Alison  Britton OBE
Alison  Britton OBE
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Name:

Alison  Britton OBE

Address:

c/o Barrett Marsden Gallery
17-18 Great Sutton Street
London
EC1V

Date of Birth:

04.05.48

Email:

barretmarsden@bmgallery.co.uk

Brief Description of Work:
Hand-built ceramic pots\r\n

Training and Experience:
1966-67 - Leeds College of Art
1967-70 - Central School of Art & Design, London (DIP AD)
1970-73 - Royal College of Art, London (MARCA)\r\n

Selected Exhibitions:
1990 - Retrospective organised by Aberystwyth Arts Centre, toured British museums and Boymans van Beuningen Museum Rotterdam, Holland.
1998 - Solo Exhibition at Barret Marsden Gallery, London\r\n

Other Activities:
Writing on the applied arts since 1978
Part-time tutor at Royal College of Art since 1984
Curation eg 'The Raw and the Cooked' for the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford in 1993 which toured to Japan and France (co-curated with Martina Margetts)\r\n

Artists Statement:
I think that my pots appear to be the work of someone urban, a person used to attempting the integration of diversity. The pot is an ordinary and easily recognisable object. As such it is a good vehicle for playing the images of disparity and connection, as for instance between sculpture and painting, or form and fiction, which is a title I have used for an exhibition.\r\n

Further Information:

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After visiting Alison Britton in her north London studio, unexpectedly situated amidst a population of Hassidic Jews, I read about Pearl Abraham. She is a young Hassidic Jew whose frank first novel about teenage yearnings within that strict religious culture breaks a taboo. In looking at Alison Britton’s majestic new pots, I think back to the end of the 1970s just after Bernard Leach had died, and remember how her generation had also seemed to break with the orthodox view of beauty and utility inherent in Oriental pots, Leach’s yardstick. Set against this, Britton’s pots, their form, decoration and ambiguous function appeared not only unorthodox, but even subversive or perverse.

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And yet, like the readers of Abraham’s novel, Britton’s work is embraced by those who see in it something they admire: a Modernist’s search for presence and essence, expressed through an abstracted fusion of painting and sculpture, the nub of her method and purpose. For Britton, it is less a question of breaking taboos than of consistently developing a ceramic language which articulates her concerns. These have grown out of her liberal intellectual background, her awareness of education, psychoanalysis and art through the careers of family and friends.

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Perhaps, after all, the orthodox and unorthodox, like tradition and innovation, are mutually interdependent. Britton sympathises with the view that originality is based on tradition. For her the pottery tradition has always been important: ‘It’s an identity within which I can play about’. She has worked happily within it, enjoying its generous inclusiveness as a genre. Clay as stuff, as raw material for a urinal or a Hindu temple, clay as the primordial material for expressing the prosaic and poetic. Understood in virtually all cultures through time, it has both anthropological and metaphorical significance.

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This connectedness is vital in Britton’s way of interpreting the world, but in her work she is careful to avoid literal appropriation. ‘I’ve breathed in a lot’ she says, ‘but it’s very important that it’s unconscious’. In the early 1970s, she drew copiously at the British Museum. Her tiles and pots in that decade took the form of figurative narratives, using the clay as two-dimensional canvas, with words and line drawings of people, animals, objects from diverse and imagined cultures. It was only towards the end of the decade that seeds of abstraction and formal experimentation germinated, which had been sown by Gordon Baldwin and Hans Coper, her respective teachers at the Central School and the Royal College of Art. Britton worked with trails of slip to create abstract pattern rather than pictures and at he same time shifted the earthenware slabs into structures of risky formal complexity.

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This dramatic change, towards a synthesis of sculpture and abstract painting in objects, established the idiom which Britton has continued to develop and refine over the past fifteen years, complemented by her writings. By 1982, in the catalogue for the Crafts Council’s The Makers Eye exhibition, Britton had already written the seminal text explaining the significance of her work and many of her generation: ‘I would say that this group concerned with the outer limits of function; where function, or an idea of a possible function, is crucial, but is just one ingredient in the final presence of the object, and is not its only motivation’. In the years since then, her numerous pieces of writing, about her own work, about others, about themes surrounding contemporary crafts, have contributed greatly to our understanding of making and meaning, and it is not surprising to find Britton averring that of all other creative forms, poetry means the most to her, ‘its weight and layering’ something she hopes her pots evoke.

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Through form and colour in her pots, Britton has interpreted tradition, using blue and white, still life, dish and jug forms, thumb pots as intimate ‘handles’. If her work creates a frisson by confronting the formal arena - our concepts of tradition, function and art in pottery - then a further frisson is created by its content. Britton acknowledges that the human body is a central focus of the pots. ‘They’ve always been to do with bodies. The pots I’ve seen that mean something to me all re-connect to the body. But my pots must be a pot mainly’ I’ve curtailed them from being more referential - to go more towards the body would lose that tension’.

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The tension is established through a fine balancing of inside and outside, of male/female qualities - androgynous ambiguity. The idea of the body is inherent, subtly integrated in the pot. There are holistic, oblique references to our physical and emotional selves: lines, wrinkled skin, awkward limbs, protrusions, and nuances of feelings and thoughts. In these new pots, subject matter is not literal; her earlier work she has explained as being about nature and civilisation, myth, past and present. These now are about being a certain kind of person, living in a city in the 1990s, seeking to reconcile all the diverse issues and values and influences which bombard an individual. ‘You should be able to see that I am not a meat-eating fascist’. I can.

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The whole working process underscores this liberal, lively, provisional, reflective character. The archetypal and repetitive process of constructing form from clay imbues the pots with a powerful resonance. The rolling out of slabs of clay, sprinkling in crumbs of dry clay to add texture, laying in the marks in slip which eventually bond the form, are almost intuitive processes. Lines appear like ribs, scars on a body. The glazing is precarious - ‘You take your life into your hands; you could blow it every time’. Each pot takes days to finish, over a period of time, decisions and adjustments mulled over and worked through. In all her work Britton seeks to ‘keep it lively’, to ‘take risks within a fairly low-tech context’. With these new pots, Britton aims for ‘striking forms, slightly taller, creating a presence, to make an impact in a casual way’.

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Britton does not abandon pots she has started. Unlike her teacher Hans Coper, who confessed that he worked ‘like a demented piano-tuner, trying to approximate a phantom pitch’, Britton works in an atmosphere of acceptance to coax colours, marks and form into awkward, then finally, triumphant harmony. ‘You have to believe in your own creativity; to have the courage to start without an idea. There is an excitement about working uncertainly and things slowly coming to fruition’, emphasises this distinguished potter. ‘The prize is resolution after a struggle’.

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Martina Margetts

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Writer, curator, lecturer in Humanities, Royal College of Art, London

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May 1996