Neil Brownsword was our V&A Korea UK Ceramics Resident from October 2017 – March 2018. His work is represented in public/private collections internationally, including the Victoria and Albert Museum, Korea Ceramic Foundation, Yingee Ceramic Museum Taiwan and Fu Le International Ceramic Art Museum China. In 2009, he was awarded the inaugural British Ceramic Biennial Award, and the prestigious Grand Prize at the Gyeonggi International Ceramic Biennale, South Korea in 2015. He holds a PhD from Brunel University and MA in Ceramics and Glass from the Royal College of Art, London, and is a Professor of Ceramics at Bucks New University and University of Bergen, Norway.
Brownsword began his career in ceramics as an apprentice modeller at the Wedgwood Factory in 1987, and it is this formative experience in industry that remains a constant point of reference in his work. His practice examines the legacy of globalisation in relation to Stoke-on-Trent’s ceramic manufacturing sector, and the impact this has had upon people, place and traditional skills. Using film and performative installation Brownsword deconstructs complex craft knowledge within industrial production to pose questions surrounding the value of intergenerational skill. The following essay by Dr Ezra Shales, published to document Brownsword’s FACTORY project 24.04 – 28.05. 2017 at the Korea Ceramic Foundation provides a broader insight into his practice.
Soil So Good: Neil Brownsword’s Reinventions
I saw the field was spacious and the soil so good as to promise an ample recompense to any who should labour diligently in it’s cultivation – Josiah Wedgwood
For the sake of alliteration as well as the productive confusion between an eighteenth-century metaphor and a contemporary euphemism, the neologism ‘brownfield’ is as good a contradiction as any to contextualize the work of Neil Brownsword: he envisions clay to be ripe for cultural creation, whether it’s a derelict zone contaminated by factory use or a shovel-full dug freshly from a local bed. The wasted rubble of factories in Stoke-on-Trent and the accessible veins of silken red marl holes constitute both his childhood and adult turf – he has not moved away and is not a visitor bombing in and out. His backyard is a brownfield and both dear as well as foreboding – and an unusual mixture of unrepeatable glorious history and unreliable futures.
Weasel-like words such as ‘brownfield’ and ‘cultural-regeneration’ get to the heart of our predicament today, when we are anxious, unsure of progress, and tentative in our understanding of our temporal trajectory. Of American origins, the term has become standard British bureaucratic vocabulary to express grim post-industrial landscapes tainted by toxic waste such as mercury and other metals. The artist who looks on this as a milieu is both opportunist and pragmatic. Brownsword is more complex than most because he is not a voyeur but always mindful of his feet and working on his homeland. Moreover, his medium is earthwork, clay, a material that has literal qualities and metaphorical capabilities that the word ‘brownfield’ can never match. Soil has these enigmatic meanings. It can signify terrior, the taste intrinsic to a region, as well as mere dirt – ‘matter out of place,’ to quote anthropologist Mary Douglas. Clay is neither pure nor without dangers, and for Brownsword the essential fact is that clay is not something purchased like a can of soup or some other predictable routinized thing but his forbears’ livelihood, and a medium which he himself has been swimming in daily and mindful of since a child.
If it is enigmatic or seems a dramatic jump to think of Neil Brownsword in relation to Josiah Wedgwood’s optimistic eighteenth-century description of his role in what Neil Mackendrick called ‘the commercialization of the potteries,’ one must accept that most great artists respond to the essence of their time if they are of it and not merely make a hash of earlier epochs. A proper appreciation of Wedgwood’s integration of the metaphors of agriculture and manufacture as acts of cultivation pivots on the knowledge that the eighteenth-century child born in Burslem truly understood himself to be harvesting the bounty of the soil and his homeland, and maximizing its alchemical properties in his transformation of earthenware. Moreover, the description jumped over the thorny issues of trade and artisans, and issues of class, to feign simplicity and Biblical clarity. For Anglo Saxon Christians, to farm was always a blessed moral type of cultivation, whereas to engage in common trade was dirtying. Over-cultivation was hedonistic and another danger, and prompted Wedgwood’s contemporary in North America, President John Adam (1735-1826) (who saw himself as culturally British) to condemn ‘Parade, Pomp, Nonsense, Frippery, Folly, Foppery, Luxury’—especially white wigs, porcelain, and marble mantels and floors. Adams considered it necessary that he himself study math and war and politics, and for his children to expand that curriculum to include ‘geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture,’ but saw ‘painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain’ as tertiary additions to life. Jefferson imported Sèvres vases into the White House.
