Obituary: Walter Cole

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The Independent Culture
LIKE MANY artists who became potters Walter Cole worked as a sculptor before taking up serious potting - an indication of how the status of the studio potter was slow to gain widespread acceptance despite the early pioneering work of Bernard Leach and others since the early 1920s.

"Wally" Cole, along with his older brother John, pioneered the more Scandinavian style of tin-glazed earthenware in contrast to Leach's high-fired and reduced stonewares inspired by the Far East, Rye Pottery becoming a byword for a range of good-looking, useful tablewares.

Cole was born one of eight children to a foreman at the Woolwich Arsenal in south-east London, and showed great artistic talent at an early age. When he was 16 he was awarded one of the few Special Talent Scholarships, studying first of all at the Woolwich Polytechnic, where he drew from casts, learnt to throw and experimented with glazes, before moving to the Central School of Arts and Crafts, London, in 1931. There the young avant-garde sculptor John Skeaping was a major influence.

At this time Cole and his brother John built their own kiln near Plumstead Common, using their home as a studio and carrying the pieces on the back of his bicycle to be fired two miles away. Still primarily a sculptor, Cole worked in a semi-abstract style reminiscent of the sculpture of Gaudier- Brzeska, carving directly into wood.

At exhibitions throughout the 1930s Cole showed sculpture, stoneware pots and drawings, becoming a member of the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, and the National Society of Painters, Sculptors, Engravers and Potters of whom the pottery members were few and included Bernard Leach, Michael Cardew, Charles Vyse, and John Cole. He also worked on a series of commissions for such august bodies as London Zoo, and on large-scale architectural carvings for Eric Kennington.

The prevailing influence of high-fired wares inspired both Cole brothers to produce stonewares reflecting the slightly more flamboyant ideas of William Staite Murray rather than those of Leach, and stamped with the word EARTH. In 1937 they held their first exhibition of pots at the newly established Brygos Gallery, showing both stonewares and earthenwares. As Staite Murray did, the Cole brothers priced individual pots high, finding that even so they sold better than sculpture. Around the time of this exhibition a telling remark from W.B. Honey, Keeper of the Ceramics Department at the Victoria and Albert Museum, was to decide their future path. Honey suggested that their prices were too high to enable their work to be enjoyed by ordinary people and as such would remain at the level of "art object".

Experiments to explore this idea were brought to an end by the Second World War, when Cole deployed his creative talents as a Captain in the Royal Engineers, specialising in army camouflage, helping to produce covers for Spitfires, dummy rubber tanks and 25-pounder guns. Despite being wounded at Dunkirk and Brussels Cole continued to serve, using his spare time to carve parts of an old ivory billiard ball into small but exquisite items of sculpture and jewellery.

From 1946 to 1947 Cole was on the staff of the Council for Industrial Design, and worked with James Gardner and Basil Spence on the "Britain Can Make It" exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum. He also taught at the Central School on the first Industrial Design course to be set up in Britain, expounding the link between sculpture and form in industrial products. But his real interests lay in setting up a pottery and in 1947 he and his brother John, by then head of Beckenham School of Art, took the brave decision to buy and reopen the old Belle Vue Pottery in Rye. Operating as "Rye Pottery", they established the industry for which the town is renowned.

Although the prevailing taste among potters was for stonewares, and partly perhaps in reaction to this, the Cole brothers decided to concentrate on earthenware, which, although less sturdy in use, offered the opportunity for a wider range of colour and bright glazes. Two types of ware were produced; individual pieces for exhibition in galleries, and regular lines of well-designed straightforward wares for use on the table and in the kitchen that were affordable and attractive.

After five years of war and post-war utility restrictions, the country was eager for new wares that reflected the spirit of optimism and renewal. Government constraints placed great emphasis on the export of decorative ceramics for overseas sales, leaving the home market starved of attractive and practical wares, a situation that was beneficial to Rye and other studio-based potteries. Although government regulations forbade decorative wares, by the subtle use of coloured clays Rye was able to devise a range of slip-decorated wares which were both functional and good to look at.

Within the burgeoning craft movement of the post-war years Cole took an active part, becoming involved in the setting up of the potters co- operative the Craftsmen Potters Association in the late 1950s, and the opening of a shop and gallery in central London. In the early 1950s, as restrictions were lifted, the small team at Rye Pottery moved from slip- decorated wares to produce 17th-century-inspired Delftwares, painting fresh-looking coloured floral and stripy decoration on to the unfired tin-glaze.

Whenever possible the pottery employed low-tech machinery to remove some of the drudgery, making use of such equipment as clay mixers and extruders as well as the technique of slip-casting. A small team produced well-designed tablewares and specially commissioned commemorative pieces, and later decorative figures.

Walter Cole's skill lay in treading the tricky path between art, craft and industry, making use of whatever processes and techniques seemed appropriate and in so doing challenging many preconceptions about what studio potters should or should not do. In 1978 Cole handed over the pottery to his son and daughter-in-law, Tarquin and Biddy, but continued to explore his own ideas through his own stoneware pots and tile decoration until late 1997.

In 1982 he was appointed MBE for his services to craft pottery. When he was 80 a retrospective of his work was held in Rye and in London, and his ceramics were featured in "Austerity and Affluence" at the Fine Art Society, London, in 1996; within the context of the exhibition they took on a timeless simplicity.

Walter Vivian Cole, potter: born London 21 January 1913; MBE 1982; married 1933 Eileen Hall (one son, one daughter); died St Leonards, East Sussex 19 January 1999.