Ceramics 101: British Studio Pottery

British pottery has been enjoying something of a renaissance with collectors and critics. Once dismissed as simply ‘pots’, studio ceramics have now been rightfully recognized as a form of art in itself. Here are 10 of the pioneers of this field. 

A shelf in the Leach Pottery Museum and Gallery, St Ives, Cornwall. Photo via Wikimedia Commons / Licence CC BY 2.0 (detail)
A shelf in the Leach Pottery Museum and Gallery, St Ives, Cornwall. Photo via Wikimedia Commons / Licence CC BY 2.0 (detail)

For a hundred years studio pottery has brought as much vitality as conflict to British visual art. Some of the best-known British potters were in constant dialogue with the visual traditions of sculpture, painting, literature, and architecture, but were at times thought to be nothing more than craftsmen. Some fought to make their medium and form be considered fine art, some thought pottery should remain functional and accessible. Debates ran on and dogmas were established. Most of the greats who have achieved master status saw something in pottery beside the craft – something of a lifestyle and philosophy. Here are 10 British potters who have left a mark on the history of British pottery.

Related: Staffordshire Pottery: Britain's Ceramic Center

1. Bernard Leach

Bernard Leach (1887-1979) was a British studio potter and art teacher considered by many to be the ‘Father’ of British studio pottery. He was originally born in Hong Kong and also lived in Japan. In 1920 he was asked to return to England by Frances Horne, who was establishing a Guild of Handicrafts in St Ives, Cornwall. Leach became the lead potter of the group and made it a mission to promote ceramics as a combination of Western and Eastern arts. He worked with a traditional Japanese kiln mixing Korean, Japanese and Chinese pottery traditions and techniques from England and Germany. 

Related: 5 Things You Didn't Know About Ceramics

Bernard Leach, Bottle vase, circa 1960. Stoneware, with tenmoku and iron glazes. Photo © Bonhams
Bernard Leach, Bottle vase, circa 1960. Stoneware, with tenmoku and iron glazes. Photo © Bonhams

Leach is known for his simple and utilitarian lines, advocating against the aesthetics of fine art pottery. He believed in pottery as a combination of art, philosophy, design, and even lifestyle. In 1940 he joined the Baháʼí faith, which influenced a lot of his philosophy and aesthetic principles. He continued to produce pottery until 1972, and in 1977 the Victoria and Albert Museum held a retrospective exhibition for him. Leach Pottery, the company he founded, still runs today. 

2. Michael Cardew

Michael Cardew (1902-1983) was born in Wimbledon and worked in West Africa for twenty years. Cardew was the first apprentice of Leach Pottery, sharing a passion for slipware with Bernard Leach. His ceramics were made with local clay and fired in a traditional bottle kiln. His aim was to make the pottery of the 17th-century English slipware tradition functional and affordable for everyone. His designs were typically decorated with birds, fish, and abstract designs. Bernard Leach considered Cardew to be his best pupil, and he has been described as ‘one of the finest potters of the century and one of the greatest slipware potters of all times.’

 Michael Cardew, Bowl with ‘Basket’ pattern, circa 1955. Stoneware, vivid blue and white over iron glazes, with a finger wipe design beneath the glaze inside and out. Photo © PHILLIPS
Michael Cardew, Bowl with ‘Basket’ pattern, circa 1955. Stoneware, vivid blue and white over iron glazes, with a finger wipe design beneath the glaze inside and out. Photo © PHILLIPS

3. William Staite Murray 

William Staite Murray (1881-1962) was born in Deptford, London, and was first trained in pottery at the Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts from 1909 to 1912. In 1919 he set up his own pottery studio in London, and despite an early flirtation with avant-garde art, he became increasingly influenced by early Chinese ceramics. 

William Staite Murray, A Large Exhibition Vase, circa 1955. Stoneware, of elongated baluster form with a gently ridged surface, in a pale cream and grey glaze, with some mottled brown streaks. Photo © Bonhams
William Staite Murray, A Large Exhibition Vase, circa 1955. Stoneware, of elongated baluster form with a gently ridged surface, in a pale cream and grey glaze, with some mottled brown streaks. Photo © Bonhams

His pieces were made using a traditional oil-fired kiln. Murray rejected functionality and wanted his pots to be considered works of art in their own right. He was a member of the Seven and Five, a group of painters and sculptors, and exhibited with other British painters such as Ben and Winifred Nicholson.

