“William Staite Murray emphatically positioned himself as an artist who made pots. He regarded pottery as a genre that offered possibilities for exploring three dimensional form and its graphic treatment, a new discipline, he argued, that was the interface between painting and sculpture. As he stated in a BBC interview in the 1930s with his friend and colleague John Piper, ‘Pottery stands between Painting & Sculpture in the plastic arts, it inclines to either and includes both.’” — Quote from an essay by Julian Stair in Ben Nicholson and Winnifred Nicholson: Art and Life. Click here to read this brief essay in full.
SYDNEY, Australia — Our headline is not entirely accurate but it was too good to pass up, although we are the first to introduce an unseen, lost work to the world. To be more accurate, the piece found us via Rhodesia, Africa (now Zimbabwe), Gulgong and then Sydney. I was standing at the opening reception for an exhibition of New Zealand pottery during the Gulgong Clay 2016 conference when a young ceramist, Clare Unger (née Valentine), shyly approached me. What she told me made my blood race.
First a little backstory: William Staite Murray was the greatest ceramist in Britain between the two wars and he was an artist to boot. If you know the name of Bernard Leach but not Murray you have totally flunked British studio pottery history.
Murray was Leach’s nemesis in every sense. He began making pots in England before Leach’s return from Japan and, strictly speaking, he should be seen as the prime initiator of the studio pottery movement. He earned glowing reviews from the art critics of The Times and he was an exhibiting member of the prestigious Seven and Five Society that included Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore, Christopher Wood and Ben Nicholson. Earlier he worked with Vorticist artist Cuthbert Hamilton and made pottery in that jazzy style.
Leach also wanted, more than anything else, to be the professor of ceramics at the Royal College of Art in London (yes, Leach wanted to be part of the establishment) but that job, much to his chagrin, went to Murray. Leach’s dislike was such that his apprentices, Michael Cardew and Katherine Pleydell-Bouverie, had to visit his London shows in secret. Both believed Murray’s work to be far superior to that of their master. And they were correct.
To topple Murray from his pedestal, Leach began to question the art critics’ who treated Murray as an artist. Murray was, after all, just a craftsman, he argued and the true test of his work was how well it worked, utility not aesthetics, a safe argument for a dull potter.
Aside from the ugliness of this envy-induced mission, Leach was also a hypocrite, selling his pots in Japan for large sums as art.
The critics, sadly, were only too happy to take Leach’s kitchen-sink manifesto and turned against Murray. One of Murray’s former admiring critics, Charles Marriott, later mocked him for naming his work saying, “he has lately been in some danger of forgetting that a pot is just a pot.” Leach later expressed regret to Murray going too far, but by then the art door was closed to British ceramics. Bravo Bernard.
When the Second World War became imminent Murray and his wife decided to move temporarily to Rhodesia where he had a relative living on a farm. Clare picks up the story from this point:
William Staite Murray was my father’s great Uncle. He and his wife Kathleen Murray went to Rhodesia in 1939 to visit their niece, my grandmother. She was living with her husband in a farming area called Odzi. My grandparents did not encourage the visit as they feared the outbreak of war and that the Murrays would be stranded in Rhodesia.
Despite many letters telling them not to come, they made the journey. When it became clear that they could not return to England, my grandfather built them a cottage on the farm. However, relations between my grandmother and Staite Murray were strained and in 1950 he and Kathleen moved to a house they built in an adjoining farming area.
I’m not sure exactly when Staite Murray brought his belongings, including the pots and paintings, now owned by my family, to Rhodesia from England but I assume it was in 1957 when he went back to England to sort out his affairs. He died of cancer in Umtali in 1964.
Clare, who emigrated to Australia, inherited the majority of Staite Murray’s pots and all of his papers that survived from her mother. Her aunt, sister and brother, who still live in Zimbabwe, also have some of his creations including pots, paintings and furniture. Claire also has paintings from her mother as well as items that he must have collected before arriving in Rhodesia. These include a medieval jug (which is by itself the touchstone for Murray’s aesthetic with its overstated foot and determined throwing rings), a 16th century statue of Buddha and a small Korean bowl.
