To mark the Fry Art Gallery’s acquisition of a jug by Charlotte Epton, we are publishing a blog post from Helen Brown. Helen is an independent curator and expert on British studio pottery who has been researching Charlotte Epton’s work as a potter.
I was thrilled to hear that the Fry had acquired a jug by Charlotte Epton. I enjoyed doing some research on her work as a potter for an essay in 2019[i]. Charlotte was to marry Edward Bawden but before her marriage became an accomplished potter training with Bernard Leach at St. Ives. Although she did not set up a studio she continued to be involved with pottery in some form for much of her life.
She was born in 1902, brought up in Lincoln and went to the Royal College of Art where she studied Design (including pottery) before becoming an art teacher at Cheltenham Ladies College in 1925. Working at Winchcombe, eight miles away, was the potter Michael Cardew. The two became good friends and possibly influenced by him she left the College in summer 1929 to become a student at Bernard Leach’s pottery at St Ives. She works as Leach’s secretary being allowed to do her own work in her free time.
This jug comes from her time at the Leach Pottery and it is an exciting find. Although examples of her work in stoneware and porcelain are known this is the first piece of slipware that can definitely be attributed to her time at St Ives. It is impressed with her mark and that of the Leach Pottery. Its rounded forms, incised design showing the brown clay through a yellow/brown slip covered surface, and coiled handle reveal the influence of her friendship with Michael Cardew. Cardew was inspired by earthenware jugs in the North Devon tradition of which these features are typical.
At the end of her time at St Ives in 1931 she showed with The Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society at the Royal Academy. Here she exhibited nine pots, in slipware, stoneware and porcelain, including the skilfully made lidded tea caddies and powder bowls with subtle glazes and minimal decoration of which examples survive. It is tempting to speculate that the Fry’s jug may have been the slipware jug recorded for sale for 4/- in the exhibition. The exhibition was successful for her with one of the tea caddies bought by the V&A[ii] and two other pots bought by the Contemporary Arts Society’s new craft scheme and given to museums in Exeter and Leicester. Despite this Charlotte was discouraged from continuing at St.Ives, distressed after some of her work was destroyed following a fire at the pottery.
She began working at the influential Little Gallery, set up in London by Muriel Rose to promote contemporary craft, continuing for a while after her marriage to Edward Bawden in 1932 when she went to live at Great Bardfield. During this time she also pursues other artistic interests, forming a short-lived creative partnership with Tirzah Garwood (1932-33) to make marbled papers, sold by the Little Gallery and commercially printed by the Curwen Press for use in bookbinding and lampshade making. She also continues her painting with her fine portrait of Eric Sawbridge in the Fry’s collection painted in 1931. Her children Joanna and Richard are born in 1935 and 1936 and in the subsequent decade the Second World War disrupts the family’s life. In 1940 Edward becomes a war artist and Charlotte returns to Cheltenham to teach art at the girl’s Grammar School remaining until 1946. She has little time for pottery although helps Michael Cardew at Winchcombe with his last firings there in 1942.
In the early 1950s Charlotte becomes involved in making pottery more seriously again with Joanna Constantinidis who was teaching at nearby Chelmsford School of Art. It seems likely that Charlotte used the wheels and kilns there as Joanna herself did for her own work. She gives occasional pottery lessons at a local school and is an examiner in pottery for the training colleges in the Cambridge area. A group of her pots from this time exists showing her working in a looser style with bolder decoration. Later she becomes more Involved with her magistrate work, school governorships, and particularly with founding of the Women’s Institute’s Denman College in Oxfordshire. Here she uses her knowledge of the art and craft world to widen the college’s cultural programme, as well as organising pottery courses with the pottery workshop at the College named after her. She dies relatively young, aged 67 in 1970.
I am still finding more about Charlotte, not least details of her first exhibiting at Cheltenham Art Gallery & Museum where I used to work. Please do add a comment below if you know of any pots by her or have further information.
© Helen Brown
[i] Charlotte Epton, potter, artist and teacher, essay in Cardew’s Craft Circle, essays on Cotswolds Art and Crafts on the 1920s and 1930s, Winchcombe Archive Collection, 2019