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Josie Walter ::  Pots in the Kitchen

Josie Walter regularly exhibits in the United Kingdom, Europe and Canada and works as a Senior Lecturer in History and Theory of Design at the University of Derby. Josie gave an an ArtForum lecture in March 2004 at the Australian National University on her recently written book Pots in the Kitchen.

The history of the cooking pot

Before I talk about issues surrounding contemporary ceramics, I thought some consideration of what has occurred during the history of pottery would provide a useful reference to our discussions. But since this history covers more than three and a half thousand years, you will be relieved to know that I intend to only highlight some pertinent milestones.

Neolithic cooking pot
Cooking pots made from clay have been in use since the first Neolithic farmers made their way from mainland Europe around 3,500BC, and settled in Britain. These coil built round-bottomed pots were used to cook food at the edges of open fires. Most probably roots, leaves, seeds, nuts and berries were already soaked to soften them so that they were easier to digest, but once pottery vessels were available, ingredients could then be combined together for cooking.

When the Romans landed in Britain in AD43 they brought with them new and innovative methods of farming together with exciting and exotic types of food, a whole range of different utensils together with interesting and fresh approaches to cooking. Cooking pots stood on metal gridirons, or tripods over a charcoal fire on a raised brick hearth, useful for cooking sauces that needed a controlled heat.

Cooking pots were cheap and often disposed of when they became too dirty because they had no glaze and were difficult to keep clean. The Romans had a great liking for liquamen or garum a sauce made from fermented fish entrails that was often used in place of salt in cooking. They used small fish like mullet, sprats or anchovy, but the best garum was made from "the entrails of tunny fish and its gills, juice and blood", which was mixed with sufficient salt, boiled in an earthenware pot. This sauce was produced on a commercial scale at several places around the Mediterranean and imported into Britain in amphorae, or two handled jars that were either tall, often measuring up to a metre high, or alternatively, they could be round and squat.

Amphorae were also used for transporting wine, vinegar and oil and were stored in kitchens supported in wooden frames or propped up in holes in the ground. Jars for storing all kinds of food were an important item and it was not long before potteries were established in many of the major towns in Britain to meet growing requirements.

Derbyshire ware jars
One jar has a pottery lid; another has been sealed with wax. Storage vessels might also be sealed with a stone or a lump of clay. All these pots have string marks on their base, which shows that they were thrown, and then cut from a potter's wheel.

Mortaria or mixing bowls came in a variety of sizes and were used for pounding ingredients and are often found with a hole in their base showing how hard they were used. Roman farmers used mortaria to make a kind of cream cheese. When the milk had curdled, the whey was poured away through the spout. Rennet was not used to set the milk working, as the coarse grit fired into the inner surface of the mortaria would retain the curd forming bacteria between cheese makings.

Demise of the Roman Empire
Unfortunately, the demise of the Roman Empire saw the end of any organised pottery industry and the use of the potter's wheel in Britain. Between the fifth and seventh century the Anglo Saxons made pots for holding cremated ashes or to accompany a burial, as well as for storing food and for cooking.

However as trade with the Continent increased, there is evidence of potters settling on the Eastern side of England bringing with them the potters wheel and knowledge of low temperature glazes made from lead ore or galena. By the second half of the ninth century potters were settling within fortified towns such as Thetford in East Anglia, St Neot's in the South Midlands and Stamford in the East Midlands. Stamford was exceptional because the potters here used a transparent glaze, coloured with iron or copper oxide. The range of cooking pots and storage jars that were made at this time were quite limited, but some jug forms may have been used for cooking.

Ways of cooking rather depended on cooking facilities of course. A cast iron cauldron suspended from a beam was good for food that needed rapid boiling, but for dishes that needed slow cooking like pottages of cereals or pulses or concoctions of flour, milk and eggs, earthenware pots were preferable, standing in the hot ashes by the fire or used over charcoal braziers. Pottery also remained cheaper than metal and although pots were more fragile and might not last as long, they were generally the preferred utensils used by the less well off. Over the next four hundred years, types of cooking and storage pots became more varied, suggesting that customers were asking potters to make different items. Perhaps this was encouraged by increased contact with mainland Europe, in particular with Holland, France and Germany. Potteries appeared in areas where there were good local clays available, making pots that catered for the immediate population. Glaze was used in the eleventh and twelfth centuries as decoration. Lead ore was applied by dusting from a cloth or muslin bag onto damp pots, producing a rather speckled and slightly dull appearance.

