Ceramic Points of View: 'Cup on Base', by Gillian Lowndes
'Ceramics Points of View' is the result of a collaboration between The National Electronic and Video Archive of the Crafts and the V&A. A range of people were asked for their responses to the same ten objects from the V&A's 20th century ceramics collection.
On this page you can discover the six people's responses to 'Cup on Base', made in 1986 by Gillian Lowndes (born 1936).
Here the work of Gillian Lowndes is critiqued by Alison Britton, Neil Brownsword, Emmanuel Cooper, Claire Curneen, Tanya Harrod and Oliver Watson in the following videos.
Video: Alison Britton on Gillian Lowndes
It's a long, long working life, Gillian's life. She began to work in the 1950s, didn't she? And [she] has made so many different kinds of work. It's a fantastic progress through different sorts of form. By this time she's definitely making sculpture, isn't she? It's a small, decayed-looking, intriguing, bound together object. It's almost like a stack of tiles that have been woven together. [video clip starts] It might be fired tiles, I think, just fired too high so they've just started to melt and bubble. And a bit of brick and something very ordinary, an ordinary earthenware cup that's been fired much higher than it was meant to ... and with a different surface. It looks all moon landscape, doesn't it? As if it's suffered and endured.It's avery intriguing object. She's a really interesting artist, I think, always combining other materials, now ... wire, and this is a kind of metal band that's been fired in. It's stunning; it's an outlandish, beautiful thing.[video clip ends]
MP: Do you know her?
AB: I know her slightly, yes, though not as well as lots of other people. I've never taught with her. She was part of a team at both the Central and Camberwell, and then her husband, Ian Auld, was the Head of Camberwell. I've had to write about her at least once, I think, so I've interviewed her and I've talked about the work on several occasions. She just goes on being surprising. You never know what she's going to do next. I think she's been very influential on students, not that their work looked like hers, but in opening up the boundaries of seeing what happens when you fire something twice as high as it has ever been taken before. Very experimental, but it's not idle experiment, it's always with a very strong voice ... clear purpose.
MP: It's strange because there's a cup, and the piece on the left almost looks like a piece of cake, the way she's painted it.
AB: Yes, yes.
MP: And then it looks like pieces of toast or ...
AB: And this is almost like quartz, isn't it?
AB: Yes, toast is the first thought, isn't it?
MP: It's unusual in the group of pots that we've been looking at in that it incorporates other materials.
AB: Yes and it's also unusual in that it's not going to contain anything. I mean, there's an echo here of containing something, but even the bull was full of air, wasn't it? So it's a very important strand that she opened up.
Video: Neil Brownsword on Gillian Lowndes
NB: I know I always determine a good piece by not knowing what to say about it. What can you say about a good piece? [video clip starts] I just think it's a wonderful object. And it's so alien to everything else we've seen. It speaks everything to me about what clay is on a personal level, and what glaze is on a personal level. And just the sense of intuition that's gone into the piece. I'm not sure what the piece is about, but I'm not really bothered about what it's about either. I'm just drawn to the objects, like you'd be drawn to something on a stroll. You know you'd walk down a street or you'd see something in situ and it would capture your imagination for a time. I think it's an influence. I think Gillian Lowndes has been there from way back, just because of the oddness of some of the work. Because there was no-one else doing anything quite like what she was doing. And just how she pushes the boundaries of that medium really. She takes it as far as it goes. [video clip ends]
Looking at this piece in contrast to, say, that Liz Fritsch piece we've just seen, it's the the other extreme isn't it? I can really empathise with it because it's the manner of working I adopt now as a maker. It's not really setting out with an end goal, but it evolves through that process of discovery. And yes, you might get 90% crap, but there'll be that 10% which is spot on. And it' s that marriage of not having, I suppose, you're not in control of something any more. You know [with] most of those things, there's such an element of control that we' ve looked at. You look at those, you know that you can go back to that Staite-Murray piece and the control that' s there. But it's like these pieces have just evolved through a symbiosis of a knowledge of what materials do, and letting the processes determine that final outcome.
