SOFA Chicago

at Navy Pier, Chicago

2 - 4 November 2007


Magical Landscapes - The Ceramic Art of Ian Godfrey (1942-1992)

Ian Godfrey remains a greatly missed figure on the British ceramic scene. His death fifteen years ago left a considerable vacuum, not only because of Godfrey’s vividly infectious personality, but due to work that was simply, as the potter Lucie Rie said, “unique”. He produced ceramics quite unlike anybody else, a wonderful conjuring in clay of a world that drew on his deep knowledge of ancient art and ritual to create carved vessels and sculptures of great sensitivity. Here was an extremely personal art of exotic beasts and buildings, of entrancing landscapes, full of Ian’s particular brand of humour and whimsy, work that reflected his own love of myth and the more mystical and ceremonial aspects of long lost cultures. The work reflected his eternally child-like wonder, an innocence and fragility that remained playful, fresh and intensely felt. The work was complex and enigmatic, and as Lucie Rie, his friend and mentor said, “happily impossible to imitate”. Now Galerie Besson is staging the first substantial showing of Godfrey’s work in the USA – at SOFA Chicago – a display which, I’ve no doubt, will win him many new admirers.

Ian Godfrey’s ceramics are more broadly important because they helped to consolidate an increasingly sculptural and expressive approach to clay in the 1960’s, continuing a tradition set in the previous decade by influential ceramists such as James Tower, Hans Coper, Gordon Baldwin, William Newland and others. Godfrey’s work was, from the outset, defined by its off-beat non-conformity. Artistically and temperamentally he was an outsider who dreamily, imaginatively, worked away from the mainstream, but who helped, forty years ago, to define a new direction in clay, an era also associated with figures like Ruth Duckworth, Ian Auld, Dan Arbeid, Gillian Lowndes and Bryan Newman (who came nearest to Godfrey stylistically). All these potters moved away from the still dominant wheel-based work, to look at new methods of hand-building, pottery made more for contemplation than use. Yet, while many of these figures made significant stylistic changes in subsequent years, Godfrey’s ceramics had a special continuity and focus of purpose. They were generally simpler, more pared-down, in later years, but never deviated from the alternative vision first formulated in his mind as a student.

Godfrey was born in 1942 in Ely but spent his childhood in London. He made his first pots at the age of eight and by his teens was taking days off school to explore the British Museum, acquiring at an early age an encyclopedic knowledge of early civilisations and their artefacts. He even began to collect Greek terracottas. In 1957 he enrolled at Camberwell College of Art, initially to study painting but soon taking up pottery. Here he was taught by Ian Auld, Hans Coper and Lucie Rie. Rie’s influence on Godfrey was significant and lasting, though she did not initially understand his principal tool as a builder and carver of clay, a penknife. He once told me that when he first set eyes on Rie, in the ceramics department at Camberwell, he failed to recognise her, assumed she was a new student and began to give her a guided tour of the workshop, only to find out later her true identity. But with Ian it was always difficult to know if he was embroidering a story, he lived so much in his own mind of invention, and was never short of tales to tell.

Godfrey writes of how he began making ceramics by piercing bowls “almost as exercises, like playing scales” and glazing much as he would continue to do, in muted matt ash glazes that complemented the underlying clay, hues which he said “achieve the effects found on rocks, lichen and earthy tints, very little added colour in fact”. From the outset he often made a thrown base on the wheel from which he would build up, modelling and carving when the clay was leather hard. In 1962 he set up a shared workshop in the City Road in Islington and began to exhibit with Henry Rothschild at Primavera, a leading gallery for progressive ceramics at that time. He showed bold hand-built boxes and dishes with deep pools of poured glass. His animal sculptures of this time were equally primitive and sturdy, with the strongly archetypal quality that would characterise the work ahead.

Subsidised by part-time employment at London Zoo, he made work for his first solo show at Primavera three years later, inspired by continuing visits to the London Museums. Chinese bronzes, the art of Korea, the ancient Mediterranean and Sumeria all made an impact. He was particularly drawn to Korean pots with cut-out decoration and to various metal forms – ritualistic spoons and sculpture – as well as to his first love, painting. Much of the money he made was spent on his burgeoning collection of artefacts and he would soon acquire work by Leach and Hamada too. Music was also an influence, and the idea of making ‘music pots’ always fascinated him. He liked to include elements such as birds, flowers and temples “that might have influenced composers of the romantic age”. Godfrey remained very interested in the relationship between music and the plastic arts, trying to find a visual equivalent in his sculpture.

Various grants and a fellowship at the Royal College of Art helped him to develop work for a further show at Primavera in 1968, by which time Godfrey was a well established member of the new generation of potters. People were struck by how original and unimatitive his ceramics were, a fertile vocabulary that would include delicate lace-like bowls, elaborate lidded boxes, pilgrim bottles, caskets, fox pots and double pots, bridge and ring forms, many decorated with stylised buildings and trees and enlivened by goats, donkeys, deer and other animals. Parts were often removable, adding to a sense of toy-like participation for the handler. The detail and ambition of his carving reflected the long hours Godfrey spent in the studio, often working on pots late into the night – obsessive flurries of activity after, he once admitted, long periods of rumination and diversion. His miniature landscape-pieces particularly set him apart – templed villages and farms with attendant fauna that exemplified a new narrative language for clay.

