James Tower

5 - 28 February 2014

An exhibtion of twenty-five vessels, plates and sculptures by James Tower.


Please find two extracts below, both drawn from the book, The Ceramic Art of James Tower by Timothy Wilcox and published by Lund Humphries in 2012.  The first is an introduction to James Tower's work, written by the author, and the second is an essay about the artist by Antony Gormley.


The work of James Tower is not easy to categorise.  An artist whose preferred medium was clay, he made domestic pottery, terracotta sculpture occasionally cast in bronze, and, in a final flowering lasting nearly a decade, large glazed forms whose decorations, sometimes abstract, sometimes based on shapes and patterns found in nature, are paintings in three dimensions.  A teacher throughout his career, Tower was admired and respected by many but had few followers and no imitators.  His seemingly inexhaustible range of subtle and playful visual effects, the more surprising when applied to the almost primitive fabrication of the objects themselves, remains very much his own.

Tower began his training before the Second World War, but it was not until the 1950s that he became established as an exhibiting artist.  As pottery tutor at Bath Academy of Art, he was encouraged by its inspirational director, Clifford Ellis, to concentrate first and foremost on integrity of artistic expression, compared to which the material involved was of secondary importance.  Introduced by one of his colleagues, Peter Potworowski, to the progressive London gallery Gimpel Fils, Tower became one of a stable of young artists committed to various forms of abstraction and was shown alongside William Scott, Barbara Hepworth and leading continental figures such as Nicolas de Staël.  Despite such enlightened early support, divisions imposed by medium were not about to be done away with, and Tower's subsequent career was conducted largely within the field of ceramics.  Tower acquiesced--colluded might be a more appropriate expression--with this restrictive image of his activity without ever believing that it adequately defined him.  The longer he continued working, the greater appeared his desire to exploit the irreconcilable hybridism of his making: a breadth of intellectual reference to astrophysics, atonal music or folk art was matched with a desire to explore distant ceramic traditions, whether the tiled buildings of Central Asia or the Renaissance terracotta figures of the Della Robbia family.  He acknowledged the specific history of clay in its many applications, because, like these examples from the past, he intended to transcend it.  In notes made towards the end of his life, Tower wrote that 'the quality which I aim for is perhaps best defined as a sense of completion.  A longing for a serene harmonious whole which contains dynamism and vitality, satisfying our intellectual and spiritual needs.  Forms which satisfy this need alleviate the sense of angst and release us into a world where abounding energy is held in a calm restraint.'  The attraction of this goal was made more acute by its being so elusive, to Tower at least.  For the viewer, the fact that these tensions often remain unresolved is what gives Tower's work so much of its appeal.  Whether the forces he brought into play were ultimately creative or destructive was a question the artist himself could hardly answer.  Even if he achieved the desired harmony in one piece, with the next, the struggle would start all over again.

Timothy Wilcox




James was an extraordinary man; he always seemed to have time on his side. I never saw him in a flap. His work expresses a quiet but passionate engagement with things; with the making of things and with the state of things.

After early experimentation, influenced by Henry Moore and the studio pottery of the first generation of English modernists, he settled on a few basic forms including the dish and his characteristic flat vases that often look, with their open necks, like thin torsos. On these forms, in the simplest of colours and often a black-grey glaze, he scratched his designs. James made surfaces that came alive and were at once imposed upon, but also part of the convex or concave shapes and forms on which they lived.

From the early drawings in pen you can see James's nervous line becoming fields of energy. It is this ability to create vectors by the multiple application of lines inscribed through an imposed glazed surface that I think characterises his most successful work.

James lived the latter part of his life outside Lewes in East Sussex, a landscape already celebrated by Paul Nash. A landscape of sea views, chalk downs, streams, cliffs and flinty fields. James and the landscape in which he dwelled were coeval; out of it came his leaves, fish, trees and fields of stones, clouds or spots. The magic of his work is that the relationship between figure and ground is always open. It is not clear whether we are invited to look at the negative or positive; the black or white. Whether the forms left behind are holes, or objects, or whether they are simply the intervals between flow. There is a sense of water running between rocks, patterns on a butterfly's wings, spots on a fish's skin, clouds on a wintery day, stripes on a zebra’s back, ribs of a human chest and the multiple leaves of a compressed succulent in the myriad forms of James's work. His genius was to synthesise and make of these inspirational designs in which he delighted things in themselves. The titles of the works evoke them in: SpumeCurrentsWinter MoonVorticesGlacier & Pools.

James had the ability to evoke space and to use the surfaces of objects to transform them. If we look at Pool (Fig. 87) space itself has been bent. The truth of the form that we touch is countered by the illusion of the space he inscribes upon it, making the bowl into a condensing lens. When we look at the Glacier series (Figs 91 and 92)Spume (Fig. 79) or Sheepfold (Fig. 74) we see extraordinary chartings not just of the ways of the natural world but also of a sense in which sight itself, the act of looking, moves across a surface and penetrates it. In a work like Currents (Fig. 78) it is difficult not to think of the Polynesians’ bamboo sailing charts. This spreading work combines both the sense of cartography with a participation in the moving currents of wind, rain and water, all as if held in the upper breath of a body with lifted arms.

James was a wonderful artist, father and teacher. He was always interested in the inner life of people, places and things and he has left behind a body of work that celebrates this. He was always kind, always willing to lend an ear and always happy to proffer advice but never instruction.

I think of James as a quintessentially English artist, who responded to his environment, was dedicated to his craft and who was a true friend. His works outlive him and for me they represent the very best of English studio ceramics.

Antony Gormley