Obituary: Janice Tchalenko 1942-2018

This is an edited version of  Tanya Harrod’s The Guardian obit for her friend, Janice Tchalenko who will be known and remembered by many of our senior practitioners.  She bridged the gap between art and industry.

Janice Tchalenko, has died aged 76. She was an admired ceramicist, designer and artist who collaborated on textiles and ceramics with Designers Guild and Next Interiors, and created a series of satirical ceramic sculptures with Roger Law of Spitting Image.

Setting out in the 1960s and 70s she made fashionable domestic wares, “brown pots”, informed by the work of Michael Cardew and Bernard Leach, working, she ironically noted, as “a peasant potter in Peckham”. But in 1981 she revolutionised the field, shocking many studio potter colleagues, by evolving glazes of great richness and depth of colour to adorn reduction-fired stoneware; painting, sponging and slip-trailing complex semi-abstract decorative schema on bold simplified shapes; using piscatorial and amphibian casts as handles and knobs; and taking inspiration from the ceramics of the Middle East, from the capricious mannerist Bernard Palissy, and from European rococo earthenware and porcelain and 19th century art pottery.

A series of large thrown bowls, flared jugs with flowing handles and press moulded dishes followed – magnificent objects, much admired and much imitated, elsewhere and here in NZ. But her work was, in tune with her socialist politics, aimed to reach a wider audience. From 1983 in collaboration with Steven Course at the Dartington Training Workshop, renamed Dart Pottery in 1984, she designed tableware ranges. These  – Poppy, Black Rose and Leopard, were an instant success, winning both the Manchester Prize for Art in Production and the BBC Radio 4 Enterprise Award in 1988. Production at Dart, initially hand-thrown, became more mechanised as demand soared. Decoration, however, was always hand-painted using techniques evolved by Tchalenko.

Tchalenko was born in Rugby, Warwickshire. After attending Manor Park primary school, Janice won a place at Barr’s Hill, a girls’ grammar school. Further education was discouraged by her family and at 16 she became an accounts clerk in the same GPO building as her father and brother. Aged 17 she took the clerical officer exams for the Foreign Office and moved to London where she dealt with embassy accounts.

In 1964, she married John Tchalenko, a geologist, and later a researcher and filmmaker, who had moved into a flat in her building. Because he was of Russian descent, Janice was deemed a security risk and lost her Foreign Office job.

She decided to become a potter, learning to throw at Putney School of Art, working as potter’s assistant and as an art therapist at the Priory hospital. From 1969 to 1971 she took the vocational pottery course at Harrow School of Art, a highly practical training that taught production throwing, kiln and wheel building and glaze and clay technology.

She became an outstanding thrower and was recruited by Colin Pearson to teach the skill at Camberwell School of Art (1972-87). There she encountered the ceramic artist Glenys Barton, thus meeting a whole generation of outstanding female graduates from the Royal College of Art – Alison Britton, Jill CrowleyCarol McNicoll and Jacqui Poncelet. They partly inspired her to turn to freer forms and vivid colours as did her travels with John in Russia and Iran.

Tchalenko went on to teach at the Royal College of Art (1981-96), being elected a fellow of the College in 1987.

Roger Law, who had long admired and collected her work, became an unexpected collaborator in 1993. With the Spitting Image workshop, Law and Tchalenko created startling ceramic sculptures of each of the Seven Deadly Sins, in two versions, shown at and bought by the Victoria & Albert Museum, and also purchased by the British Council. In 1996, at the Richard Dennis Gallery, Law and Tchalenko showed Modern Antiques, Toby Jug-like caricatures of famous potters from Palissy to Leach, and editions of vases and bowls writhing with lizards and fish.

There were further collaborations – with the furniture designer Jane Dillon, the sculptor Richard Wentworth, with Nick Mosse’s workshops in Ireland and with the ceramic designer Sue Pryke – Tchalenko’s house in Therapia Road, Peckham, was a nexus for artistic interchange. In the 1990s Tchalenko became an ambassador for British ceramics, curating exhibitions for the British Council and holding workshops all over the world. In 1992 she had a retrospective exhibition at the Ruskin Gallery, Sheffield. Crossing boundaries characterised Tchalenko’s career.

Seniority brought fresh friendships and further experimentation, including a turn to porcelain, printmaking and a series of large painterly ceramic panels. Her final exhibitions were in France in autumn 2017. She was included in the remarkable L’Expérience de la Couleur at the Musée National de Céramique de Sèvres in Paris alongside  work from Josef AlbersSonia Delaunay and Yves Klein. While at Hélène Aziza’s gallery, 19 rue Paul Fort, Paris, she showed among friends – Elisabeth Fritsch, Britton, McNicoll and Poncelet. Her work is in many public collections including the V&A, the Ashmolean Museum, the British Museum, the Fitzwilliam Museum, Los Angeles County Museum and the Musée National de Céramique de Sèvres.

Tchalenko is survived by John and their son, Luke, and two grandchildren, Thea and Kira, and by her twin brother, David.

For images of the work that made her world-famous go to http://www.janictchalenko.com/archive/#/1980-2000/ Also on the site is work made prior (from her brown pot era and later work made as a mature artist.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Obituary: Janice Tchalenko 1942-2018

  1. Merran Esson

    Dear Moyra, So lovely to see that you sent this on… I knew Janice when I went to London and was staying with Roger Law after he returned to UK, I have a bowl of hers here, which you probably saw when you were here. We had dinner at her place and I think it must have been in 1999 / 2000. Roger emailed me a few weeks ago to tell me of her illness and passing, very sad.

    I hope all is well with you, and hope that things in NZ are going well. I see you sometimes on Facebook, and its lovely to see Jim Cooper on there quite a bit too.

    Until we meet again…. Merran

    >

  2. Hi Merran – I was staying with Tanya last year and she told me then that Janice Tchalenko was unwell. She took me to visit several of her friends (and my heroes) like Carol McNicoll but not Tchalenko for that reason. Her work was distinctly of influence here – kept things within tough old stoneware but moved form and surface decoration across to the more contemporary. She will be deeply missed in London I’m sure.

    • Hi Merran – I was staying with Tanya last year and she told me then that Janice Tchalenko was unwell. She took me to visit several of her friends (and my heroes) like Carol McNicoll but not Tchalenko for that reason. Her work was distinctly of influence here for some – kept things within tough old stoneware but moved form and surface decoration across to the more contemporary. She will be deeply missed in London I’m sure. Sorry this is delayed – just realised it did not go when I thought it had.

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