PhD pottering

Glazed earthenware candle holder, Denise Wren, 1920s-1930s.
Glazed earthenware candle holder, Denise Wren, 1920s-1930s.

The concept of pottering is integral to my PhD in a number of ways. In examining the life and career of Denise Wren, I am focusing especially on her dissemination of pottery skills to amateur practitioners and the Wrens’ emphasis on ‘the human value of making’ (1) rather than on the pot that resulted. This approach to making seems very much like pottering and might count as ‘occupying oneself in a desultory but pleasant way’ (one definition of pottering) for the many who attended the Wrens’ short courses over the years.

Much of the material relating to Denise Wren, her husband Henry and daughter Rosemary, is found in archives. It includes drawings, plans and blueprints, photographs, written accounts and oral history interviews. It takes a while to construct a chronology from such disparate items, a framework allowing each to be tentatively slotted into an era or topic. 

The process of gaining an overview seems to enforce a kind of pottering about, a pleasurable muddling through paper-based ephemera or listening to the stories of those who knew the Wrens and subsequently making connections, realising that an object can be interpreted in multiple ways, or that some new piece of evidence can illuminate or complicate a previously assimilated item.

As I am undertaking the PhD on a part-time basis, within six years rather than three, fitting it in around an existing job, engagement with the topic will necessarily be interrupted. Though it’s probably optimistic to hope that the timeframe will allow me to ‘move or go in a casual, unhurried way’ (a second description of what it is to potter), I admire the Wrens’ holistic approach to life and work, which Henry Wren sums up in a leaflet advertising his 1935 Artist Craftsmen Exhibition: ‘Soon we shall see that our most vital happiness lies in daily work itself rather than in spells of spoon-fed leisure between spells of irksome toil.’ 

This blog will be a place to try out some of the half-baked or not yet fully formed thoughts about my research and doing a PhD in general which result. 

(1)The Times (1925) ‘Knox Guild of Design and Craft at Whitechapel Art Gallery’, 28 October