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Curator Diary - Wakefield's Ceramics

As we hold our first ever online Ceramics Fair, Chief Curator, Andrew Bonacina reflects on Wakefield's impressive and growing collection of ceramics.

When I arrived at The Hepworth Wakefield in 2013, I spent many months familiarising myself with our collection which comprises over 5000 artworks. With a personal interest in ceramics, I was delighted to discover that works by British studio potters were collected by Wakefield as early as 1938 (the collection was founded in 1923), chiming with the its aim to ‘keep in touch with modern art in its relations to modern life’.

1920s & 30s

At that moment in the 1920s, Britain saw the flourishing of its studio pottery movement, with its leading lights including Bernard Leach, William Staite Murray and Dora Billington establishing important studios and nurturing a new generation of artists through their teaching and writing.

The first ceramic works to enter Wakefield’s collection were a large jar by Michael Cardew, who had apprenticed at the Leach Pottery in the early 1920s, and a magnificent painted vessel by Samuel Haile. Haile studied ceramics under Staite Murray at the Royal College of Art after transferring from the painting department. Though he continued to paint and make prints throughout his short life (we also hold a wood engraving and a watercolour by Haile in the collection) he is best known for his stoneware vessels which, much like Staite Murray, he embraced as a vehicle for painting and drawing. Figures and narrative scenes play across his pots’ surfaces, and like in our own Blood Rite (1938) often take on violent or ritualistic themes. Blood Rite was presented as part of an important exhibition of his pots at the Brygos Gallery in London in 1938 and was acquired for Wakefield’s collection by the wealthy patron (and sister of Peggy Guggenheim) Hazel King-Farlow who donated over 15 works to Wakefield Art Gallery in the 1930s.

Michael Cardew, Jar

1950s

The 1950s was an equally rich period for British studio ceramics, driven by a post-war renaissance in British art and design and celebrated in major exhibitions such as the 1951 Festival of Britain. Important ceramics courses at the Central School of Art and Design and Camberwell School of Art, taught by influential figures such as Lucie Rie and Hans Coper, gave rise to a new generation of artists who explored both traditional vessel forms and more sculptural expressions in clay.

This moment coincided with the tenure of one of Wakefield Art Gallery’s most visionary Directors, Helen Kapp, who took the reins in 1951 and swiftly cemented Wakefield’s reputation as an important centre for contemporary art in the UK. As well as acquiring painting and sculpture by Reg Butler, Prunella Clough, Hubert Dalwood, Alan Davie, Terry Frost, Patrick Heron and Keith Vaughan, Kapp also acquired ceramics by Hans Coper, Barbara Cass, Bernard Leach, James Tower, Ruth Duckworth and Lucie Rie. Rie’s work was included in her groundbreaking exhibition Living Today in 1959, for which Kapp invited eight architects to refurnish and redecorate the Wakefield Art Gallery – then several adjoining terraced houses in Wakefield’s city centre – as if they were once again inhabited domestic spaces. In Living Today Kapp emphasised an increasing interdisciplinarity within the arts during the 1950s and 1960s and celebrated the home as a place where these various art forms naturally live side by side.

Hans Coper, Stoneware Vase (1960), Purchased 1961

1970s & 80s

The ceramics collection continued to grow through the 1970s and 1980s with key acquisitions and gifts of works by Walter Keeler, Gabriele Koch, Carol McNicoll, Ian Auld, Joanna Constantinides, Sutton Taylor, Emmanuel Cooper and Martin Smith. It was throughout these years that local librarian W.A. Ismay was building what would become one of Britain’s most important private collections of studio ceramics; some 3600 pieces occupied every surface of his Wakefield terraced house located only a stone’s throw away from the site now occupied by The Hepworth Wakefield. Ismay’s collection now resides at the Centre for Ceramic Art at York Art Gallery, however in 2014 we invited artist Matthew Darbyshire to create an installation incorporating Ismay’s collection, which he designed to echo the dense arrangement that would have greeted visitors to Ismay’s home. The sheer mass of works made evident the obsessive nature of Ismay’s collecting, an obsessiveness that many collectors of ceramics acknowledge.

While exploring the artists who entered the collection in the 1970s and 80s, I was surprised to discover that Wakefield was the first institution in the UK to acquire a work by the Kenyan-born artist Magdalene Odundo in 1976. I was familiar with the extraordinary sculptural forms and glossy burnished surfaces of Odundo’s later work, but less with the rougher inscribed surfaces of works such as Esinasulo (Water Carrier) which Odundo made in the mid-1970s following her residency at the Abuja Pottery in Nigeria, on the encouragement of Michael Cardew. It was out of this delving into Odundo’s early influences and understanding of her remarkable research into global ceramic traditions that the exhibition Magdalene Odundo: The Journey of Things was born. It brought 50 of Magdalene’s works from across her career into dialogue with over 100 objects that Magdalene had studied or drawn on for inspiration: from ancient Greek, pre-Hispanic pottery and modern British studio ceramics, to African and Oceanic sculpture and work by European artists including Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore. Designed by the architect Farshid Moussavi as a landscape of shifting terrains, the exhibition revealed a synthesis of worldwide languages in Magdalene’s work, and celebrated the truly global language of clay.

Magdalene Odundo,

2000s and beyond

Wakefield’s collection continues to grow through generous gifts and acquisitions, and the ceramics collection in particular has seen some significant additions in recent years. In 2015 as part of the Tim Sayer bequest, works by Ewen Henderson and Gordon Baldwin entered the collection. In 2019 Christopher Gorman Evans supported the acquisition of two important works by Jennifer Lee, and earlier this year longtime patrons of the gallery Terry Bacon and John Oldham made a bequest of over 100 works from their collection to The Hepworth Wakefield, including 43 vessels by John Ward alongside pieces by Lucie Rie, Angus Suttie, Janet Leach and Sara Flynn. Most recently a gift of 18 works from the collection of the late Patricia Barnes was presented to us by the Contemporary Art Society and includes beautiful pieces by Alison Britton, Ruth Duckwork, Ewen Henderson, Ryoji Koie, Ladi Kwali, Carol McNicoll, Jacqueline Poncelet, Mary Rogers and Angus Suttie. While our ceramics collection has historically been somewhat overshadowed by our great holdings of 20th-century sculpture and painting, it is heartening to see those early roots, put down in the 1930s, continue to flourish into an increasingly important part of our collection and displays at The Hepworth Wakefield.