Leading Article: Why modern pottery fires the imagination

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IN THE Fifties and Sixties, British pottery was, broadly speaking, notable for its quantity rather than its quality, but it was cheap, earnestly functional and popular. Craft shops abounded, and modestly priced brown coffee sets and mugs seemed to be everywhere. Nowadays, the work of leading British potters fetches thousands of pounds and is highly prized by American and Continental as well as domestic collectors. But its broad popularity is gone, and it is to be found mainly in specialist galleries and the classier surviving craft outlets.

The new exhibition at the Barbican Art Gallery in London, The Raw and the Cooked, marks a further narrowing of the gap between the potter's status and that of sculptors and painters. Not only is it being held in a venue normally devoted to fine rather than applied arts, but it specifically involves sculptors working in clay as well as leading ceramicists (as they are sometimes called).

Within the perspectives of post-Second World War Britain, this evolution looks like something new. In fact it echoes the Twenties and Thirties. It was in 1920 that Bernard Leach, who became the leader of the renaissance of studio pottery in Europe, returned from his seminal 11 years in Japan. Leach was not just a great potter whose work fused Oriental and English medieval traditions, but also a gifted proselytiser who lectured widely. In the Thirties, an era in which many leading painters and sculptors also designed plates, glass and textiles, he and his rival William Staite- Murray exhibited in contemporary art galleries in London alongside artists like Ben Nicholson.

Leach's dominance was diluted by the arrival from Austria and Germany in the late Thirties of Lucie Rie and the late Hans Coper, as well as by an anti-Oriental group at the Central School of Arts and Crafts. If it was Leach who saved studio pottery from near-extinction, Rie and Coper did much to rescue it from the post-war debasement of the Leach tradition. At Camberwell and the Royal College of Art they taught the likes of Ian Godfrey, Ewen Henderson and Elizabeth Fritsch, who are now in the vanguard and who in turn taught others, like Sara Radstone, who are now close behind them.

The auction houses - led first by Sotheby's in the early Seventies, then by Christie's and now by Bonham's - have played a substantial part in the upgrading of contemporary ceramics. Hans Coper's prices have soared from a few hundred pounds at the time of his death at 61 in 1981 to pounds 88,000 for a pair of candle-holders in 1989, a record for a contemporary ceramic. Lucy Rie's top price is just under pounds 15,000.

Another important contribution has come from the Crafts Council, which since 1971 has fostered talent with its apparatus of start-up grants for equipment, its exhibitions, and its slide index of the best available work. The Victoria and Albert Museum has played its part with exhibitions and purchases of contemporary work - foreign as well as British. So have the few brave specialist galleries in the commercial sector.

As the Barbican show reaffirms, the joy of pots is that they combine the tactile qualities and formal possibilities of sculpture, while their inner and outer surfaces can acquire the decorative qualities of painting. If the fine arts stray too far into the realms of the bizarre and the conceptual, as sculpture is now doing, they could find pottery moving in to plug the gap.