Ceramic Points of View: 'Bull', by William Newland
'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.
AB: [video clip starts] It's such a treat to see it for real, actually; I've only ever seen a photograph. And it so much speaks of its time, it's so much a 50s, optimistic, post-war object. There's something about the tin glaze; this is the tin glaze all over it with oxides painted on top and then scratched through, I think, or maybe it's resisted, I'm not sure, but he's got a manganese colour under clean white. And that just sums up somehow the kind of coffee bar, and the Heal's exhibitions, and the Elizabeth David cookery books, and the idea of lots of people having suddenly travelled when they were in the war and knowing more about Europe, and it's full of that vitality. [video clip ends] Having been to the Mediterranean and looking at Greece, it's lovely, it's a lovely decorative object. The 50s is a very difficult aesthetic to really entirely line up with. But it's so long ago now, I mean, I was born, I suppose. What date is it?
AB: Yes, I'd have been a little girl then. For me the ways in which he's choosing to stylise the animal form in terms of throwing, all these parts coming together, which are sort of corny in a way, but for its time, it's very strong.
MP: Am I right that you knew Bill?
AB: Yes, I knew him when I was a kid because my father and he worked in the same institute, the Institute of Education. My father was the Head of English and he ran the pottery. So I had quite early connections with [him], he would send home encouraging things to do in my father's briefcase, bits of chalk to carve and bricks and stuff. So for me he means a lot because he was my model of a potter being a way of life, being a thing you could do really. So I didn't ever work with him until I was perhaps fourteen or so and I went to work at the Institute sometimes in half term.
A real facilitator, you know someone who encouraged enormous numbers of people to find what was creative for them, and would always cut into the bullshit in a very direct and very, very non-stuffy [way]. So a very forceful, forceful person. I didn't know him really well ever, but I sort of encountered him, and I did feel he was looking out for me when I was a student as well. [He] encouraged me to apply for the Central rather than any other course, and so on. [He] went through my portfolio when I came back from Leeds and Foundation. So, no, he's been a sort of mentor. I think mentor's the word now, an American word, isn't it?
MP: So did you go to the Central?
AB: I did, yes. He wasn't teaching any more, but his flavour was still there very much. So I will have been taught this kind of technique probably by John Colbeck, or somebody else, or Bonnie van der Wettering. But all those sort of ideas and recipes and layering glazes and scratching through scraffito and all that, that was very much on the curriculum.
MP: Have you any idea why tin glaze was the thing for people like Newland and Vergette and Margaret Hine?
AB: Well, I think it must link to Picasso in some way. It's not what he always used, but certainly [Picasso] gave himself the show at the Arts Council in 1950, I think it was, [which] had a very big impact on them. And it gives you a kind of painterly ground, doesn't it? It's something to do with painting that they wanted a white, a good white. And not just Picasso, the whole majolica tradition, which was about colour and vibrancy and spontaneity really in a way. But the ...
MP: Sorry, does the fact that you knew Bill, or Lucie with the previous pot, does it affect the way you engage with the work?
AB: It's difficult to be absolutely sure. It could be the other way around. No, it couldn't be the other way around with Bill, but I could have wanted to seek out a way of getting to know Lucie because I liked the work already. I think it's on the side, it's important, but it's important more in building up other layers of feeling. I can relate to objects when I don't know the person. This tradition again is connecting more directly into things that I care about and do than the Oriental tradition, or indeed the way that it was mixed with English. So there's a sort of urban thing in both this and the Lucie Rie that I connect with more easily.
MP: And I suppose it's less serious and more witty and ...
AB: Yes, it's playful, isn't it? Very playful. And that was something that he really stressed, that it was meant to be about pleasure and sensuality and enjoyment and fun, and decoration was to delight.
NB: Well, I take it it's thrown and assembled, but you wouldn't be able to tell from looking at the object. It could have been made any way, couldn't it really? And again this kind of pastiche of Picasso, yes, it was good to have a different viewpoint from the Leach and Staite-Murray at the time. Was it the 1950s?
NB: 1954. But again, go back to the Picasso. I know he didn't make those pieces in clay, he had his assistants to make them, but for me, for it to be thrown and put together, then I think it should speak about the process of being thrown and put together. I'm thinking of that Susan Halls piece [in the V&A] - is it the dog piece that you've got on? - that's [a] thrown and assembled piece. It speaks of throwing and it speaks about assembling.