There's such a wonderful playfulness about these objects, and the fact that there' s other materials like this metal strip there, isn't there? I think this is glass which is fused into something here. And again the use of wire, which I've kind of plagiarised from from time to time within my pieces. I suppose the history of ceramics has been purely about just being ceramic hasn't it? And this for me has opened it up to a totally different aspect of creativity, incorporating other materials. If something's right for the job, then use it . Don't try and make clay look like metal, let metal do the job you know. I love the fact that there's a half a cup there as well, it makes you think, it makes you curious about it. It makes you want to go back to it and find out what it is, even though you don't really know what it is. What's the title of the piece by the way?
MP: Just ' Cup on Base' .
NB: See, I love the title, it's so straightforward, no bullshit. It's there and it says it as it is, you know. I've never actually met Gillian Lowndes, but I don't know I can imagine her being quite modest about what she does. But again you can look at it from so many different perspectives. It reads as something else, doesn't it? It' s something that you could go back to and rediscover things in. It's going back to what we were saying about display, how makers intend things to be displayed. Just looking at the base of that object again, and these layers of things. It's all Egyptian paste, I take it, or it looks like there's some kind of silicon carbide or Egyptian paste, something that's fluxing. But again, you look at a maker like Gillian Lowndes and the diversity there and the body of work, again it's extreme, isn't it, from what she did in the 1960s, slab built/hand built pieces. And again to the present day, where ceramics is only a small element of what she does, all these other found objects, which again you've got the same kind of resonance as this piece. Yes, thumbs up.
Video: Emmanuel Cooper on Gillian Lowndes
EC: It's an interesting title and I was particularly keen to know whether it had a title because having a title immediately puts it in the realm of sculpture. You give titles to pieces of sculpture. I mean you might say they're 'Untitled' but you know they will always have a title of some sort. And so by calling it 'Cup and Base' or whatever, it locates it in that field and that of course is where it is.
[video clip starts] It's made out of clay, it's made out of wire, and it might be made out of other things too - it's hard to know. So in a sense we've moved from the world of the vessel and container to the world of sculpture. And although this is related to ceramics and ceramic making through the cup - and this is an industrial cup which has been fired and glazed and stuck on - what we've got here is a commentary, much more from a sculptural point of view, both on the nature of clay and these textures and surfaces that you can get when you fire it in the kiln, and also on the detritus of modern times and the way we throw away things. [video clip ends]
The way that shards - which is what this cup is, a bit of an old cup - can tell us so much about that civilisation and we archaeologists go round excavating bits like this. And what about this little bit of metal which is round here? And the little bit of what looks like rock, quartz rock here? It's become something that, again in the way that you do with the Richard Slee, you've got to start to deconstruct if you like, to look at and think, what are all these things going on? It does look like it is a piece hewn from the ground. It does have that quality. It looks like it's been buried and that like a load of builder's rubble, suddenly things have started to stick together over time. And what you've got is an intriguing collage of different bits of the world in which we live. We've got rock, we've got bits of old metal, we've got bits of broken cup, we've got these wires which somehow have a sense of linking the whole thing together. And then we've got these textures.
But in the end we've got the sort of cup and saucer. And although it's called 'Cup with Base' it actually is like a cup and saucer in a funny sort of way. It's what could have been a cup and saucer. But I actually don't think of it like that. I just think of it as a piece of sculpture, as a form with a cup on the top which might relate to this being a saucer or not. It's not a saucer to look at. But I just look at it as a form and think how pleasing it is, the fact that you can get a certain element of light under here, shadow, which elevates it from the ground, the whole thing sits on the ground with lots of space underneath it. So it's actually floating. It looks like it's floating on the ground. And that gives it an enormously satisfying quality because although this looks very solid, and indeed it is very solid, it still seems to float, it has a lightness to it.
