The exhibition Objects For a Landscape at York Art Gallery, a room filled with a careful selection of the work of the ceramicist Gordon Baldwin, is a fine sight and a tribute to a long and dedicated career. When you first walk in and see them as a group, in a single space, they seem to form a single vision, a sombre almost monochrome mostly matt glazed collection with touches of browns and blues. They have real presence and gravity. Bulbous, yearning vessels with dark internal spaces and openings that you can peer into, their surfaces striated and meticulously drawn on. I was not surprised to hear him say in the accompanying video that they are serious works with darkness in them, and for someone who spends eight hours a week with a camera on a large and very beautiful beach the association with the kind of rich bulbous stones I see each day was immediately obvious. Gordon Baldwin’s beach is in North Wales, at Porth Neigwl, but when I read his statement about it in the exhibition verbiage I knew exactly what he was talking about.
“There is a beach in Wales I call “the place of stones”. It was found decades ago by a pin on a map. This chance event discovered me and chance has directed my projects and widened my horizons. In this place I looked for emotional correspondences. I listened to the sea alone and I stared at the landscape almost empty of people. I celebrated it with my camera. Such places are best faced alone and now they are in my studio with me.”
His work is restrained and deeply contemplative. Sometimes a pot will remain in his studio for a long time before being finished while he “does a lot of staring” at them and this shows. These are not works which have been produced in a rush of bravado and creativity. They have been nurtured and coaxed into life with great care. He talks about the surfaces being the most difficult aspect of his work, and sometimes thinks of the surface of a pot as a canvas. “You can’t just stare at a canvas. You have to do something with it.” Drawing “activates” the vessel. Almost no high gloss glazes or bright colours are used and when they are, as in a swathe of shining back or a small rainbow of colour across the corner of a piece they seem to shout. They are gentle, delicate pieces which seem to hold their strength in check with great dignity. I found it particularly satisfying to look at them when two pieces were paired together, their echoing forms seeming to comfort and reflect each other. I also enjoyed looking down through openings into the darkness inside, rather as you can in some of Anish Kapoor’s work. I was also reminded of the work of Barbara Hepworth but these works are not so serene as Hepworth’s sculpture. They have reached a point of harmony by hard graft. The delicate slightly torn edges on some of them reminded me of Japanese pottery. They hold memories and seem to have a past. Had I read the following quote before seeing the pieces I might well have thought it fanciful, but the pots had already shown me the truth of it.
“I find myself making vessels that punctuate oceans, in the same way as a bird’s call will mark an internal landscape forever. The sound of a wind will describe a landscape and a vessel remembers it for me.”
As well as making his work in the studio and teaching at the Central School of Art and Design and Goldsmiths Gordon Baldwin spent almost forty years teaching sculpture and pottery at Eton College. We hear a lot about old Etonians going on to work in the financial sector or politics. I hope that some of them during those years were also inspired to design and create by having the privilege of contact with a gifted artist who also clearly loved to teach.
This is a beautiful little exhibition. A little crowded and plainly lit perhaps, but the pots make their presence felt in a very real and striking way in spite of that.
In one of the upstairs gallery rooms there is a gallery of pots which have been selected by Gordon Baldwin from York Museums Trust’s ceramics collection which forms an interesting complement to the exhibition. He has called the selection Excitations and it describes some of his artistic loves and influences. The great names are there, Thomas Toft, Lucie Rie, Bernard Leach, Shoji Hamada, and some lovely early medieval jugs. I particularly liked a tall thin bottle shaped pot, striped in brown and cream, by William Staite Murray. It made me smile to myself, having found out a little about Gordon Baldwin’s character through his work and through hearing him speak, when I read a note next to it explaining that the two men “didn’t get on” when they met. It didn’t surprise me. A man who could say boldly, as Murray did, “My pots are ART, I shall charge ART prices”, was certainly of a very different mindset to the artist that I had been finding out about. I also liked a lovely restrained blue and white dish with four simple orchids on it made in 1930 by Tomimoto Kenkichi and six dear little brown egg cups by Harry Davis made in 1969.