[This] piece just is again dead clay, it's just overworked clay. It doesn't retain any sense of any spontaneity in the piece, and even the brush marks ... again the saving grace about some of the Picasso pieces is that kind of vigour with the painting. And again you've got this timid decoration on there. There's no kind of expression there. My mother used to have this yak that sat on the fireplace, and it was like one of those hairy giftware yaks with a wooden horn; now that's got more of an aesthetic to it than this piece. It's a difficulty, really, in not having the control of picking these objects because you are governed. It's my worst nightmare I think.
MP: Do you think it's bull-like?
NB: Well, I just can't see the point in it really. I mean, were they nicknamed the evening, not the educational institute group or the Institute of Education group ...
MP: Yeah, Bill Newland worked at the Institute of Education.
NB: Well it's the epitomy of evening class Institute for me, this piece. Sorry to be blunt with it but it doesn't... It could have been made in any other material other than clay. It's got no kind of clay aesthetic to it at all.
MP: Do you not think the tin-glazed ...
NB: I don't even think that's exciting enough to comment on. Go [and] have a look at some of that Renaissance tin-glaze and the quality of that, and the painting within that, the vigour, the kind of spontaneity within that. For me it doesn't have any of that. And these are things which I'm drawn to on a very personal level, which I suppose spur me on in terms of making. None of these objects so far have given me that instinct to want to go away to carry anything from the objects we've seen and to instill in what I do as a maker.
MP: I think that's ...
NB: I think going back to this piece, [video clip starts] I think part of it's not striking any kind of chords with me as a maker is that it sits halfway house between the industrial product and a thrown, expressive product. Now I'm not saying that that stuff in the middle doesn't have a value, it [just] doesn't have a value sometimes, and this is for me an example of it not having a value sometimes. Just going back to the industrially produced pieces there's a series of bulls by Arnold Machin - I'm sure there are pieces in the collection [at the V&A]. Now those, for me, again they talk about method of production, they are slip-cast objects, they're geared towards that method. They're decorated by decal or hand painted. The process fits the outcome. Now this for me doesn't really do the same thing. [video clip ends] And again I don't know whether ... did he see any Arnold Machin things before he started making these things, because ... are the Arnold Machin pieces mid-1940s?
EC: Yes, 'The Bull' by Bill Newland. When I was at school, which was in the 1950s, a very nice grammar school, they took the cases, which were circulating exhibitions from the Victoria and Albert Museum, and in one of them there was a bull. And I don't know whether it was this bull or a smaller version - he made many versions - but I just thought at the time what a wonderful object it was. It seemed to me to be so up to date, so clear and simple and, I don't know, it just seemed to me to be so thrilling. So when I see it I'm back in that art room in that grammar school in Derbyshire thinking and seeing that bull there and thinking about that. And this brings it back.
What is always a shock to me when I see this is how big this bull is. My memory is that it's always very much smaller, and he did make smaller versions, but this is actually quite a big piece and when you pick it up it's a tremendous weight which roots it. You know it's not a flimsy object. And you think, how did Bill Newland get to this understanding of what a bull was about? And I think that came around about through a whole variety of processes, but mostly about Picasso.
Picasso had started making his ceramics in Vallauris and working with this team of potters down there in the 1940s. They started to come over to this country in the early 1950s/late 1940s, and Bill Newland saw them and they were a tremendous revelation. They were in lots of ways part of the post war re-generation interest in developing abstract art, and you can see that there's a developing abstraction about this actual object, and about Picasso's view of himself, which was as a bull. And of all the animals that Picasso represented, whether modelling or painting onto pots or painting onto canvas, it was the bull. The bull was the quintessential creature which seemed to epitomise Spain, which he loved [and] which he couldn't live in because it was then dominated by Franco's government and he was totally, passionately anti-Fascist. And so the bull could remain as an emblem of Spain and also of Picasso himself.
Picasso got married many times, he had many relationships. It's very much a central part of his character that the bull, this creature which is enormously strong and serviced endless amounts of cows, can actually keep going forever and ever and ever. You know you have one bull and a huge herd, and this of course is lots of men's fantasy, that's what they want. And there it is embedded in this bull.