All these things are to do with sculpture, they're not to do with the references if you like of the ceramic world. But just to turn it round once more when you see these layers you begin to get some understanding of the way that Gillian Lowndes is looking at the layers, whether they're of history, archaeology, memory, our experience. And I think that you can start to read it as a metaphor as well as what I think is actually a terribly interesting object. And I think she's very good at making interesting objects.
MP: Do you like it?
EC: Yes, I do like it, yes.
Video: Claire Curneen on Gillian Lowndes
CC: 'Cup on Base'. It is a cup on base, isn't it? I love that title. It's really interesting, this kind of application on the cup. I don't know whether it's an actual broken cup and it's been reassembled, or whether she's cast it and broken it. It doesn't really matter, I suppose, but she's applied a kind of pointilism surface to it that you really don't see in the photograph of it. [It] really has that layered painterly quality. It's quite wonderful actually. It really is about material, this. It all seems to be bubbling and melting into itself and coming out of itself. I mean this here almost seems like the bottom of the kiln shelf, or something. It sometimes can [have] some of the most interesting things there. But [it's] a really wonderful way of introducing found materials like metals and firing it into the clay body and throwing caution to the wind, of that it doesn't have to be just clay.
The firing procedure can actually contribute to it whether it be metal and clay, and the fact that they have those similar oxides in them as well. There's a lovely kind of oxidised area there, [a] bleeded area there. It really travels throughout it, you get something there and that's almost picked up. [There's] another piece here and it travels around the objects. There's no one viewing point of it. I quite like that, the fact that you have to engage with it. This is really curious here, this [is] almost painted on top of a lot of found debris, this is almost found debris in the kiln and then decorated to make it something else. It's really quite clever. It's interesting.
When teaching I usually talk about Gillian Lowndes to a lot of students, to go and look at as somebody who explores and really stretches the possibilities of working with the material, with the clay material, and clay in different states as well; clay as a found object whether [this] is or not, clay in its melting state, which this is here, if I were to influx, and then clay as a filler for other things, for other materials like metals. It also has that narrative as well. It brings you to a place, this stepping stone, something crumbling or falling, because it rises to this point, the cup being on the top part of it, or the cup tumbling down. Yes.
MP: Do you like it?
CC: Yes, I really like it. I think it has an awful lot more in actually reading it than seeing it in print, particularly this quality on the cup, it's incredible. I don't know what it is, I think it's vanadium, or whether it's paint. I think it is a glaze. But I like the composition of how you place these objects, these fragments; it's all about the fragmentation of things and objects, and it gives [it] that story or narrative of a sense of place, or a landscape within these stepping stones. And I quite like this being mirrored, this application mirrored on the cup. And it throws you around a bit as well, uncertain of where to see it. Yes. But it's also stitch, it's almost sewn together.
[video clip starts] [It's] a bit unnerving holding it. I feel the sense that it's a very fragile thing, when you see all these pieces of wire which are physically almost holding it together. And it's quite nice, that idea of something stitched together, of the clay being a soft thing and the wire actually holding it together. But it also has a very 'line' quality which is very different to the density and the solidness of some of these pieces. There are some beautiful qualities there, that look like they're just found. And that's the celebratory thing about the nature of clay as well, because it can be something other than a smooth surface or a rendered, textured surface. This seems to be just burgeoning, it just seems to be exploding, which I think is very [much] what clay does. [video clip ends]
Video: Tanya Harrod on Gillian Lowndes
TH: [video clip starts] Well, this is just great. I've been complaining about things not being ceramic, like I didn't think the Hans Coper pot was terribly ceramic. Funnily enough this seems to me the quintessence of ceramics, even though it's pretty impossible to pick up and I don't think she's... And she's introduced these foreign materials, strips of metal and bits of wire, and then these industrial cups that I think she's sprayed with sand or something, and then painted in this mottled way. It was around about this time that I first got to know her, and then I wrote a catalogue essay for a retrospective show for the Crafts Council. [video clip ends]
So maybe it's because I've talked to her quite a lot [that] I feel at home with this piece, which on first sight looks a bit, well, difficult or alienated or alienating. And she's someone, I think, who has really deep ceramic knowledge, and perhaps a turning point for her was when she went with her husband Ian Auld, who was also a potter, to Nigeria. And interestingly while they were in Nigeria she wasn't actually drawn so much to the pots, and I don't know whether she even went to visit Michael Cardew at Abuja. I think she did, but didn't make a big impact on either her or her husband. What they were really interested in was the kind of brickolage of West African sculpture, and in fact Ian Auld had a marvellous little shop in North London where you could buy non-European objects, a lot from West Africa, and they were amazing things like iron staffs made to the god of iron which would incorporate bits of lag fittings. And so she's always liked the sort of idea of kind of brickolage and bringing stuff together.
