Ceramics – Form or Function

St John’s Wood in London. Most people think of Lord’s Cricket ground and long sunny evenings watching a game and sipping beer, or perhaps a stroll through beautiful Regent’s Park. Others conjure up the image of the Beatles on the now famous zebra crossing  outside Abbey Road studios – those old enough will remember the mystery surrounding the image and  the rumours of Paul’s death; after all, why else would he be barefoot, and doesn’t George represent  the carpenter who made the coffin, John the religious figure conducting the ceremony, Ringo the undertaker?  However, I mention it because like all zebra crossings, it is black and white, and thus a clumsy introduction to my theme. Bear with me.

I still do not know for sure whether those of you who buy Peter Arscott Ceramics (PAC) do so because you want a vase in the house to put flowers in, or whether you just want the piece because it’s a particular colour and shape you find attractive, or eye-catching, its use as a vase thus being secondary. I suspect it is the latter.

Monochrome vase at Cecilia Colman Gallery

All this head-scratching comes from one piece which a lot of people do not like, while others do. For starters it is unlike the typical PAC piece in that it’s black and white, and its shape or form does not seek a harmonious balance in the whole, but rather rejects it. All of which makes it sound like sculpture, which it is not – it’s still a vase.

Monochrome vase, verso.

As you probably already know, at PAC each piece is made by hand, each piece is a unique one-off since nothing is made twice, nor is function strictly observed – the pot or vase is seen as a form you can play with, PAC having moved away from the potter’s wheel to focus on hand-built forms, as this technique allows much more freedom for expression.

Vine vase at Cecilai Colman Gallery

Some of the pieces have a singular lop-sided stance; improvisation takes place either in cutting out the rolled clay shapes, or later when painting oxides onto their surfaces. The approach to clay is that of a painter’s, and the forms arrived at often work as sculptures or as shaped surfaces with paintings. In other words, its function as a vase is secondary when being made.

Frond vase at Cecilia Colman Gallery

Now, if you want something to perform a function, you want it to perform well. If it doesn’t, you’re probably going to stop using it or ask for your money back, no matter how good it looks. This has yet to be a problem at PAC – never has a vase been returned because it hasn’t functioned as a vase. However, if you hate the way a product looks, you’re less likely to buy it in the first place.

Vase 54 at Cecilia Colman Gallerey

The main distinction between art and design is that design must have a purpose. Art can have no other reason for existing other than to be to viewed, say, or experienced (probably contentious, but some of you will let me know). However, design requires a function. If the design is visually striking, then it may also be dipping its toes in the ocean of art, because often art and design overlap. However, without function, it’s just form – it’s not design but art.

Dave as flower pot

Anyway, it doesn’t really matter. Your eyes tell you whether you like it or not – and that is that. So, if you are in London, go to Cecilia Colman’s gallery and test your eyes. Cecilia is showing some PAC ceramics, including the much maligned monochrome piece. See what you think. You could combine it with a visit to Regent’s Park Zoo, or a nice meal out at one of the restaurants on St John’s Wood High Street (nearest underground station is St John’s Wood).

Ming Dynasty, Jiajing: 1522 – 1666

Of course, you will know if a piece is a genuine Peter Arscott Ceramic by the stamp on the bottom of each piece. Stamps are important for dating and authenticating ceramics. The one above belongs to the time of Jiajing’s reign, a man infatuated with women, known to be a cruel emperor who lived in isolation while ignoring state affairs. This eventually led to corruption at all levels of the Ming government, and to a plot by his concubines to assassinate him in 1542, by strangling him while he slept. Sadly, the plot failed and all of the concubines were executed.

Peter Arscott Ceramics, 2022,

The next stamp above is of the early 21st century, probably during the reign of Jon Son, a man who survived many plots, and belongs to a small ceramic workshop based in Herefordshire that produced rare, unique and now much sought-after vases in stoneware.

Cecilia Colman gallery – over 40 years of experience

Having mentioned The Beatles, it is only fair to finish with The Rolling Stones whose 1965 song “Play with Fire” contains the following lyrics:

Your mother she’s an heiress, owns a block in Saint John’s Wood
And your father’d be there with her
If he only could

Click here to hear them sing it.