It is wonderful, it's got these amazing spiral designs, the spiral is another ancient device of course echoing back in the eons of time, representing sun, representing energy. And then the actual creature itself... this is a benign bull, this is not an aggressive bull. This is a bull which is actually being a bull but is not actually being bullish. It's quite a different sort of bull altogether. Look at it slightly leaning back, you know, it's almost on the point of moving forward. But this face is the face of a softie; it's not a hard bull this one, it's actually quite a softie. But the body itself [is] full of energy, it's not about what the bull looks like, it's not about the texture, the quality or the smell of a bull. It is actually an essence of bull, if you like. It's got this tremendous power in the feet, this feet moving forward like that, very rooted at the back, leaning forward at the front. Full of energy, full of movement, but not aggressive movement.
So it's the nice part of the bull, the part of the bull that everybody wants to caress in a way. And it's a challenge for the modern world. When this was made in the 1950s what was coming into vogue in London were all these wonderful coffee bars and they often put ceramics on the walls because they were colourful and available. There was still an element of rationing even then, there was still this idea [that] you didn't waste things.
[video clip starts] In the 1950s what was becoming very popular and very trendy in London were coffee bars, and they often used to put ceramics on the walls and people like Bill Newland got the job of doing these ceramics. They were colourful, they were bright, they were hard wearing. It's a pity that none of them, of course, have been kept because they just had a life, they went on for ten years and then that was the end of it. But this is part of that youthful movement and Bill Newland was a potter who was very much associated with the Central School in London. And that became, if you like, a focus for working in earthenware, working with colour, modelling animals, modelling tiles, all the things that Leach didn't do. You know Leach didn't do earthenware, he didn't model animals, they were not thought appropriate for some way. [video clip ends] He wouldn't have become involved with things like coffee bars because they didn't use greys and browns and muted softness, they wanted bright colours, they wanted to feel alive and this is how they thought of it. And in a way this bull encapsulates all that style and idea of the 1950s. And it's strong, it's powerful, it's looking forward, it's about then and there. Today you might feel it looks a bit dated, you might feel it's a bit too stylised, that in fact it, I don't know, it doesn't altogether work in the way that it appeared to work then. But it still is a tremendously strong piece encapsulating that new movement which was also an oppositional movement to the prevailing aesthetic which was dominated by Leach and his followers.
One of the things also about the bull is that it is a three dimensional object. You might be looking at it from one side, but as soon as you start to turn it around it works in all its different directions, so that we might tend to think of it as a shelf piece, and obviously that is the way you would look at it. And it works pretty well from the back as you can see. It's not quite as interesting as the front, but certainly from the front it's not uninteresting if you take it from that sort of angle where you've got the three quarter view. It's probably much more interesting than from the side. But it's an object which has actually got quite a subtle bit of movement within it. It's actually got a twist which comes like that and back again with a tail. So it's a very successful three dimensional object which is almost like a pot in that sense, which is very nice.
CC: I'm a lot more surprised and more impressed on first seeing it than I was [by] the image in Oliver Watson's book. It seemed less bull-like in the photograph and reminded me an awful lot of those 1950s decorative ornamentations, which I used to really dislike, until I gained a degree in Ceramics, I think. I started to look back on it. But it's all thrown this, I think, isn't it? I think it is all thrown, which makes it very successful in the fact that it's full of that volume that you get when you're throwing. And I'm not quite sure which way he would have done it, but it has a wonderful stance, it works really well from this view, [and] from the back view as well. It's also really obvious, the Picasso influence, [though it's a] very different kind of bull to [a] Picasso bull. And [it has a] really curious kind of decoration. I don't know whether it is plotting out the cuts of the bull or of meat, or is it purely decorative to just accentuate those more muscular areas of the figure?
[video clip starts] But I've always had a bit of a fear of animal ceramics, figurative ceramics, because sometimes they fail so much in doing anything for the actual animal itself, in representing what a living animal is. They become very sentimentalised. But this one doesn't seem to be. It's not too twee, considering the time it was made, as well. It still stands [as] very contemporary. There's some beautiful decoration there on the top, and that area there on the forehead, and that really describes that part of a bull's head as well, that flat forehead, that real area where you'd want to touch it. [video clip ends] And these very ridiculous horns, they're kind of absurd, really. I don't think horns actually do that do they? But he's very confident, male and rather well-endowed from this view. There's also this view, this angle from here, that sweeping line. It's very well considered. I'm just wondering how it was actually thrown, whether it was thrown in sections here and thrown; obviously that [section] is thrown that way. The legs are separate. But this seems to be one whole piece. I can't seem to find a dividing line. Do you know about this at all? What the decoration is?
