Saturday, August 1st, 2009

Ann Stokes: Artists’ Potter, edited by Tanya Harrod

various ceramics by Ann Stokes, including, foreground Fish Tureen, nd, 6-3/4 x 19-1/4 inches. Courtesy of the Artist
various ceramics by Ann Stokes, including, foreground Fish Tureen, nd, 6-3/4 x 19-1/4 inches. Courtesy of the Artist

In 1973, having belatedly finished my doctoral thesis in philosophy of art, I went to London, where I met the widow of one of my subjects, the writer Adrian Stokes (1902-1972). That summer I rented a room at Church Row, Hampstead from Ann Stokes, but soon enough I returned to spend many summers in her house. Ann taught me how to cook and organize social dinners; she introduced me to her friends from Adrian’s art world; and she and her second husband, Ian Angus became loving friends of my family. We stayed with them in London and in Cortona, in their second, Italian house. At one point, I exported a dinner setting of Ann’s pottery to Pittsburgh. In vain, for a mover dropped it. Her house, in a very good neighborhood, which is filled with Adrian’s paintings and books and Ann’s pottery, became my home away from home.  It became my Arcadia.

Artists’ Potter tells the story of how Ann met Adrian, and was encouraged by him to train as a dancer. And it presents a full, very well illustrated account of her career as potter. Basically self-trained, for a long time, Hilary Spurling reports, “she had no gallery, no dealer, no reviews and no public exhibitions” (p. 13). Working entirely outside the commercial art world, she has sculpted cups, dishes, fountains and mirror frames, and also large alligators, a rhinoceros gifted to Ernst Gombrich, tables and tile patterns.  Recently she has made large wall reliefs and earthenware and plywood trees. Sometimes working in collaboration with painters, Ann is a boldly original colorist, who loves surface blemishes and other imperfections. A great facilitator of domestic life, she makes pottery meant to be used. Reflecting her life, her art is full of joy. As Tanya Harrod says: “she has put back on the table dreams, fantasy, childishness and sensuality” (p. 117).

I thus can hardly claim to have any aesthetic distance on Ann Stokes, since for thirty some years she has been one of my closest friends. I helped her load the kiln; had tea from her cups and ate off of her pottery; and shared London life with her and her family. There is in this book a solemn portrait of Ann and Ian by William Coldstream (1979-80), the English painter whom I got to know in her house. And a photograph of her by Jim Dine hanging upside down from a tree, when she was in her 50s. Being the widow of a famous man is usually a complex role. Not for Ann, who found her own identity early on. Some artists change the way that you understand art history. Ann changed the way that I and many other people understood everyday life. She is a great artist, working in an applied art form, which tends, too often, to be unjustly marginalized.

Tanya Harrod [Ed.]  Ann Stokes: Artists’ Potter with contributions by Gray Gowrie, Richard Morphet and Hilary Spurling. Farnham, Surrey: Lund Humphries 2009, 128 pp. $70 (ISBN: 978 1 84822 007 2)