Standing in the basement of the Wedgwood factory at Barlaston on the edges of Stoke-on-Trent, watching my son throw his first pot, I felt something elemental stir within me. As he carefully, gingerly pushed out the edges of the clay, splashed on the water and cupped the rising pot in his small hands, I sensed an instant connection to a craft stretching back to the dawn of human civilisation – and today enjoying a welcome revival in Stoke-on-Trent.
Since my election as Member of Parliament for Stoke-on-Trent Central in 2010, a passion for pottery has subtly but perceptibly overtaken me. At restaurants and dinner parties, I surreptitiously turn over the dinner-ware to check its provenance. I look longingly at decaying bottle-kilns and read far too much Arnold Bennett. And I am beginning to know my fettling from my dipping, my bottom-knocker from my saggar, and my slip from my glaze.
Of course, as a historian by background, the antiquity of Stoke-on-Trent's ceramics – stretching back to the butter-pots and flower pots moulded out of the local brown and yellow clay by the artisans of Bagnall and Penkhull in the late 1500s – is particularly compelling. At The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery, the Wedgwood factory, or the Gladstone Pottery Museum, one can quickly lose oneself in the epic histories of Spode, Royal Doulton, Wedgwood, and Johnson Brothers.
But for many of these companies there has been a little too much history. By the second half of the 20th century, the pot-banks were living off past glories, failing to invest in their plants, and reworking tired old designs.
What is now so exciting is to see that apathy disappear so dramatically. Some big names have come into ceramic design, from Vera Wang to Sophie Conran to Tom Dixon. More important has been the growing number of young artists and designers arriving in Stoke-on-Trent, excited by the generations of master-potters still working in the city and wanting to develop their craft in The Potteries.
The upcoming British Ceramic Biennial is an important part of rebuilding that culture of design and innovation. It brings together 150 international artists through a richly innovative display of installations, commissions and hands-on events. It is a powerful symbol of a city, and a craft, finding its feet again.
The British Ceramics Biennial, Stoke-on-Trent, 28 September to 10 November (britishceramicsbiennial.com)
Charles Billich: A painter of Popes and playboys
By Charlotte Cripps
The eccentric artist Charles Billich, 79, has had some varied sitters in his time, from Pope John Paul II to Hugh Hefner. He painted Hefner earlier this year – the surreal watercolour (above) shows him surrounded by paintings and personalities relating to his home at the Playboy Mansion – as well as Hefner's wife, Crystal. That naked portrait now hangs over Hefner's bed.
Billich's work also hangs in the United Nations building in Geneva. His intricate painting “Humanity Untitled”, is the official image for the centenary of the Nobel Prize for Peace and portrays Henry Dunant, who, with Frédéric Passy, received the first Nobel Prize in 1901.
Later this month, he will paint Pope Francis at the Vatican, where his official image of the Beatification of Mary MacKillop, c. 1994, already hangs. “I hope I can do a formal portrait of the Pope in oil,” says Billich. “It depends on time.”
Other collectors of Billich's work include HRH Prince Albert of Monaco, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Burt Reynolds, Barry Humphries and the former President George Bush.
Now Billich (right) is coming over here. His first show in the UK, which opens next month at London's La Galleria, will focus on ballet, dance and energy. A ballet dancer in his youth, Billich sat in on rehearsals at the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow for some of his surreal paintings of dancers in action, which, he says, reflect his own passion for ballet.
“The paintings of dancers are derived from visual experience – not from ballet dancers posing for me. I have the ability to capture a fleeting moment on canvas,” says Billich. “Everything I do has a certain kinetic quality to it, giving the illusion of movement in my work.”
The show also includes figurative works and life paintings. Highlights include “Bolshoi White Knights” (above) and the drawing “High Density”, which is modelled on Rudolf Nureyev.
Billich describes himself as “a surreal artist working within symbolic analysis.” He still works “14 hours a day, seven days a week”.
His art revolves around celebrities, ballet dancers and nudes, also taking in sporting scenes, religious works and grand cityscapes. His work can be seen on a series of 16 postage stamps in China based on the Bing Ma Yong Terracotta Army. In 1996, he was the resident artist at the Atlanta Olympics.
Billich was born in Lovran, Istria, 1934, in what was then Italy, and is now Croatia. Aged 16, he was imprisoned for his anti-Yugoslav writings. After his release from prison in Maribor, aged 18, he emigrated to Australia by ship three years later and attended The Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, before studying at the National Gallery Art School.
“When I get to London, I will try to do a portrait of Boris Johnson who I met a few weeks ago,” says Billich. “He is very colourful and charismatic. I sketch quite quickly and can capture my subject's essence easily.”
Charles Billich, La Galleria, London, SW1 (lagalleria.org), 14 to 19 October
Big breaks on the back of digital mixtapes
By Chris Mugan
In a memorable few days for the south London rap duo, Krept & Konan have been nominated for the Mobo's best newcomer award and seen their mixtape Young Kingz enter the UK album chart at No 19 – ahead of soul star John Legend. It is a groundbreaking achievement for the unsigned pair: the biggest impact yet for such an underground release and another milestone in the rise of the digital-era mixtape.
This means of dissemination has come a long way since Grandmaster Flash hawked cassettes of his hip-hop mixes around New York. In the digital era, mixtapes are helping rap and R&B artists gain exposure, most notably The Weeknd, whose trio of downloads established him as a major talent before Island Records released them.
Likewise, female rappers have used mixtapes to bypass the usual promotional routes. Azealia Banks launched her mixtape Fantasea via Twitter, while Angel Haze made her name with a version of Eminem's “Cleanin' Out My Closet” on 2012's Classick selection.
'Young Kingz' is out now on Play Dirty
One to watch: Lindsey Stirling, dancing Violinist, 26
“It's liberating to dance as I play,” says Lindsey Stirling, possibly the world's first dancing dubstep violinist. Raised a Mormon, the musician from Arizona was signed to Lady Gaga's management company, Atom Factory, a few months ago. She plays classical and Celtic folk, fused with dubstep, all while dancing like a fairy. Being voted off America's Got Talent in 2010 has not proved a barrier. Her debut album, Lindsey Stirling, is released in the UK in December.