I think she's been awfully under-rated. There ought to be some massive show of her work. And also she has slightly suffered from... I mean, I say they're very ceramic but you know you'd like to see them in the context of other small sculptures, really. As far as I know that's never really happened. When you think of Anthony Caro table sculptures, which are obviously very different... but if there was a show of small sculptures, if the Henry Moore Institute put on a show of small sculptures, you can be absolutely sure she wouldn't be in it, and yet she should be.
TH: And then she's perhaps too modest a person, I don't know. Certainly [she] hasn't put herself forward. But all her work... there's some very odd, fragile, early work with little strips of clay sort of woven in and out of each other. Her work really changed when she went to West Africa thereafter. And things she's made more recently which are a bit more mayoral than this, they hang on the wall and seem even less ceramic, because they're mainly strips of metal that are fired in a sort of ceramic edition. I think this represents a moment when she decided to break one kind of taboo which says that a ceramic object has got to be fired in one piece. Because I think this is stuck on, this cup. And I think that's quite a... it sounds ridiculous to mention it but there was quite a big decision to make, because once you decide you can stick things on after firing then you can build up in all kinds of odd ways. She may have retreated from that position, [she] may have felt the whole thing potentially could get too complicated, get completely out of hand.
MP: It also includes metal.
TH: No, she's been including metal for ages.
MP: No, I mean it's a non-ceramic thing to do to include metal in the same way as adding to...
TH: Yes, right, that's true. But the fact that it's all fired together... someone made it, she's introduced all these weird materials, fibreglass and so on, but it all went through the trial of fire. But to go a step further and actually stick something on afterwards, I think, for her anyway, is foreign. And she shifted, I think, from the Sculpture Department at the Central to the Ceramics Department because she was able to do just what she liked. And in the Sculpture Department they were still creating armitures and working sculpture in a very old-fashioned way. So in the 1960s there was more freedom. But where this freedom has got her in terms of being written about or thought about in the context of the wider art world I don't really know. It seems a great shame.
MP: Do you think that bothers her where she's positioned? Does she position herself, do you think, as a potter or as an artist or..?
TH: Well, I think she's a bit like William Staite-Murray. I don't think all that many of these people set out to position themselves and she certainly hasn't made much effort. And that could have been okay. So it's also chancy, isn't it, and accidental. It's obviously a huge drawback being perceived to be a ceramicist from the point of view of wider recognition, which is really unfortunate. No, I don't think she has made any effort to exhibit in different contexts, but it's time someone did that for her.
Video: Oliver Watson on Gillian Lowndes
OW: Mmm, I remember it well. I remember choosing it, I remember bringing it back to the department. And one of the rites of passage [that] pieces, particularly rather challenging pieces like this, have to face is that when they come into department at departmental tea, whoever is responsible has to justify it to the department and explain it, and I remember being very tongue-tied having to say why I thought this ought to come into the collection. I really think that, and I think she's a very interesting artist, [a] great potter, and much under-recognised. And I suppose when I got this piece, I'd been studying Bernard Leach a lot, and of course this is completely eons away from Leach and those values.
