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OW: Well, this is an entirely different category from the Bernard Leach cup and saucer. [video clip starts] The thing which really interests me about Staite-Murray, the question one has to ask, is what would have happened to him or his reputation if Leach hadn't gone on to become really famous and dominant in the 1950s. Because the interesting thing - and it's sometimes difficult to grasp now - is that in the 1920s and 1930s he was by far the more famous, the more high profile, the more successful potter, much more than Leach. There's the famous thing in the 1925 Paris Exhibition where the British reporters come back mentioning Staite-Murray and Gwendoline Parnell, [they] singled them out particularly and Leach was just listed with a number of other names as other potters who also showed good work. [video clip ends]
And then Staite-Murray got the Professorship of the Royal College. And he used to be much more successful in the sales rooms. His shows often had many more pots than Leach's and although it's not true that everything that he sold cost a hundred guineas and everything Leach sold was very cheap, he certainly sold at higher prices than Leach. This piece, for instance, I think in the sale was listed at sixty guineas which was an astonishingly high price then. I think Leach in 1930 was hoping for a weekly salary himself of five pounds to support him and his family and children, and that is considerably more I think in those days than the ... what was it we paid? £360 in the 1970s for it.
If one's going to compare him to Leach, [it] inevitably shows in a sense what a professional Staite-Murray was. I don't think Leach could have thrown a pot of this size. Technically this is a very sure bit of throwing; you might not like the shape but that's how he meant it to be, this shape, that's what he wanted. It's a very sure piece of throwing, it's technically very well made, good quality stoneware, well-fired, everything under control. And if you contrast that with Leach, [he's] still struggling with his great big kiln [and] getting very, very varied results out.
There are interesting parallels. They're both similarly interested in Eastern mysticism, in Chinese wares of the classic period. It's looking back, I suppose, vaguely to Sung pieces, but them taking a very different take on it, [with] Leach in a sense producing reproductions almost of early pieces, [against] Staite-Murray taking it as a basis for his own development, and the shape echoes something vaguely Chinese but it's certainly not a copy. And things in this very dramatically emphasised foot, some might even say ungainly. This is not a shape that would have fitted Leach's definition of vital form and so forth. And then the drawing on it [is] in entirely unoriental mode, and he's linking in much more with other contemporary British, English art at that time, I think. But still with the same hooks back into the pieces from the past that Leach had. Staite-Murray was very friendly with Uma Thopolos, the great collector of Chinese things, and went to visit his collection and saw real things which he was able to handle. I think in a funny way much more than Leach did - sitting down in St Ives [he] was so deprived of so many resources. It's funny, it's rather unfashionable wear and Staite-Murray's always struggled, I think, to find the appreciation. And I find this a bit difficult to take in. I find it very much of its period. It's not something that.. But no, I admire him as a potter and I like that as a pot.
MP: What do you think of the decoration?
OW: Not my taste really. As a curator, though, you have a whole series of layers on which you appreciate things. I admire and appreciate this because it is by a man who was important, we know where it fits in, that it was in that sale, that it was given a name, that it's a documentary piece. It's a very fine bit of potting as well. As I said, it has its importance there and that's still something that resonates. There's a very different layer of me that says, 'Would I actually prefer this or something else on my mantlepiece at home?' And there are other pieces by him that I prefer to this. It's a bit figurative, but there are other pieces of his that I find so extraordinary still.