Tudor stewpot
Once lead oxide was mixed with clay and water to make a liquid glaze, which could be poured or painted on, or into which the pot could be dipped, a far more even and glossy surface was achieved. This glaze was far more effective in reducing porosity, making the clay surface waterproof besides being easier to clean.

These stewpots were made from earthenware clay, a fairly porous material that was able to withstand uneven heating, and with its three legs was ideal for sitting amongst the embers of an open fire. Pots like this could also be used for cauldron cookery. A joint of meat or a bird would be put inside the pot with butter, stock and seasoning. The lid would be sealed with a strip of pastry to keep all the flavour in, and then put up to its rim in boiling water in a cauldron the three legs being ideal for raising the pot above the base of the cauldron. Cauldrons could accommodate pots, joints of meat, and vegetables in net bags or puddings tied up in cloths, all at the same time, which was a very economical way of cooking.

Dutch influences
Contacts with Holland, which began with trading in wool and cloth, intensified in the late sixteenth century when tens of thousands of protestant Flemings arrived in England fleeing religious persecution in the Netherlands. Flemish immigrants used to having a wide range of kitchenware, may have brought their own pottery with them or ordered ware from British potters. In this way a whole new variety of pottery like pipkins, frying pans, dripping pans and casseroles began to be produced by British potteries, as well as being used by British people, by the early seventeenth century.

Dutch genre paintings of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries show detailed scenes from everyday life. As pottery changed very little over these two hundred years, looking at paintings is an excellent way of seeing how pottery was used. At the beginning of the seventeenth century a new type of pottery began to be imported from the Continent, particularly from the Netherlands, Beauvais in France and areas around the Werra and Weser rivers in central Germany. Instead of having plain surfaces these pots were decorated with white slip. English potters were not slow to realize the potential of this skillful and decorative technique, and they began to establish their own slipware industry, which emerged with several distinctive regional styles.

Generally tableware such as mugs, jugs, plates and shallow dishes were decorated with slip trailed patterns as well as inscriptions celebrating births, deaths, marriages or portraits of royalty, which could then be displayed on dressers when not in use. While pots used for cooking in and around the embers of the fire, together with other cheap and easily replaceable items for gardens and dairies such as this butter pot, which were used until they were broken and thrown away were usually left plain, although an exception to this, is the Dutch oven (Northern England) or Apple Roaster (Somerset).

Food for roasting was placed on the narrow shelf attached to the inside wall of the Dutch oven which was then placed in front of an open fire where the food would cook in the radiated heat.

The Yorkshire range
Although by the late seventeenth century, ovens and fireplaces became more common in wealthier households, it wasn't until around 1830, the Yorkshire range, as later models became called, was installed in many upper and middle class homes, as well as in some more modest houses, as they could be built in to existing fireplaces. Northerners preferred the Yorkshire range, which was a combination of open fire for toasting, roasting and boiling, with an oven on one side, and by 1860, a boiler for hot water on the other.

Those without ovens sent their meat and pies to the baker to be cooked, although, as you might imagine, there were several disadvantages to sending dishes to the public oven! As cast iron ranges became more common three and four legged earthenware cooking pots that had been in use for so many centuries in and around the embers of the hearth were gradually replaced by a whole new range of flat bottomed pottery. Rectangular shaped dishes were decorated with slip and used for roasting and baking.