Wedgwood never dropped utility ware despite inventing new bodies and chemical colorants. If the arts and humanities are still considered unnecessary condiments by many today, Brownsword’s role as a champion of Staffordshire and his activism on behalf of the potteries should be understood to be as vigorous as Wedgwood’s: the brownfields are worthy of our reflection and are our inheritance as much as the rows of artefacts in museum vitrines. Brownsword values both the coarse saggars in which fine ware was fired as well as the dainty porcelain flowers now out of fashion: they are not diametrically opposed aesthetics but variants of labour, residual evidence of the story of artisanal skills enmeshed in piece work.
What if we took other aspects of Wedgwood’s life as ways to think through Brownsword’s? What might the great initial winding up of the pottery industry mirror in its unwinding? What was the “spacious field” that Wedgwood saw? Mackendrick depicts Josiah as ‘management’- but today we have reconciled ourselves to understand that most innovation requires human maintenance – all artificial intelligence increases the need for human cogs to grease the machines, to turn into quality control. Wedgwood was trained as a thrower but introduced a new scale of moulding hitherto unpractised, meaning he both valued ‘work’ as well as was able to break its routines, see it from a bird’s eye or worm’s eye perspective instead of purely within. His drive to “make such machines of men as will not err” is usually characterized as a dehumanization of individuality and eradication of self-expression, but what if such a strategic turn is instead considered as a restructuring of virtuosity and human resources into new scales of resourcefulness? In a sense, he developed and dialed up interdependence, the performance of live entities into greater combinations of specialized knowledge. Stoke had already accumulated over a century of skill by Wedgwood’s time and traditions of apprenticeship – and emerged as an industrial centre. He did not cast aside or rupture the trans-generational acquisition of knowledge so much as see it as ripe for yet another disruptive expansion (or expansive disruption). Those of us who know the assemblage of hundreds of sprig-moulded quatrefoil decorations onto a mug was a hundredfold increase of manual virtuosity spent on a single object cannot see Wedgwood’s new decorations as a diminishment of skill. Wedgwood’s opportunism charged onwards, as he ‘imagineered’ new possibilities for the mug to be as enriched as any art work. Certainly, he was more focused on novelties and innovations than he was focused on preserving disintegrating older guild structures and conventions.
Brownsword’s own apprenticeship in the industry – at Wedgwood, in fact, focused on explicit material knowledge and transpired in advance of computer-aided design and computer-aided manufacturing (CADCAM). He worked alongside modellers and mould makers of the highest calibre in a government sponsored program to inject youth into an aging field of labourers. Romantic craft historians have regarded individual studio potters, such as Leach and Cardew, as contrarians pitted against the factories like Wedgwood and Doulton. In such studio craft histories, there are certain repeated clichés: standardization is the enemy of creativity, for instance. Cardew publicly decried the ‘soulless mechanical’ quality of British industrially manufactured ceramic tableware—but what Brownsword learned is that the factory workers who were his mates, like Kevin Wood, were highly skilled artisans who took pride in their abilities to create models and moulds, to trouble-shoot solutions to designs that had too sharp a corner, for instance. What Brownsword had learned at schools, a long and enduring argument mostly framed by upper-class armchair art historians and repeated throughout the twentieth century, claimed that technocratic systems of knowledge are diametrically opposed to craftoriented methods and manners of working. This opposition between authentic and inauthentic pottery rang slightly hollow to Brownsword – it was largely a comparison of class and status. Looking backwards into history with more personal intensity, he began to ask himself about shifts in knowledge. What did the first generation of Staffordshire workers think of the Elers in the 1690s, when these silversmiths began to mount pots on horizontal lathes? Or what did the larger network of potters win when the Elers introduced and transferred precision mould making into Staffordshire? The skill of hand throwing had already been challenged long ago – and new skills grew alongside it sated new desires and new consumers and spread like osmosis.