MP: It's not clear what the decoration is at all.
CC: I think that's what's really curious about it is that abstract tatooing of the figure or of the bull. I'm just trying to think of Picasso's bulls as well and how we treat them three-dimensionally, I think, with clay as well, not flat pieces of clay, but also how he used it in terms of them being painted, and painted on his ceramic plates, and Picasso ceramic plates, and bull fights. There are some beautiful, beautiful illustrations. You get very different bulls again. This, I haven't seen this. This area here, I didn't see that it's actually pierced right into the inside, which is interesting in that it allows you a way into that volume. It is very dark, it's quite menacing in there, actually. For something that seems not very forceful, when you experience it in this kind of space it's actually quite a dominating figure.
It's got great stance, there's volume and there's weight that sits there. It's very well observed I think. And the only piece of modelling is these drawn lines, and where he's made the eyes into the body. It's the only area where he's actually had to ??? the clay with a tool to describe the kind of eye. Everything else is either thrown and assembled and then decorated. It's got a sense of humour as well. It's not taking itself far too seriously. Yes, I like it.
TH: Well, it fills you with happiness, doesn't it? It's so playful and bold. It's very much a piece of its time. I feel at home with it because I did get to know William Newland quite well, and he had a few pieces like this in his house where they looked very right. He had a lot of old oak furniture, it was hardly a modern setting, [with] old oak furniture [and] a lot of Staffordshire pottery into which pieces like this fitted very nicely. But the other kinds of place you'd see those pots would be exhibitions and places like The Studio Club, which he'd organised with his wife Margaret Hine and his chum Nicholas Vergette. That was a kind of rafish drinking club, and there's a wonderful photograph of a whole shelf of these kinds of pieces, all earthenware tin glaze, and they look as if they're dancing along the shelf.
But I suppose [that] if you didn't know William Newland and the history of it you'd wonder where on earth this came from. It seems so different to the pure forms of pre-war studio pottery. And it obviously has links with the Staffordshire ceramics industry, but obviously it was also inspired by the first sightings of pots made by Picasso in the south of France. And there's a similar context, I think, for Picasso's pots and these pots. Picasso made pots partly because he wanted to reach out to a much wider audience; I think that it was all slightly to do with his political allegiances at the time and he also wanted to provide work for people in the south of France. He'd fallen passionately for the south of France which was mostly to be his home from then on. And these pots also have a sort of democratising post-war socialist jollity about them, I think.
They couldn't be more different to, say, someone like William Staite-Murray's work. And in the kind of intercollegiate rivalry of London's art schools they stand for the ambitions and the lively way of thinking of Dora Billington, who never really liked Oriental-inspired pottery, never liked the great giants of the inter-war period's work that much. She thought there ought to be some kind of European-inspired, British-inspired tradition of ceramics and she was awfully keen on tin glaze. And William Newland came to pottery, I think, pretty much by chance. He was a New Zealander; interestingly enough he worked as a butcher and he used to drive great herds of cattle as a very young boy over the hills down to the markets in Wellington, so he has a bit of a feeling for animals. But he went to Chelsea School of Art, I think just for a bit of a laugh really after the war, because if [you] fought in the war - and he'd been a prisoner of war and he'd been very, very brave in all sorts of ways - you got a grant to go to art school.
It was the first real influx of people of all classes and backgrounds into British art schools. And then he thought he'd do a teacher training course and then he discovered he had this amazing facility for throwing, and [video clip starts] this is all thrown and some of it's pulled like the tail and the horns, but it's all been thrown in little parts and luted together. So, as regards skill, he's streets ahead of Picasso who never actually threw his work, or made it. He may have altered it. He never did anything as sophisticated as this. And in a way this is like a Picasso drawing turned into a pot more than actually being like a Picasso pot. And I love the way he's decorated it, because some of it makes me think of quite a different set of people, people like Nigel Henderson and Eduardo Paolozzi who were really interested in organic form, shells, the whorl of a shell, the interior of a shell or micro-photography, [video clip ends] shell structures.
