York's spectacular new Centre of Ceramic Art tells the story of British studio pottery

By Richard Moss | 14 July 2015 | Updated: 14 August 2015

Culture24 speaks to Helen Walsh, York Art Gallery's curator of ceramics at the new Centre of Ceramic Art at York Art Gallery

a photo of a group of pots and ceramic artworks and tiles
A glimpse of the Wall of Ceramics that will greet visitors to the new CoCA© York Museums Trust (York Art Gallery). Photo by Peter Heaton
When York Art Gallery reopened on Yorkshire Day, August 1 2015, it established a stunning new £8 million cultural destination and artistic hub in a county that already boasts attractions such as Yorkshire Sculpture Park, the Hepworth Wakefield, The Henry Moore in Leeds and the Museums Sheffield venues.

As part of the new gallery, a series of major touring exhibitions and blockbuster loans will join a collection that includes notable works by LS Lowry, Paul Nash, David Hockney, Walter Sickert, Sarah Lucas and Stanley Spencer – not to mention a collection of Italian old masters and works by York’s most famous artist, William Etty.

But the centrepiece and probably the defining feature that promises to put York Art Gallery 'on the map' is the display of its unparalleled studio ceramics collection.

York holds more than 5,500 examples of 20th century British studio ceramics by more than 600 artists - the largest collection of its kind in the world - with key pieces by Bernard Leach, William Staite Murray, Felicity Aylieff, Hans Coper, Lucie Rie and many others.

The new gallery highlights these and other potters via a series of revolving displays and curated galleries which curators promise will see at least 2,000 ceramic treasures out on display at a time.

The aptly-titled Centre of Ceramic Art (CoCA) occupies two stunning new galleries extending into the rafters of the original Victorian roof space of the Grade II*-listed York Art Gallery building - one of the UK’s most spectacular spaces dedicated to the wonder and allure of pots.

a photo of large dish with yellow, black and gold pattern
Joan Hotchin, Dish (1955). Earthenware© York Museums Trust

Ceramics renaissance

One of the people behind the venture is Helen Walsh, York Art Gallery’s curator of ceramics, who says the gallery is “trying to use the two big new spaces to offer different ways in which people can experience ceramics.”

“Ceramics do seem to be having a bit of a moment,” she adds. “I wonder whether it’s partly down to the interest in celebrity, with Grayson Perry putting ceramics in the public eye.” Whatever the reason for the upswing in interest, with the recently saved and now re-housed Wedgwood Museum in Stoke on Trent also opening this summer, it's certainly a good time to be talking about ceramics.

As Walsh points out: “it’s time for our collection to become more well-known and well used - perhaps people will be encouraged to loan from us and we’ll be able to get the collection out that way, too.”

York also boasts a massive holding of archives relating to ceramics, offering a rich and largely untapped resource for research. "We’re really interested in getting people to use the collection in that way as well", says Walsh. "There has not really been that much extensive research done on studio ceramics.”

York’s unique collection of studio ceramics was established during the late 1950s, when the gallery was given the collection of the Dean of York, Eric Nolan White. One of the first people to collect studio pottery, Nolan White started buying ceramics in the 1920s when there were only a handful of other people in competition with him.

“As a result he was able to buy the biggest and best pieces,” says Walsh. “Bernard Leach had only just come back from Japan and opened his studio and William Staite Murray was at the height of his success and had started exhibiting in art galleries in London.

“Everything was really exciting and he was collecting all of this wonderful stuff. When he moved to York he became heavily involved in the Art Gallery, setting it up [he was on the committee] so it seemed natural he would give the collection to us.”

a photo of a plain stoneware vase with a three tone brown wash
Charles Vyse, Jar (1957). Stoneware© Courtesy York Museums Trust

The Ismay Collection

The gallery built one of the first studio ceramics galleries in the UK to house Nolan White’s pots, but after that it all went a bit flat. “There was a kind of lull and nothing happened until 2001”, says Walsh, referencing the arrival of another important and equally significant addition.

The Ismay Collection is the massive personal hoard of studio ceramics put together by William Albert Ismay, a Wakefield librarian who, by the time of his death in 2001, had crammed his terraced house with more than 3,500 pots.

Both collections will now be used to help to keep the displays fresh, changing and evolving, with a particular highlight being an ambitious, 17-metre-long ‘wall of pots’ displayed by colour to create a dramatic “rainbow effect” of ceramics.