In 1968 Godfrey moved to a new studio in Goswell Road, Islington, where he produced work for a major show of zoomorphic pots at the British Crafts Centre in 1972, by which time Ian was also exhibiting internationally, in Stuttgart, Stockholm, Osaka and Istanbul. A further exhibition followed at the Crafts Centre two years later. In reviewing this show, the collector J H D Catleugh wrote very evocatively of what he saw;

“Is there any significant change of direction? On the face of it there are many familiar themes but with subtle changes; the teapots with groups of birds and animals, the lacy dishes more like doilies than stoneware, and the peep pots. But Ian now lives part of the year in Cyprus where he has a house in a small village community. He shares his house with an ancient donkey…given to him by the village, but what excites him about his life is the continuity of a tradition that the villages take for granted and do not seem to be aware of; he talks of grain and oil still being stored in six foot high pithoi, so old that nobody knows how long they have been in use, but they are the same shapes and have much the same geometric decoration as those excavated in Crete at Knossos and Mallia. It is the way the villagers have taken Ian to their hearts that moves him and this shows in his newest work; the animals now herd together in communities which obviously have their own rules and rituals…Ian knows these rules but doesn’t betray them. It is a private world they live in and we can only wonder at it”.

The same year Ian Godfrey won the gold medal at the Faenza international ceramic competition. He was by now teaching part-time at Camberwell School of Art and other colleges. The potter Jim Malone was one of Godfrey’s Camberwell students and recalls Ian’s scholarly enthusiasm for oriental pots – particularly Korean – and his ability to communicate his passions to his pupils, taking students on memorable trips to London museums to see the best the past had to offer and encouraging them to spend their precious grants on buying early artefacts. 

Always restless and keen to broaden his horizons, in 1976 Godfrey moved to Denmark, initially helping to set up a domestic pottery there, but principally absorbed as an archaeologist, involved in various digs on the historic sites of the Danish megalithic peoples. The jade and amber decorative objects of ancient Jutland connected in Godfrey’s mind with the Mediterranean and Sumerian art he had long admired. His time in Denmark coincided with a return to his first love, painting – some of his watercolours, like Indian miniatures in their scale and delicacy, extended the poetic, ethereal universe depicted in his pots into soft luminous colour.

In 1980 Godfrey returned to London and established a new studio in Highgate – in fact a small lock-up garage. He was inventively making again, but reluctant to exhibit, effectively hoarding his work. After such a long period of absence from the ceramic circuit people had almost forgotten about him. It was only in 1989 that Anita Besson persuaded him to show his ceramics in her gallery, resulting in a superb exhibition of work from all periods, but highlighting new pieces which showed how more concentrated his language had become. It brought him firmly back into the public gaze. Alongside splendid fox pots, barrel pots and landscapes of earlier years, he was showing more succinctly conceived antelope cups, shallow ram bowls, horn-like ‘cornucopias’, vases and pilgrim bottles – each form glazed to accentuate the incised and carved detailing. In the greedy and materialistic 1980’s, the show was refreshing, his fantasies of ducks, foxes, flowers and rainbows still enchanting and fairytale. As the collector and critic W A Ismay later wrote, “the pieces I saw were small, intense, deeply realised and as always, well made”.

Tragically Godfrey did not live long to really enjoy this revival in his reputation. He succumbed to an Aids-related illness and died in 1992. He was buried close to Karl Marx in London’s Highgate Cemetery, a characteristically surreal occurrence that would have appealed to Ian greatly. Galerie Besson has since staged two successful follow-up shows, the first a moving memorial tribute held in 1993. Their exhibition at SOFA Chicago offers a comprehensive mini-retrospective of his ceramics from the 1960’s to the 80’s, showing the range and variety of his work, from superb pierced bowls and incised boxes to ritualistic ring forms and antelope pots. The landscapes – here at SOFA two good examples from around 1965 and 1972 respectively – express the sense of rich discovery and revelation when meeting and handling Godfrey’s work. Each is animate with life, miniature self-contained tableaux, their idiom obliquely oriental. Look too at the beautifully stylised animals decorating an early painted bowl – recalling the drawing of Pre-Columbian South America – or the mystical ram and antelope vessel-forms. The fertile ritual of Godfrey’s mind, his sense of history, seemed untainted by the corruptions of the modern age.

In person though, Godfrey was an elusive character, humorous and entertaining, but with flights of the mind that seemed to take him beyond his earthbound existence. For all his sociability there was something hermit-like about him, where the fantasy of his work was inextricably linked to the dreams of his waking hours. As W A Ismay wrote “behind the extrovert friendliness one always sensed a hidden shyness and modesty”. Anyone who has lived with Godfrey’s gentle work will soon discern its considerable pathos too. It has an underlying gravity and seriousness. In that patient and attentive carving is a hard-won art, that of a complex man whose life’s experience was sublimated into the spirit of this work. Godfrey was a great artist-archaeologist whose knowledge and sifting of ancient cultures helped him achieve his own level of playful and tactile intimacy with clay, taking us to a place both precious and enchanting.

David Whiting

David Whiting is a writer, curator and critic based in the UK.

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