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.