Freelance Curator Melissa Gallimore explores some of the stories of female ceramic artists from the collections at Cannon Hall Museum.
Women have been involved in the ceramic industries for centuries, but their names and identities have often been hidden. Some women such as Clarice Cliff and Dame Lucie Rie became household names in the twentieth century but there are many more who have made a significant contribution to the industry. The nineteenth century saw more women being allowed to enter art schools and being employed as designers and painters. The social developments of the twentieth century enabled many women to start their own potteries or become Directors and Heads of Department in large factories.
Prior to the industrial revolution, potteries tended to be reasonably small and would have been run by families. Women and children would have been heavily involved in the daily drudgery of preparing clay and glazes, moving materials and decorating the finished pots. Traditionally the actual throwing of ceramics on the wheel was seen as a male pursuit. As the eighteenth century progressed large ceramics factories were established such as Wedgwood’s new plant at Etruria, Staffordshire. They employed thousands of people including women and children who worked long hours doing manual labour. Many women painted and decorated ceramics but very few were allowed to develop their own designs or achieve any recognition.
Up until the mid-Victorian period women were largely excluded from art schools so could not develop the necessary skills or access the same opportunities as men. In 1871 The Slade School of Art opened in London with the ethos that men and women could both access education in the arts on equal terms. Eventually, other art schools started to provide similar opportunities. However, in many institutions, women were still encouraged towards botanical drawing, watercolours and textiles. The disciplines of oil painting, sculpture or metalwork were seen as too physical for them. There are many examples of women, such as Evelyn De Morgan, who bucked this trend and achieved financial and artistic success.
Many women took classes in ceramics but found that social stereotypes were still reinforced. In the 1910s Gwendoline Parnell attended Camberwell School of Art. She had already learnt a great deal about ceramics from her father who taught the subject. The tutor at Camberwell enraged Parnell by splitting the class on gender lines. The men were taught to model and throw ceramics and the women were taught to decorate them. Parnell swiftly left the college and described her anger as like a ‘raging volcano’.
The Doulton factory based at Lambeth, London, started making decorative ceramics in the Victorian period. In the 1870s they developed a relationship with Lambeth Art School which was situated close by. Many of the students were employed to provide designs for Doulton or were employed in its design and decorating workshops. Two sisters, Florence and Hannah Barlow, were extremely talented at drawing from nature and were employed by Doulton. The women at Doulton were given their own workshops separate from the men. The work of many of the women designers was recognised both at the time and since as being of remarkable skill.
The seismic social shift caused by the First World War and the suffragette movement enabled some women to develop their ceramics careers in ways not previously seen. One of the most famous examples is Clarice Cliff who started work as an apprentice gilder as a teenager. By the late 1920s she was leading her own studio at the Newport Pottery. She developed her own range of ceramics, known as ‘Bizarre ware’, which for many people defined the look of the Art Deco period.
Cliff was not alone in being a celebrated figure in the ceramics of the inter-war period. In 1933 Charlotte Rhead moved to A G Richardson & Co as a lead designer and the move was celebrated in newspaper articles at the time. In 1926, Millicent Taplin was placed in charge of Wedgwood’s first handcraft studio where she produced Art Deco inspired designs. The famous illustrator Mabel Lucie Attwell was commissioned by Shelley’s to provide designs for tea sets which were advertised widely.
Whilst many factories were promoting their female designers, other women were choosing to establish their own studios in line with the studio pottery movement that was gaining traction in the early twentieth century. Katharine Pleydell-Bouverie trained with Bernard Leach in St Ives before setting up her own studio in the 1920s with fellow potter Norah Braden. The two women experimented with local clays as well as ash glazes derived from the local woodlands. Pleydell-Bouverie published her scientific work on ash glazes and it is still used as a reference book to this day. Denise Wren was also a significant potter in the studio movement of the 1920s. She designed and built her own house and pottery as well as publishing her designs to encourage other women to follow her lead. Wren was heavily involved in the Suffragette movement.
Lucie Rie left Vienna in 1938 to escape Nazi persecution. She had already established a reputation in Austria as a significant potter but had to re-establish herself in London. Initially she worked in the style developed by Bernard Leach but then developed her own direction making fine vessels in porcelain incised with geometric lines. Her pieces are highly sought after and specific pieces have made record breaking prices at auction.
In the later twentieth century many more women entered art schools and had more choice about which subjects to study. The role and reputation of ceramics has changed many times over the centuries and is currently revered in the fine art world partly due to artists such as Grayson Perry and Magdalene Odundo. In 2018 The Hepworth, Wakefield held a solo exhibition entitled Disobedient Bodies. This extensive exhibition showcased the works of the artist, Magdalene Odundo whose sculptures in ceramic are hugely popular and influential. Odundo was born in Kenya and studied ceramics in both Britain and Africa.
Women’s role in ceramics has transformed over the centuries from being hidden behind the scenes to being celebrated designers and artists but many women potters would still say that there is a lack of equality in the field. If you wish to see the ceramics made by many ground-breaking women ceramicists do visit the ceramics galleries at Cannon Hall Museum once we have re-opened.