The ceramic works in the University of Warwick art collection originally came from the Coventry College of Education which merged with the University in 1978. They had been purchased during a period of over twenty years as a teaching resource for students of Richard Dunning who was lecturer in ceramics from the inception of the College until his retirement in 1977.
Dunning was trained at Goldsmith’s College in London before serving as a non-combatant in the invasion of Italy in World War II. He joined the College staff in 1949 and established a modestly equipped studio one of the temporary war-time buildings which the College first occupied. From these humble beginnings he eventually came to establish a first-rate ceramics studio which he designed for the purpose-built art and design block which opened in the early 1960s. This was equipped with electric wheels and kick-wheels, professional-standard facilities for preparing clays and glazes, and four kilns – a large gas kiln for reduction-firing, a smaller gas test kiln and two electric kilns for ‘clean’ firing techniques.
Richard Dunning with students, 1952, Photograph by Muriel Somerfield.
Enquiries made in 2007 about Richard Dunning and his teaching elicited many enthusiastic reminiscences from former students, including two from the first two intakes (1948 and 1949). In the recollections some particular features stand out: first, he insisted on a thorough mastery of basic practical skills but he made this as enjoyable and motivating as possible. A first practical project remembered by several students was the making of a small hand-formed round dish with a feathered decoration in the style of traditional English slipware. This was completed quickly so that students had the pleasure of making a finished piece in the first week of the course as well as getting a first lesson in the history of craft pottery in England. Another popular preliminary task was the making of clay whistles; this involved ‘pinching’ and cutting clay components which were then assembled and tuned before firing and glazing. His meticulous notes and diagrams for this task survive (click here to see worksheet).
A second frequently mentioned aspect of his teaching was his ‘quiet inspiration’ – this was how he was remembered by John Charlish (1968–1970) who had intended to specialise in sculpture but was lured away by Dunning and imbued with the ethos and ideas from the Craft Potters Association with which Dunning was allied. John still felt this influence 27 years later. According to Maureen Fletcher (1956–1957), he led, rather than instructed, giving ideas but at the same time encouraging experimentation and she remembers well the visit to the Winchcombe Pottery which was a regular component of the course over the years. Richard Escott (1971–1975) also paid tribute to Dunning’s inspiration and the encouragement students were given to explore whatever interested them, from straightforward functional wares to ethnic pottery and sculptural creations. His final year piece for assessment was an eight foot high suspended work combining hand-built and thrown components with macramé. And for his dissertation on trade between the North Devonian Pottery and North America during the 16th and 17th centuries, Dunning directed him to sources in the Smithsonian Institute in Washington. A former colleague in the College art department, Audrey Dixon, recalled that the students’ final year exhibitions were always impressive and she, like many other members of staff, regularly purchased works.
One early student of Dunning who, later in her career was to return to the College as a lecturer, was Muriel Somerfield who corresponded with her former mentor after his retirement when she set up her own pottery. He sent her copious illustrated, hand-written notes on all aspects of the craft, full of technical information, practical tips, ideas for unusual glaze effects, even the importance of ensuring the proper earthing of electrical equipment in the workshop. He breaks off during a long discussion of the challenges faced in mastering the skills of throwing on the wheel - particularly centreing the clay - to comment: “there is, by the way, a lot of relaxation theory, Zen Buddhism, Jungian philosophy in the whole business if you care to think about it that way…”. The notes throughout are interspersed with witty asides, references to other potters and the sort of insights and accumulated wisdom born of years of serious study and successful practice.
Richard Dunning was clearly a sensitive teacher as well as a master of the craft of pottery. He not only left a legacy in his lasting influence on the ideas and artistic values of his students but also a concrete legacy in the form of the collection of ceramic works, purchased to provide practical demonstrations of different styles, construction techniques, glazes and surface texture and, above all, to provide inspiration for his student potters.
Richard Dunning, late 1970's
In addition to those correspondents named in the above notes, we are grateful to the following for valuable information:
Juliet Amery, Meg Bowen, Rita Hiscox (neé Human), Babs Johnson (neé Arrandale), Eileen King, Margaret Lowe (neé Oldham), Gwen Matthews, Bob Wilcox, Sheila Wood.