Graham Burr

Potter who sought to blur the boundaries

In one sense, the ceramic artist Graham Burr never ceased to be a painter, even though he spent most of his creative life working with clay.



Graham Geoffrey George Burr, ceramic artist: born Roxwell, Essex 13 January 1929; married 1924 Joan White (two sons); died London 8 April 2003.



In one sense, the ceramic artist Graham Burr never ceased to be a painter, even though he spent most of his creative life working with clay.

Having set out to study fine art, almost by accident he tried his hand at pottery and responded immediately to the tactile, malleable qualities of the material. However, he rejected the popular concern with an aesthetic based on Oriental pots, seeking to combine the understanding and sensitivity of fine art on what was, in the 1970s and early 1980s, still widely regarded as a craft rather than an art form.

Graham Burr was born in 1929 in the tiny Essex village of Roxwell, outside Chelmsford, and early on, unlike any other member of the family, showed an aptitude for art, making Viking boats and studying Picture Post for accounts of artists. After National Service in the Army he travelled to New Zealand to stay with his parents, who had emigrated, to spend an unhappy 18 months working on his father's chicken farm in Christchurch, but, disliking intensely the cramped rearing conditions and the feeling of being cut off, he returned to England, where he enrolled at Chelmsford School of Art.

As part of the intermediate certificate students were required to study a craft and under the watchful and caring attention of Joanna Connell (later Constantinidis) he moved to ceramics, where he learnt to throw on the wheel in record time. At college he met and fell in love with a sculpture student, Joan White, and they were married two years later, in 1954.

From Chelmsford Burr moved to the ceramics department at Camberwell School of Art in London, then under the liberal eye of Dick Kendall, son-in-law of Bernard Leach. Kendall employed a wide range of part-time lecturers including Nicholas Vergette, Norah Braden and Jock Purdy. A postgraduate year enabled Burr further to hone his skills.

He was still undecided about whether he was a painter or a potter, and although he installed a small kiln in his modest studio and made pots he also continued to paint, combining these activities with part-time teaching at Camberwell, Beckenham and Oxford Schools of Art. At this time he was particularly attracted to and influenced by the concept of abstraction, inspired by the attitude and approach – rather than their style – of artists such as Arp, Matisse and Bonnard.

By the early Sixties he was spending more time with clay, producing domestic wares such as teapots and casseroles in earthenware and stoneware, together with a series of simple yet robust cylindrical vases, which with their incised and modelled decoration were to prove the forerunners of his later sculptural forms. In 1965 he was appointed lecturer in ceramics at Ravensbourne College of Art, where he proved to be an inspired and inspiring teacher, and he moved with his wife and two small boys to a delightful late Georgian house in Greenwich, which as he put it "was messed up a bit in the 1940s", setting up a studio in the basement. The house was to become a major restoration project in his final years.

Seeing himself and his work to be a reaction against conventional studio pottery, he became more than ever convinced that the general acceptance of aesthetic standards and philosophies derived from Far Eastern ceramics, so enthusiastically embraced by many contemporary artist-craftsmen, was either misguided or irrelevant. Only a few individuals, such as Bernard Leach, he felt, were able to put themselves genuinely into the Oriental or medieval situation and produce anything meaningful. He was more concerned with looking at the work of fine artists and responding to ideas that he saw as relevant to the present time.

The result was a series of subtly proportioned pots constructed from slabs of clay, many with faceted or undulating surfaces. As function ceased to be important the forms gradually became fully enclosed and he began to see them as three-dimensional objects. These were successfully shown at the progressive Midland Group Gallery in Nottingham.

Having abandoned the pretence of making useful articles Burr committed himself to exploring surface and form, which for him were indivisible. Potters he admired at the time, in addition to Leach, included Lucie Rie and Hans Coper, both of whom introduced highly individual ways of working that related to the more severe, honed forms of modernism rather than the widely admired earth colours and rounded vessels associated with much contemporary work.

Burr continued to feel divided between painting and potting, though he resisted the definition of sculptor, preferring to see himself as a painter who creates his own specially shaped "canvases" in clay. These he decorated with colour, often in abstracted forms in configurations that could be seen to relate to wind, rain or clouds. Nevertheless, his forms, such as a series of cone-like objects with a flattened side, were about clay and what the material could do, although he chose to work with materials such as a white, neutral clay and matt-white glazes that would not interfere with the initial visual concept.

All are deliberately ambiguous, both in content and form, and were successfully exhibited at the British Crafts Centre in London, consolidating his reputation as one of the leading potters blurring the boundaries between art and craft.

Uncompromising in rejecting sentimentality or a reliance on historical precedents, he focused on such formal aspects as line, form and volume conveyed through the idea of "solidified space". While often ploughing a lonely furrow, Burr steadily produced ceramics that predate many later developments with regard to the freer and more experimental use of clay. His "three-dimensional paintings", like the artist himself, are quiet but forceful, the variability and fragility of the surface decoration animating often simple geometric forms.

As an active member of the Craftsmen Potters Association and the British Crafts Centre Burr saw his work regularly exhibited, and pieces were acquired by major national and international collections. These included the Manchester, Leicester and Portsmouth Museums as well as the Musées Royaux d'Art, Brussels, and Princesshof Museum, Netherlands, but as yet have escaped the attention of the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Emmanuel Cooper

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?