I've said as a sudden access of energy in the pit of one's stomach, in one's arm, in one's fingers. It is felt before it is seen - for the simple reason that it cannot be seen until one's hand has created it on canvas. Even then the painter is incapable of seeing what he has done at least, for a week or two. One thus has the sensation, as Picasso has noticed, that one's picture goes on changing of its own accord, long after one has ceased to interfere with its anatomy or have a hand in its constitution.

I have subjected you to all this talk about the painter's processes because I believe that the painter and the potter or weaver have one thing in common, above all else. We are all dedicated to perpetuating the creative act in an age which is increasingly dominated by inhuman mechanistic processes. Our civilisation depends of course for its continued existence upon its sciences, its technical skills and its brilliantly impersonal power to manipulate matter. No one I imagine really proposes that we should Jettison science not even such cranks and lunatics as the modern painters or the hand potters would advocate total withdrawal from the present position of advanced techniques for dealing with physical problems.

Yet the fact remains that potter, weaver, painter are all equally aware of immense dangers inherent in the very nature of our civilisation. Our potting, weaving, painting is not only an affirmation - an affirmation of our deepest, instinctive awareness that the very texture of life is dependent rather upon organism than upon mechanism - it is also a protest. Our work is at one and the same instant, therefore, an affirmation of faith and a protest against an encroaching enemy. What is this enemy - precisely? I think we all recognise that techniques are capable of dominating men - rather than the other way about. I think we feel that technology is turning, on every hand, into technocracy. Man is becoming increasingly subject to mere processes. He is thus losing both responsibility, personality and his chances of happiness and fulfilment. So the "cranky" potters and weavers and the "mad" painters all protest. And of course it may be said that even the crankiest, wobbliest pots, the lumpiest cloth and the dottiest pictures are all effective in one single respect that they register protest. Even bad individual work is at any rate individual, a projection of organic values of some sort into a scene that is streamlined by impersonal mechanistic forces.

But now I want to return to aesthetics. Bad hand pottery may succeed in registering a protest but it can do little more. In order to perform the infinitely more important of the two functions, vis a vis society, which I have mentioned in order to affirm positive values craft must achieve the intensity of communication of art. Craft that is not art is not craft either. Nor is there, in my opinion, a separable, distinct entity called technique. If the word "technique" is not to be defined, simply, as the power to materialise a concept, the power to give concrete material form to what was previously an invisible complex (within the artist) of thought and feeling, of intellectual abstraction and emotion - then I do not believe the word possesses any valid usefulness as applied to art. In the context of the applied sciences, of course, "technique" has quite a different connotation. In such a connection "technique" implies a practitioners capacity to execute certain movements in the manipulation either of materials or of abstract ideas. In this sphere, technique can be measured as it can, possibly, in the case of musical executants. One knows in advance how a given action can be performed : one knows, therefore, how to measure the comparative success of the performer, whether he be among the first violins, on the field at Lord's cricket ground or in the chemistry lab.

But in the arts which include, in my view, what are known as the crafts - technique means something much subtler. We commonly complain that a painter's technique is faulty, or non-existent, when what we really mean is that the artist's aims are so unfamiliar to us that we are unconsciously assuming that they were something other than they in fact are. Technique in art cannot be measured in the abstract. It has to be considered in relation to each artist's unique aims. But once we know or can recognise these aims, we have already passed, at a bound, from a consideration of means to a consideration of ends. So I repeat - technique is simply the power to bestow visible, concrete, particular form upon what hitherto remained an abstract, invisible, unknowable entity. When we say an artist's technique is faulty we are giving him the benefit of the doubt to a quite unwarranted degree : we are making him a present of a conception which he has shown no signs of entertaining himself in saying "what he is trying to do is alright, but he doesn't know how to set about it" the "what he is trying to do" is really a figment of our own imaginations. The artist does not exist whose so-called vision is finer than his so-called technique: everyone does the utmost he is capable of doing no one has a vision in excess of his power to materialise that. vision. To suppose that an artist may get better is, however, quite permissible. Everyone gets better or worse all the time. But if what we mean is that such-and-such an artist may improve we should say this, rather than suggest that his hand lags behind his mind and sensibility. In that instant in which a finer, bolder, more sensitive vision is granted to an artist - in that instant he knows the exact means for realising his vision.