Buckley potteries
A thriving pottery industry developed during the 17thC in and around Buckley, which took real advantage of the variety of clays available in the area, the proximity of lead ore for glazes, coal for firing the kilns together with a good transport network for distributing the pots once they were made. By the nineteenth century, Buckley potteries were exporting their practical beer mugs, butter jars and kitchen earthenware across the country as well as by sea, to North and West Wales and to Ireland. These large press moulded dishes were made well into the twentieth century and used for cooking meals for large families or perhaps to cater for the increased work force at harvest time. Potters were not afraid of copying and reviving old patterns and designs and writing words in white slip, for example 'Pork', people's names like 'Mary' or 'Samuel' and even messages such as 'Happy New Year'.

However it is amongst the potteries making saltglaze that trade boomed for all types of kitchenware and pots for pickling and preserving.

Eastern influences
Possibly trade with the East, and in particular contact with China, encouraged German potters to redesign their kilns along the lines of their oriental counterparts so that temperatures in excess of 1250C could be achieved. At these hotter temperatures clay is transformed into a dense and non-porous material. Common salt was introduced into the firebox at the pinnacle of the firing, which immediately vaporized in the extreme heat. The sodium from the salt combined with the silica and alumina of the clay thus creating a 'salt' glaze over the whole surface of the pots.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries salt glaze mugs and jugs and bottles were transported into England from Germany in their thousands, but it was some time before English potters were able to master the technological advances required for building kilns capable of reaching high temperatures. By the end of the seventeenth century, John Dwight of Fulham in London had been successful in making salt glaze pottery, although he found it difficult to hold on to the exclusivity for his discoveries!

The refactory clays needed for salt glaze were often associated with coal, which encouraged potteries to switch production to this efficient way of firing in Nottingham,

Chesterfield and Derby.
Salt glaze pottery could be finely potted, and it had the economic benefit of only needing to be once fired. Unlike earthenware, salt glaze was almost non porous and resistant to acidic ingredients. In fact, perfect for alcoholic beverages and for storing foods, besides indispensable for pickling and preserving. The Derbyshire potteries were fortunate, as the development of their salt glaze industry co-incided with the increased availability of cast iron stoves that required flat-bottomed baking dishes.

The expansion of the Empire brought in a wealth of new ingredients such as sago, rice and semolina, and trade with the colonies, particularly Barbados, and then with Cuba, improved supplies of sugar. New ingredients, together with new technology, provided a real impetus to the expansion and success of these potteries and encouraged them to produce a wide variety of pottery that catered for the new demands.

As more and more people moved into towns making cheese, butter, beer at home began to decline. They no longer preserved and pickled the surplus from their smallholdings and gardens. People also began to use enamel and metal or tableware from Stoke on Trent, since it was cheaper to buy and appeared more attractive with its light and shiny glazes. The potteries that survived changed their production to horticultural ware for Victorian gardeners, rhubarb forcers or plant pots, catering for the new fashion for potted plants or they made 'artistic' ceramics, making forms for artist potters to use for experimenting with glazes.

The First World War and the financial difficulties of the 1920s brought further problems for country potteries. Even those potteries that had relied on making plant pots and so on were challenged by the introduction of plastic pots.

Bernard Leach
Bernard Leach came back to England from Japan in 1920 to set up his pottery in St. Ives, Cornwall tempted to set up there by a substantial grant from a local benefactor, Mrs Horn, who wanted to encourage crafts to develop in the area. However, Cornwall in the 1920s was one of the remotest parts of England, and with only six weeks in the summer when tourists took their holidays, sales from his pottery in St. Ives were poor.

Unlike the 'Art potters' who often had pots made for them to decorate and glaze, Bernard Leach believed that the designer should also be the maker of the pots, putting into practice the concept of a 'Studio Potter' as opposed to an 'Art Potter'. The idea was that potters should work in small teams, or on their own, producing work on a relatively small scale while concentrating on the hand made character of their work. Leach made individual pieces in stoneware and earthenware while at the same time producing a quantity of tableware, unlike the artist potters who had no interest in making tableware at all.

However, it was not until the 1940s that a range of standard shapes was developed in stoneware, largely supervised by Bernard's son David, who had joined the pottery in 1930. The innovative introduction of a mail order catalogue that continued throughout the 1950s and 1960s, meant that the pottery was no longer dependant on summer visitors as well as bringing the Leach Pottery to the attention of substantially more people throughout England and overseas.

