Likes and Dislikes with Dave Binns

When James Oughtibridge went to the Royal College of Art to start his MA, his professor asked him what he liked about clay.  James says, ‘I gave him a very…feeble answer “I like making pots”’.  When the professor asked him what he likes about pots and making pots, he says he struggled to explain himself.  This assignment, I think, is to ensure we have the vocabulary to express our opinions about ceramics, so we never struggle to explain ourselves nor have to rely on a feeble reply.

The Assignment – Set by David Binns

I would like each of you to identify 3 pieces of ceramic work that you really LIKE and 3 pieces that you really DISLIKE.

Try also to do a little background research, to find a bit about the makers. Maybe track down a hyperlink to their website.  The pieces you choose need not relate in any way to your personal practice – they can if you want however.

On the Friday afternoon, in turn, each of you will present you 3 LIKE and DISLIKE images. I want you to have given some real thought to why you particularly like and dislike your chosen pieces of work – and explain your reasons to the group.

My Dislikes

Dislike 1: Portuguese Palissy Ware Plates 1880s


Palissy Ware is a style of lead glazed earthenware, based on the ‘rustic ware’ of Bernard Palissy.  Bernard Palissy was a 16th century ceramicist and natural historian, who devised a new method of combining his two interests, which earned him great acclaim.  His method was rediscovered in France in 1843, and became popular throughout the 19th century.

The Reason I don’t like them

I don’t like any Palissy Ware because of the method of production.  The creatures are ‘life casts’, although ‘killing casts’ would be more accurate   Let’s look at his method in more detail:

The life-caster brought his specimen near to death by immersing it briefly in a jar of urine or vinegar just before casting it; he then coated the dying specimen with a greasy substance, before embedding it in flattened plaster and posing it so as to make it seem alert; as the goldsmith advised: “Imitate in so doing the manner in which it [the soft-bodied animal] usually twists itself.”[How to Cast Little Lizards] Once posed, the animal was covered with more plaster. After the plaster set, the life-caster would make a clay impression from the plaster, thereby rendering the animal body as a mimetic three-dimensional representation.                                                   

While the casts could be used repeated for years, Shell explains that making the cast clay animals seem alive required skill, and live animals were kept in jars and bottles for reference.  Poor creatures.  I accept that attitudes were different and anyone with an interest in natural history couldn’t just Google David Attenborough or watch the Discovery channel.  When we see more images in a day than most people in the 16th and 19th centuries would see in a lifetime, I understand how amazing Palissy’s work would have been. But it doesn’t mean I have to like it.

And don’t like these in particular because they are very poorly made. Palissy went to great lengths to recreate the natural habitat of the animals he portrayed.  Here there has been no attempt at habitat beyond some sieved clay, crudely applied to represent grass. The glazes are equally crudely applied. Apart from the two protagonists, the composition is arbitrary, both plates having a couple of extra animals randomly applied to fill up the space. Compare these with a modern example of Palissy Ware by Geoffrey Luff:

Blue plate with snake, frogs, lizards and insects by Geoffrey Luff
Geoffrey Luff Palissy Ware

One would imagine Palissy’s work must have been of comparable quality. I admire Luff’s skill, and I find his work strangely compelling, but I’m not sure I like Palissy Ware any better – even though Luff apparently uses old moulds.  There’s more to natural history than animals stalking and killing their prey. Geoffrey Luff

Dislike 2: Raynham Lustreware Vases 1950s

I couldn’t decide which of these I disliked the most, so I’m going for both.

pink lustre vase by Raynham
Raynham: Cornucopia Vase

If there was a prize for the ugliest cornucopia vase design, the Cornucopia vase would be favourite.  While the horn needs a support to hold it upright, the size of the swirled support element is totally out of scale with the vase section.  The design is unbalanced.

Pink lustre vase by Raynham
Raynham Vase

Next, the vase with tulips.  The quality of sprigging is very poor, and the tulips are ill defined and badly modelled. Once again, the base is clumpy and needs refinement.

I think both vases are too inelegant to pull off all-over insipid pink.  But, I’m not certain if any colour could significantly improve either vase.


I hadn’t heard of Raynham before.  Research has revealed that it was an Australian pottery, based in Victoria, operating from 1948 to 1970.  Expert, Will, on says that it was opened by Ray Cook who ‘was an accountant and never made a pot in his life….The company was named “Raynham” after his first name and produced all sorts of light weight slipware, some speckled and later lusterware vases. Being a typical accountant, everything was done in an inexpensive manner. The pottery wheel where the hand throwing was done was powered by the motor from a cement mixer. The building was supposedly not even equipped with a toilet.’

This made me laugh.  Designed by an accountant, made on the cheap (allegedly).  You know, I think I’m beginning to hanker after one.

Dislike No 3:  no dogs were harmed in the making of ……… ‘Spaghetti Poodles’.

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In the 1950s, poodles were the must-have dogs – standard, toy or miniature.  We couldn’t get enough of them.  Some people had them on the wall in the shape of pink flock paper, while many of us had them on our mantlepieces in the shape of Spaghetti Poodles (named after the extruded tangle used to represent fur).  Not all were as excessively kitsch as the one above.  My parent’s bedroom mantle boasted a mother poodle chained to her two little puppies, much like the group below.

