Telling Tales With Technology

Documentation of the 1996 Conference

Tanya Harrod on interviewing William Newland and his Colleagues

Dr. Tanya Harrod
Writer & Critic
Craft Fellow at the University of East Anglia

William [Bill] Newland
William [Bill] Newland
In a wide ranging slide talk Tanya Harrod indicated the ways in which interviews with craftspeople made by others, for example, from the National Electronic Video Archive of the Crafts (NEVAC) can provide the researcher with unexpected insights and information which would not necssarily be available elsewhere and which can prepare the researcher with questions for their own interviews. In her own interviews with William Newland and his contemporaries she had found that Gerda Flockinger, for example, was influenced, like many others, by high speed and micro photography which revealed cell structures apparent in much 1950s work from wallpapers to sculpture, but insisted on not having seen or been influenced by the ‘Growth in Form’ exhibition of 1951. Dr.Harrod used this example to show how writers and historians all too easily look at exhibition catalogues, magazine articles etc. as influencing the individual artist, when direct interview can sometimes reveal alternative influences. Personal contact with the makers also provides the opportunity for the researcher to gain access to photographs of works which could have been destroyed (as with 1950s cafe decoration by William Newland and Margaret Hyne), or sold abroad, or for some reason rejected.


Cleo Witt on an interview with Ken Stradling

Cleo Witt
Keeper of Decorative Arts
Holbourne and Menstrie Museum and Craft Study Centre

Cleo Witt spoke briefly but very entertainingly of her recent interview with Ken Stradling the managing director of the Bristol Guild, a successful high-quality outlet for applied arts which he has managed since 1948. Her enthusiasm and enjoyment of the unexpected in interviewing combined with details of preparations provided the audience with a useful methodology. A short interview conducted by Mike Hughes [see next speaker] formed the basis for her longer taped interview. Preparations included research on J.E.Barton, the head teacher at Bristol Grammar School, who appeared to figure as one of Stradling influences, and questions were planned which would reveal whether, perhaps, early work in forestry had lead to an interest in natural materials, touch and texture.

The interview itself revealed that Stradling had become an archetypal British entrepreneur influenced as much by attending auctions with his mother, as the one-hour-a-week lessons with the head teacher who brought every subject back to his passions for film and architecture. Cleo Witt talked of her preconceptions, expecting Stradling to reveal influences of the arts and crafts ethos; instead what came out in the interview was his repeated use of the word ‘inventive’. The gap between what was expected from the interview and what actually came across was one element of the unexpected. Typically the interviewee often touches on a rich subject immediately the tape is turned off. In this case Ken Stradling revealed his friendships with Marianne De Trey and William Newland, both present at the conference, and this opened up another avenue of exploration and demonstrated the way in which interviews can be both an end in themselves and an opening towards further research.


Mike Hughes on Oral History and the Construction
of the Self

Mike Hughes
Head of Ceramics
University of the West of England, Bristol

Without doubt this talk provoked the liveliest debate of the conference. From a relatively safe opening where the history of the beginnings of NEVAC was briefly explained, Mike Hughes suggested that there was no time for a theoretical base prior to recording, because of the urgent need to capture the oral history of designer/makers before time ran out. Using classical references and images, Saussure’s linguistic theories of binary opposites, but avoiding the later theories of gendered hierarchical binary opposites as expounded by Hélène Cixous, he considered the way that oral history or video interviews encouraged the interviewee to construct an identity for themselves as they talked about their life and work practices. Using a model of social constructivism rather than psychological essentialism or textual essentialism, Hughes argued that we each have a multiplicity of selves and that they are in turn constructed through comparison to others so in an oral history the interviewee constructs his/her self from the discourse with the interviewer. Examples were given where interviewers would concentrate on different aspects of their selves with different interviewers.

Using the post-structuralists tool of deconstruction, Mike Hughes then went on to tease out the binary opposites in a brief extract of a transcribed interview by Anna Hale with William Newland. The aim was to reveal some of the values underpinning Newland’s words and this is clearly evident in oppositions such as hardness and softness; ‘autobahns’ and mediterranean culture or ‘winding English roads’; Coper and Leach. However some groups in the audience were unhappy with Hughes linking words such as ‘German’, ‘spotlight’ and ‘hardness’, while others in the audience thought Hughes revealed more of his own self by references to frilly nighties and naked flesh than he did of Newland’s self. William Newland entertainingly seemed almost to conspire against Hughes interpretations, taking issue with a variety of points.