4. Lucie Rie

Austrian-born British studio potter Dame Lucie Rie (1902-1995) set up her first studio in Vienna in 1925. In 1938, she settled in London after fleeing the Nazis. In London, she set up a studio near Hyde Park, where she worked for 50 years. Rie was a pioneering figure in the development of British studio ceramics alongside Bernard Leach and Hans Coper.

Lucie Rie, Footed bowl, circa 1976. Porcelain, bright golden glaze with horizontal bands of diagonal sgraffito designs repeated inside and out. Photo © PHILLIPS
Lucie Rie, Footed bowl, circa 1976. Porcelain, bright golden glaze with horizontal bands of diagonal sgraffito designs repeated inside and out. Photo © PHILLIPS

Related: Lucie Rie: Art of the Tea Ceremony

Rie mainly designed modestly-shaped vases, bottles and teacups. Her pieces are marked by both their modernity and purity, with ancient, even prehistoric influences. She was said to be particularly impressed by her visits to the Neolithic and Bronze Age collections in the archaeological museum in Avebury, England, and this shows through in her work. Her pieces have textured surfaces, sometimes colored in bright, intermingling shades that highlighted the techniques of sgraffito and nériage. The seeming fragility of her creations contrasts with the customarily sturdy and solid appearance of stoneware. Rie was awarded an OBE in 1968, a CBE in 1982, and was made a Dame in 1991. 

5. Hans Coper

Hans Coper (1920-1981) was an influential German-born British studio potter, who eventually became a partner at Lucie Rie’s studio. Coper distinguished himself by fusing wheel-thrown pots together to create sculptural vessels. His pieces are abstract but always functional, and he favored monumental creations.

Hans Coper, Pot on cylindrical foot with vertical impression, circa 1975. Stoneware, layered white porcelain slips and engobes over a body with textured and incised linear designs, the interior with manganese glaze. Photo © PHILLIPS
Hans Coper, Pot on cylindrical foot with vertical impression, circa 1975. Stoneware, layered white porcelain slips and engobes over a body with textured and incised linear designs, the interior with manganese glaze. Photo © PHILLIPS

Related: New Ceramics Records for Jean Cocteau and Hans Coper

His work has been exhibited and collected extensively, and he is found in international collections including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the Museum de Fundatie, among others.

6. Ruth Duckworth

Ruth Duckworth (1919-2009) was a modernist sculptor who specialized in ceramics. She was originally born in Hamburg, Germany, but left in 1936 to study at the Liverpool College of Art. She later studied at the Hammersmith School of Art and at the City and Guilds of London Art School. There, she learned stone carving and initially wanted to specialize in tombstone carvings. 

Ruth Duckworth, ‘Untitled’, model no. 5591097, 1994. Porcelain and glaze. Photo © PHILLIPS
Ruth Duckworth, ‘Untitled’, model no. 5591097, 1994. Porcelain and glaze. Photo © PHILLIPS

In 1956, she studied ceramics at the Central School of Arts and Crafts, which launched her passion for the medium. Her early work took on traditional shapes, though she soon started to produce more abstract pieces. Her approach to ceramics was that of a sculptor, preferring to highlight the aesthetic qualities of clay rather than the functional side. Rejected by contemporary ceramicists such as Bernard Leach, she left to teach in Chicago and eventually settled permanently in the United States.

7. John Ward

Born in Islington in 1938, John Ward attended the Camberwell School of Arts & Crafts from 1966 to 1970. During the 1970s he had two workshops in South East London, one in Anerley and the other in Charlton, before he moved to Dyfed, Wales, in 1979. Ward's hand-built pots have earned him a place as one of Britain's greatest potters. His work is marked by a very clean and pure aesthetic, exemplified in his typical undulating vessels.