And although this is really rather a decorative kind of treatment, his close friend and pupil James Tower went on to use this form of decoration in a much more abstract kind of way, rather drawing on things like cell structures and high speed photography and micro-photography, all the things that really interested Richard Hamilton and the Independent Group, and went into that marvellous exhibition at the RCA called 'Growth and Form'. But this sort of work was intended to bring universal pleasure, and a lot of his commissions were to do work for coffee bars and schools. He actually would produce not exactly multiples, but lots of versions of the same sorts of things; bulls, Madonnas, children in the flight from Egypt, the Madonna and child on a donkey, and these were bought by schools. [Some] of his big patrons were the schools in Leicestershire, and although these pieces are horribly neglected now - you find them in the back of the library, badly chipped - you can see the impact they would have made on young people. They brought Continental painting and sculpture to children in an incredibly accessible way. And his wife was... her work was equally fine.
MP: Do you think the choice of tin glaze, which Hine, Vergette and Newland tended to concentrate on in that period, was because of the ability to get particular colours, or for other reasons?
TH: I suppose you have a much bigger, brighter palette, probably. But it just seems to work perfectly, doesn't it? And it would have at a glance separated them off from all the other pre-war studio potters, whether working in earthenware and slipware English tradition, or working with stoneware. There's something so bright and playful, and it's not specifically Mediterranean or anything, but it was a form of decoration that Dora Billington had already written about before the war as having huge possibilities. And it obviously can be dealt with in all sorts of different ways. Someone like Alan Caiger-Smith went off in a kind of lustreware direction, making it into a very grand, remote form of decoration. But this is accessible and playful isn't it? But without being in any way banal. So it's a really powerful creation.
OW: This is one of the pieces I have quite a lot of problem over, actually, because before I met Bill Newland - then I realised I really like this piece because he was such a great guy - I really hated this piece. And the interesting thing is because it seems to be part of something which, when I was growing up in my family, would have been considered very vulgar and very naff. And it is all to do with that sort of 1950s coffee bar aesthetic that came around then, that certainly in my family was not thought to be not what one should look at. But it's actually very interesting, the thing is in its technique, this tin glaze earthenware with tin glaze painting. It's a conscious rejection of all that Oriental tradition of the earlier generations of Leach and Staite-Murray and so forth, and is consciously looking at the Mediterranean tradition of the Italian and French tin glaze tradition that comes from England ...
It was actually a conscious rejection of the Far Eastern traditions adopted by Leach and Staite-Murray of the early generation and is a celebration of Mediterranean culture, of Italy and Spain and France. And of course my family were busily taking in that acceptance of the Mediterranean - Mediterranean holidays and Elizabeth David cooking - and this was made in the same year that she published 'Italian Food'. We used to go to Soho to find bits of parmesan and things like that, which were very exotic. Yet the connection between that and this aesthetic was never quite made. It's an interesting thing. I find it mostly interesting from its technical point of view, where it's looking back to. It's all made of thrown pieces, it's not a head, and that it is so much the kind of thing that the Leach and his school would have completely hated as an object. They were very popular at the time, I suppose for decorating both coffee bars themselves and people's houses who adopted that sort of thing, but it's so very, very of its period.
MP: Is it acknowledging Picasso to some extent?
OW: Yes, I'm sure that's true. The Picasso exhibition which included ceramics shortly after the war, in the country that had a big impact on a number of potters and Bill Newland's part of a whole movement, a whole group of people who at that time were quite prominent and successful, and then their history got over-washed by the success of the Leach school and so forth, and other things that came along. We've only been rediscovering it again. Yes, I suppose so. I mean, it's not actually very Picasso-like, is it? It's rather that rather sentimentalised abstraction, very typical of this period.
MP: What was it about Bill Newland that made you begin to reappraise what you thought of pots like this?
OW: [video clip starts] I suppose it's the passion that he put into it, the belief he had. I'd envisaged an entirely different kind of person who might have made this, not a big, full-blooded roaring sort of bull-like man, that he was. And seeing that in the context with his other work. And this is all saying, well... the potter... you start adjusting your views to the pot. And how difficult it is to take one object, and we don't have many pieces by Bill Newland in our collection. I hadn't seen many. They were not around to be seen until quite recently. This was kept in a store room at the V&A, it wasn't out on display. And when you see only one or two pieces like this it's very difficult to find the right context for it. [video clip ends] I love it in a sense of understanding its context, of its place, of what it meant in its time and so forth. And if I found one in a junk shop, boy, I'd snap it up and have it at home with great delight. Whether I actually like it though is a different question.