Casseroles, bakers and covered bowls were all part of the St Ives Pottery standard ware 'ovenproof stoneware' range, which were glazed either with a tenmoku, a pale green celadon or a creamy oatmeal glaze. Kitchenware pots were also available unglazed outside, while a few pieces such as egg cups and oil and vinegar bottles were made in porcelain. A team of apprentice potters made the ware, with David Leach as manager and William Marshall as foreman.

During the Second World War, many potteries had difficulty continuing what with conscription, and subsequent labour shortages. The 'black out' prevented kilns being fired at night, there were fuel shortages as well as many other difficulties, however Leach was able to convince the authorities that his standard wares were necessary pots and that the pottery was making 'genuine utility ware'.

He was also able to employ conscientious objectors as well as local labour. The catalogue's commercial success gave Bernard Leach the opportunity and time to make his individual pieces and to write The Potters Book, which was published in 1940. Besides writing about practical information such as tools and equipment, he also wrote a chapter on his ideas about aesthetics. Towards a Standard is perhaps Leach's most important piece of writing in its effect on potters and prospective potters around the globe.

In this first chapter of his book, he explains why pots should be made by hand and used in the home, as well as why he found factory made china so banal and lacking in soul, sentiments that were aimed not only at makers, but also at users of hand made pots. Leach was dismissive of Art School training for potters, but students were welcomed to learn at his workshop in St Ives, and one of the first in the 1920s, was Michael Cardew.

In the 1930s, Harry Davis Crowan Pottery, New Zealand 3,000 pots just unloaded worked at the Leach Pottery for five years. In the 1950s, Richard Batterham spent eighteenth months as an apprentice at the pottery, and in fact, from the late 1940s, students came to St. Ives from all over the world, John Reeve from Canada, Gwyn Hanssen Pigott from Australia and Warren MacKenzie, from Minnesota in America.

Michael Cardew
Cardew was initially inspired by traditional English slipware made by North Devon country potters, such as Edwin Beer Fishley at Fremington. When he left St. Ives in 1926, he took over an old country pottery, near Winchcombe in Gloucestershire, which had been closed since 1914 due to the shortage of coal needed for firing the kiln. This pottery had made 'farmhouse pottery' such as pancheons, bread crocks and washing pans. Cardew's plan with the pottery was to make useful pots for kitchens, rather than drawing rooms, although 'the idea of using handmade pots, which was his whole aim, was quite new and unacceptable to most people.'

In 1936, Ray Finch joined the team and finally took over the running of Winchcombe Pottery, when Cardew moved to Cornwall in 1939 to establish a pottery at Wenford Bridge near Bodmin.

Winchcombe pottery
After the Second World War, Winchcombe attracted as many students as St. Ives, offering a sound training in technical skills with an opportunity to work in a team. Stoneware began to be produced at Winchcombe in the early 1950s. By 1960, tableware for daily use was standardised and earthenware pots were removed from the pottery's output altogether.

Winchcombe tableware was designed to meet current demands for a practical and durable product, using light oatmeal and a dark tenmoku glaze. The ware was supplied to new outlets such as the Primavera Gallery opened by Henry Rothschild in 1945 and the Craftsmen Potters Shop, now known as Contemporary Ceramics, in London. The Craft Potters Association launched its new retail venture in 1960 with an exhibition of Ray Finch's pottery, despite Ray's dislike of self-promotion.

In 1961, the pottery secured a lucrative contract to supply Cranks vegetarian restaurant with all manner of serving bowls, covered soup bowls, egg bakers, cups saucers and plates, which were generally glazed only on the inside. Winchcombe pots were very much in tune with the ethos of Cranks restaurant where furniture, fittings and utensils were made from natural materials and the association between handmade pots, wholefoods and the colour brown was established. During the 1960s, Winchcombe tableware and cooking pots were promoted in cookery books and in magazines, so that by the 1970s, had become one of the most well-known and major influences on the style of many craft potteries in England.