“I think some people have decided that studio pottery is brown and beige and from the 1970s,” says Walsh. “But in actual fact people have always striven to create new and exciting glazes so we’re trying to create a rainbow wall of pots - fingers crossed it works.”

Another highlight are ten state-of-the-art glass cases showing the work of specific artists including Bernard Leach, Lucie Rie and Hans Coper and their influences, while the Anthony Shaw Gallery – based on another private collection on long term loan to the gallery – displays ceramics alongside furniture, between books on shelves and in front of paintings to show people how pots can work in a domestic context.

a photo of a gallery with paintings on the wall and ceramics in window spaces and niches
CoCA - The Shaw Collection© Courtesy York Museums Trust (York Art Gallery) Photo by Peter Heaton

Clare Twomey

“Hopefully people might start thinking about how to display ceramics in their own home,” says Walsh. “We want to show all the different facets of the collection.

"There will be some factory pieces and medieval and Roman examples in there, too – it’s all part of the interconnecting story of ceramics.”

Sitting amid these boldly-curated displays from a collection reflecting the personality, passions and obsessions of its creators is a new installation by ceramic artist Clare Twomey.

Manifest: ten thousand hours consists of 10,000 slip cast ceramic bowls on a series of towering columns in the centre of the gallery. Twomey, who has been visiting the new gallery during the refurbishment over the last couple of years, worked with a group of potters in York and London to produce the bowls.

“She did think about doing it herself and was actually quite taken with the idea of putting herself under that much pressure,” says Walsh. “But in the end she thought that the more people who are involved the more people will buy into it and have a sense of ownership of the work. Each bowl takes about an hour to make.

“It’s a statement about the obsession of collecting, particularly in regard to the Ismay Collection, because by the end of his life he could barely move in his house. We haven’t decided what we will do with them afterwards; we’ll worry about that later.”

a photo of a group of stacked plain white bowls
Clare Twomey's slipcast bowls from her new installation© Courtesy York Museums Trust

Pots as fine art

Ismay’s passion may have got out of control, but as well as providing an important bedrock to the best collection of its kind in the UK, the passion of a Yorkshire librarian also says something about the simple allure of pots.

“In 2008 we had Tracy Chevalier with us as our writer-in-residence and as part of that she ran a workshop and short story competition in which she gave people either ten paintings or five pots to write about,” says Walsh.

“The vast majority of people chose to write about the pots because they found them easier to use as a prop in the story. The pots were something people could have used, handled and interacted with, whereas a painting provides a more static theme.

“That was quite an eye-opener. You are drawn to handling pots - by their very nature they are not as frightening as sculpture or fine art.”

Which, despite the sculptural traditions of British studio ceramics featuring so latently in the centre's collection, begs the question: are pots fine art?

“The language is really contentious,” says Walsh. “Some people refer to themselves as a potter or an artist, others as a ceramicist. It’s very easy to stick your foot in it.

"But we’re presenting them as art – or the people who created them as artists. Some of the stuff we have in the collection definitely isn’t fine art or beautiful or attractive, but it’s still a work of artistic creation.”

Whatever your take on studio ceramics, with so many people owning a pot of some kind, whether a studio piece, a German ‘fat lava’ vase or something passed down the generations, this unique collection is one of the best places to luxuriate in the simple beauty of pots – whatever you choose to call them.

Visit yorkartgallery.org.uk/centre-of-ceramic-art-coca for more.

a photo of a group of pots
The Shaw Collection© Courtesy York Museums Trust Photo Peter Heaton
a photo of a small circular box with a blue mottled pattern
Jane Hamlyn, Lidded Box (1991). Stoneware© York Museums Trust
a photo of a dish with a bull ring scene painted inside it
Pablo Picasso, Scene de Tauromachie (1954)© Image Courtesy York Museums Trust (York Art Gallery).
a photo of a large blue vase
Royal Lancastrian, Pilkington’s Tile & Pottery Co. Limited© Courtesy York Museums Trust

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

Three museums and galleries to see great ceramics collections in:

, Edinburgh
Current exhibition Masters of Japanese Porcelain shows how four individuals made the most of new markets and technologies during the late 19th century.

, Leicester
Picasso Ceramics: The Attenborough Collection is a permanent gallery of selected key works from the collection of Lord and Lady Attenborough.

Turner Contemporary, Margate
Early ceramics, super-8 films and sketchbooks feature in an exhibition of subversive works going back to the bedroom roots of the people's potter.
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