Ceramic poodle mother and two pups
Spaghetti Poodles by Lefton

What don’t I like about them?  Sentimental and totally OTT kitsch.  What drove us to it?    Because of WWII, British potteries were only permitted to make functional white ware for the home market.  Ten long years of boring white pottery ended in 1952 – and everyone went completely bonkers!

My Likes

Like 1: Barnaby Barford: Does this mean we won’t get any presents? 2009

ceramic tableau Father Christmas shot by hoodie boy with snowan and girl

I may not appreciate snakes killing lizards, but shooting Father Christmas? No problem. I like Barnaby Barford for his satirical humour and his keen observation of everyday life.    I also enjoy his titles, which are an integral and essential aspect of his sculptures.


Barford uses found porcelain figurines.  He alters them with a cutting disc, adds extra details with Milliput, then paints them with enamels.  They are then assembled on bases, which are usually bought plates and platters, to create his narrative pieces.

In this video interview

he explains that he was surprised when he first used figurines that the relationship between the figures became important.  ‘They just became people’ he says. He has tapped into his inner child for whom a newspaper under the rug is a mountain to be conquered. I think figurines function like toys, both in contemporary art and real life.  We can relate to them as characters, but they add a layer between us and the referent, allowing narratives to be portrayed that would otherwise be unacceptable. Toys = play, and play, as Huizinger asserts, is ‘not real life’.   For instance, the Chapman Brothers’ portrayal of Goya’s Disasters of War is acceptable using toys in a way it would not be in mimetic representation. This allows Barford to take ‘sweet chocolate notions of life’, and twist them to make ‘almost real life from them’.  I’m reminded of Brecht’s and the Russian Formalist’s idea of ‘making strange’ or ‘alienation’.  The function of all art, according to the Russian Formalists, is to make the familiar strange. Expressing a human narrative through the medium of ceramic figurines does exactly this.

In 2008, Barford was commissioned to make a short, animated film, Damaged Goods

It tells the tale a boy from the bargain bottom shelf, whose love for a girl from the premium range upper shelf is thwarted by the girl’s father.  Re-watching it, I realise that when the father sets the dogs on the boy, the dogs in question are none other than Spaghetti Poodles.  Go Spag Poos!

still from film Damaged Goods
Spag Poos attack!

If this was Room 101 Spag Poos wouldn’t be going in!

Like 2:  Halima Cassell: Arabesque

carved bowl form by Halima Cassell
Halima Cassell: Arabesque 2 views

I’ve admired Halima Cassell’s work since I first saw it in Warrington Art Gallery 10 or 11 years ago.  I enjoy the patterns she creates.  Arabesque is typical in that it has to be seen in the round for the pattern to be fully appreciated.  Her work is full of movement and unexpected twists and turns. I love her precision and skill in execution. I’ve included a detail of another piece that shows her precision. The clay she chooses is perfectly married to the forms she carves – great texture and colour.

She was commissioned to produce some pieces for the opening of the Hepworth Museum in Wakefield in 2008.  I went to her Gallery Oldham exhibition in early 2008 and don’t recall seeing any pieces with holes, so I think I’m correct in saying that the holes that appear in her work from time to time were inspired by Barbara Hepworth.  It works particularly well in Arabesque, the two arms sweeping up gracefully to enclose the circle.

detail of carved bowl


Halima Cassell lived in Blackburn, and studied BA and MA Ceramics at UCLan, graduating in 2002. Yes, she’s an alumnus.  She was initially influenced by Islamic architecture, later finding inspiration in North African textiles and architecture and the Greek principles of proportion. She uses heavily grogged clay, which she forms and allows to dry to drier than leather hard, then she marks her design and carves into it.  Firing and cooling is a week long process.

Interestingly, the clay itself has taken on new meaning for her. In the video she explains that her identity is confused.  She feels she is seen as foreign here (she was born in Pakistan), yet in Pakistan she is also seen as foreign. She now uses clays from all over the world to reflect her multinational identity.

Like 3:  James Oughtibridge: Ivory Indented Form

I’d designed some vessels based on a kilt form early last summer and was researching around the subject when I discovered James Oughtibridge’s work.  I love it.

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This sculpture was made for the Form Tone and Texture exhibition at the Contemporary Ceramics Centre in London which opened on July 7th 2016. Unfortunately, I was there on the 6th, but I sneaked a look in the gallery. The gallery lights were not on, so I didn’t see the piece at its best.  Lights would have highlighted the texture of the surface, and enhanced the beautiful shadows that play over the form.  There was enough natural light to appreciate the skill with which this piece was constructed.  I love the crisp edges where forms converge, and the elegant curves. The form is complex, asymmetrical.  It needs to be contemplated in the round.


Oughtibridge uses large curved plaster bats to form clay slabs.  He joins small slabs to make the larger slabs, he uses to build his sculptures and vessels. He sands and scrapes the surface to create elegant curves, then applied slips, oxides and stains.  He doesn’t draw, except directly on the clay.  For a sculpture this size, he may make a small maquette.


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