Kenneth Clark: An Appreciation

Kenneth Clark
Kenneth Clark: the father of English tile making

If any man can be said to be the father of modern English tiling, that man is surely ceramicist and tile maker Kenneth Inman Carr Clark, who died, aged 89, in June 2012.  Kenneth Clark, quite literally, wrote the book on ceramics and tile making, having penned Practical Pottery and Ceramics in 1964 and The Tile: Making, Designing and Using, in 2002.

Kenneth Clark is important for a great many reasons. He was a superb colourist: part artist, part alchemist. In an age before sophisticated glazes, he continuous experimentation allowed him to create a unmatched palette of glaze colours, which he skilfully used in his own work. He was also a clear-sighted designer, creating new and original tile designs that exuded flair, humour, graphic power and egalitarian passion.

But most importantly of all, he virtually single-handedly reinvented the form and function of tiles for modern times.  He elevated the humble glazed wall tile from a low cost practical wall covering to something that could be used creatively in public or private spaces to entertain, entrance and inspire.  This article aims to offer a brief retrospective appreciation of the life and work of this remarkable talent: a charismatic yet modest man whom fellow ceramicists always held in the very highest regard.

Kenneth Clark
Tile designs by Kenneth Clark

Kenneth Clark’s contribution to post-war ceramics in the UK was as seminal as that of Vidal Sassoon to hair dressing, Allen Jones to art or Barbara Hulanicki to high street fashion. He was a towering inspiration; whose influence is clear in the work of individuals as diverse as World End Tile’s Paul Portelli and Tony Taylor (now CEO of British Ceramic Tiles) at Ceramic Prints. His legacy still shines brightly in the work of artisan tile artists such as Lubna Chowdhary and the output of cutting edge tile makers like Royce Wood Tiles.

It is a measure of the esteem with which he is held by ceramicists and wider art community, that his death was marked by extensive and glowing obituaries in the mainstream media, notably The Telegraph and The Guardian.

Kenneth Clark
Mural by Kenneth Clark

Writing in The Guardian in July 2012, Sarah Hosking contended that Kenneth Clark “was to tiles what James Dyson is to vacuum cleaners. He took a domestic product that had become boring in its ubiquity and transformed it, with technical knowledge and design flair, into a vehicle of delight and usefulness. His designs honoured the traditions of studio pottery while incorporating the technical innovations of commercial potteries; St Ives purity combined with Stoke-on-Trent practicality. The existence of today’s tile warehouses with mammoth ranges of ceramic floor and wall tiles is largely due to his pioneering work over 60 years.”

Kenneth Clark was born in New Zealand but came to Britain while serving in the Royal Navy. After the war he was awarded an ex-serviceman’s scholarship, which he used to attend the Slade School of Art in London. He then went to the Central School of Art and Design, first as a student and then, for 25 years, as a teacher.

Kenneth Clark
Tile designs by Kenneth Clark

Here he found his vocation as a creator, maker, promoter and, eventually, scholar of ceramic tiles. His greatest contribution to the UK tile industry, however, was probably as an alchemist of glazes. His research and development of glazing colours and effects continued throughout his career; resulting a glaze library, and depth of knowledge, without equal.

In the 1950s he founded Kenneth Clark Ceramics in London. This company, which relocated to a picturesque setting in Lewes, East Sussex in 1989, operated for more than 50 years. Many of its tiles are now collectors’ items.

With his wife, Ann, whom he married in 1954, Kenneth Clark formed a dynamic working duo. Ann created the imagery for the company’s extensive and striking tile designs, while Kenneth Clark, whose work was more abstract, provided the context.

Kenneth Clark
Tile designs by Kenneth Clark

The company’s success extended well beyond the production of individual tiles for domestic houses. Kenneth Clark Ceramics produced large-scale, decorative wall panels and creative tiling schemes for retail environments, schools, churches, hotels and hospitals and a wide range of public buildings; as well as tiling for floors and external walls in urban developments.

As Sarah Hosking reports, projects included a mural for the leading accountancy firm, Arthur Andersen, in the City of London in the 1970s; a 1,000-tile mural for Harrow civic centre, north-west London; tiles for the Armada Way underpass in Plymouth to a design by Edward Pond in 1988; a mural for the Princess Royal hospital in Haywards Heath, West Sussex (1991); and tiling for the outpatients’ department at the Royal Sussex hospital, Brighton (1992). The couple also designed the mosaic panel sited behind the altar at St Mary the Virgin, Ringmer, West Sussex.

Kenneth Clark started out making single hand-thrown pots and bowls, goblets and platters before progressing to design work for the Denby and Bristol potteries, for which he created typical 1960s asymmetrical tableware in black and white.

The Telegraph’s obituary identified Kenneth Clark as “among the leading ceramicists of his generation. His strengths included a sure feel for shape when designing solid objects such as candlesticks; masterly ability in imparting a particular hue to a glaze; and sureness of touch in applying a design to ceramics then firing.”

As The Telegraph explained “among his greatest triumphs was recreating the red lustre used a century earlier by the potter-novelist William De Morgan. This arose from a commission for red tiles by the film director Michael Winner. This work, carried out in 1990, was praised for its accuracy and brilliance.