The papers were fascinating, but with them came two books, which to ceramic geeks are most revealing. These appear to be his major sources for glazes and glaze science, dog eared, stained and falling apart: E.I Raes’ The Glazer’s Book: How to Use It, published by the Brick and Pottery Trades Journal Office, and the first edition of Charles Fergus Binns’ The Potter’s Craft (1910). This may have given rise to the first use of the phrase “studio pottery.” In it Binns referred to “studio work” and the “artist potter,” perhaps encouraging Murray in his pursuit of pottery as an art form.
His later paintings, for a man who was close to Ben Nicholson and other innovative artists, are ordinary in every sense of the term. Clare has examined the work of the husband and wife closely and while they both painted similar still life subjects she has come to believe that identifying the two artists’ work (few were signed) comes from looking at the flower arrangements. Kathleen’s were always symmetrical and William’s asymmetrical, tilting to the left.
Entering the home of Clare and Tim Unger (and we thank them for their generosity in sharing their collection and a perfect cup of tea with us) was, for a historian, a thrilling moment. Rarely seen outside Unger’s family since 1957, it was like stepping back in time to his farewell exhibition and sale, graciously shown in the Unger home in small clusters.
Yes, I have been saving the best for last. It’s this totemic vase, standing 16 cm (50 inches) high, swirling with glaze mist and it is in many ways (despite its dominant anthropomorphism) surfaced like a traditional Chinese landscape painting, with falling veils of glaze and a subtle, moody palette in beige and grey. The family believed that its tile was Standing Buddha.
The movement in the piece is interestingly contradictory, glaze swims down and sideways and the full form swells upward, tugging at each other. For those of us who love pots, the few hours spent with this artwork were enthralling and emotional. However, please accept my apologies for my poor photography, it gives a general sense of the work, but not its full grandeur.
The Gallery is a leading resource for British studio pottery (see our story about new collections and the York’s award winning pottery installation) and it is the major repository of Murray’s art with 47 works, most having been gifted by the artist’s loyal and passionate collector the Very Reverend Eric Milner-White, Archbishop of York.
Lastly, scroll down for a tantalizing photograph. It appears to be have taken when Murray was a young man, maybe 20 years old, dressed in a costume, and he comes across as a dead ringer for a youthful Oscar Wilde, although that was unlikely to be his intent. Family members heard that he took part in amateur theater early on and maybe he is garbed for a role. Any information from our readers?
Bottom line? We know far too little about this man and his life. He is being lost to history while the lesser man, Leach, remains ascendant. Malcolm Haslam’s modest William Staite Murray (London: Crafts Council, 1984) remains the only sourcebook. Time for studio pottery scholarship to raise his profile, examine his art and bring him back to what he was, Britain’s greatest studio potter between the two world wars. And who better for the task than the groundbreaking York Art Gallery?
Clare is also an accomplished ceramist and potter in her own right. For the record, while she is willing to gift the ephemera she has no desire to part with his pots and paintings, feeling that their departure “for whatever reason would be too great a loss in our life.”
Garth Clark is Chief Editor of cfile.daily.
Do you love or loathe this work of contemporary ceramic art? Let us know in the comments
Postscript: Just as we were about to publish, Clare’s sister found an illustrated reference—the only one known to date—that if correct confirms both its name and my guess of the date, ca. 1938. This is on page 56 of Margot Coatts’ book, Pioneers of Modern Craft: Twelve Essays Profiling Key Figures in the History of Contemporary Craft, Studies in Design and Material Culture. (Manchester University Press, 1997) in which she describes the pot as “the culmination of Murray’s attempt to fuse Eastern Mysticism with elements of modern painting and sculpture.”