Related: 5 Things You Didn't Know About Ceramics

John Ward, 'Black and White Vessel', circa 1995. Hand-built glazed stoneware. Photo © PHILLIPS
John Ward, 'Black and White Vessel', circa 1995. Hand-built glazed stoneware. Photo © PHILLIPS

To create his works, Ward sometimes altered his pieces during the leather-hard stage, by cutting and rejoining to create ridges and grooves between curving surfaces. To create the matte finish, the pieces were scrapped and burnished with a pebble. Finally, Ward only used matte glazes, with most of his pots twice-fired in an electric kiln. Ancient pre-glaze pottery is clearly a heavy influence on Ward's work, inspired by the ancient pottery art of China and Egypt, early Cypriot pottery and early Persian bowls.

8. Emmanuel Cooper

Ceramic artist Emmanuel Cooper (1938-2012) brought to light the importance of LGBT rights in the British art scene of the 1970's and subsequently throughout his life. In the early 1970's, he co-founded the Gay Left collective. Throughout his life, he published several studies of LGBT art, including The Sexual Perspective and Fully Exposed: The Male Nude in Photography.

Emmanuel Cooper, a stoneware jug, 2001. The flattened elliptical form has an applied spout and handle, covered with a white volcanic glaze over mottled blue, with applied gold patches to one side. Photo © Woolley & Wallis
Emmanuel Cooper, a stoneware jug, 2001. The flattened elliptical form has an applied spout and handle, covered with a white volcanic glaze over mottled blue, with applied gold patches to one side. Photo © Woolley & Wallis

His works are heavily glazed in a volcanic form, giving them a varied and uneven texture, which was influenced by Lucie Rie's work. His other works are extremely vibrant, in pink, yellow, rich reds and blues. For these works, he often used egg yolk yellow glaze finished with gold speckling. His work can be found in the Victoria & Albert Museum. In 2002, Cooper was was awarded an OBE for services to art.

9. Magdalene Odundo

Dame Magdalene Odundo was born in Kenya in 1950 and arrived in the United Kingdom in 1971. Today, she has established herself as one of the most influential ceramicists of our times. Odundo first took up ceramics in her qualifications in foundation art and graphics at the Cambridge School of Art.

Magdalene Odundo, ‘Untitled’, 1986, signed and dated (on the underside), burnished terracotta. Photo © Sotheby’s
Magdalene Odundo, ‘Untitled’, 1986, signed and dated (on the underside), burnished terracotta. Photo © Sotheby’s

Related: A World Record for Ceramist Magdalene Odundo

For Odundo, the manual method is at the heart of the process, as with the sculpture of Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth (whom she also met shortly after arriving in England), thus dictating the final form of the works. Her best-known ceramics are hand built, using a coiling technique. Each piece is then burnished twice and then left to oxidize, and fired again. In addition to general references to the female body (foot, body, neck, lip, mouth), Odundo gives her works specific references, such as those of the body of a pregnant woman or of the female body modified by ritual and cultural traditions. For example, in some of her works, one can find echoes of the profiles of Mangbetu women from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, whose skulls were lengthened from childhood.

10. Jennifer Lee

Jennifer Lee is another prominent British sculptor still working today. She was born in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, in 1956. From 1975 to 1979 she studied ceramics and tapestry at Edinburgh College of Art. She then spent eight months on a traveling scholarship to the USA where she researched South-West Indian prehistoric ceramics and visited contemporary West Coast potters. Lee’s ceramics are hand-built using traditional pinch and coil methods. The forms are seemingly simple, but the bases are pinched to create a balanced asymmetry. She is credited with having developed a method of coloring the pots by mixing metallic oxides into the clay.

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Jennifer Lee, Asymmetric Amber Lichen Vase, 1985-86. Coil-built and burnished stoneware, metallic oxides. Photo © Bonhams
Jennifer Lee, Asymmetric Amber Lichen Vase, 1985-86. Coil-built and burnished stoneware, metallic oxides. Photo © Bonhams

Lee has become a hallmark of British studio ceramics. Her work is represented in major collections worldwide, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Victoria and Albert Museum. 

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