This pottery was also sold in Illums Bolighus, a department store in Copenhagen from the early 1960s. Apart from some individual pieces, the bulk of production still concentrates on pots for serving and for cooking. Most of the ware continues to be sold from the workshop, forming a continuum with Cardew's ideas that pots should be for people to use at reasonable prices.

Experimental aesthetic
However, at the end of the 1950s, studio pottery in England had begun to develop along two quite divergent paths. On the one hand, some potters were following the pioneering spirit of Leach and Cardew, making their living by producing large quantities of pots at reasonable prices by throwing on a potter's wheel. Others, however, were more interested in moving away from the idea of emulating artisan potters and towards developing what they saw as a more inventive and experimental aesthetic, generally encouraged by some of the London Colleges such as the Central School, Camberwell and the Royal College of Art. Potters began to explore possibilities of hand built forms without necessarily any functional justification.

Other influences were also becoming apparent, in particular, the example set by Lucie Rie and Hans Coper in making innovative work. Their far more sculptural approach inspired ceramicists making 'one offs', however, alongside Rie's more individual work, she and Hans Coper also collaborated in making elegant and thinly thrown tableware glazed in white and black, which was far removed from 1970's rustic pottery.

At the beginning of the 1960s, Victor Margrie and Mick Casson, who were both working in the pottery department at Harrow School of Art, had the idea of starting a vocational course. They were well aware that there were plenty of opportunities to sell domestic pottery and if they could establish a vocational course to train production throwers at Harrow, it could be very successful. The course began at Harrow in 1963 with the aim to train students to set up their own workshops within two years; the aspiring potters would have to learn fast! Camberwell and the Central School had shown no interest in this type of vocational course, and indeed, even felt that Harrow was doing a disservice to Art by promoting this artisan approach.

Students were taught that speed and efficiency in throwing, together with minimal turning, would keep prices of pots down, besides helping sales to shops and galleries.

Change of definitions
A particular feature of the 1980s was the change in definitions - potters became ceramicists who now worked in studios rather than in workshops. Instead of training to become production throwers, there was more interest in re-interpreting the basic forms associated with domestic pottery, such as the bowl Liz Fritsch - matt fresco surface vase, the jug Alison Britton and teapot, to create 'vessels', which had little association with function in a utilitarian sense.

Many makers working in clay were keen to move away from the cosy, rustic image of the 1970s, and influenced by Janice Tchalenko's work, and her designs for Dartington, they began to employ a more colourful and painterly approach to surface pattern.

In the mid 1980s, Tableware, New Domestic Pottery, a Craft Council Touring exhibition celebrated the changes that were being felt in studio pottery in England. The variety and the colour, Alison Britton wrote in the introduction to the exhibition, 'now makes wider references' and had more connection with European influences than the orientalism of the 1970s. The exhibition featured pots showing a painterly approach by Janice Tchalenko, Andrew McGarva serving dish made from local natural French stoneware clay. The pot is decorated with iron, cobalt and titanium brushwork.

These potters continued to enjoy working within English functional traditions, but at the same time, they saw themselves not only as craftsmen, but also as artists. As Jane Hamlyn wrote in her comments on the New DomesticPottery exhibition,'If we, the makers, are going to push domestic ware forward, give it more attention, we are bound to take more time. This must push prices up. If the prices get higher, we will inevitably find our work being sold through galleries. This elevation of domestic ware may make it more exclusive.'

This shift in emphasis on making also had a bearing on the usefulness of pots. Whereas previously potters might have made casseroles and bakers, they now made pots with a more celebratory function such as serving dishes, in addition, because they were more expensive to buy, customers were unwilling to use them in quite the same way.

Many potters followed the fashion for colour in the 1980s, although others decided on different strategies for surviving the recession. Some potteries reduced their work forces, others began to make more individual work alongside their production ware, some took on teaching jobs to supplement their income and others found a combination of these activities suited them best. Despite all the changes that occurred in the 1980s, some potters continued to produce consistently well-made domestic pottery in the Leach tradition.

