For most of 20th century Britain was the world leader in studio ceramics, which could be loosely defined as an activity where all stages of manufacture are carried out by a single artist. Spanning the contested boundary between ‘art’ and ‘craft’, Bernard Leach (1887-1979) is widely considered as the founding father of British studio ceramics. Michael Cardew (1901-1983) and William Staite Murray (1881-1962) were near contemporaries of Leach who also made a major contribution to the development of studio ceramics in the UK. Much has been written about these three men, but arguably the first true studio potter was Frances Emma Richards (c1869-1931) whose background and life were very different from Leach, Cardew and Staite Murray.
There is little documentation about the life of Frances Richards and even her date of birth is uncertain. She was the daughter of an east London cabinet maker and grew up in Hackney. Later she studied pottery under Richard Lunn at the Royal College of Art, but mostly worked independently and had little contact with other potters. She worked in stoneware and earthenware, firing her pots in a kiln in her garden. Over a career of nearly 40 years, she worked from a number of addresses in Highgate and by 1915 was exhibiting from her home and studio located at 178 Archway Road. She never married and died on 30 August 1931 at the Royal Northern Hospital, London.
Richards made thrown pots and bowls glazed in a wide range of colours. Some of her work is in the ‘Sung revival’ tradition of the period, whose proponents drew on the form, glaze, decoration, firing process and aesthetic theories of Chinese Sung dynasty (960-1279 CE) ceramics. She also produced a contrasting body of work in earthenware decorated with abstract patterns. Frances Richards exhibited regularly at the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society and sold work through Heals and the Three Shields Gallery where she had a solo exhibition in 1928. But her life was hard and the scant biographical details about her all note that she lived in great poverty.
In common with many pioneer studio potters, much of her work is quite heavy. To be honest, many of today’s intermediate level student potters produce work that is as good, or better, than hers. But for me, such an observation does not detract from a life that is in other ways quite extraordinary. Richards had none of the benefits of Leach, Cardew or Staite Murray who were all from middle or upper middle class families. She also lived at a time when gender roles placed more restrictions on aspiring female artists.
Frances Richards also faced many technical challenges that 100 years later I do not encounter. I buy my clay pure, pre-packaged and predictable in its behaviour. Hers was dug locally and as likely as not she will have prepared it herself. I can purchase a wide range of oxides, stains and other chemicals out of which to make slips and glazes. Moreover, the internet means that I can order tools and materials from outside the UK if I want to. She had to buy all her materials locally. I have access to kilns with digital thermostats, where I can pre-programme a firing. Frances Richards will have built her own kiln and had to stoke it – continually – with wood during firing. This is hard and prolonged physical work. She will have had none of the benefits of pyrometers and digital programmes and mistakes during firing could result in the loss of months of work.
Today all that remains of Frances Richards’ life are exhibition catalogues and few pots in the Aberystwyth University and the V & A collections. Occasionally, her vessels turn up at auctions. I wanted to see where she had made her pots so recently I visited 178 Archway Road, whose ground floor is now a take-away pizza café. A once-elegant house has been broken up into flats and the garden where Frances Richards once had her kiln is now overgrown with weeds. But for me this journey up to Highgate was an homage to a forgotten woman who determination resulted in some remarkable pots, given her isolation and poverty.