A Celebration of Craft

As Scotland’s makers take their work to the UK’s international showcase of craft, Susan Mansfield visits London to take the temperature at Collect 2024.
Gordon Sparks, 'Octo Muwin', Craft Alliance Atlantic Association
Jim Gladwin 100 pieces of Clay (155A Gallery)
Jim Gladwin, ‘100 pieces of Clay’ (155A Gallery)

CRAFT is often thought of as a solitary pursuit: the dedicated maker in their workshop, quietly creating beautiful things. But what happens if you take the work of 400 top artists and makers from around the world and bring it all together in the same place?

What happens is Collect, the UK’s leading international craft showcase. Every year at the beginning of March, in Somerset House in central London, the fair becomes a mecca for thousands of collectors, curators and craft enthusiasts. Galleries present their best artists, artists make their most ambitious work. And everything’s for sale: prices start at around £500, rising to £50,000.

This year – Collect’s twentieth anniversary – the fair hosted 40 galleries from around the UK and from Europe, North America, Lebanon and the Far East, showing the work of more than 400 artists. The rooms of Somerset House were full to bursting with ceramics, jewellery, textiles, glass, wood, metal, and some work which doesn’t fit any category. The visitor must manoeuvre carefully through crowded spaces among hair-raisingly fragile works of art, where any sudden movement could spell disaster. 

Curator and creative producer Susanna Beaumont, who curated Craft Scotland’s exhibition for Collect, speaks of a “burgeoning of craft”. “There’s a growing celebration and visibility of working with your hands. In the pandemic, many people took up crafts and we’ve seen the rise of TV shows like The Great British Sewing Bee and The Great Pottery Throw Down. There’s an increasing delight in craft and appreciation of how we respect and nourish it, and Collect reflects that.”

And while there are concerns about funding cuts in the craft sector as there are across the arts, the ambition on display is undiminished. Natalie Melton, executive director of the Crafts Council, said: “The challenges the cultural sector faces remain a real concern. In order for craft to thrive we need to leverage more support and resources for the sector. In spite of this, the level of ambition and quality of making [here] is breathtaking.”

Duke Christie, 'Wych Elm Moon Jar'
Duke Christie, ‘Wych Elm Moon Jar’. Photo: Jim Dunn

Collect encompasses traditional crafts like basket weaving and objects made with the latest technology, intricate goldsmithing and jewellery which is more like wearable sculpture, simple ceramic bowls and plates and huge extravaganzas in porcelain and glass. It’s a gathering of unique visions, from Jo Fairfax’s intricate models of the 12 Jungian archetypes made using a 3-d printer and a material based on biosourceable cornstarch, to Duke Christie’s striking vessels made of charred wood; spectacular panels made from curled paper by France’s Coralie Laverdet to fine lattice-worked glass by South Korea’s Park Young-ho.

Work by Susie Redman, from Close at Hand. Photo: Shannon-Tofts
Work by Susie Redman, from Close at Hand. Photo: Shannon-Tofts

The Craft Scotland exhibition, Close at Hand, presented the work of 12 Scottish makers across a spectrum of crafts, encapsulating a theme which was in evidence across the fair. Susanna Beaumont said: “I think there is a real looking at where materials come from, wanting to have that intimacy with the material, know where they have come from, whether that’s Richard Goldsworthy, making sculpture from trees felled in Storm Arwen, or Susie Redman, weaving with willow she has grown herself, or Iona Turner who has a sustainable practice making jewellery from seaweed she harvests.”

Iona Turner, 'Seaware'. Photo: Graham Niven
Iona Turner, ‘Seaware’. Photo: Graham Niven

The theme of sustainability echoed across the fair, notably in the presentation by Design & Crafts Council Ireland, celebrating its 20th year at Collect, which included sea creature-like sculptures by Helen O’Shea made from plastics found in the ocean, and Angela O’Kelly’s jewellery made from the recycled pages of the Financial Times. Curator Maria McLintock described the theme of the presentation as “humans in relationship to nature and climate crisis, the connections between craft, tradition and folklore”. 

The connection to material, place and folklore also struck a chord with Here + Now, the show by the Craft Alliance Atlantic Association, making their first visit to Collect with the work of indigenous and emerging artists and makers from Canada’s Atlantic coast. The work included wooden masks made by Mi’kmaw artist and mask carver Gordon Sparks and metal pieces inspired by the Nova Scotian landscape by Sorrel Van Allen.

Curator Bruno Vinhas said: “Canadian artists, especially in the Atlantic region, have an incredible connection to the cultural present and the cultural past, responsibility for their people, and people who have come before and others who will live after. All the works here, one way or another, are speaking to that.”

Ceramics have been a force at Collect for some years, as they have across the art and craft sector, and this tide is showing no sign of abating. 30 per cent of the objects shown at Collect 2024 were ceramics, and at times it felt much higher. Whether wheel-thrown or hand-built, glazed or unglazed, kiln-fired or earth-fired, it was a show populated by pots.

Here, too, there was a concern about the authenticity of materials. Claire Pearce, director of Thrown, an online and pop-up gallery specialising in ceramics, said: “It’s all about the material now, the importance of what that means, sourcing your own clay, making your own glazes, thinking about the environmental impact of where things come from.”

Zuleika Melluish, 'Fern', Thrown Gallery
Zuleika Melluish, ‘Fern’, Thrown Gallery

The highlight of Thrown’s presentation was London-based Zuleika Melluish, who makes intricate porcelain sculptures of flowers and foliage. Meanwhile, at 155A Gallery, Jim Gladwin was showing ‘100 pieces of Clay’, 100 rods of unprocessed, natural clays, dug by him, fired and stamped with a unique number, a nod to the brick-making industry.

Potter and social media sensation Florian Gadsby could be found at Joanna Bird Contemporary Collections. Samantha Grover said his clean, simple plates and bowls were paying tribute to earlier traditions. “There is a conscious looking back at styles used in previous decades, and that’s done quite reverentially, but social media takes it to a much wider audience.”

Emily Gibbard, ceramic artist
Emily Gibbard, ceramic artist

The influence of Grayson Perry was also apparent in the way ceramics have become a place to tell stories and engage with issues. Alveston Fine Arts’ presentation focused on this, with work by Anne Athena, exploring issues around living with Autism Spectrum Disorder, and collaborators Vicky Lindo and Bill Brookes whose ‘Covid Dogs – Sick Puppies’ tackle issues relating to the pandemic while being made in the style of traditional “Wally Dogs”.

Nottingham-based Katrin Moye, one of 14 artists selected for Collect Open commissions, made a series of impressive medicine jars inspired by Renaissance majolica, exploring her experience of menopause, and bearing legends such as “Grow old with me, the best is yet to be” and “Why can’t I just go to sleep?”. She even created a menopause coat of arms, with a Latin motto, Sum finita excusans (“I’m done apologising”).

“It’s about my experience linked to history. Women through the ages have gone through this and have been unable to acknowledge or talk about it. In the post-feminist age, it’s beginning to be brought into the light. It’s a biological process, a natural thing, why should there be shame?”

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