The Harrow Effect

by Christina Lai

For nearly 50 years, the Harrow Studio Pottery Course trained some of the world’s finest ceramicists, transforming a poorly equipped evening class into an internationally respected degree course. Christie Brown, Janice Tchalenko, Richard Slee and Kyra Cane are just a few talents who studied or taught at Harrow. Despite this, the course will sadly close down after its final graduation this summer. But why was Harrow so influential? Why did such a promising hub close?
Founded by Victor Margie and Mick Casson in 1963, the Harrow Studio pottery course aimed to train students to be fully independent potters, who could set up their own workshops. It was unlike any other fine arts course at the time, focusing on teaching ‘hands-on’ skills- kiln building with scavenged materials, production throwing and clay sourcing.  It was the ethical optimism of the 1960s; the potter’s life and his connection with nature were seen as a meaningful alternative to established careers.
V&A Ceramics and Glass curator Alun Graves describes Harrow’s distinctive subculture- “...its emphasis on improvised technology and creative salvage, was a form of personal empowerment, the possibility to live outside the system”.  There was great camaraderie and enthusiasm, reflected by a strong work ethic. Hours were often long and students were known to sneak outdoors to do extra firings after dark.
By the 1970s, Harrow’s reputation (especially in throwing) attracted students worldwide, from the US, Australia to Europe. Upon graduation many students were immediately employed as throwing tutors (Walter Keeler, for example) at Harrow and respected schools like the Royal College of Art.
Since the 1980s, the ceramics market, its cultural and social climate has changed dramatically. The course has always adapted, ensuring students kept ahead of the times, beyond making itself- understanding the importance of critical thinking, developing an individual artistic identity, intersecting and experimenting with concepts and professional practice. 
Harrow wasn’t simply about preparing ceramic careers. For many staff and students, it was a life-changing decision which impacted their lives in unexpected ways forever. Carys Davies left her job of 18 years as programmer at IBM to study at Harrow in 2004. “Disillusioned” by the “virtualised disconnection between people and things” of her job, she found Harrow’s “Reflection through Action” approach deeply rewarding. “It challenged students to develop and balance synthetic and analytic skills”, as well as “stamina, persistence, and the need to test over-optimistic assumptions – about materials, technology and fellow students”.  In essence, she rediscovered fundamental principles which she believes prepares people to work better in many fields.
What reasons contributed to its closure?
In 2008, following a brief consultation a decision was made by the university to shut down the course, due to rising costs. This provoked a huge public outcry; from ex students, staff and prominent industry figures, resulting in a Number 10 petition signed by over 1000, which proved futile. Ceramics courses have always required space, equipment and staff. With the falling demand of pottery as a degree subject, it was deemed “currently unsustainable” . Lawrence Epps, who graduated in 2011, believes the closure reflects a “political move towards valuing education primarily in relation to potential future earnings of graduates as opposed to education as a worthwhile and valuable end in itself.” In July 2010, Business Secretary Vince Cable announced the state’s plans to focus on teaching STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), which offered high public and social return .
In the 21st century world of speed, technology and money making, it appears the self-sufficient workshop potter is no longer a relevant, fashionable or economically viable career. This is reiterated by the Craft Council’s report earlier this year, which found the maker’s national average annual gross income was less than £20,000.  While studio ceramics has never been lucrative, this is in stark comparison to the 1970s, when there was an undersupply of trained throwers to meet the public appetite of homemade tableware. Earlier in 2011, the Crafts Council released sobering findings across the UCAS database- between 2009 to 2011, almost 1 in 3 of the 32 undergraduate craft course closures were ceramics based, or contained a ceramics element . Harrow is just one of several prominent universities that have axed their ceramics and glass departments in recent decades (including Glasgow School of Art in 2008 and Camberwell College of Art this year).
2006 graduate Tessa Eastman agrees it’s a sad sign of the times we live in “Less people get involved with using clay as it is demanding and labour intensive. People today want instant results with little effort and maximum profit”
It would be naive to assume only ceramics is under threat. All over the country, traditional material based courses like glass, wood and metalwork have been endangered or quietly disappeared.
Consequently, in recent years single craft disciplines have often been blended into generalist craft undergraduate courses, under names like ‘3D Design Craft’, ‘Applied Arts’, or incorporated into fine art and wider foundation courses.  This is one way to cut costs, keep facilities and staff employed, whilst giving students a wide skills base to increase employability. However, for those wishing to specialise in a single discipline for a professional career, these may prove inadequate to provide sufficient skills and training. “It is a huge loss of physical and human resources. The accumulated expertise will be scattered and difficult to reassemble,” says 1980s student Prue Venables
Harrow’s closure means less choice for students, leading to talent studying abroad in countries like Holland and Japan, where ceramics is still a highly valued artistic medium. Apprenticeships and sponsorships like Lisa Hammond’s Adopt-a-Potter scheme may be the few options left for aspiring potters in future.
On the grander scale of things, the fear is that manual skills may ‘die out’.  Not just because the craftsman is increasingly replaced by technology, but also due to diminishing craft education in the public domain. This is particularly the case in state-funded primary and secondary schools, where shortage of skilled staff and resources means few experience the benefits of handling clay. There is an apparent lack of long-term foresight into what constitutes a healthy, balanced society and education. It is a tragic loss of our humanness; our ability to connect with the materials that we use and create our world
Harrow’s Legacy
Though it is difficult to measure the impact of Harrow Ceramics in real terms, there are significant achievements students and staff should be proud of- namely its influence on the academic structure of teaching ceramics (it is now a recognised degree subject) and the dynamic portfolio of its students. It changed perceptions of what could be accomplished within a vocational course- critically and practically.
One continuing legacy is the university’s AHRC funded Ceramics Research project, Ceramics in the Expanded Field. Supported by its Ceramics Research Centre, it is run by PhD students and contemporary ceramic practitioners like Edmund de Waal and Clare Twomey. It aims to investigate new ways ceramics can be practised in the context of museums, raising awareness and securing its future.
Ultimately, Harrow’s innovation and community spirit are its most powerful bequests.  As Venables aptly points out, “There are people who have experienced this training and had their lives permanently changed by it. Their inventive thinking and appreciation of skills will continue to influence people around them in many different ways”.

Foreword by Alun Graves, Tradition & Innovation: Five Decades of Harrow Ceramics, 2012
Letter by Carys Davies to Vice Chancellor of University of Westminster, 2008
Quote from Sally Feldman, dean of the School of Media, Arts and Design at the University of Westminster, featured in A Crisis in the Making by Tanya Harrod, Crafts Magazine, July/August 2009, Craft & Higher Education: an update, 2011
Craft in an Age of Change- Summary Report, Crafts Council, 15th February 2012

Christina Lai is British-born Chinese ceramicist living in South East London. She is also a freelance arts and culture writer and writes her own blog

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