Arts Muse

Celebrating Ceramics: In Conversation with Dr Helen Walsh

With York Art Gallery set to reopen on 28 May, Cara Lee speaks to Dr Helen Walsh, the curator of ceramics, about the Gallery’s latest acquisitions.

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Image Credit: Tea Pot, 1988-2002, Edla Griffiths, © Edla Griffiths, image courtesy of York Museums Trust. A gift from the private collection of Patricia Nichol Barnes, presented by the Contemporary Art Society, 2020.

With lockdown set to ease further on 17 May, we can all breathe a collective sigh of relief at the prospect of  being able to once again wander around York Art Gallery’s vast collection of works.  The Gallery will be showcasing new exhibitions including “Pictures of the Floating World: Japanese Ukiyo-e Prints” and “Grayson Perry: The Pre -Therapy Years”, but there have also been recent additions to their Centre of Ceramic Art (CoCA), opening early next year.

Patricia Barnes was an avid art collector, opening The London Gallery in Winnetka, Illinois, to share her collection.  Barnes moved part-time to London in her later years, where she admired Vanessa Bell and the Bloomsbury group; a group of early 20th century thinkers, artists and writers, including Virginia Woolf and E. M. Forster.  Whilst in London, she became known for her vast collections of contemporary British ceramics.

Barnes’s collections were donated in her honour to two museums in the UK, and the Art Institute of Chicago.  Over 40 works have been acquired by York Art Gallery, dating from the 1970s to the 2000s, which represent artists who have not previously been exhibited in York Art Gallery.  I had the pleasure of speaking to Dr Helen Walsh, York Art Gallery’s curator of ceramics, about the collection, and the role of ceramics within the art world today.

The importance of a mainly female collection of works can’t be understated; women in art are often overlooked.  How do you hope this acquisition will help ensure the Gallery, and the art world more widely, maintains a diverse, representative outlook?

Historically, women have not had the same opportunities as men to form significant art collections. Traditional roles as wife and mother meant few had jobs outside the home, a disposable income to spend as they wish, or the leisure time to enjoy a hobby.

Though the majority of CoCA’s ceramics came from male collectors, giving a particular view of the British studio ceramics movement, it is also very important to give voice to the female collectors who have supported artists and who often have different interests or tastes.

Why is the collection being given to York?  Did York have a special significance to Patricia Barnes?

We have a long relationship with the Contemporary Arts Society (CAS), who dealt with the dispersal of Patricia Barnes’ collection. Over the years they have worked with us, supporting and helping us to continue adding contemporary works to our collection - both fine art and craft.

Over the last 15 years, we have worked hard to break down the barriers between fine art and craft, showing works together by themes rather than being constrained by material or traditional chronologies.  In recent years, the CAS helped us acquire an important work by Aneta Regel and has supported an installation by Phoebe Cummings. They have come to know our collection quite well, understand our collecting policy and are interested in our aims.

I was able to visit Patricia Barnes’ house and spend time looking at the collection with Alison Britton and Sarah Griffin from the CAS’s Craft Advisory Committee. Patricia Barnes may not have had a personal connection to York, but her collection is a perfect fit with ours and our ambitions for the future.

There are works from many different artists being exhibited. Personally, I love Quentin Bell’s, Carol McNicoll’s and Alison Britton’s works. Please could you provide us with some information about these artists and the works being acquired?

There is a wonderful deep bowl by Janice Tchalenko which demonstrates her great skill with glaze technology. She has taken advantage of the deep sides of the vessel to allow the different coloured glazes to run, drip and combine in a free, loose, manner. Tchalenko was an important figure in the ceramics world, straddling both the studio ceramics movement and industrial factory ceramic production, working with companies such as NEXT, Dartington Pottery and Poole. She also collaborated for a long time with Roger Law (Spitting Images). We have a number of domestic scale ceramics in our collection but nothing as large as this bowl, which makes a real impact.

Hylton Nel was born in Zambia and now lives and works in South Africa. He is known for his whimsical and  figurative decorated ceramics which reflect his interest in historical ceramic traditions such as Delftware or Islamic ceramics. They also touch on personal themes of religion and what it is like to be a LGBTQ artist in South Africa.

Ken Eastman is an extremely significant artist creating architectural and painterly vessels and structures. Like Janice Tchalenko, he has collaborated with the ceramics industry on the design of mass produced, functional objects at Royal Crown Derby.

I spotted a plate tucked away on a high shelf when I went to see Patricia’s collection and when we got it down it turned out to be by Quentin Bell. He was the son of Clive and Vanessa Bell and nephew of Virginia Woolf. He worked as an academic (at Oxford, Durham, Leeds, Hull and Sussex universities) and writer, sometimes making ceramics at Fulham Pottery. This plate is our first example of work by Fulham Pottery – an extremely important factory in the Art Pottery movement, which preceded and ran alongside the studio pottery movement during the 19th and 20th centuries.

We chose a lovely group of early works by Bryan Illsley, including a triangular teapot which is an early example of his functional domestic work from the 1960s when he was based in St Ives. During that decade, he spent some time working at the Leach Pottery and presents an interesting example of a different type of artist going through the Leach school and being able to emerge as a modern artist unaffected by the Anglo oriental/British tradition Leach enforced.

Patricia Barnes' tastes also ran to more traditional examples of British studio pottery, such as the larger slipware oval press moulded dish by Michael Cardew. It is a really early example done when he first began working at Winchcombe Pottery in the 1930s.

Do you have a personal favourite from the collection?

That is such a difficult question to answer. I got to select the items, so of course I like them all for very different reasons. But I suppose if I had the choice of one to take home, it would be the set of five cups by Alison Britton. I love the shape, colours, the mark making on the surfaces and the feel of them in my hands, but I also appreciate the versatility of them. They represent one of the best things about being a curator of three-dimensional objects. Ceramics seem to come alive and take on different personalities as you move them around, repositioning them creates conversation between them and their surroundings, light and shadow adds mystery and drama. Unlike paintings, ceramics are made to be touched and often used, and I consider myself very lucky to have the opportunity to handle these pieces.

Linking on from this, whose work are you most excited to be representing in York Art Gallery?

A number of the artists are new to our collection, such as Henry Pim and Edla Griffiths. But it is really exciting to exhibit a range of works by Carol McNicoll which reflect a variety of her practices over a number of years. McNicoll’s mastery of the technique of slip-casting and skill at manipulating colour and pattern, is demonstrated in the pieces from Patricia Barnes’ collection. Equally exciting is the sculpture of a dog by Dutch artist Carolein Smit, who is interested in the Memento Mori and Still Life paintings, something York Art Gallery has many strong examples of. The dog, with its curious aged, almost fossilised appearance, will create an interesting dialogue with our Old Master collection.

How do ceramics fit into art at this moment in time?  Is the practice still as prevalent as ever?

If we take the 1920s and Bernard Leach’s foundation of the Leach Pottery as the starting point for the studio pottery or ceramic movement, it has sustained itself for a century, far longer than most art movements. Throughout the 20th century, even important artists such as Pablo Picasso were seduced by the alchemy and transformative nature of clay. Creative artists continue to explore it in new, exciting ways, from gravity defying sculptures to the humble favourite mug. In a world of mass-produced wares that are easily discarded, and following a year of being locked at home, many people have begun to pay more attention to the objects they surround themselves with. They have come to appreciate the haptic pleasure of items formed by human hands, valuing them more highly because of that human connection. The affordability, versatility and accessibility of ceramics mean it truly is an art for all people.

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