CSM has been operating its ceramics course for over 100 years. Initially run as a series of workshops for women, in 1918 the course was established on CSM’s formal curriculum by pottery tutor Dora Billington. Its legacy is currently the subject of an exhibition being staged at the CSM’s Lethaby Gallery in Kings Cross, London.
Craftsmanship Alone is Not Enough charts the evolution of CSM’s Ceramics Design course over 100 years through the display of work by former students, tutors and technicians. The exhibition is diverse. Conventional decorative objects and handcrafted wares are displayed alongside more experimental pieces. There are, for instance, a tea pot shaped like a jelly mould, sex toys cast in ceramic, and a world map in which ceramic pieces are scaled to chart maternal death rates across the world. “Dora Billington coined the phrase 'craftsmanship alone is not enough' meaning that it’s not enough to just be artistic in your practice,” says Tony Quinn, head of Ceramic Design at CSM and the exhibition’s curator. “It very much frames the way that we have always operated: it is about more than just the material, there has to be a contextual validity that pushes the boundaries.”
The presence of such a long-running specialist ceramics course in the UK is significant. “There was a rapid decline mid-90s onwards,” says Quinn. “In the 80s there were around 35 courses in the UK. A number of those have closed and about 10 have become multi-disciplinary.” There are myriad explanations for such decline. Quinn cites the high cost of material-based courses as one of the primary reasons. “This is an expensive form of education to deliver,” he says. “The budget we are given to deliver the course is spent almost entirely on materials. But we don’t get any more money than a course in English, for example. You can see how the economic model for universities works, in that you can make so much more money from courses that are run following a lecture format.”
Quinn's theory has weight, although there are a number of other successful material-based subjects within the arts that are offered more widely by universities across the UK. Expense undoubtedly affects the number of universities offering specialist creative subjects, but the paucity of undergraduate ceramics courses is likely contingent on other factors too. The demise of the country's once thriving ceramics industry seems prominent amongst these.
In the late 19th century, the region around Stoke-on-Trent was the lodestone of the world’s ceramic production. Over 1 million wares were fired in its kilns each year. In the post-war era, however, the rapid decline in British manufacturing - which subsequently led to the widespread closure of mines, steelworks and factories - has caused the industry to all but grind to a halt. Between 1998 and 2008 more than 20,000 jobs within Stoke-on-Trent potteries were lost.
The wealth of talent on display in Craftmanship Alone is Not Enough, however, stands as a staunch defence of the value of teaching ceramics at undergraduate level. The exhibited works are conceptually engaged and technically advanced, evincing the breadth and richness of the field. In demonstrating to an audience the quality of work produced through ceramics education, the exhibition hints at the further value that might be derived from a revived industry.