In their quaint London space in the Royal Arcade with its saddled glass roof that links Old Bond with Albemarle Streets, the successor gallery to Besson Galerie; Erskine, Hall & Coe have produced two important exhibitions paying homage to 20th century masters Gillian Lowndes and, currently, James Tower (February 5 – February 25, 2014). Both are museum-quality exhibitions and narrow the gap in scholarship regarding these two artists. The following is an excerpt from the book The Ceramic Art of James Tower published by Lund Humphries by its author Timothy Wilcox:
The work of James Tower is not easy to categorise. An artist whose preferred medium was clay, he made domestic pottery, terracotta sculpture occasionally cast in bronze and, in a final flowering lasting nearly a decade, large glazed forms whose decorations, sometimes abstract, sometimes based on shapes and patterns found in nature, are paintings in three dimensions. A teacher throughout his career, Tower was admired and respected by many but had few followers and no imitators. His seemingly inexhaustible range of subtle and playful visual effects, the more surprising when applied to the almost primitive fabrication of the objects themselves, remains very much his own.
Tower began his training before the Second World War, but it was not until the 1950s that he became established as an exhibiting artist. As pottery tutor at Bath Academy of Art, he was encouraged by its inspirational director, Clifford Ellis, to concentrate first and foremost on integrity of artistic expression, compared to which the material involved was of secondary importance.
Introduced by one of his colleagues, Peter Potworowski, to the progressive London art gallery Gimpel Fils, Tower became one of a stable of young artists committed to various forms of abstraction and was shown alongside William Scott, Barbara Hepworth and leading continental figures such as Nicolas de Staël. Despite such enlightened early support, divisions imposed by medium were not about to be done away with, and Tower’s subsequent career was conducted largely within the field of ceramics. Tower acquiesced- colluded might be a more appropriate expression- with this restrictive image of his activity without ever believing that it adequately defined him.
The longer he continued working, the greater appeared his desire to exploit the irreconcilable hybridism of his making: a breadth of intellectual reference to astrophysics, atonal music or folk art was matched with a desire to explore distant ceramic traditions, whether the tiled buildings of Central Asia or the Renaissance terracotta figures of the Della Robbia family.
He acknowledged the specific history of clay in its many applications, because, like these examples from the past, he intended to transcend it. In notes made towards the end of his life, Tower wrote that “the quality which I aim for is perhaps best defined as a sense of completion.” A longing for a serene harmonious whole which contains dynamism and vitality, satisfying our intellectual and spiritual needs. Forms which satisfy this need alleviate the sense of angst and release us into a world where abounding energy is held in a calm restraint. The attraction of this goal was made more acute by its being so elusive, to Tower at least. For the viewer, the fact that these tensions often remain unresolved is what gives Tower’s work so much of its appeal.
Whether the forces he brought into play were ultimately creative or destructive was a question the artist himself could hardly answer. Even if he achieved the desired harmony in one piece, with the next, the struggle would start all over again.
Timothy Wilcox is the author of The Ceramic Art of James Tower published by Lund Humphries. Wilcox has previously published books on Shoji Hamada, Hiroshi Suzuki and others.
Above image: James Tower, Leaf Form, 1986, tin-glazed earthenware, h. 30cm (Front View). Photograph courtesy of Erskine, Hall & Coe.