Emmanuel Cooper on Alison Britton
EC: 'Big White Jug', yes, and it is indeed a big, white jug. It must be, what, fifteen, sixteen, seventeen inches tall. Quite a big, white jug. And although it's called 'Big White Jug' it actually has got that slightly oriental look. The use of the blue and the white takes us straight back to Ming, takes us straight back to the Willow patterns of Staffordshire, which of course came from Ming. And it's interesting that I'm sure it's totally unconscious that there is that reference within this piece.
But again, like Elizabeth Fritsch, Alison Britton was part of the renaissance of crafts in the 1970s when it was a break away from tradition. It was actually looking at the world in which we lived, it was actually responding to the visual art world. It was being part of the visual art world. It wasn't staying in the little compartment called 'craft' which had been carved out for it. It was actually pushing out of that. And one of the strong things, I think, about Alison Britton's work is the fact that she has taken an object, a domestic object like a jug, which again if you like can be seen as a metaphor for plenty, for holding, for nourishing. [It] goes in the centre of the table, it can hold water, wine, beer, but the jug that's used in paintings to symbolise plenty, again, is a domestic icon at the same time. It's something that we use, but here she uses it as a metaphor if you like for all the jugs she's ever known, and it becomes about a jug.
But it suddenly also becomes about something else because we realise that we're dealing with a form which is actually built of different facets. And the way that it's been built up, usually she makes slabs of clay, cuts them out and here she's assembled them. So that it's got this rock-like character. It looks like it's actually hewn out of rock, and that gives it this enormous strength, this enormous sense of solidity, and when you look at it from the outside I get the feeling that it looks enormously strong, enormously heavy and enormously rooted. But then you look more carefully and you start to turn it round a bit and you see that in fact it's got a big cut away under here, and that cut away, [and] suddenly you get a tiny little base from here, and this big overhang here, which is balanced by the handle here. And what looks precise and solid is actually a little bit wobbly and not quite so certain as it might first look. And that sense of transigence, that sense of movement, that sense that things might look solid and be rooted in one place, actually might at any moment move off, is, I think, one of the great strengths of her work.
She's continued to make jugs of various sorts since she was a student at the Royal College of Art and they've become more and more sculptural. And they've got more and more sculptural over the last fifteen years since she made this jug, but I particularly like this piece. I don't like them all, I find some work better than others. And again, the more you look at [it] the more you get, because if you look, for example, at the actual decoration on it, you'll see that you've got all these white lines which are actually part of a decoration. They're not, it's not a plain white surface that you might at first imagine, so you've got this zigzag here, but it's a very quiet zigzag, but again it starts to work into the surface itself, and here you've got ... I suppose the fashionable term would be painterly surfaces. So that there is this strong understanding of form. There's this great shift of movement, of energy if you like, leaching, leering, pushing forward, but then you've got a concern with the surface.
Now you might say Alison, don't paint, don't decorate, leave it plain and see what happens, but she doesn't want to do that, that's not what the work is about. The work is about actual working with the qualities that clay can bring, that slips can bring, that the blue cobalt can bring, and adding up to a richness. Now the richness lies in the form itself, in the actual references that jugs are making and in the sense, this sense of uncertainty that we all might have in our lives, certainly at some time if not all the time.
And when you look at the top you get the jug like that and it becomes quite an exciting, but really quite angry line. [video clip starts] It zigzags about like that. And so the whole jug is actually slightly more disturbing, the more you look at it and the more you move around it, than you might first see. And just to finish, the handle, which is made by a completely different method, is twisted rather like material, it looks rather like fabric. And it's all, again, slightly difficult, it's not a smooth flowing thing, it's about anxiety, and I think that's what this jug is. It should be called 'A Jug About Anxiety' because it seems to me that that's what it's about. And at the same time it's a jug. And that is a very nice paradox. [video clip ends]