Emmanuel Cooper on William Newland
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.