‘Eccentric and idiosyncratic’ - these are words even used by curators to describe a truly strange ceramics exhibition at the National Trust Standen House from now until November 1.
Featured extensively on TV, the exhibition shows work by 19th-20th century Martin brothers which draws bouquets and brickbats from both experts and the public alike.
With their distinctive Wally birds, the brothers made their mark on the world of antiques, forging their way into the hearts of the British public over Sunday night tea at the Antiques Roadshow as well as taking top spot on BBC South Today’s nightly news programme.
This mini respective exhibition by the National Trust at Standen, in East Grinstead, takes the debate around this distinctive trio of potters one step further. It proposes that the brothers were pioneers who shaped the development of British pottery.
House manager, Ben Dale’s enthusiasm is infectious: “The sense of mystery, menacing and intrigue is unmistakable. This exhibition celebrates the work of these remarkable craftsmen, looks at what influenced and inspired them and their impact on the development of art pottery.” He quotes Bevis Hillier from Malcolm Haslam’s definitive book on the potters: “The Martin Brothers must be considered among the great British artist-craftsmen, not just the endearing freaks they have too often been considered.”
The exhibition brings together works from the collection at Standen, with loans from UK collections including the Hull Grundy Collection from Ealing Council (previously at the Pitshanger Museum), the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter, Holburne Museum in Bath, modern day ceramics by Burslem Pottery and historical pieces owned by the National Trust at Blicking Hall and Greenway. People are asked to respond by stacking their comments on boards above a salvaged potter’s wheel and enter a theatrically lit display of Wally birds.
Standen is a fascinating backdrop to this high pottery drama. An exquisite house, it was designed by Philip Webb (architect and lifelong friend of William Morris) in the 1890s for the Beale family. It’s a fine example of Arts and Crafts workmanship. The gardens have undergone a recent dramatic revival and they play host this Autumn to a contemporary art series with residencies by Will Shannon and designer Kaffe Fassett.
The selection of Martin brothers’ works includes recognisable, large scale works but also smaller, rarely seen vases with intriguing surfaces and glazes. The exhibition was opened by David Battie of the Antiques Roadshow, who said: “After six months as a porter in the ceramics department at Sotheby’s, I still hated pots. Then in came a Martin Brothers Bird Jar and I was a convert.”