When Neil began to first exhibit ceramic art, he fashioned potshards into figurative stories, and if his work has shifted genres into a landscape (or assemblage) of kiln furniture, archaeological waste sites, and issues of labour, it is still the granular sharp-edged fragment that is at the heart of his work as a unit of tactile force. Acre-deep of piles of broken bits, ‘shraff’, lie underfoot, under house and under the parks and streets of Stoke: such ruin was always a part of production, perhaps one could even say it was proof of meticulous and dogged pursuit of some ethereal standard. One of the things Neil first shared with me was his fondness for Enoch Wood’s saggar of over-fired black basalt ware: the contemporary of Wedgwood had carefully buried and preserved his own failures as a time capsule of effort, a fingerprint of a moment. Such preservation suggests Wood did not see it purely as failure; the ruin was a worthwhile catastrophe of which he was proud. The fragment and ruin have long been genres in art, but Enoch Wood comes closer to illuminating Brownswords Salvage Series (2005-8) than Richard Wentworth’s detritus or Rachel Whiteread’s impressions of demolished homes: the ceramic sherd is valued as a piece of labour to commune with the past on equal footing. It is also a window into the majestic hives of industry that now have been bulldozed and paved for new supermarket centres in Stoke. Brownsword grew up with the factories on the horizon as exemplars of what once was. It is a past that now is less visible and which the sherd now stands for as a metonym.
If the romantic ruin is primarily picturesque in art, Brownsword endeavours to make it tactile and a refraction of communal lives: re-firing appropriated and found fragments, his work in the brownfield extends to interviews with factory workers. His impressive PhD and dissertation was the least self-centred of any practice-based doctorates, as he did not turn a focus onto his own studio space but on his civic landscape. His interviews with factory workers treated them with respect. To put this in Victorian or Edwardian terms, he regarded the Wedgwood employee as an artisan, not a mere mechanic. His interviews captured many nuances and subtleties of factory work. He asked sprig-mould maker Lewis Howard why pitcher moulds were a consistent thickness and learned that the width was somewhat arbitrary, as he used the width of his forefinger as a gauge. Such information is only rarely recorded about factory production, and such skilled work is often threatening to artists unwilling to admit their reliance on fabricators. Tanya Harrod, the author of one of the finest interpretive essays on Brownsword, has noted, ‘most artists cling passionately to their authorial status and that relations between ideas and outcomes have never been more problematic’ I. By offering a shers and a video of a china painter or flower maker, Brownsword gives us evidence, art that is archaeology. Brownsword’s arrangements of fragments are not spectacular and he does not treat the broken bit of labour as a saintly reliquary worthy of worship. His taxonomy is akin to the natural history museum more than the art museum.
Brownsword’s National Treasure (2013/15) is an explicit expression of respect for industrial labour and skill that is a still living past. Turning a video camera on china painter Tony Challiner, a craftsman with five decades of experience, Brownsword rescued skill from our amnesiac collective mind, proving that the old hand was still far from disappeared. The title also explicitly looks to the east, to Japan, where craftspeople are considered patrimony. Why do we relegate the industrial craftsman to the waste bin, Brownsword asks – is it only because a corporate manager has no ability to perceive a way to monetize such skill? Hiring Challiner himself, Brownsword choreographed a performance of remembering and re-enactment in the derelict Josiah Spode factory. Satirizing contemporary versions of the “factory tour” possible at Portmeirion and Wedgwood, where one sees a bit of embalmed craft and is enticed to buy goods largely made elsewhere, out of sight, even on another continent, Brownsword reclaimed the brownfield as still worthy of reseeding and regeneration in its own right and on its own terms. His sacrifice did not cloud Challiner’s. National Treasure also argues that human lives are a collage of technologies – a phenomenon sometimes called uneven modernization. The industrial and archaic sit uneasily together, flummoxing ‘progress.’ The china painter remains a technology of grinding pigments and knowing how to suspend them in anise oil. If we are estranged from Challiner aesthetically, historically, or technically, that is our mental problem, not his.
Brownsword’s more recent project, Re-apprenticed, is even more open-minded, almost an act of endurance of one sees if purely in relation of contemporary art and not as a civic participation in the factory ideal. In historical terms, Brownsword is rebuilding a network of older pathways of guild traditions of distinct, variegated specialization and expertise: he is learning from a copperplate engraver, a plaster mould maker, a china flower maker, and Challiner. He is not returning to some Edenic past but celebrating the division of labour and the factory as Wedgwood made it, where a caster would cast, a modeller would model, and never would specialization be broached. On the one hand, he is questioning their devaluation in today’s technological culture, and even countering it with preservation and retention. On the other hand, he is countering the academic institutionalization of art, in which book learning and conceptual storytelling trump a commitment to specific materials and specific places. Instead of the avant-garde Oedipal instinct that is so often a spectacle in the contemporary art museum, Brownsword’s intention lies in pure experience and historical communion – ideas that are rarely considered within the purview of art-for-art’s-sake, but which merit the same breathing room. The past is not a foreign country to visit as voyeurs but contemporary wreckage with which we must grapple.
