Emmanuel Cooper on William Staite-Murray
EC: It's a very impressive piece of pottery. As I said I'm writing this biography of Bernard Leach, and there was always a very odd relationship between them in the 1920s and going on into the 1930s. Bernard Leach saw himself as a competitor and they both in fact wanted to become the Head of the Ceramics Department of the Royal College of Art, and in the end William Staite-Murray became Head and Bernard Leach didn't. And this led to terrible friction between them.
But nevertheless Leach was a great admirer of William Staite-Murray, and in lots of ways William Staite-Murray was in a better position to take over the job at the Royal College of Art because he had a very much more clearly worked out ideology, if you like, and that was that he only wanted to make pots which were works of art, so that they were all given titles. He wasn't interested in making functional pots at all. He didn't want to make cups and saucers. He didn't want to make both sorts of ware. He didn't see himself as anything like the artisan tradition, he saw himself as an artist. He was a member of various artistic groups in London, and this is where he showed his work. Indeed, he showed it in art galleries alongside work by people like Ben Nicholson, Christopher Wood and various other artists at the time: quite major artists, not insignificant artists, quite major galleries. And he charged a lot for his pots, which was another great source of discontent for Bernard Leach because he was rather jealous that he wasn't getting the same price.
And so this pot in a way is a very typical William Staite-Murray pot from his rather late period. His earlier period sometimes gets a bit messy, sometimes gets bit too lewd, sometimes gets a bit out of control, but you feel that there's a very conscious way of throwing this pot which gives you something like a figure, so that it is actually resembling a figure. And, of course, the classic way of describing a pot is in terms of its shoulder, its belly and its foot and its neck and so on, in terms of the human body. [video clip starts] Here he's taken an ancient classical subject, Madonna and Child, which you can see incised into the clay under here. It's not particularly sophisticated drawing, although it is actually inscribed, I think, touching it, but here you can see them if you look carefully, and of course he's dressed the Madonna with these spots of copper which have come out red, and a little bit of blue at the top. So it's a semi-abstract piece which, when you look at it, you can just begin to see the qualities of it. You can either see it as a Madonna... he's directed our attention, you know. He says this is Madonna so we start to look at it as Madonna. If we haven't looked at the label we might very easily miss this decoration [video clip ends] and just look at it as an abstract pattern, a sort of rites of Spring pattern, dappled leaves, sunlight falling through, falling on to it.
And there's an odd relationship I think between the patterning, this falling pattern and the actual form of the piece itself. But it's an interesting relationship. It's not something which jars particularly, but it's not immediately obvious. You've got to start working out what it is that's going on, and what's going on in the actual piece itself. The colours go together. I mean, it's an odd thing to say but what we can say is that the colours are harmonious. They're not always harmonious, and interestingly it avoids the brown. It goes for this dark, purplish, pinky colour and the blue, and then the grey background is quite nice not to have the brown away from that. Because William Staite-Murray, like Bernard Leach, fired in a reduction kiln, [and] this is the result which he tended to get.
Like Bernard Leach, William Staite-Murray was greatly influenced by oriental art and he was very envious of Bernard Leach because he had studied in the Orient. He was the authentic potter in that sense and William Staite-Murray had only learnt it in this country. And so for a time they were friends in the early 1920s, and William Staite-Murray went down to Bernard Leach's pottery and then he learnt how to turn a foot ring, because he'd only ever seen oriental pots in museum collections and he'd never actually seen the foot ring. He'd never examined it, and Bernard Leach showed him how to do it.
William Staite-Murray met Shoji Hamada who was over at that point helping Bernard Leach at St Ives, and Hamada, of course, was the real authentic Japanese potter and they got on very well together. And William Staite-Murray endlessly picked Hamada's brains about thowing and he tried to throw on Hamada's Japanese kick wheel and found it very, very difficult, and he didn't give up even though his face it is said became as red as a turkey cock, which is quite a nice image because he was rather a pristine Scot, of Scottish descent. His father had been a dealer in, I think, tulip bulbs and various other things, and [Staite-Murray] was made to go to the family firm, but broke away and became an artist. But the whole thing for me forms a unity which I like very much. I'm not a great fan of William Staite-Murray, in fact I actually prefer Bernard Leach because in a way Leach has a humanitarian quality which I think Staite-Murray doesn't. I feel it's all a little bit too self-conscious. But he was trying to, and he did, actually forge a path for studio potters that said you can make art objects, and Bernard Leach I think hovered in a way that William Staite-Murray didn't and so in that sense he was a very important pioneer.
One of the things about Staite-Murray was that he had an enormous influence on one section of potters in the 1920s and the 1930s. As Head of the Royal College of Art he was in London, he was on site, he was showing in major galleries and he ran a ceramics course at the Royal College of Art. And although he had this odd reputation of teaching by silence - you know he would walk into the studio and look at them and then say nothing so that the students had to think, 'God, what? What? What? What?' - nevertheless he was very interested in oriental ideas. He was a Buddhist. He enthused this idea of the pot as a work of art and people like Henry Hammond and R D Washington and many other students went through.
The only problem was that they all made pots like William Staite-Murray, so that sometimes you can put them by the side of a William Staite-Murray and hardly tell them apart. People might say that about Bernard Leach, but I think because Staite-Murray's ideas were so much clearer it became very difficult for students to break away. And although they were well imbued with the idea that they could make works of art, in fact they got landed with it, they got saddled with it. R D Washington made pots like William Staite-Murray really for most of his life, and in the end broke away. Henry Hammond made pots. I mean he was a major influence, but in fact the influence when you look was wider than that. It wasn't just that he wanted them to make pots like him. It was in the way of thinking about pots, and this was very important.