Part-time pottering

Glazed earthenware pot, Denise Wren, 1920s-1930s.
Glazed earthenware pot, Denise Wren, 1920s-1930s.

Working as a curator at Kingston Museum initially brought me into contact with the Denise Wren collection of ceramics and archive. And curating the 2017-18 ‘Hope For Beauty’ exhibition sparked the idea of going in depth and continuing with the research as a PhD at Kingston School of Art. Denise Wren was herself an alumna of the latter, so bridged these two institutions.

For half of the week I work on my PhD. A significant part of the research involves cataloguing the archive. This will result in the creation of catalogue records enabling greater public access. Sifting through Kingston’s archive also allows comparison with material held by other institutions. 

The remaining half of the working week is spent as a curator, some of which focuses on the Wren Collection. In 2019 I couriered ceramics to Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft to lend for their ‘Women’s Work’ exhibition on interwar women makers. Also that year the Decorative Arts Society awarded Kingston Museum £5K of funding to redisplay the ceramics collection. Part of this grant enabled a new gallery display of Wren ceramics.

The roles of researcher and curator might seem like they are a good fit, mutually reinforcing each other, and in some ways this is so. It is easier to attract funding and publicity when multiple institutions are backing a project. Yet the differing priorities of these positions can lead to conflict. 

Curatorial work aims to make objects widely accessible to visitors. Usually through creating displays, websites and events narrating the people, places or events linked to the objects. Thus the curator is essentially a mediator. What curatorial research does not do on a day to day basis is to radically question the underlying purpose and methods of the museum. This is the role of academic research. Yet the forms which this takes, such as conference papers and articles, are less available to a wide public. 

So what might an academic, in contrast to a curatorial, approach to the Wren collection be? A main question of my PhD is why Wren’s interwar ceramics tended to be viewed as amateur. I examine her ‘process’, in other words her teaching, pottery demonstrations, writing instructional texts and development of tools to make ceramics, rather than concentrating on the finished product, the pots she made. 

A number of issues relating to studying, collecting and displaying Wren can be unpacked in my role as a researcher in an academic setting. However, as a museum curator I work under a set of constraints which makes such open questioning harder to achieve. 

Researching and displaying work by a particular maker has a measurable effect upon their reputation. Since the ‘Hope For Beauty’ exhibition, I have been contacted by owners of Wren ceramics wanting to know about the history of their pieces. If Wren’s name becomes better known as her pottery is more widely disseminated via exhibitions which receive coverage in the national press, this could cause her ceramics to rise in value. 

Denise Wren’s relatives generously donated material to the museum for free. But if its value increases, owners may prefer to sell items, thus making it harder for poorly funded local museums like Kingston to acquire such items. Additional spending might also be incurred from the need to increase the security of the display cases which house these objects and in insuring them. 

Denise Wren’s daughter Rosemary donated her mother’s most accomplished ceramics to the V&A and the Crafts Study Centre at Farnham. To Kingston Museum she gave a number of early ceramics representing Denise’s first experiments in potting while still a student at Kingston School of Art. Rosemary’s husband, Peter Crotty, recently donated a large amount of interwar pots so that Kingston now holds the widest range of pieces of any UK collection. As a scholar interested in Wren’s process, I am fascinated to see pioneering attempts at pots, unfired ceramics and crude-looking vessels made by anonymous students shaping the clay by pressing it into baskets. 

However, to make a case for outlay on conserving and displaying Wren objects, to colleagues and to funders, I tend to focus on Wren as a maker of beautifully crafted, completely finished objects. Too much discussion of her status as an amateur or an outlier in the history of craft could undermine their confidence and enthusiasm. 

As a curator I concentrate on Denise Wren as an individual pioneer, telling a story of her as an early studio craftswoman who established a local pottery. In the context of Kingston Museum’s displays, this narrative complements that of Eadweard Muybridge, the innovative 19thcentury photographer whose photographic material is the jewel of the collection.

But in highlighting Wren, are other figures neglected? It would be simplistic to consider Denise Wren’s contribution to ceramic history without taking account of her husband Henry. Although he made few pots, Henry Wren’s input was vital to the success of the Oxshott Pottery, including the organisation of craft exhibitions at which the Wrens sold their ceramics. Henry helped to disseminate the Wrens’ approach to pottery by writing the text of their two books published by Pitman in 1928 and 1932. 

Of equal importance to the family project was the Wren’s daughter Rosemary. She undertook initial experiments in the saltglazed stoneware technique which made Denise Wren’s reputation late in life and she continued to develop the Oxshott Pottery in new ways. The histories of mother and daughter are intertwined. 

One way in which the curatorial and the academic might fruitfully come together is in the creation of a narrative for the museum which allows it to reach out to new audiences.  Kingston borough has a 28% BAME population and a large student population. Such audiences are on average younger, and art and design is a topic which tends to attract younger visitors, so Wren might help draw some new audiences. 

Additionally, displaying Wren alongside the existing studio pottery from the Marsh Collection, including pots by Bernard Leach and William Staite Murray, may be a way to subtly change the dominant studio pottery narrative by foregrounding a woman maker and her innovative methods of making pottery, as distinct from the male establishment.

Undertaking PhD research clearly impacts on my job as a curator in that it allows me to increase my expertise. The way in which collections are formed and defined by the curator’s politics, ethics and aesthetic choices tends not to be overtly recorded within museum interpretation. In order to acknowledge and counter this one-sided view, many museum websites now encourage visitors to create their own content by tagging images of objects or even writing new texts to accompany these. The current pandemic has made digital outreach a vital medium for visitor engagement, so perhaps this more participatory mode can be explored as a method for further bringing together academic research and public outreach.

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