Joan Mary Cowper, potter, designer and gallerist: born Peatling Magna, Leicestershire 3 April 1912; managing director, Oxford Gallery 1968-86; MBE 1983; married 1939 Peter Crossley-Holland (died 2001; one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved 1970); died Hawstead, Suffolk 12 January 2005.
The citation for Joan Crossley- Holland's appointment as MBE in 1983 was for "services to the arts". This rather bald statement barely hints at her extraordinary and enduring influence as potter, industrial designer and gallery owner on the development of contemporary British art and craft after the Second World War.
Perhaps most significant was her vision in founding and running Oxford Gallery, from 1968 to 1986. Oxford Gallery, on the High Street in Oxford, under her leadership pioneered the exhibition and sale of contemporary craft, in particular studio ceramics and jewellery, alongside contemporary painting, sculpture and printmaking.
Works by masters such as Lucie Rie and Bernard Leach were shown in a highly professional gallery environment, designed by Michael Brawne, at a time when curators and critics still rather disparagingly viewed such work as "mere casseroles". From today's perspective when Lucie Rie has been given a major survey show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the work of many potters of that generation fetches high sums from competing collectors at international auction houses, it is easy to forget how little the work was regarded at the time.
Joan Cowper was born in 1912, and brought up in Leicestershire and Buckinghamshire, where her father practised as a doctor in Leighton Buzzard. (Her mother, an enthusiastic amateur watercolourist, was herself appointed MBE for her nursing work during the First World War.) From a Plymouth Brethren boys' prep school, Northfield (where she was captain of the first XI at football), Joan went to Wycombe Abbey. She first encountered pottery as a schoolchild, but it was whilst studying with Dora Billington at Central School of Art in the 1930s that her lifelong knowledge of and fascination with the art of pottery began: an influence she always acknowledged in later life.
A short period working in an independent studio was followed by a post in 1937 as a designer at Doulton's Lambeth studio in London, concentrating on the design and production of stoneware. Her involvement in all aspects of production at Doulton's, designing, throwing and glazing many pots, at a time when lady designers in industry were expected to decorate rather than construct, was in itself pioneering. The simplicity and modernity of her pieces attracted considerable interest from critics as authoritative as Nikolaus Pevsner, and works were shown in Heal's and Peter Jones.
In 1939 the outbreak of war and her marriage to the musician Peter Crossley-Holland meant a shift of emphasis. The next 20 years were actively devoted to family life, raising two children, Kevin and Sally, and working for the Social Survey. Her son the poet Kevin Crossley-Holland remembered,
For our mother there was no way of reconciling her life as potter with her life as wife and mother. She was not a woman to do things by halves.
Perhaps the history of craft in Britain would have been different if she had continued a contented family figure in this way, as the cultural milieu of late 1950s Britain would have encouraged her to do. But by the early 1960s her marriage had ended and new opportunities beckoned. It is a tribute to Joan Crossley-Holland's strength of character that at a time of personal turmoil she did not retreat into inactivity but instead looked to new horizons.
She opted for a year as personal assistant to the Maharana of Mewar in India at his fabled Lake Palace Hotel in Udaipur. Many years later she used to regale her assistants at Oxford Gallery with tales from this exotic, beautiful and formal world - a world of white gloves, ceremony and, it seemed, much backward bowing.
In 1966 she was appointed Director of the Bear Lane Gallery in Oxford, an Arts Council-sponsored contemporary gallery. Then came the turning point: a disagreement with the trustees of the gallery, concerning the value of showing ceramics in such an environment, led to her leaving, with many of the staff, to set up Oxford Gallery in the High Street. (While most people called it the Oxford Gallery, the Board of Trade wouldn't let her do so.) "Courage, capital and clear thinking" were her watchwords in 1968 and remained so until her retirement 18 years later.
It is astonishing to realise now, that when she established the gallery, with plenty of energy and vision but slender means, she was already in her late fifties, a time when many would be slackening off. But Crossley-Holland's "valiant perseverance and generous vision", in the words of one of her artists, Alan Caiger-Smith, were just beginning to be put to the greatest test.
The 187 exhibitions that were mounted during her reign are astonishing in their breadth as well as depth. Supporting young artists from the outset, she gave early shows to makers of the calibre of Gordon Baldwin and Wendy Ramshaw. A roll-call of influential figures in contemporary craft featured in the intensive month-on-month exhibition programme: in the field of textiles we find Peter Collingwood, Constance Howard, Theo Moorman; in the field of jewellery Wendy Ramshaw was joined by the young Caroline Broadhead, Jacqueline Mina and Susanna Heron. Jacqueline Poncelet, Sutton Taylor and Julian Stair all had important early shows here in the 1970s and 1980s and Joanna Constantinidis was a regular feature of the programme.
Printmaking, a significant strength of the gallery, was enriched through close involvement with the Bradford Print Biennale in the 1970s and early 1980s. The gallery's portfolio of artists in this sphere was truly international with Japanese woodcuts by Tsugumi Ota and American screenprints by Jim Dine sitting alongside etchings by Anthony Gross and the great Stanley Hayter. Hayter, whose work at Atelier 17 in Paris had set him alongside many of the greatest figures in 20th-century art, opted to have his 80th-birthday show at Oxford Gallery.
After her retirement in 1986, Crossley-Holland moved to Walsham-le-Willows in Suffolk where, surrounded by a few favoured objects from her gallery days, she acted as generous host to family and friends, keeping a keen maternal eye on the progress of her protégés, before the gentle decline of old age and the increasing onset of dementia made a retreat from the world inevitable.
In a tribute booklet published in 1986, Victor Margrie, first Director of the Crafts Council, described her as a "crusader and missionary". Ably assisted by her directors (notably Valerie Stewart), shareholders and numerous willing assistants, Joan Crossley-Holland quite simply changed the map of craft in Britain in the second half of the 20th century.
"Perhaps before memories sweeten with time's passing," she wrote in 1986,
I should clearly state for the sake of hopeful initiates that gallery-owning is not a charming, sophisticated and elegant way of gaining
a living to the sound of trumpets. It involves more capital than you calculated you would ever need to forward the work of artists you admire but who don't necessarily reciprocate your feelings, and persuading some mildly interested visitor to curtail his annual holiday by two weeks or so in order to afford "a dish fit for a king" by a maker he had never heard of an hour ago. Finding out how to do this will absorb the rest of your life!
Joan Crossley-Holland's appearance was old-fashioned, except for her jewellery, writes Marina Vaizey. She was small, bustling, and determined, rather like a fictionalised version of an inspiring but at times overwhelming sixth-form teacher; Alan Bennett might have written some of the script. You felt she could easily have organised a bit of the Empire. But her vocation was art.
Makers in particular with all too few outlets and little general appreciation - the Oxford Gallery antedated by several years the Crafts Advisory Council, now the Crafts Council - owed her an inestimable debt not only for her support but the way in which action followed words. Her sense of display was coherent, meticulous, with a ferocious eye for detail, so that everything looked as good as possible.
Why did the Oxford Gallery matter? Yes, it led the way in displaying "craft" and "art" together. But perhaps above all for the health of the "craft" sector Joan - sometimes all too inescapable, even occasionally maddening - opened the eyes and then the purses of scores of those new to the field. She would not let you go until she saw that you were making an effort to see what she saw. Her acute eye and determined persuasion turned passive spectators into active collectors.Reuse content