Opening of Meditations: Click for transcript of opening speech by Professor Simon Olding
In 1962, Hans Coper installed six towering ceramic candlesticks in Coventry Cathedral, at the bequest of the architect, Basil Spence. Spence said ‘perhaps this may start something as I have not seen pottery candle holders in churches. My aim was a strong, robust object about seven feet tall in scale with the huge concrete altar’.
These permanent works were required to command space as well as perform their function. They were respectful and inescapable. Less well known are Coper’s two massive black bowl-candlesticks, also commissioned by Spence for a religious room, the Meeting House at Sussex University. Tony Birks notes that they represent Coper’s ‘final architectural works’, and that ‘they were pots for a building, rather than as part of a building’.
This is a useful way to help us think about Ashley Howard’s work. We can see ‘Meditations’ in a lineage of modernist studio ceramics in religious space. The pot is asked to do a very particular job, but it is also symbolic.
We don’t expect Ashley Howard’s vessels to perform any defined practical function: though in the series ‘Ritual and Setting’ for Winchester Cathedral in 2009, the vessels were unambiguously font-like.
‘Meditations’ are, to use the letter-carver John Andrews lovely phrase, ‘grace notes’ for this Cathedral. Placed votively and calmly, speedy, vivid, dauby brush strokes energise each vessel, juxtaposing the organised interior architecture with a random, gestural effect: like jazz up against chant.
This body of work is both processional and in full sight; but it is also placed modestly and in retreat. It caters for ceremony and son; and it allows for inwardness and, perhaps, prayer. The work has the confidence of rhetoric and the off-kilter doubtfulness and disquiet of our contemplations. These pots aid privacy in public.
‘Meditations’ may be seen as a counterpointing exhibition to ‘Ritual and Settings’. Both translate the idiom of Japanese ritual ceramics, animating Leach’s discourse ‘Beyond East and West’. Both place the ceramic vessel in the complex Cathedral landscape. Both assume that the Cathedral – the one medieval, the other modern – are proper places for interrogating ceramics. In some cases, such as the series with lids that are fused shut, the questions that these pots ask have their answers for ever hidden away.
The job of the ceramic works in ‘Meditations’ is to hold us for a moment to reflect and ponder. To give us deep if fleeting pause in this place of eternal spiritual quiet.