Mike Hughes pointed out that each reader of a transcription, or party in a conversation, constructs their own meanings and identities, but some in the audience clearly saw this particular reading as somehow authoritative which had the effect of making a few people nervous of having their own words interpreted. Phil Rogers spoke for many of the potters who felt that their pots were their ‘utterances’ to be evaluated and interpreted, not necessarily their words. Later discussion focused on the tape recording being the primary source and the printed transcript as secondary. By using the transcriptions as a cultural artefact to be interpreted, some makers and indeed archivists felt that there was a need to allow the interviewee to withhold the tapes for a period of, for example, thirty years. The ensuing discussion covered history as a construct not a truth, and Tanya Harrod emphasised the provisional nature of histories, and the ways in which one learned as much about the interviewee as the interviewer when listening to a recording.


A bit unfair. I was trying to show the development of the discourse in Newland and Leach. I thought I even quoted from A Potter’s Book.

Don’t shoot the messenger!


David Hawkins on interviews with the New Blacksmiths

David Hawkins
Senior Lecturer and Researcher
University of Plymouth

As part of a Ph.D. research project about post war British blacksmithing, Hawkins gathered information and opinions using tape recordings e-mail, fax and face to face interviews. The talk reviewed these various techniques. The first tape recording with the blacksmith was wonderfully evocative of the blacksmith’s workshop though at times the sounds of hammering won out over the interviewer’s questions. The transcription looses all the background noise and becomes in some ways a different interview. Transcribing is easier from digital recordings but nevertheless is still very slow and voice recognition software is still some way off and is unlikely to be able to cope with deafening workshop accompaniment.

E-mail allows time for reflection before responding to questions and inevitably produces very different responses, not least because of the necessary use of the keyboard. The multiplicity of selves discussed by Mike Hughes becomes even greater when the various technologies encourage modifications of time and editing. The advantage of e-mail is that there is no need to transcribe. Postal interviews were cheap and easy to transcribe, can even be scanned, but the lack of context and voice intonation were a disadvantage. Hawkins concluded by suggesting that a combination of technical methods gave the fullest picture. He considered that many craftspeople found the interview encouraged them to spend time reflecting on their practices and approaches to their work and that on the whole they found the experience of being interviewed positive and useful.


Doug Fitch and Tony Barclay on interviewing Sidney Tustin of Winchcomb Pottery

Doug Fitch and Tony Barclay
Technical Services
University of Plymouth

Originally the speakers recorded their interviews with Sidney Tustin out of their own interest with the Winchcombe Pottery, before they were aware of NEVAC. The audience was presented with excerpts of video tape taken from master tapes. The aim was to allow Tustin to speak for himself through the video, creating a clear illustration of his personality and presence, as he told tales of his experiences gained during a lifetime of pottery. The speakers felt that the video showed the character of Tustin far more than a transcription or biography could do. The pet cat on and off camera, the varied settings, and the character of Tustin himself made this a very entertaining medium. By taking him back to Winchcombe Pottery the video shows Tustin hooting with laughter at the suggestion that Michael Cardew might have dug his own clay. By showing Tustin pots from their own collection they were given dates and the reasons for the choices of glazes not previously documented. Providing the potter with the original tools of his trade he was able, despite his arthritis, to demonstrate his techniques. Though the video spoke eloquently of the entertainment as well as research value of the project the high cost of the video makes it unsuitable and even unnecessary for long interviews, but excellent for its potential to bring the subject alive. Cathy Courtney [see below] pointed out that an interviewee is even more likely to be self-conscious in front of a camera than they are already in the proximity of a microphone.


Graham McLaren on Netting Clay, Oral History, Ceramics and the Internet

Graham McLaren
Senior Lecturer, Dept. of Ceramics
Staffordshire University

Graham McLaren raised the question of whether what was on the Internet could be called ‘oral’ history. If in the near future the Internet can be accessed through speech rather than the keyboard will we need to re-define written as opposed to oral language? Already the Internet is being used as a space in which a ceramic artist can create a seemingly three- dimensional vessel without the need of clay. Two thousand potters worldwide regularly join in discussions on just one site, ClayArt which covers topics from technical problems to aesthetic considerations. Is this a forum for oral history? The informal nature of the conversations can result in huge amounts of information and opinion being stored, but so far it does not seem to be being used in research.

