Obituary: William Newland

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The Independent Online
THE POTTER William Newland had bold theories about clay and creativity which he often planned to write down. Now we will never read his thoughts on the Great Knerle (Newland's term for a basic pattern found on prehistoric pots excavated in the Euphrates) and on the origins of sgraffito. But his work remains, an array of prancing thrown-and- assembled tin-glaze bulls with curved horns, handsome thrown platters on which he drew mythological scenes, proud press-moulded cockerels and great press-moulded dishes slip-painted with big birds and Matissean heads.

Newland was born in 1919 at Masterton in the Wairarapa, the premier sheep- farming area of North Island, New Zealand, and his voice never lost a slight, musical Kiwi twang. His grandfather had jumped ship in 1870 and went up into the hills behind Wellington to start the settlement known as Newlands. His father was a sheep and cattle drover and a stock buyer.

By the age of 13 Newland was a drover too, with a horse and five dogs, able to keep a thousand sheep together and on the move. During the Depression he and his brother ran a butcher's shop in Masterton and he attended evening classes in drawing. When the Second World War broke out he joined the New Zealand Expeditionary Force and served in Greece and the Middle East followed by three years as a prisoner of war in Italy and Germany.

In a PoW camp at Gorlitz in Sudetenland he met white Russians - "marvellous men, artists and architects" - and studied Kimon Nicolaides' The Natural Way to Draw (1941), an inspirational book filled with reproductions of the world's most beautiful drawings from both East and West. Newland began to paint and draw his fellow prisoners with crayons and paints sent by the Red Cross.

From 1945 until 1947 he studied painting at Chelsea School of Art, going on, as part of an agreement he made with the New Zealand government, to train as a teacher at the Institute of Education, at London University. There he discovered a remarkable natural facility with clay, attending Dora Billington's classes at the Central School of Arts and Crafts and reading Marion Richardson on education and art.

He saw himself doing for ceramics what Richardson had done for painting in schools. In ceramic terms this meant a healthy suspicion of the certainties of Bernard Leach's overnight 1940 classic A Potter's Book. Newland did not like the idea of "sitting in Bloomsbury painting bamboo leaves on pots with a Chinese brush". In 1948 he became a lecturer at the Institute and also gave evening classes at Central.

His energy and ability drew numerous painters taking an art teacher's diploma to ceramics. Margaret Hine (whom he married in 1950), Nicholas Vergette, James Tower, John Reeve and Ian Auld were all taught by Newland and all went on to become potters of the first rank.

Like many British artists after the Second World War, Newland looked south for inspiration, immersing himself in Mediterranean culture, ancient and modern. In 1949 he travelled in Spain with Margaret Hine and Nicholas Vergette, studying country potteries and paying a visit to Malaga to look at tin-glazed Hispano-Moresque wares.

Tin-glaze and the casual light-hearted beauties of Picasso's ceramics came to represent an alternative to the solemn aesthetic of neo- Oriental stoneware. Newland, Hine and Vergette's 1954 show at the Studio Club in Swallow Street revealed the strong influence of Picasso combined with long hours in the British Museum studying Tang horses and clay figures from Tarentum.

The accessible humanism of Newland's ceramics was recognised by Stuart Mason, the Director of Education for Leicestershire who bought quasi-religious figurative pieces like Daniel and the Lion and a series of variants on the Flight into Egypt for Devotional Rooms in Leicestershire's bright new schools. Newland's magnificent large bowl of 1955, with a brushed image of Europa and the Bull, suggests his capacity for the grand gesture.

Much of Hine and Newland's joint work of the 1950s and early 1960s enlivened the interiors of coffee bars and restaurants with figurative groups of fishermen and harlequins and women releasing doves or seated on donkeys. In the 1960s they created playful interiors for the Kaye brothers' Golden Egg chain of restaurants. Few of these schemes survive, although their voluptuous reliefs of Indian gods and goddesses can still seen at the restaurant Mumtaz near Regent's Park.

Underpinning all Newland's work and teaching was a sense of social responsibility and a special kind of robust New Zealand egalitarianism. He was passionate about his role at the Institute of Education. He believed that working with clay was a powerful therapeutic force and that to create in three dimensions was a crucial, if neglected, aspect of visual education, teaching what he called "tactile knowing". He believed that giving young children clay at school would result in future generations of better architects, town planners and designers. Partly thanks to Newland and his relations with county education officers, pottery was taught in most secondary schools after the war and kilns and other equipment were installed.

As a member of Sir John Summerson's National Council for Diplomas in Art and Design (NCDAD) Newland also played a crucial part in the encouragement of ceramics in art schools after 1962. In recent years, to Newland's sorrow, there has been no specialist pottery instructor at the institute.

Developments in education in the 1980s, especially the shift away from material-based teaching in schools, caused him much concern. Just after the war it was different:

Everyone was full of enthusiasm. We all thought that we were going to change the world. This sort of spirit was in the clay, it was in the paint, in the teaching of painting, in the teaching of craft. Kids were going to paint if they wanted to, pot if they wanted to, weave, book-bind . . .

After retirement from full-time work at the institute in 1982 he continued to run the Bedford Way Gallery in the foyer of the Institute of Education. This was very much his creation and was used to mount a series of stimulating exhibitions looking at craft, art and design in the context of education. The area has now been turned into a bookshop. Retirement also enabled Newland to devote more energy to his own work.

The death of his wife and collaborator Margaret in 1987 hit him hard, but the 1980s and 1990s saw the rediscovery of his work of the 1950s and numerous students and researchers paid him court, charmed by his joie de vivre, by his practical and original theories about education and by his deep understanding of ceramic history and technique. In 1996 he had a splendid retrospective exhibition organised by Aberystwyth Arts Centre which gave him much pleasure.

Newland remained a dashing figure to the end, fond of a rolled cigarette and a glass of red wine. He was a keen gardener and a superb cook. He embodied that optimistic post-war spirit which perceived the practice of all the arts as a peaceful civilised reparation for the miseries and trauma of war. He leaves a daughter, Sally, an illustrator and painter, and a son, Jeremy, a potter.

Rupert William Newland, potter and teacher: born Masterton, New Zealand 5 February 1919; Lecturer, Institute of Education, London University, part-time 1949-60, 1986-92, full-time 1962-86; Tutor, Central School of Arts and Crafts 1949-60; married 1950 Margaret Hine (died 1987; one son, one daughter); died High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire 30 April 1998.