Political pots or Pots with Attitude which is the name of a current FREE exhibition at the British Museum. I went to see it last week.
Turner prize winner Grayson Perry CBE is probably the most high-profile artist working with pots today. I came across one of his works recently at the Foundling Hospital Museum – Perry was a Hogarth Fellow there – and have encountered him at Chelsea. He has made TV documentaries about class and taste and he has serious things to say about the world and how we relate to each other. Yet, though he does work with other materials, he first came to the attention of the wider public because he made pots. These elegant and beautiful creations are covered with drawing and pattern, but drawing and patterns which one would not expect to find as decoration on a pot.
So, for example, his exquisite glazed vases in the Russian style of 2000, We’ve Found the body of your Child, tells the story of the discovery of a missing child. Or pots with an overt political meaning, most recently the two Brexit pots. He is on record as saying “People say, ‘why do you need to put sex, violence or politics or some kind of social commentary into your work?’ Without it, it would be pottery. I think that crude melding of those two parts is what makes my work.” This juxtaposition is what is important.
The British Museum exhibition shows that Perry is not the first to use ceramics and everyday ceramic shapes, vases, urns and jugs, to comment on political and social issues. From the 1720s onwards the satirical prints of Gillray, Rowlandson and others, including Hogarth, were popular with the middle classes, lampooning momentous events – the America War of Independence, the French Revolution, Bonaparte’s Empire – as well as shining a sharp light on contemporary issues. But it was only in the 1750s that technological advances allowed potteries to transfer printed images on to inexpensive ceramic ware from copper plates. Thus these satires found a much wider market. Not ‘fine art’ certainly and mass-produced, so not so exquisite, but art and social commentary on pots nonetheless.
There is Massacre and Execution of King Louis XVI by Staffordshire Pottery and La Guillotine by Cambrian Pottery (right),later the same pottery made Bounaparte Dethron’d, (above left) created by transfer and then painted with enamel. Social issues also attracted interest. This included the Slave Trade. Potteries turned out items supportive of the abolitionist cause, but, as it looked as though the abolitionists might win, ceramics like the printed and painted jug, below left, Success to the Brooks (the Brooks was a slave ship) acted as propaganda for the slave traders. The jug was probably commissioned by one such.
The exhibition also shows very rare items depicting the Peterloo Massacre, potters risked their livelihoods and safety by making them. It was a cheap and popular way to get the news of the event out to the general public given the completely biased media of the time (of course, the Massacre prompted the creation of the Manchester Guardian newspaper as a progressive counterblast to the established papers).
Doubtless Grayson Perry knew all about these political pots, but I did not, so I especially enjoyed this relatively small but very interesting exhibition in Room 90a (right at the back) of the British Museum. It is FREE to enter and runs until the 11th March 2018.