Pattern Book: Re-imagining Stoke-on-Trent’s tangible and intangible heritage, Neil Brownsword

Neil Brownsword is the current V&A Korea UK Ceramics Resident alongside Juree Kim. They are in residence at the V&A until the end of March 2018. The have Open Studios twice a month where you can meet the artists and find out more about their work and research. For more information please check out our website.

 

FACTORY, performative installation with Paul Holdway, British Ceramics Biennial 2017, © Joel Chester Fildes

Context

During the last three decades, global economics have resulted in many people embodied skills that were once the flagship of renowned UK ceramic manufactories, being replaced by the advances of digital technology. Deemed outmoded, or economically unviable to accommodate todays rapid shifts in consumer buying trends, traditional know-how retained by a senior generation of industrial artisans remains in danger of being lost. South Korea’s safeguarding of intangible heritage associated with its own ceramic history, has ensured that associated skills are maintained for future generations. In recent years, I have tried to raise awareness of endangered practices associated with North Staffordshire’s intangible heritage that remain worthy of comparable status and preservation. Finding value in the active memory and former practices of those affected by industrial change often provokes simple assumptions of nostalgia, or an unchecked idealisation of the past. Thus, the first-hand recollections surrounding the complex social bonds and pride forged by collective skill – that can enrich our understanding of industrial history, can be all too easily side-lined. Safeguarding this intangible cultural inheritance, doesn’t necessarily mean relegating these practices to the confines of past traditions. One of the aims of this residency is to explore ways in which this knowledge can be revitalized into new forms of expression and representation, and consider how it can be continuously evolved, recreated and transmitted to new modes of thinking.

FACTORY, performative installation with James Adams, Icheon World Ceramic Centre, South Korea, April 2017. Image Korea Ceramic Foundation

Residency

During North Staffordshire’s early industrialisation, the artistic/technological advances that evolved out of this legacy of cultural borrowing and assimilation, have been the focal point of this residency. The wealth of craft and material knowledge, honed and passed down from generation to generation via divisions of labour, is exemplified in the collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum. Historic repositories that record, structure and convey ‘know-how’ from factory production, such as pattern and shape books have become a primary influence. In some examples held both at the V&A and Wedgwood Museum, there is a palimpsest quality to these manuals, whereby fragmentary traces of visual and textual instruction are recorded with nonchalant fluidity. The translation of this information into physical ceramic form, in turn has its own rich material vocabulary which I have begun to appropriate and reconfigure.

Pattern Book, 19th C. Image courtesy of the Wedgwood Museum

A need for greater proximity to understand and directly work with some of these early materialisations of embodied knowledge, has led me to gain access to objects via alternate means. I have been interested in redefining the status of the archive in relation to the fixed hierarchical systems of the museum. As institutional policies quite rightly limit the scope in which to work with their collections, 18th and early 19th C ceramics akin to those held at the V&A, have been purchased via online auction websites such as eBay. The process of collecting has been an important methodology in this research, dictated not necessarily by physical condition and bestowed value, but by price, geography and personal motivations. Although prevailing academic interpretations have given historic context to this collection, time to analyse through haptic sensibilities has enabled me to critically reflect upon even the most mundane and smallest of details.

Basin, hard-paste porcelain with a lead glaze, painted in enamels.
New Hall porcelain factory, 1782-1787. Victoria and Albert Museum, C.70-1969

Chinoiserie sketch, Pattern Book, Neil Brownsword 2017

This intimate method of spatial enquiry has facilitated greater insight into collective human endeavours that constitute such objects. Nuances of casting, assembling, modelling and painting unique to ceramics production have been sampled and deconstructed through both analogue and digital means. Yet with my inexperience with the latter, I have adopted a post-digital strategy which exploits rudimentary scanning technologies that take apart these early histories of manufacture. With this lo-fi form of practical exploration and research the imperfections of the digital glitch are embraced as a method to transform instead of replicate. An accumulation of these manipulations has informed the creation of a new pattern book, which I intend to feed back into systems of analogue replication via the honed dexterity of a senior generation industrial artisans. Through this process the all persuasive immediacy of the digital is returned to the slow paced tactile and material interactions of handwork.

Chinoiserie sketch, Pattern Book, Neil Brownsword 2017

Chinoiserie sketch, Pattern Book, Neil Brownsword 2017

The second phase of this research entails a slight shift of focus to the ‘alchemy’ of ceramic production evident in the 18thcentury – drawing special attention to Josiah Wedgwood’s trials and experiment records. With no formal instruction, Wedgwood’s philosophy ‘everything yields to experiment’, achieved what was then an unparalleled unity between the sciences and the arts. It is this empirical invention through countless systematic experiments which led to his perfection of both Queen’s Ware and Jasper bodies. Yet testing with untried minerals full of impurities, their behaviour would often yield unpredictable variations. At the Wedgwood Museum, there is an example of the iconic Portland Vase partially fluxed through either the imbalance of its chemical composition and/or excessive heat. It remains an amazing juxtaposition, as one of the pinnacles of Wedgwood’s endeavours is reclaimed and transformed by the forces of nature. My research will revisit this period risk taking and innovation, and consider the ‘performativity’ of matter under variants of heat. Used in conjunction with contemporary systems of manufacture, the output will be one that embraces unpredictability and ‘error’ as an alternative to notions of standardisation and perfection governed by mass-production.

Tray of Jasper trials, 1773. Image courtesy of the Wedgwood Museum

Trial copy of the Portland Vase showing firing problems; Blistered. c.1789 – c.1789. Image courtesy of the Wedgwood Museum

Supported by the Korean Cultural Centre

Additional support provided by Samsung

 

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