Potters are using the web sites to talk to fellow potters but they are also producing their own ‘home pages’ to entice potential reviewers and customers. These potters have only the written word with which to describe their work and encourage the reader to take the time to download the images of their work. This forces the conclusion that the written word, or in the future the spoken word, is having to take priority over the pot itself. One typical site of a potter in Portugal showed [by clicking on the relevant icon] that over eighteen thousand people had called up the potter’s home page in the course of a three month period. How the oral historian might begin to utilise the huge volume of material was the main issue raised by this paper.


Anna Hale on the Potters in Wales Project

Anna Hale
Ceramics Archive Officer
University of Wales, Aberystwyth

Moira Vincentelli introduced this session and described one of the ways in which the Potters In Wales tapes are being used in the multimedia computer book being prepared in relation to the ceramic collection and archive in Aberystwyth. Anna Hale went on to examine the methodology of the interviews with potters in Wales which was based on the model of the life story where the interviews will in general follow a chronological development from early childhood through the working life including economic, political, environmental and educational background but with a particular focus on the ceramic practice. The choice of subjects is wide and includes both young and old, well known ceramicists, lesser known local potters and commercial firms. Interviews are between two to six hours based on one or two visits. The last and final part of the interview always discussed the potter’s future aspirations, and some makers in the audience thought this should be the main concern of the interview. It was pointed out that the intention of the interviews is that they would be a potential resource for different kinds of historical analysis.


Cathy Courtney on Artists Lives Project

Cathy Courtney
Project Researcher
The National Sound Archive

Throughout her time interviewing and researching for the National Sound Archive the speaker had been struck by the difference between the concerns of makers and those of academics. Despite lack of funding and sponsorship, the N.S.A. employs eight researchers and interviews can be anything from three to twenty three hours long and are not edited. Those using the archive are only provided with transcriptions as secondary to the primary source of the tapes. All interviewees have the option of keeping there recordings private for a number of years. Cathy Courtney considers that one of the greatest values of these audio tapes is that the makers have to translate their works into words, sometimes for the first time. The issue of the analysis and interpretation of the recordings was raised and Courtney said she thought the more interpretations there were, the better, since this prevented the danger of their being just one, and therefore seemingly authoritative interpretation, being used in place of the primary source.


Jeffery Jones on Listening to Bernard Leach

Jeffery Jones
Art Therapist and part-time Post Graduate Student
University of Wales, Aberystwyth

The books and articles written by Bernard Leach have been as important as his pots in spreading his vision of an aesthetic which unites art, work and life. A few television programmes and films have also contributed to his stature as an unrivaled teacher and mentor within the world of studio pottery. Less well known are his many radio broadcasts, taped interviews and lectures, some of which are preserved in the University of Wales, Aberystwyth’s, Ceramic Archive. By giving due attention to this oral history, the response to this major figure within twentieth century crafts can be greatly enhanced. Jeffrey Jones commented that listening to taped interviews was a very different experience to reading a book by the same person. The listener feels more like an eavesdropper into a conversation not intended for their use. He demonstrated by using part of a taped interview with Bernard Leach from 1976 made as a preparation for a television programme, and so not intended for distribution. The tape revealed Leach’s unflinching honesty about his son, David Leach, and in so doing revealed much of himself and his own ideals. One tape of a lecture given to the Crafts Potters Association in 1965 was an insight into a particular period with the respectful audience and Leach in the role of the orator/entertainer as he described in minute detail the production of an oriental brush. The tapes are fascinating in that their context and even the quality of the recordings fix Leach within his own time in a way that the printed word often fails to do.


Marianne De Tray and Walter Keeler Potters Respond

Marianne de Trey and Walter Keeler

Marianne de Trey felt that although she was terrified at the idea of one of her recordings being given the analysis which Mike Hughes had earlier demonstrated she didn’t see it as very different to having one of her pots analysed and perhaps criticised. On the whole she had found the experience of being interviewed both flattering and enjoyable. Despite concerns that she might say things she felt she shouldn’t if she got ‘steamed up’ she had found the experience of formulating her ideas and allowing time to reflect on her life and influences helped her towards an ‘essence’ of what she is now doing in her work.

