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“It’s clay’s ordinary-ness, its everyday-ness
that fascinates me”

UCA Crafts Study Centre Director Simon Olding on his enduring fascination with British studio pottery and a career spent exploring the story of studio ceramics.

09 Apr 2021

Bernard Leach at an exhibition of his work, Tokyo, circa 1920

Championing Pottery

Olding began his professional career doing voluntary work in the local Exeter Museum, where he researched modern craft and ceramics before heading to Fitzwilliam College in Cambridge for his undergraduate degree in English literature and on to the University of Edinburgh for his PhD. Since then, he has spent his career either working directly with art museums or associated organisations — he was Director of Policy and Research at the Heritage Lottery Fund, and, before that, Head of Arts and Museums at Bournemouth Borough Council.

Things of Beauty Growing

At the heart of Olding’s extensive body of research are the major exhibition and book Things of Beauty Growing. This critically acclaimed showcase tells the story of studio ceramics in Britain, from the 1920s to the present, through the evolution of the vessel form. It opened in 2017 at the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, Connecticut, USA, and later moved to the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, England. Olding describes it as “a huge long-term project — but a very, very exciting one”.

A new era

“I think Things of Beauty Growing was one of those exhibitions that helped to create a landscape for what is now a continued and strong interest in British studio pottery,” reflects Olding. “Ceramics are a really vital creative movement, and I think that’s reflected by the significant numbers of people making pots, and reflecting on their value and importance as cultural artefacts, as well as domestic ones. The presence of clay is important for life, really.”

Bernard Leach sitting in a chair in his Tokyo home
Unknown photographer, Bernard Leach in his house in Tokyo, circa 1917–20. Crafts Study Centre, University for the Creative Arts © Courtesy of the Bernard Leach Estate