Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Ceramic Cities and Victorian Nurseries

It was interesting to read Mike Wolfe's thoughts on Ai Weiwei's Sunflower Seeds in the Sentinel (June29). Writing about  his visit to Tate Modern in January Mike describes the experience of his encounter with the ten tonnes of  crafted clay seeds in the Turbine Hall and his frustration at being prevented from roaming freely through them.

This was because health and safety officers had  raised concerns about the levels of dust generated by visitors tramping over the unglazed seeds. Mike isn't alone in  his disappointment at being unable to experience the work as  Ai Weiwei intended but his proposed solution  is certainly unique. Given that the  seeds were produced in Jingdezhen - the centre of Chinese ceramic production -he thought it would provide an excellent marketing opportunity if a Stoke-on-Trent manufacturer offered to glaze the seeds and thereby solve the problem.

Made in Jingdezhen. Ai Weiwei and his Sunflower Seeds

Despite his best efforts the idea was ignored which is a shame because even if the offer was rejected (as, I suspect, it would've been) it  could only have benefited the city to be associated with such a talked about work of art and its newsworthy creator. It would also have provided a topical introduction to the current exhibition at the Potteries Museum exploring the links between  Jingdezhen and Stoke-on-Trent.

Given their shared industrial heritage it's unsurprising that visitors have long commented on the similarities between the two cities - Mike Wolfe recalls being reminded of Burslem and Longton when he was part of a North Staffs delegation in 2003 - but while the two cities are at the heart of the story it has a fascinating sub-plot. Spanning centuries of ceramic history the show explores a dialogue between east and west driven by trade, fashion, etiquette, social values and technological change.

Picture: Potteries Museum

Alongside many Chinese originals  are examples of early adaptations by local potters which, along with a little 18th century industrial espionage, would eventually lead to the development of bone china at the end of the  century. This breakthrough saw Stoke-on-Trent rival Jingdezhen in terms of quality for the first time which, combined with increased import duties, saw a decline in Chinese wares on the domestic market.

In addition to this story of porcelain and chinamania visitors are also treated to a little Arts and Studio pottery featuring rarely seen examples of 20th century ceramics from figures including Bernard Leach and Hamada Shoji. There's also a section looking at cross-currents in contemporary design.

While given the time scale in question the displays may be a little on the modest side a more generous way of looking at it would be to say the exhibits have been carefully chosen to illustrate the narrative. This  aside, for anyone with an interest in ceramic design, the exhibition is certainly worth a visit. It's just a shame it doesn't include a handful of glazed sunflower seeds. Ceramic Cities continues until September 4 and, I'm pleased to say, admission remains free.

Children occupied an ambiguous position in Victorian society. While many endured Dickensian  exploitation childhood was idealized in art and popular culture. This idealization is no more evident than in the illustrated nursery books pioneered by publisher Edmund Evans during the late nineteenth century.

The founding fathers of the  genre were Walter Crane and Randolph Caldecott. Utilising new wood block printing techniques Evans was able to mass produce their work at prices which had previously been unaffordable to many families, establishing a style that would remain influential for decades to come. In the case of both Crane and Caldecott this was only one aspect of their practice. Crane in particular enjoyed a varied career as a leading figure in the Arts and Crafts Movement but, nevertheless, took his work for children very seriously.

School's Over. Kate Greenaway. 1879. V&A Images

 Illustrations by both men, along with a smaller number from popular rival Kate Greenaway,  (who in a somewhat unwholesome example of  Victorian ambiguity was encouraged by the brilliant but flawed John Ruskin) can be seen in Magic of the Nursery at Leek’s Nicholson Gallery from July 9 to September 3.

Parts of this post originally appeared in the Arts Scene column of the Sentinel Friday June 24 2011

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