Arscott ceramics in Cambridge

King’s College, Cambridge

It strikes me that delivering ceramics is one way to get to know your country. If last time it was a trip to St Ives through the Cornish landscape and the pleasure of seeing those beautiful pieces at the St Ives Ceramics gallery on Fish Street, this time Cambridge called for an easterly road trip via Worcestershire, Warwickshire and Northamptonshire through low-lying but fertile agricultural countryside criss-crossed by hedgerows and lines of trees, ditches and canals, and, frankly, quite a lot of traffic

local transport

But once in the city of Cambridge traffic is strictly controlled in the very centre and deliveries must be made before 9am before automatic bollards rise out of the road and trap the unsuspecting driver. Most students whizz around on bikes – it’s not cars the pedestrian needs top look out for, though Cambridge Contemporary Art, which is where the ceramics were heading, is on a quiet street right in the heart of the university city.

The gallery is light and airy, and the team who run it very bright and welcoming. It stands on Trinity Street opposite Gonville and Caius College, and specialises in handmade ceramics, prints, paintings and sculpture and have gained a reputation for their extensive range of high quality work and innovative exhibitions of local, national and international artists.

cambridge contemporary art

Peter Arscott’s ceramics will be part of a mixed exhibition running from 23rd June to 2nd September. If you happen to be in the area make sure to drop in and use the visit as an excuse to see one or two other Cambridge highlights such as the Fitzwilliam Museum, one of the greatest art collections in the UK. It owes its foundation to Viscount Fitzwilliam of Merrion who, in 1816, bequeathed to the University of Cambridge his works of art and library, together with funds to house them, to further “the Increase of Learning and other great Objects of that Noble Foundation”.

Merete Rasmussen – blue twisted form. Hand built stoneware. Fitzwilliam Museum

At the time of writing there is an inspiring exhibition of ceramics called Things of Beauty Growing showcasing the practice of the art form in the UK today, tracing the changing nature of British studio pottery through the evolution of specific types of vessel: the moon jar, vase and bowl. Photography is not permitted in this section, but I took some photos of the ceramics show in the main room on the ground floor to whet your appetites.

Rupert Spira – bowl (thrown stoneware) at Fitzwilliam Museum

In another part of the museum is a contemporary project by Matt Smith called “Flux” which uses ceramics as a way to ask questions about our history and why museums celebrate lives of some people and ignore others. He uses Parian busts from the Victorian era of widely-celebrated colonialists and adventurers to challenge our traditional readings of their achievements. Parian pottery is designed to look shiny like marble and was developed by the Staffordshire pottery Mintons in 1845.

Matt Smith’s Flux: Parian unpacked. Fitzwilliam Museum

One wall is covered by wall paper designed with illustrations from the life of General Gordon of Khartoum meeting his fate in the hands of the Mahdi’s army he was sent to subjugate, his heroic bust set in the centre. Those of you of a certain age will remember that his part was played by Charlton Heston in the film “Khartoum”, and Lawrence Olivier played the Mahdi.

Gordon of Khartoum meets his fate

Lawrence and Charlton

As I wandered from one wonderful room to another my eye was caught by a painting by the great El Greco in the 1590 – a typical late work with extremely free brushwork and blurred facial features which still looks fresh and contemporary after 400 years

El Greco’s St John the Evangelist – detail. Fitzwilliam museum

By the way, the Fitzwilliam building itself is grand and imposing, and was designed by George Basevi (1794-1845) and completed after his death by C R Cockerell. Poor George died accidentally falling from the Bell tower of Ely Cathedral while inspecting repairs.

Walking back to the city centre you will go past the imposing façade of King’s College whose students include not only Rupert Brooke, Salman Rushdie, Zadie Smith and John Maynard Keynes but also Sir John Harrington whose New Discourse describes a forerunner to the modern flush toilet that was installed at his house at Kelston in the late 16th century. It’s the functional as well as the beautiful that help change our world for the better.

Sir John Harrington’s legacy at Kettle’s Yard

Which leads me neatly to the bathroom at Kettle’s Yard, a house open to the public since Jim Ede gave it and its art collection to the University as ‘a living place where works of art could be enjoyed… where young people could be at home unhampered by the greater austerity of the museum or public art gallery.’ Here you can look at work by artists such as David Jones, Ben Nicolson and others, all of them friends of Ede’s (who had been curator at the Tate Gallery) in relaxed domestic surroundings, even in the loo.

the calm interior at Kettle’s Yard

By now your thoughts will be turning to other things: perhaps a punt on the River Cam or a visit to one of the colleges, or a cycle ride, or a walk over the Bridge of Sighs, or a Pink Floyd tour to see the childhood homes of band members, Roger Waters, David Gilmour and Syd Barrett?

punts waiting on the Cam

This visitor just sat at a café and watched the people go by – school parties, animated university students, bemused tourists, thoughtful academics, and a fat dog that sat at a bus stop opposite and looked at people meaningfully. There was no sign of people hanging on in quiet desperation (yes, another one for the oldies) or of any student debauchery, as spotted at the Fitzwilliam in a painting by Breughel the younger called A Village Festival.

16th Century debauchery

Returning to Herefordshire it was pleasing to see that the CUP ceramics project has surpassed the crowdfunding target’s halfway mark (see previous blog). If any of you are still interested please visit the website and see what is on offer and help make it happen:

come and see me at cambridge contemporary art