Gillian Lowndes 1936-2010.
To start at the beginning: With a privileged background, she was born in 1936 into a society which had scarcely moved from the imperialist Britain that lasted until after the Second World War. She and her identical twin sister, Jennifer, spent their childhoods in Bombay, India, but came to England to be educated at Lawnside School in Malvern, until both of them entered London's Central School of Art in 1955, Gillian to study ceramics and Jennifer as a textile designer.
For Gillian it was a halcyon time. The Central School Ceramics Department, run by the deceptively avuncular Gilbert Harding-Green, had the muscle to stand up in opposition to the suffocating influence of Bernard Leach and his coterie, who tried to draw European and Japanese ceramics together. I should know, because I was there myself. Gillian was not the most forceful of students, yet her gentle and mild manner as student and later as teacher belied a steely personality, which not only challenged her patrician background but also every single philosophical theory of ceramics set up against the Leachism of the 1960s. She did not counter Leach with a philosophy of her own but she had eyes which could see through the pretension of more spectacular artists and was always able to grasp what was important in all fields of contemporary art. Her students at Harrow School of Art, the Central School (where she taught plant drawing), Camberwell, Farnham, Bristol and Brighton and, indeed, Boulder, would testify to the life-changing effect she had on their attitudes to creativity.
Yes, she was an amazing teacher but what of her work? It lies across boundaries between pottery and sculpture. She was not and would never have regarded herself as a sculptor but the difficulty of placing her work in any kind of tradition means that her remarkable output is in few public collections, though cherished by private collectors. With tiny hands, her throwing was skilled and delicate but it was for handbuilt, hefty stoneware that she first came to notice in the 1960s. Hans Coper said of her works, "They ought not to work [as pots] but they do." He, another potter who saw through the emperor's new clothes, really admired her iconoclastic work, which moved from double-skinned, drily glazed, large and undulating forms in the 1960s through press-moulded work, using essentially industrial forms such as machine parts and metal manhole covers as masters, to forms and surfaces in clay that imitated natural materials like leather used in all sorts of cultures, often primitive ones.
A catalyst for this was when she went with her husband, the potter Ian Auld, to live in Nigeria for nearly two years in 1971 and 1972. Here the ethnic artefacts of sub-Saharan Africa joined with the ceremonial ornaments of the peoples of the Pacific as a starting point for her creations. She first used ceramic materials to mimic other media such as bark cloth or cowrie shells, until she later incorporated non-ceramic but refractory materials fused with clay to make the objects themselves. Sometimes criticized because her work was not elegant and sometimes being met with total incomprehension by traditional potters, she was fortunate in having admirers such as the Primavera Gallery owner Henry Rothschild, who gave her four exhibitions (the first in 1961) and the collector Anthony Shaw, who has the world's largest collection of her work, recently donated to York Museum in the United Kingdom.
Gillian's financial independence (she taught because she wanted to, not because she had to) allowed her to work at her own pace, according to family and other pressures in her life, such as the organization with Ian Auld of a succession of houses to contain their huge anthropological collection. Ian Auld died in 2000 and Gillian's subsequent diagnosis of cancer severely limited her production in the last decade.
Potters usually have a strong tactile sense. In Gillian's case, her sensitivity to touch is expressed in her work by an antithesis: it is tactility stood on its head. Her work is unpleasant to touch; it defies being picked up; it is hostile, spiky and dangerous or uncomfortable to hold. She was not dogmatic. Her views are therefore not on record but she said, "I want to give domestic objects a totally different identity, make the familiar unfamiliar ... forks can look like hands."
Gillian took a delight in producing the unexpected and was amused by those who took her work too seriously, or read into it messages for the world at large. Yet for those familiar with her work, especially with her later constructions, there is a widely held view that what she has made has an eerie, unearthly resonance and points to an awesome post-apocalyptic world where there are no more humans to make things, just the detritus of a society which has destroyed itself. For a writer who tries to avoid hyperbole and aims to keep his feet firmly on the ground, it is risky to employ such metaphors, inviting derision from those who see in her latest work just an assembly of junk. But I am one of those who is deeply touched by her unique transformation of the everyday into the hauntingly vestigial.
All of the later pieces exhibit the effect of fire. Gillian drew materials from her immediate surroundings--bricks from a fallen wall, granite chips, pyrometric Orton cones, scissors, loofahs, pieces of metal from discarded packaging and other everyday objects such as the ubiquitous bulldog clips which, though sensibly practical in their humdrum uses, could take on a sinister role in the imagination, like a glove in a nightmare.
Many ceramic historians see the turning point in Gillian's career as the time in the 1970s when she started to use porcelain slip poured over textiles to enclose heavier, pre-fired clay objects like bricks, making the visual contrast between soft and hard. Later she used slip and Egyptian paste over fibreglass sheets, making spirals which, when fired, seem to have pent-up energy. Fireresistant nichrome wire would be wrapped around meticulously-worked and decorated clay to make disturbing and menacing objects like the Puff Adder. From this time on, wire became as important as clay in the finished objects and, ultimately, it was replaced by unfired bristle, introduced into tiny holes in fired porcelain or stoneware, contrasting the pliable with the rigid.
Gillian was creative with her frequent kiln accidents. It could be said that in the later years of her career as an artist everything she did was experimental and, although she respected and admired technical expertise, she was always pressing against the limits of experimentation. In her very last work, the metal component (sometimes ready-made metal tea infusers, sometimes perforated banding wire) took over from the clay as the principal material, with the clay as the matrix or glue that held the piece together.
In her progression from making massive stoneware in the 1960s to tiny spiky, abstract forms, her career invites comparison with Giacometti and Zadkine, whose work she loved. But she did not belong with the sculptors. She was a ceramic artist on the edge of pottery and, I am sure, one of the most important of the 20th century.
Gillian Lowndes died in October 2010. A retrospective exhibition of her work is planned and a book by the ceramic historian Amanda Fielding is in preparation. This is a small comfort to those who feel the loss of this reticent but strongminded woman. She affected everyone who met her and they will never forget her infectious laugh, preceded by the brief wrinkling of her unusual nose.
A Remembrance by Tony Birks
Tony Birks is the author of numerous books on ceramics including Ruth Duckworth: Modernist Sculptor, the biographies of Lucie Rie and Hans Coper as well as the Complete Potter's Companion, which has sold over 100,000 copies in the US, published by Bulfinch Press.