Or is it? I suppose I'm saying [that] because [video clip starts] Leach talks about the natural qualities of the clay and the process of transformation in the fire and all these sort of things, and coming and looking at this, in its elemental form that is exactly what this is; it's a lump of clay, with a pot attached, put into the fire and transformed. It ends up in a very satisfying lump of transformed matter. And with very clear reference to how it got that way: it looks burnt, it's got bits of heating wire still embedded in it and bits of old kiln wall or something attached to the piece on the outside. It was quite shocking, it probably still is quite shocking. It was quite shocking at the time, as her work tends to be, a mixture of rather cool aesthetics and really, in its context, quite shocking things. [video clip ends]
I love it for that. I love it seen in the context of the rest of the work, other things that she's gone on and made, some more recent stuff which is very jewellery-like in a sense, but still just the burned elements from kilns taken up and reused. There were her bricks in porcelain, paper bag series, things of that kind, which I've always loved as an antidote to the rather stuffy values often expressed in other areas of ceramics. I say as a purist one of the things that I felt a bit could maybe have been done differently in this piece, is that actually some of the texture in here is painted on, and it's not just purely round this rock here, and I think some of the colouring on the cup. So it's not just a random transformation in the kiln. But for all that, you know it's what the V&A will be after the holocaust, when the nuclear bomb comes that's what's going to be left, a bit of porcelain and some melted ceramic stuff.
MP: Do you think it's meant to represent anything?
OW: No, it is itself, I think. I certainly don't look at it as representing anything. And Iincidentally, I don't think it's a... it's not a piece about the holocaust or the nuclear, I think it's aesthetic exploration and I find it quite beautiful; the surfaces, the colours, the textures. [It's] got all those formal qualities that in a sense belong to the stuffy brigade, or they think they own entirely. It's got all of those, it just is something completely different.
MP: Do you think the fact that it's clay is absolutely integral to it?
OW: The fact that it's clay is why it's in the Ceramics Department of the V&A. It's integral to this because this is what clay does when it gets treated this way. Whether clay is integral to her work I don't know. I don't think it probably is, I think she has done a lot of other things where the metal parts become much more, much more. 'Is it a pot?' This is the question asked of me at tea time in the department and I say, 'Well, is it not a pot? I don't know.' 'Is it functional?' they say. Well, I say, 'You have a functional pot but you don't use it for anything. You have a Bernard Leach vase, and actually stick flowers in it, it just sits there as something to be looked at. Having been made with clay in a certain tradition, [it] appears [as] something else.' It gains its resonances being seen in that context.
MP: This is possibly one of the few pots in the entire collection that is actually serving its function or its purpose, which is presumably display and contemplation. It's interesting that almost everything that ostensibly was made with a functional rationale, the moment it comes into the Museum [it] ceases to ever be allowed to fulfill its function.
OW: Well, except a lot of those things were made purely for display too, so there's not actually in those terms very much difference between this and a vase or a Leach pot. It just lets you know a little more dramatically that it's not even pretending to be functional, even the functional bits [are] gone.
MP: There's not a pot in the collection that's been picked up by its handle. It's difficult to experience something in the way that it might have been intended if you can't handle it the way it was.
OW: That is the great problem about museums you know. We collect all this stuff for it to be accessible so that there is somewhere where you can come and look at a vast range of historic material, and we give you access in a way that you can't find access anywhere else, but only up to the glass and then you can't touch. And it's a difficult thing to know how to deal with because even with this piece, actually the handling of it is quite part of what it is. When you turn it over the back has got a foot ring on the bottom like it's not entirely just a random chunk of stuff found at the bottom of the kiln. It's actually got some formal qualities that do ally it with the potting tradition, and the textures and so forth. And handling pots of course is one of the qualities of it, whether it's the appropriate weight for its size, whether it's got the right sort of tautness, whether it's got the right feel. You don't get that in museums, not unless you're the curator.