Auction Insights with Nigel Kirk

Madge Spencer
Madge Spencer Image

In a departure for Mellors & Kirk a Sale of Art & Design at The Auction House will include a small selection of pots by a living British studio potter, Madge Spencer, who lives in Sutton in Ashfield.

 

She is not only a witty, inventive potter but one of those cheerful people that leave you thinking ‘she’s great’.  No moody or sullen contemporary artist is she.

 

A lifelong studio potter, Madge is one of the female practitioners of the Arts & Crafts pottery revival led by Bernard Leach of her generation that is still living and potting.  Or at least she would be, if her kiln were repaired, hence the sale of a few of her pots.

 

Of all the many expressions of creativity that appear effortless but are quite the opposite, throwing a pot is undoubtedly one.

 

I am interested in how both potter and onlooker are drawn towards something beyond themselves as a lump of wet clay is transformed into a unique form.  The parallel with a birth is obvious.  Yet for millennia the potters were invariably male.

 

Until the late 19th century the concept of the artist-potter was unknown.  Following the industrial revolution  potters were either what we would consider entrepreneurs – for example Wedgwood – or rural village potters working alone.

 

It was from traditional roots that the ‘father’ of studio pottery, Bernard Leach (1887-1979) drew his inspiration.  He travelled as far as Japan to find craftsman still true to their traditions and untouched by modernisation.

 

Back in England Leach began to pot and impart his new found ethos at St Ives in Cornwall.  He immediately became highly influential.  Perhaps too influential, as many students adopted the Leach style.

 

As a black female studio potter Madge Spencer has a good claim to posterity.  She was born in a small village “on the side of mountain” in Jamaica in 1941.  She was tutored by her uncle, the highly distinguished potter Cecil Baugh (1908-2005) who had himself been a student of Leach at St Ives in 1948.

 

A master potter, his children were not interested in pottery so he invited Madge to a formal interview, informing her “I know you are wondering why you… of all the nieces and nephews that have lived [in his house] you are the only one who has worked hard without a grumble… you deserve a break”.  This act of kindness changed her life forever.

 

Working in stoneware, earthenware and occasionally porcelain I have tried hard to limit my selection to no more than six pots dating from 1971 to 2011.  In addition, there will be a vase by Janet Leach (Bernard’s wife) received as a gift from the potter herself on a visit to the Leach Pottery.

 

The selection includes a 1971 flat sided stoneware vase with brush decoration in the manner of Leach, a glazed vase applied with a large flower similar to that on the poster of Madge Spencer’s exhibition at the Commonwealth Institute, Kensington in 1993 and a 1980 vase, the neck encircled by chains, the body applied with life-sized hands.

 

Her first exhibition of 112 pieces when still a student was held at the Institute of Jamaica in 1964.  Her growing reputation on the island resulted in another in 1967 that was opened by the sculptor Edna Manley, wife of Norman Manley, the then Prime Minister of Jamaica.

 

Madge arrived in the UK in 1967.  The following year she set up the Portland Road Pottery in Nottingham.  Over the succeeding 50 years her work has been regularly exhibited nationally and internationally.

 

A perfectionist, she has constantly destroyed any and all pots she considered imperfect and has chosen to sell relatively little in that time, so estimating their value for auction is largely a matter of guesswork.

 

Her first Nottingham show in 1968 at the Playhouse reflected the colours of her home, bright and cheerful.

 

As a young black woman newly arrived from the Caribbean Madge found Nottingham a strange new world but strangest of all “was not seeing black people around”.  The big Victorian house on Portland Road was soon installed with a kiln in the cellar, a potter’s studio upstairs and a second, larger kiln in the garden.

 

Madge describes this time as particularly happy: “I was in heaven making pots again”.

 

The 1968 show was well received and the Nottingham Evening Post followed it up with a visit to the Pottery.

 

Last year Mellors & Kirk sold a small group of 1960s pottery by Lucie Rie and Hans Coper that had been bought from exhibitions at The Midland Group in Nottingham in the 1960s for a few pounds. The collection went for over £100,000 and another vase by Hans Coper will be offered alongside Madge Spencer’s pots in the Sale on 18 & 19 September.

 

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