Richard Batterham
Richard Batterham set up his workshop in Durweston in Dorset in 1959. Batterham has been little affected by shifts in public taste and he continues working on his own, making 'pots intended for a domestic environment - to be used and enjoyed'. Batterham is not a 'country potter' in one sense and yet his garden and its produce are as important to him as his prolific output of pottery. Although John Leach, grandson of BL, began to develop a highly individual range of sawdust fired saggar 'black mood' pots during the 1980s, he has continued to make his strong functional range of classic oven to tableware at Muchelney Pottery in Somerset.

John Leach
John trained first with his father David Leach at Bovey Tracey, had short periods with Colin Pearson and Ray Finch at Winchcombe, and finally, under the critical eyes of his grandfather, Bernard Leach. Muchelney Pottery was set up at the beginning of the 1960s when John Leach's brown stoneware kitchen pots caught the spirit of the times. After seven years of potting on his own, Nick Rees joined Muchelney Pottery, and this extra pair of hands meant a switch from oil to wood firing which further added to the earthy, lustrous quality of the pots. Sales continued to expand during the 1970s.

There was perhaps less notice of brown pots in the 1980s because of the proliferation of colourful ones, but customers were back in the 1990s, drawn by the current interest in and preoccupation with natural and organic materials. Although larch and spruce off cuts sourced from sustainable plantations are used for firing the kiln, current thinking on conservation has focussed John Leach's mind on his fuel source. He has created a woodland to replace the trees used in his firings, and he has dug a pond that stretches over an acre of land where indigenous flora and fauna are encouraged to flourish. These activities feature alongside information about Muchelney pottery in John Leach's advertising material, and, rather like the 1970s, seem to be providing customers with a holistic combination of wholesome and sturdy hand made pots with their 'toasted finish,' and ethical attitudes in practice.

Some of the other potters, originally influenced by the Leach legacy, have tended to move away from large-scale production pottery towards more individual pieces. This can have a very positive effect. Phil Rogers for example has introduced elements of his less functional work into his kitchen and tableware.

His faceted pots are a reflection of his interest in early Korean ceramics, and the glazes, whether they are ash or salt, seem to like this decoration in clay. There may have been times when he would have made three or four dishes in the time it took to make one. But now he is more interested in developing cooking pots in the same way as he thinks about and develops pots that are more contemplative in nature.'

The ability of fired clay to reflect organic and natural qualities has encouraged many potters to experiment with traditional eastern techniques of long and slow firings using wood, which may take several days using single or multi chambered kilns. Pots are packed inside the kiln in such a way that they take full advantage of the rush of flames, vapour and fly ash from the fireboxes. Often pots that emerge from these firings are textured with a build up of ash that creates stunning and vibrant surfaces. People with a sympathy for studio pottery in its rawest sense, are attracted to these pots for their textured and organic qualities and find them an excellent complement for cooking as well as presenting of food on the table.

At St. Ives, Bernard Leach laid the foundations for the importance of producing a range of useable and affordable domestic pottery as a part of a workshops's out put. The pots illustrated in the Leach Pottery's standard ware catalogue provided templates for potters who followed, complementing and reflecting attitudes to food and cooking of the time. In the 1970s, handmade studio pottery made a perfect accomplice to the 'back to the land' movement together with an interest in vegetarian and wholefoods.

In the 1980s, despite the re-interpretation of studio pottery, which forged a more vital link with European rather than Oriental influences, domestic pottery retained its useful quality by becoming an accessory to growing interests in interior design. Now, as the twenty first century begins, some studio pottery is again finding an association with the renewed interest in sustainability as well as organic and natural materials. While many makers, however, continue to disassociate themselves from utilitarian connections, believing that this link with use does much to denigrate clay as a medium, others are beginning to successfully combine making experimental installation or individual work with vibrant, exciting and useable pots.

Potters, ceramacists, workers in clay have now the opportunity to widen definitions of professionalism and success. It's not just the entry into museum collections or the prestige from an exhibition in the gallery that are the goals to work towards. If we as potters ultimately believe that pots are made for people then we should also be making pots for the table and the kitchen, the dresser and the sink.