In bringing the Re-apprenticed project to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, flower maker Rita Floyd demonstrated the ease of her mastery and the wanton disregard of her labour: she made daisies out of bone china, and then tossed these unceremoniously onto a kiln shelf, her fourplus decades of work with Adderley Floral and Royal Doulton amounting to a tangled fallen bramble. This is not a metaphor but how skilled artisans are actually treated. Rita’s hands began to memorize floral patterns at age fifteen, when she apprenticed among a table of older women and began to get paid by the flower. Calculate how many of her flowers are strewn across the world: she averaged between thirty-five and forty dozen each day. Being paid by the piece increased her pace of production. None of the thousands of flowers made by Rita to adorn domestic mantelpieces bear her signature; instead the firm’s name was stamped upon them. But her fingerprints are on each petal, and no matter how easy she makes the work appear, her crisp and springy narcissus or carnation requires fine fingers both trained and smart. The deliberate discard of these flowers reflects the ways we have laid waste to the land after forcing flowers and food from it mercilessly. We are unaccustomed to such a sight of failure; ancient potters like Wedgwood were not. As a chemist, Wedgwood probably had a success rate of utilizing one in five hundred glaze samples, whereas that sort of rate of unproductive labour would break the psyche of most artists, designers or craftspeople today, who save the majority of what they make and churn out a portfolio of digital images if not sellable objects from a month’s labour. We also tire of a body of work with whim; Rita suggests the carnation will always be necessary, always a symbol and ornament.
Brownsword’s re-enactment brings to mind George Kubler’s interest in alternative trajectories of material and meaning in his magisterial book The Shape of Time (1964). Kubler questions if the process of ‘discard’ is as important or more so than ‘invention.’ In fact, we humans discard or fail to capitalize on most inventions and turn fairly select tools into mainstream innovations. Kubler asks what sort of visual map of forms might be made if we thought about the things we got rid of and failed to include in museums and canonical art history. Brownsword’s earlier Marl Hole (2008) brought together several contemporary ceramic artists to engage in post-studio investigation of a brick clay pit, but it could just as easily be seen as ‘pre-studio’ ceramic art. Marl Hole returned a cadre of academically trained artists to work without their traditional tools or studios, and to handle the muck, dust and rock-like clay in its varied states as a direct encounter. In a sense, artists were returned to work like toddlers in a sandbox, and to push the constraints if material in fresh ways. Given this exercise, it is impossible to state that Brownsword is purely recuperating tradition in his work. If many artists are using the archival impulse to catalogue the past, Brownsword’s oeuvre always insistently inhabits the present.
Setting up contemporary factories that only produce knowledge, tactile pleasure, and noncommercialized materials, Brownsword is questioning many of the fundamentals of several discredited institutions: the capitalist art market, the frigid exploitation of heritage, and the mind-numbing bureaucratization of art education. Instilling inquiry with an ethical sensitivity towards living labour, he counters the rampant exploitation of most artists and factories. In his next projects, taking a factory to Korea, and elsewhere, it will be exciting to see the ways his knowledge production collides with global audiences. If most critics have characterized Brownsword as eulogizing the past, I would argue that his work overall does the opposite, trudging on, always presenting art as an activity conducted in a brownfield, never the proverbial ‘blank slate’ or ‘empty canvas.’ This is a timely readjustment more of us in the world could make. The brownfield cannot actually grow edible foods, but humans have always built wastelands and then reconciled themselves to discovering ways of reusing lost worlds when they need most to invent new ones. Brownsword’s gift is to see his local brownfield as spacious and welcoming for us all to enter and reflect upon: that is soil good enough. Surely the very action of “diligent labour” in clay, be it a sherd or kiln brick, is still worth our while. To admire heaps of twisted flowers made by a factory hand, cut off from a proper manufacturing body is to realize that humanity is perceptible in brownfields. Surely, we commune with the clay, with Rita, and with what it means to be human in these flowers in a manner that defies monuments preserved in the hothouse of white-walled museums. Let us cultivate our brownfields.
Ezra Shales is a curator, art historian and professor at Massachusetts College of Art and Design in Boston whose research dismantles the divisions between art, artisanship, and industry. He is the author of Made in Newark: Cultivating Industrial Arts and Civic Identity in the Progressive Era (Rutgers University Press, 2010) and The Shape of Craft (Reaktion Books, 2018) .
I. Harrod, T., The Real Thing, London: Hyphen Press, 2015, p. 155. The collection of essays includes Harrod’s essay on Brownsword, ‘Memory-Work,’ pp. 71-75.