Unlike the demarcations that characterise the fine arts, craft occupies an interim territory in constant dialogue with other work. ‘Craft has permeable walls,’ says Alison Britton, ceramicist, Royal College of Art tutor and curator of Three by One, a new exhibition featuring modern and contemporary craft from three public collections. ‘It has ambiguity and flux. In the 1960s it was drifting towards fine art, but now it is drifting toward design. It’s about paying a lot of attention to how things are made, but also how they look and feel.’ Or, as the Crafts Council executive director Rosy Greenlees puts it, ‘Craft is a verb, as well as a noun.’
Britton brings these observations to bear in her selection of objects for the new show. From thousands of possibles from the collections of the British Council, the Crafts Council and the Crafts Study Centre, she has chosen 90 pieces of ceramics, textiles, glass, calligraphy, jewellery, wood and stone. She has included the occasional historic piece, including items from the Bernard Leach collection, such as a 13th century Korean rice bowl, although the selection is mostly work made in the 21st century. Together, they form a snapshot of the three collections, and provide a history of public collecting of contemporary craft in the UK. ‘It’s a personal choice,’ explains Britton, who was on the Crafts Council’s purchasing committee in the 1980s. ‘I chose objects with a vitality, things that live. Some pieces are really simple – others more ornate. There are such unexpected and rich discoveries in these collections. It was about making a synthesis, building a picture, seeing how the objects relate to each other.’
This is something that will resonate with designers. Alongside Britton’s choice of work by contemporary makers (Bruce McLean’s metre-high jug, Philip Eglin’s Madonna and Child, Tord Boontje textiles, Yoko Izawa’s wrapped jewellery) come vintage textiles from Phyllis Barron and Dorothy Larcher, and work by Enid Marx, whocreated early fabrics for the London Underground. These provide a historical context to the contemporary pieces and form a visual thread linking 70 years of public collecting.
Three by One, at the Crafts Study Centre, Farnham, opens this week and runs until 19 December. An accompanying book, designed by Sara de Bondt, will be published in the spring