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).
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!
This week I have been in Portugal. I opted for the´sudden immersion´ approach to the City. It is some while since I have travelled in a foreign city alone and so I was quite relieved to have adequately navigated the mysteries of the Lisbon Metro, successfully coping with the ticketing system and the map and emerging into the light for the first time at the Cais do Sodré on the banks of the River Tagus in the middle of the city.
It is exciting after the impersonal , non-nationality specific aura of airport and international hotel to ‘Arrive’. To feel, for the first time, the light and the atmosphere of a different place. I love the assault on the senses which comes from such an approach. Here was bright light and the smell of the River and the Atlantic. A busker was playing classical guitar in the square and, in the market, there was every conceivable type of fruit and vegetable. Hams, wrapped in muslin, hung from long rails. Fish gazed, glassy-eyed from beds of ice. The smell of spices was intoxicating!
Hams hang from long rails
I wandered, without direction, up narrow cobbled streets dodging trams and Tuk-tuk and gazing up at tall terraces of buildings in a multitude of colours. But what struck me most was the ceramics. Many buildings were clad, at least in part, in beautifully decorated tiles.
Colourful buildings, trams and Tuk Tuk make it feel different.
This is the Portuguese way of protecting their buildings from the elements: Azulejo cover almost every flat surface and the impact is incredible!
Many buildings are clad in tiles to protect them from the elements.
Later I walked along the river to the National Tile Museum to learn more. The museum is housed in an ancient monastery and I had difficulty focussing on one thing because there is so much to see. The architecture of the building is old and beautiful, the tiles range from sixteenth century to very contemporary and the tea room served some of the best Pastel de Nata (custard tarts) I was able to find! The second floor is given over to one enormous mural of Lisbon, part of the museum is given over to an explanation of the making of Portuguese Azulejo through the ages, and in the cloisters, a group of children were decorating their own tiles under the watchful eye of a curator.
This museum is less well frequented than others in the city because it is not so easy to get to but I made it my fist port of call and I was so glad that I had – it is a treasure!
As some of my readers know, when I am in London I live on a boat. This week we cast off our moorings and set sail on the River Thames with few plans except to go up the river. It is wonderful to be so free to chose how to spend our time. By day two we were chugging gently past Runnymede and thought we ought to take a look around.
History is everywhere in this place. I knew about the Magna Carta. I had at least done THAT much history when I was at school but it did me a lot of good to read about it again and consider what the signing of this document actually stands for. Obviously there is more to it than this and I know that King John was not quite as good as his word so it was some considerable time before we enjoyed the freedoms which is lays down but I am absolutely clear that during the time since it was originally enshrined in history it has been considered a true milestone in the fight for individual rights and freedoms.
Both the United States Bill of Rights and the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights owe a great deal to Magna Carta, to name just two. Without it the world would be a poorer place. When I reached somewhere with a wifi signal I did a bit of searching and found this wonderful clip on the British Museum website which, for those who are interested, gives a ‘nutshell explanation’ of this incredibly important document. It is worth a look.
There are a number of other memorials in recognition of the struggle for liberty at Runnymede and so, puffed up with pride that it all started here in Britain, we set off to take a look. Eventually we found ourselves on the hill over looking the river. Here there is a haunting reminder of the loss of life by Allied Air Forces during the Second World War. In one year, 1943, there were more than 30 men killed with the name Smith. That is to say there were 30+ men with the surname Smith who were sergeants in the RAF killed in that year. This does not count other ranks called Smith. Nor does it include members of other Air Forces: Canadians; New Zealanders; Australians to name just a few. Nor does it include anyone with surnames which include ‘Smith’ and some other suffix or prefix. as I looked at this particular column of names – one of 300 – I found myself shivering with some intangible and deeply sad emotion. More so that when I tried to digest the fact that 20,000 men are remembered on the monument. Maybe that number is too large to comprehend.
The combined Air Forces memorial at Runnymede.
I hate war! I cannot understand why differences of opinion cannot be thrashed out over a plate of Nachos and a beer or two. But the fact remains that in the early 20th century the world was plunged into despair and huge numbers of people died for the simple reason that they believed in Freedom. I have never felt more appreciative of their sacrifice than I did standing there in the solitude as the daylight was dimming.
I need to make something very special from the small handful of clay that I picked up in a tree throw on the slope of Cooper’s Hill below the memorial.
I want it to be as open and welcoming as possible.
I have started on a large dish which is as open as I can make it. I want it to look as though anyone might be able to approach it and rinse their hands. I also want it to be as fragile as possible in recognition of the fragility of the peace and freedom which we are so privileged to enjoy in this country. If I don’t get it right the first time I shall keep remaking it until I do because this matters!
Sorry, I am at it again. This time poor old Mark Twain is getting misquoted but not without just cause if you ask me. You see I have been out and about collecting mud again, this time in a torrential rainstorm, and the residents of a small, respectable town in Devon are probably expressing grave concerns!
This all started because I have been invited to be the featured artist in an exhibition called Escape by The Hybrid Gallery in Honiton this summer. I am excited by this opportunity and thought it would be sensible to begin my making by making a visit to see the space.
We lay like sardines in the back of the car
I remember Honiton. We used to have to drive through it on our way to visit grandparents in Torquay. Then we lay sardine fashion in the back of our Morris Traveller estate, watching the lights and the telegraph poles swoop by on seemingly endless journeys. Now you flash past on the bypass with children firmly strapped into child seats.
Then it was famous for lace and there was a pottery in the town employing quite a number of people making slipcast functional ware. Now many of the shops are gift or good food orientated and there is a Pottery Café on the site of the old pottery which hosts parties where you can decorate pre-fired wares whilst sipping smoothies and tucking into a panini.
It was years since I had visited the town and the rain on this particular day was not at all conducive to sight seeing but Honiton is a true gem! Having had a bit of a look around I squelched my way to the public library where a quick search of the local history section revealed that the original pottery had, for many years, made use of a seam of clay running behind the workshop. That was all the invitation I needed!
I was off – scampering up the main street and leaping puddles like the sure favorite in the National. Lo and behold the house beside the pottery was having building work done and so, swathed in my sodden jacket and dripping with rain clutching trowel and zip lock bags in my damp, little hand, I knocked at the door. Just then a young lad came round the corner of the house. His expression on hearing my request was one of mild shock and incredulity but he agreed to my request and so, before he could call for men with straight jackets, I was down on my knees. Three sandwich bags later (and, some would say, several short of a picnic) I was back at the car with my trophies and ready to start making.