Kenneth Clark went on to fathom the secrets of De Morgan’s other glazes, including those of Islamic origin which had been almost completely lost between the late Middle Ages and De Morgan’s rediscovering them in the 1870s.”

“Such skills brought Clark commissions from other patrons,” records The Telegraph, “whose celebrity could match the lustre of his own tiles. Socially, his crowning achievement was to reproduce the Windsor Castle dairy’s tiles following the disastrous fire there of 1992. He also made copious decorative ceramics for the Sultanate of Oman. However, perhaps Kenneth Clark’s outstanding achievement was the reproduction of Islamic decorative tiles for Debenham House (widely known as Peacock House) near Holland Park, London.

In a telling insight into the man and his character, The Telegraph notes: “Artistically, he joined his contemporaries’ rebellion against the Bernard Leach school of gentlemanly, muted colours, substituting for them a fiery chromatic riot inspired by Picasso’s and Matisse’s work on display in the South of France, which he visited on his honeymoon atop a Vespa scooter, with Anne – his new wife and muse-in-the-making – riding pillion.”

In his keenly felt celebration of Kenneth Clark, ceramic artist Marshall Colman quotes extensively from Practical Pottery and Ceramics, published in 1964. “People beginning ceramics in the post-war era have inherited the sound tradition established earlier by Bernard Leach and his followers; and Bernard Leach, in his turn, was inspired by the works of Morris and Lethaby, to whom ‘truth to materials’ with all its implications was of prime importance.”

“Today, there are a number of ceramists, Lucy Rie amongst them, who are continuing to enrich this tradition by producing individual pieces of domestic ware in a highly personal style. But, with all the great changes – social, economic and artistic – that have taken place since World War II, how many ceramists have sought to extend tradition to meet the new needs and conditions of the present day?”

“When the restrictions of war and rationing were over, the great cry and demand was for colour, to be used with daring and verve in ceramics, fabrics, interiors and a host of allied fields and activities. With this desire for colour there developed a greater appreciation of natural surfaces and materials, from wood to stone, where textures blended and contrasted. No longer were purely individual pots, and, to a limited extent, hand-made domestic ware the only accepted products of the potter. There were new uses and far greater opportunities for ceramic work than before.”

“During this period of change Picasso with his daring, invention, colour-sense and imagination, shattered and shocked the traditionalist potters with his experiments in ceramics. While his approach was obviously more that of the painter, he added fresh life and a new direction to ceramics, and from his activities stemmed many schools of thought and expression which flowered in the ‘fifties. Ceramists found that their values needed drastic revision, while at the same time they endeavoured to retain an openness of mind and an integrity in the use of their materials.”

“Was British industry alive to what was happening, and did it revitalize its tradition with fresh ideas and imaginative thought? Alas, with few exceptions, it does not appear so, nor were most of the individual potters prepared to co-operate, when industry ignored – and still ignores – them and the contribution they could make. As a result, the world now wants only our traditional wares, and shops elsewhere for good modern design.”

“Now let us look at what has happened beyond these shores. In Scandinavia, management has used ideas intelligently, and employed the best potters, consequently gaining them a world-wide reputation. In Japan the work of the potter is prized above that of the painter, and the proceeds from the sale of one pot can supply all the needs of a distinguished potter for at least three months. In America there is a demand for imaginative and lively ceramics; and in Australia, we are told, the demand for individual pottery far exceeds the supply.”

“Here in England many small industrial firms have closed or been forced to merge with others, in order to survive economically. And science, in the name of uniformity for mass production, has eliminated much of the natural richness and variety in many raw materials. These added factors, combined with competition from plastics, make it essential that ceramists should have a high standard of design – but this has yet to be achieved.

“Too few of us are alive to the implications of living fully in the present. Yet, today the ceramist may be commissioned to supply, say, large pottery containers, individual pieces for a board room, perhaps an external ceramic feature, even asked to advise on suitable ware for the restaurant or canteen; and all for one client and one building. Here, surely, is a cue for the future; there is a growing demand for the variety and richness of ceramics that few other materials can replace.”

“This is a situation that can be exploited, but only after careful thought and planning, coupled with the acquisition of ceramic experience and the widest possible knowledge. And, to succeed, we must look further back into history to find a wider application of ceramics for stimulating us today. But though, for a time, some of us may strive to fulfil these needs, the day must surely come, as it has in other countries, when industry, with its wealth and resources, will combine with the ceramist, recognise the real contribution that each can make, and work out a plan for co-operation.”

It was an approach that drew a stellar list of private patrons to Kenneth Clark Ceramics, including John Cleese, David Attenborough, Ben Kingsley, Wayne Sleep and Felicity Lott.

In his time Kenneth Clark also served as chairman of the Society of Designer Craftsmen and as a consultant to both the Romanian and Afghanistan governments. He was appointed MBE in 1990 and awarded the Society of Designer Craftsmen’s Centennial.

Kenneth Clark was a kind-natured, loving, humorous person, a true gentleman, but also an artistic pioneer and perfectionist. He is deeply missed but leaves a considerable legacy, both in the terms of his many tile installations but, perhaps even more importantly, in his continuing ability to inform, entertain and inspire ceramicists present and future.

Kenneth Inman Carr Clark, ceramicist and tile maker.

Born 31st July 1922, died 10th June 2012.

This article first appeared in Tile & Stone Journal, May 2013

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