Inventive and sensitive potter who in 1970 founded 'Ceramic Review'
Saturday 26 March 2005
As a potter, Eileen Lewenstein, the founder and until 1997 co-editor of
Ceramic Review, was an ardent modernist and advocate of the new and challenging, rather than the established and conventional. She preferred the cool, crisp lines of Scandinavian design rather than the more sombre browns and beiges advocated by Bernard Leach and his followers. As an ardent and, until disillusion set in, a committed Communist, Eileen Lewenstein saw her work as part of her political practice.
Eileen Edith Mawson, potter and editor: born London 28 August 1925; Co-editor, Ceramic Review 1970-97; MBE 1999; married 1952 Oscar Lewenstein (died 1997; two sons); died Caterham, Surrey 7 March 2005.
As a potter, Eileen Lewenstein, the founder and until 1997 co-editor of Ceramic Review, was an ardent modernist and advocate of the new and challenging, rather than the established and conventional. She preferred the cool, crisp lines of Scandinavian design rather than the more sombre browns and beiges advocated by Bernard Leach and his followers. As an ardent and, until disillusion set in, a committed Communist, Eileen Lewenstein saw her work as part of her political practice.
For someone with such deeply held and unconventional views, she came from an unlikely background. She was born Eileen Mawson in Streatham, south London, in 1925. Her father worked in insurance, and she and her two half-brothers had the most conventional of childhoods.
From a young age Eileen knew she wanted a career in the arts and so after three years' study at what was then the West of England Art School in Bristol and a year at Beckenham School of Art studying drawing and painting, she studied for the Art Teachers Diploma at the Institute of Education in London. Here she attended pottery classes at the Central School of Art and Design under the eagle eye of Dora Billington, where among her fellow students was Brigitta Goldschmidt (later Appleby) - both developed a passion for clay.
For a year Mawson taught at Derby High School for Girls, introducing pottery into the curriculum, but soon realised that school-teaching was not her métier. At Derby she had attended an evening class run by Robert Washington, one of William Staite Murray's more energetic students at the Royal College of Art before the war, which had reinforced her interest in clay and so she decided to try and make her living as a potter.
In London she worked, along with her college friend, Brigitta Appleby, with Donald Mills, another Communist Party member, who had a pottery near London Bridge, run on collective lines. There were long earnest discussions on how they should work, discussions brought into sharper focus when problems with a contract to make 250,000 refractory ceramic elements forced them out of business
Mawson and Appleby then set up a pottery in Baker Street, calling it Briglin, an amalgamation of their names. They worked with red earthenware and produced a range of hand-thrown tableware with painted decoration that was fresh and modern in feel. As a student, Mawson had been inspired by Walter Gropius's account of the Bauhaus, and this positive response to modernist design led to the development of an interest in contemporary architecture, which was significantly to influence her ceramics. Although resolutely left-wing she was not obsessively anti-commerce and was attracted to the idea of producing well-designed objects at reasonable prices.
From the start, Briglin pots were admired, sought out and stocked by stores such as Heal's and were to feature with great regularity in magazines and surveys of contemporary design like Studio Year Book of Decorative Art.
At around this time Eileen Mawson met and in 1952 married Oscar Lewenstein, a fellow Communist who was active within the left-wing Unity Theatre. In his autobiography, Kicking Against the Pricks (1994), he described Eileen as having "wonderfully bushy brown hair", and as someone who gave the impression "of fantastic efficiency". Indeed she was - and had to be - highly organised as she eventually managed a large house, cared for their two children, supported Oscar's theatre and film projects, worked as a potter and for many years lectured at Hornsey School of Art.
Although a skilled thrower, Eileen Lewenstein was inspired by the experimental possibilities of hand-built work she saw illustrated in the American magazine Craft Horizons and she decided it was time to leave Briglin and develop her own work as an artist. A friendship with the potter Catherine Yarrow, a fellow Hampstead resident and a maker of totemic forms with idiosyncratic decoration, encouraged Lewenstein to explore more sculptural pieces, and she combined hand-building, moulding and throwing as seemed appropriate. One notable public artwork was a large architectural screen for the Convent of Our Lady of Sion in west London, the flowing linear decoration perfectly in tune with the grid-like structure. Other pieces included ingenious interlocking eggs and flower-holders.
In the mid-1970s a move to Brighton, a house on the seashore and a studio looking on to the beach, saw the development of new forms. These included dishes with wave-like patterns in soft blues, creams and greens, one of which is in the collection of the V&A, and angular linking abstract objects, their shape derived from sea defences that stood on the beach. Her work also included tall, thrown vases with pushed and squeezed walls which, when placed side by side in a couple-like relationship, took on anthropomorphic qualities recalling the sculptures of artists such as Brancusi. Exhibitions at the British Crafts Centre, the Eva Hauser Gallery and J.K. Hill consolidated Lewenstein's position as an inventive and sensitive maker. Her pots are in many national and international collections.
As a founder member of the Craftsmen Potters Association (now Craft Potters Association) she was well aware of the debates within the studio pottery movement, like those between the traditionalists who saw function as paramount and the avant-garde who wanted more adventurous forms. Deeply suspicious of "the establishment", her inclination was always to support the radical and inventive. She and I met as council members of the association in the late 1960s, and when I suggested that it was time for the CPA to publish something more substantial than a mimeographed sheet and start a new ceramic journal, she enthusiastically supported the idea.
Ceramic Review, first published in 1970 with Eileen Lewenstein as co-editor, aimed to embrace as wide a spectrum of modern work as possible, a commitment that led us to include a picture of a phallic teapot that resulted in the loss of several subscriptions. After its early, smudgy beginnings, the magazine flourished. Its motto "written by potters for potters" gradually extended to include articles by critics, scholars, pundits and enthusiasts. It was a successful and rewarding partnership as we exchanged ideas about the direction of ceramics, both of us jollying the other along to ever more ambitious projects that included books such as New Ceramics (1974).
With a keen sense of the growing international community of potters, Eileen Lewenstein was one of the small band of UK potter members of the International Academy of Ceramics, later serving on its council. During the 1970s she contributed to a number of International Symposia - Bethune, Czechoslovakia (1970), Memphis, Tennessee (1973), Mettlach, West Germany (1974) - and regularly took part in residencies at the International Ceramics Studio at Kecskemet in Hungary. There she not only took the opportunity to make large forms but also to establish further links for the magazine, enjoying meeting artists from the Eastern Bloc and exchanging ideas, whether about politics or ceramics. As a member, and later chair, of the World Crafts Council, British Section, she was enthusiastic about promoting cultural exchange. She was appointed MBE in 1999.
When her husband became ill in the early 1990s, she had less time to devote to her pots, although she continued to co-edit Ceramic Review until shortly after his death in 1997.
Quiet, reserved and thoughtful, Eileen Lewenstein was a supportive and loyal friend. Shrewd in her assessments and an absorbing raconteur, she had a refreshing and disarming sense of humour that could appreciate the ridiculous as well as the serious.
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