Its a Kind of Magic

Well, it has only taken me about 18 months but at last I have found the time to enjoy reading Edmund de Waal’s book The White Road.  I am glad that I have waited until the right moment as I have been able to indulge myself with soaking up de Waal’s palpable enthusiasm for the subject of porcelain without feeling rushed.

I have had the time and the peace to read most of the book whilst invigilating our exhibition at Fountain Gallery which has its final day today.  Now this says something about the number of sales and visitors to the gallery and begs questions about self invigilated shows.  (Thank goodness for Tregony Gallery which cheerfully goes on selling my work without me putting in an appearance).   But that aside, the luxury of reading a well written book about the porcelain story has been a delight.

There are three lasting impressions from reading this book.  First is the extraordinary excesses which those with money and power went to in the past.  When Augustus the Strong of Saxony died in 1733 he had a collection of 35,798 pieces of porcelain (de Waal, 2015).  Secondly of the heightened emotions which the efforts to create ‘white gold’ in Europe seemed to invoke.  The alchemists searching for the formula for creating gold from base metals and also how to make white gold spent decades working in intolerable conditions, imprisoned and forced to experiment over and over again until they struck success (de Waal 2015).  Thirdly the wonder  with which people have always perceived this material.  De Waal describes the first makings of English porcelain by William Cockworthy as an obsession;

 ” To make something so white and true and perfect, that the world around it is thrown into shadows as the blackthorn does when flowering in the hedgerows in early spring.” (de Waal, 2015, p.225).


Honiton dish 2

Sometimes opening the kiln really does feel like a kind of magic!



Oh my goodness, I get that one!  When I open the kiln and there it is: a crisp, thin, translucent vessel with a pure, creamy whiteness.  It is a kind of alchemy if you ask me!


I recently went to Edmund de Waal’s exhibition at the Royal Academy.  I am not sure what I was expecting but I but I found myself to be really rather overawed by the experience.  It was quite a small exhibition and I think that this gave it an intimacy which added to the enjoyment.

Perhaps it was the subdued lighting and the sense of history of the setting which provided such a special atmosphere.  The library has never been used for an exhibition before and so there was a feeling of having been invited into a private part of the Academy; that you were no longer just the general public.  We were the only people there for most of the time and, with a very informative and interesting security man, we toured the exhibition learning a lot about the library and feeling very privileged.

Because I don’t look very carefully at all the blurb which the RA sends me through the post, I think I had assumed that the exhibition was about de Waal more than by de Waal.  I had not expected to see such a diverse collection of work.  There was his Hare with Amber Eyes – I have only just got round to reading the book and so I was extraordinarily emotional about seeing this exquisite beauty so soon afterwards.  How wonderful that, after all this piece has seen, it has made it to such a hallowed location, even on a temporary basis.  There also were a number of de Waal’s own pieces lighting up dark corners of the library with the stunning translucence of porcelain.  But  how amazing to be invited to think about the works of composer John Cage and a pure white Meissen beaker during the same afternoon.

I am a dead ringer for collections of similar, very simple things and so I love the idea of a group of white objects.  I also go floppy at the knees when I real things such as the opening paragraph of the exhibition blurb: ‘White is an aura.  White is a staging post to look at the word from.  White is not neutral; it forces other colours to reveal themselves. It moralises – it is clean when nothing else is clean, it is light when most things are heavy.  It is political. It is enmeshed in the world’.  Yes, it is!


De Waal is known for his installations of beautiful white vessels

Speak up or Shut Up

We had an interesting debate in college a week ago on the subject of whether to talk and write about one’s art or whether it is better to let it speak for itself.  I found myself rather reluctantly on the side in favour of not speaking – always difficult for me!  I thought that I would have some difficulty coming up with any reasons to keep quiet but having got over the slightly trite comment that talking gives me a headache I discovered that I was warming to the idea.  There are artists who chose not to give any narrative about their work and I confess that in the past I have found this rather unhelpful of them.  On the other hand I now realise that it does actually limit a viewer’s interpretation.  If you tell everything there is to tell you do run a number of risks.  Firstly you set your work in a specific context which while on the face of it might be considered helpful can also be quite restrictive.  It denies people the right to create their own narrative about the work.  The first significant piece of work that I sold was called ‘Don’t Put me in a Box’.  For me it was a deep and meaningful piece about labelling and about wanting to break out of any category that people decided to put me in.  For the person who bought it, to my confusion, it was apparently about blocks of cheese.  I tried to tell him otherwise but I gave up.  Now I realise that I was right to stop. Interpretation is personal and I should not be trying to impose my thoughts on others unless they wish to know.

Should I let this work speak for itself or should I explain my idea?

Should I let this work speak for itself or should I explain my idea?

A second reason for letting the work speak for itself is that you run the risk of setting it in stone, within a specific era which might reduce the understanding of people who come after you.  My boxes referenced Myers Briggs but who is to say that anyone in the next 100 years will have any understanding of their theory of personality types.  Indeed, I rather hope that they do not!

Of course there are other things which suggest you should keep quiet.  If the art is good enough, surely it can speak for itself?  Its meaning should come through the work and if it isn’t good enough then perhaps you should not have put it out there in the first place!  On the other hand I find myself wondering how those artists who prefer to remain quiet ever get noticed at all.  Do they really rely entirely on the work or do they have some rich or influential patron who pushes it into the limelight and talks it up for them?  If so, would they like to pop in and visit me and let me know where to find such an envoi!  Edmund de Waal comments that ‘Ceramics is an art whose practitioners have become peculiarly suited to silence.  Their silence about their work and that of their peers has become a symbol for their seriousness as artists, in a way that is radically different from other arts.  The truly authentic and serious potter is one who unknowingly makes pots, whose artistic journey is unmapped.’  Well there are several points about this statement which I have difficulty digesting.  Not least I am left wondering what that says about de Waal himself since no-one would suggest that he is silent about his work!  But there certainly are ceramic artists who have been extremely reluctant to speak about their work, Lucie Rie, whose pots ‘speak for themselves’ (Bernard leach) for one.  Lucie Rie ' her pots speak for themselves'.  (Bernard Leach).

I confess that I do not trust my work to shout loudly enough yet, which is why my open studio display is littered with short explanations of the work on view.

There are others who believe that, however silent an artist chooses to be about their work, ‘nothing has a silent life, that everything exists in context, things talk to one another, discourse occurs whether we want it to or not.’ (Kate Starkey talking about the views of Jeffry Jones.)

Of course the ultimate irony for me personally is that I would not be writing this blog if I wanted my art simply to speak for itself. Indeed I suspect that  the development of rapid, web-based communication makes it increasingly difficult to be silent.  There is an expectation that all artists will have a presence on social media and that without it they are nothing.  Certainly the current open Studios even at Wimbledon Artist Studios, in which I am taking part, has highlighted for me the need to have business cards, blurb, website, social media presence etc, etc and to be prepared to discuss the thinking behind my work with those who chose to come and visit the artists in their workplace.  It would be rude not to engage these people in conversation about the work they have come to view.

It is also quite amusing that the debate in college coincided neatly with the handing in of a 4000 word essay on our practice.  If we wished the work to speak for itself we could probably have saved ourselves the exercise, although I suppose we would risk failing the diploma which at this late stage would seem a bit of a shame.