I have laboured this point because I think it is vital for a proper conception of the creative process. But I hope I haven't given the impression that I believe all creative processes in the arts to be quite automatic, and thus devoid of intense and sustained intellectual effort. If I am not wrong, the nature of intellectual effort itself is that it proceeds on the pattern I have already suggested. The rational faculty itself is not mechanistic and smoothly inevitable in its operations. In moments of the purest mental concentration we still experience, I should have said, a process of leaps and bounds, We jump to conclusions quite literally. If 2 x 2 = 4 is demonstrated to me - I either leap to an appreciation of this mathematical fact or I remain in the dark about it. I do not proceed smoothly and at an even pace along the railway line of logic, reaching conclusions as regularly as stations.

It seems to me that the arts of pottery and weaving will only remain arts so long as this intuitive apprehension of life is conveyed through the pot or the textile. A work of art consists in an arrangement of material factors being so ordered that they exist forevermore in a state of tension in relation to one another. The subtle asymmetry of a pot by Leach or Hamada is the asymmetry of life itself. You can analyse the construction of a pot by either in terms of geometry - but it will not get you very far. Geometry is there: the component members of the pot are describable, up to a point, in terms of arcs, straight lines and angles. But the pot lives and breathes and - to quote T.S. Eliot for the second day running -

... as a Chinese jar still, Moves perpetually in its stillness.

How Leach and Hamada transcend the geometry of mechanical form and achieve the asymmetry of organic form is, in the final analysis, a mystery perhaps. But one can say a thing or two about their formal characteristics - their habits of formal composition.

The whole emphasis in the work of Hamada, Leach, Cardew and others is, it seems to me, upon what I call submerged rhythms. The modern tradition which these potters have in common is nourished by Sung, by Korea, by Japanese country pottery, by Medieval English and English slipware. All these have at least one great quality in common: submerged rhythm. By this I mean that what we apprehend most immediately and most powerfully is not a series of sharply precise articulations at the surface of the pot. Pure arcs or sharp angles at the meeting of rigid planes are nowhere in evidence. Indeed rigidity is the quality most opposed to the essence of this whole group. Form is essentially fluid in Hamada or Leach, just as it is always blunted at its sharper extremities. We feel a powerful pulse in their pots : a rhythm that seems at its most emphatic just below the glazed surface. This is also a characteristic of natural forms - logs, boulders that have been washed by the sea, or even in the human figure, where the structural form is below the surface of the flesh the bone is under the muscle.

I feel very strongly that in this respect precisely - its aspect of submerged form, submerged rhythms, the pottery of Leach or Hamada is utterly contemporary: the exact counterpart, in ceramic terms, of the sculpture of Henry Moore or the painting of Braque. Braque has said that the painter should put himself in rhythmic or formal sympathy with nature: he should not copy it. By doing the first he gets close to that natural reality he loves by the second he estranges himself from nature. The first involves empathy, intuitive relaxation and the power to absorb nature: its products whether in the paintings of Braque or the pots we saw this morning by contemporary Japanese - are like natural phenomena, only they are controlled. In those Japanese pots where glaze was spilt over a more regular pattern one witnessed the superb control of a natural energy - energy which is inherent in the material. The results had the naturalness of lichen growing on rocks which is also a close parallel with textures in Braque or Picasso. Moore's figures enhance the life of the stone or wood they are carved out of. Leach or Hamada, or the old English slipware potter, or the country potters in Japan, all enhance clay. Their art does not seek to dominate natural material, but to co-operate with it. In my view the reason why so much that is best in contemporary art and craft today has its power to move us is just this: it provides the contrast with our power-ridden, science-ridden age, which seeks to dominate natural material wherever it encounters it - devitalizing it and ourselves in the process. The art of the contemporary craftsman is of immense importance because it can recall the organic: it announces the truth that the mystery of life itself can still be proclaimed by a piece of cloth or a cup and saucer. The crafts are also, it must always be realised, the most consistent receptacles of abstract art. Man's will to form - and all form as such is abstract man's will to form is expressed in pottery and weaving no less than in painting and sculpture. If I believe this sense of form is of immeasurable importance to mankind that may well be because,for me, the moral and the aesthetic have a single identity. Ethics are the aesthetics of behaviour.

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

Dartington Conference 1952