Walter Keeler pointed out that the transcription was a very different thing to the tape recording, somehow words in print seem more fixed and significant than they are when spoken. He was aware of his own editing and distillation of ideas when being asked the same questions by numerous student interviewers. He saw this as a construction of himself for the sake of the student but recognised that a good interviewer was capable of teasing out the unexpected.


UWA School of Art a Multimedia Computer Book on Ceramics

Ceramics Collection and Archive
University of Wales, Aberystwyth

During the event Julie Smith and Diana Church were available to demonstrate their work on the pilot project for a multimedia computer book based on the ceramic collection and archive at Aberystwyth. This should take the form of a complete catalogue of the collection and archive with photographs of individual pieces and links to biographies of makers, bills of sale, bibliographies and some published essays. It may also contain summaries or transcriptions of interviews or selections from them, small video clips and sound bites. In the first place this will be for use in Aberystwyth and is intended to offer a multi-level information base of use to the casual visitor who wants to find out more about a particular work or the researcher who wants to investigate some aspect in depth. The pilot demonstrated the high quality of image that is possible, the speed of searching and the flexibility of this kind of information tool.


Links to web pages identified by Tonia Frazer Clark at the Conference

Computers and the Internet

Throughout the conference a computer room with six networked computers was open and Tonia Frazer Clark was available to demonstrate the World Wide Web. Bookmarks were set up on selected home pages with sites that might be of interest to delegates at the event. A number of participants took the opportunity to spend time looking at ceramics pages and information on the Web although there was limited time for open discussion of this aspect during the proceedings. Graham McLaren’s paper opened up some of the issues but it would clearly be food for the subject of another conference.

Useful web pages on the internet

Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology, Oxford


William Newland a report on the exhibition opening

It’s All There in Front of You

On Saturday evening the exhibition organis ed by Aberystwyth Arts Centre was formally opened by Sheila Payne a friend and colleague of Bill Newland at the Institute of Education. A number of old friends and students were present to celebrate his achievement as an artist and educator and it was a moving occasion. Tanya Harrod had given a public talk on Saturday morning walking round the exhibition with the artist and discussing the work with him but as ever with Bill Newland the occasion frequently turned into an opportunity for lively anecdotes and quirky interpretations of ceramic history. However through the researches of Tanya Harrod and others the revival of interest in the work of Bill Newland has sparked off a re-evaluation of ceramics in the 1950s and a recognition of the way that studio potters dominated by orientalism or Bauhaus purism marginalised the role of ceramicists influenced by the more decorative ‘mediterranean’ traditions whether it be Italian folk pottery or Picasso’s modernism.

Catalogue available from :- Aberystwyth Arts Centre, Aberystwyth, Wales, UK.

William Newland- It’s All There in Front of You


Stephen Burroughs on the Crafts Council’s Role in Supporting and Funding Crafts

Stephen Burroughs
Head of Education at the Crafts Council

Stephen Burroughs spoke of the role of the Crafts Council in funding and supporting the many approaches to crafts, and in particular the need to celebrate making. Questions were raised regarding the ways in which people learn through making and direct experience; how the crafts are valued in society, and what is lost to the individual and to society as a whole when children are denied the direct experience of making. The Crafts Council aims to promote an awareness of craft in all educational sectors from ‘hands on’ experiences with makers in schools, to support for degree level courses in specialist crafts, critical writing and historical research in higher education.

The main focus of his talk was to present Photostore based on the Crafts Council’s index of designer/makers. This system allows information to be accessed by maker’s name or by object. Selecting, by clicking on an image, for example, will bring up a matrix of related images any one of which can be enlarged or can lead into a display of the maker’s biographical details. These can be printed out along with colour pictures. At present Photostore is only available through the Crafts Council Gallery in Islington but there are plans to put it into the Victoria and Albert Museum and if funding is available make it more widely accessible. Funding was an issue touched on by a number of speakers but the Crafts Council was hopeful that new Lottery guidelines might be helpful for such educational publishing.