Book Review – Tradition and Innovation: Five Decades of Harrow Ceramics 1963-2012

The Harrow(ing) of five decades of

TRADITION AND INNOVATION

HARROW : 1.  an implement used to break up clods and to level

2.  to vex and distress

3.  a notable institution for higher learning in the art and craft of ceramics based at Northwick Park, London. Its name became synonymous, throughout the English speaking /ex-Colonial world at least, with high-calibre standards of training for self-sufficient studio pottery practice.

As I write this they are drawing up final plans for the last graduating students’ exhibition and this will mark the end of the Harrow course in ceramics after nearly fifty years of operations under various regimes of educational policies. This exhibition marks the effective dismantling of the teaching of ceramics as a single discipline at the undergraduate level for which Harrow Studio Pottery Course has had a particular and special significance. To quote Alun Graves, Curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Harrow has “maintained a sense that pots are important. That the act of throwing can still be vital, can lead to new things”. Its earlier history as a training ground for production potters was, “a seemingly narrow remit that belies the sense of creative self-sufficiency and independence that the course engendered”. “What Harrow seemed to be offering, through its emphasis upon improvised technology and creative salvage, was a form of personal empowerment, the possibility to live outside the system”.

Well, those days are gone, and so is the course but now there is a book detailing the history. There are texts from various administrators and teachers, notably Victor Margrie as first Head of School on the initial concepts of approach towards teaching ceramics as art school education and the initial run with just two students, to the development of a “very kind culture in which they [students] helped each other”, to his assessment that most students were “much older, self confident and possessed a self-motivation imbued with a strong work ethic” and “everyone shared information”. Margrie elaborates upon Harrow developing an influence upon other British vocational ceramics courses and making a serious contribution, within its recognized framework, by changing the concept of what craft courses within an art school could be, then testifies to the spreading of this ethos beyond Britain’s shores. We in New Zealand inherited much of these attitudes even though our formal education in ceramics has proved far less successful. It’s illuminating reading.

There is a portfolio of work from former teachers (Walter Keeler, Steve Buck, Gwynn Hanssen Pigott, Richard Slee, Mo Jupp, Daphne Carnegie, Alison Britton, and Edmund de Waal), students’ (Jane Hamlyn, Peter Starkey, Micki Schloessingk, Janice Tchalenko, Prue Venables) and others.

There are personal recollections by Christie Brown, first a student then later on the teaching staff. However her views on life as a student are what are showcased here, and fascinating they are; personal while probably the experience of many.

There is a later portfolio demonstrating work from more recent students and the differences are profound as the course became a three-year, B.A. (hons) degree in workshop ceramics. “The word ‘ceramics’ was seen as smarter, more intelligent than pottery – it also shifted emphasis from the end product to material and process.”

This is documented by writer (and editor), Tessa Peters via interviews with John Houston, Kyra Cane and Steve Buck and centred around the developments and rationale of the course  so that ‘people could be what they wanted to be: a practicing potter, an artist, a sculptor, wherever they wanted to go”. This was in the late 1980s and the times they were a-changing. . . .

While throwing was still a major element, newer attitudes offered that “a cup could say a lot, that it was to do with the softness of its form and in the nature of a rim…,  in the shape of a handle. The approach was more analytical”, A final portfolio of students and teachers’ works demonstrates still some well-made functional vessels but more of installation, large scale, mixed and cross media, sculpture, filmed events, the experimental and the conceptual. Teaching practices have evolved via removing students from comfort zones to the state where students could write their own project briefs in third year in order to think through their field of inquiry. New teachers, such as Simon Carroll and Clare Twomey, were added and theory modules introduced, although no teachers were full-time, as deliberate policy, making essential a close involvement with other members of the teaching team, in particular Steve Buck, by then course manager and later course leader. It has been he who is charged with continuing the work of the course undiminished until summer of 2012.

When the Harrow Studio Pottery Course first started in 1963 its focus was to provide the knowledge and skills for people to become self-sufficient potters, able to meet the then-fashionable demand for hand-made ware. Over the fifty years the course developed and evolved, alongside the wider ways in which ceramic artefacts were received and discussed, to become the University of Westminster three-year BA (ceramics). However the past decade has seen a drop in demand for a ceramics education and now the course has to close. Its legacy will be the Ceramics Research Centre at the University of Westminster and overseen by Professor Christie Brown, Dr Julian Stair and Research Fellow, Clare Twomey. It “provides a bridge between normative ceramic concerns and arts and science disciplines” by investigating ways in which contemporary ceramic artists initiate new ways of working and new dialogues within the context of museums with the aim of “raising awareness, not only of its importance in the contemporary art landscape but also its social and cultural relevance for the museum visitor”. As part of an across-disciplinary PhD programme which “boasts a thriving intellectual community with students from around the world”, the ceramics section is broadening dialogues through experimental practices and developments in critical theory. Via relationships with curatorial practices in museum culture and collaborations with specific collections to the publication of critical writing, the ceramic section of the Research and Education in Arts and Media at University of Westminster sees itself as Harrow’s legatee.

End of an era indeed.

This new publication, Tradition and Innovation: Five Decades of Harrow Ceramics, 1963-2012, edited by Tessa Peters, is a splendidly illustrated and erudite documentation of fifty years of one important educational institution’s birth, maturity and demise. Anyone interested in ceramic’s fairly recent (20thC) revival and the current state of play along with one avenue towards a future would gain much from what is offered here. The story might apply to any programme in what used to be called the crafts, not only that for clay. It can be obtained from Contemporary Applied Arts in London, where the Tradition and Innovation exhibition will be staged, 2 Percy Street, London, W1T 1DD. The ISBN is 978-0-9541044-3-6. Or write University of Westminster, Dept Marketing. 309 Regent Street, London, W1W 2UW.  Later in the year will be recent student’s exhibitions at various galleries and a catalogue will be published documenting these.

As for those initiating dictionary definitions about the possible meanings for Harrow – tick all boxes.

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