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Charlotte Samuels

Research project: Denise Wren and the Knox Guild of Design and Craft: Shifting the story of interwar studio ceramics from pot to process

Abstract

Denise Wren (1891-1979) was among the first female studio potters in Britain and had a long and varied career employing experimental methods of making ceramics, such as finger-built techniques (as opposed to solely throwing on the wheel) and saltglazing. She also taught pottery, gave demonstrations, published practical books on pottery, and designed textiles. Through a much overdue critical evaluation of the practice and thinking of Wren and her major role in the Knox Guild of Design and Craft, this PhD seeks to outline her importance within the history of interwar craft where she is hitherto largely absent. It will assess the pertinence of her practice to re-evaluating histories of craft dominated by Bernard Leach and William Staite Murray and accompanying discourses on gender and the amateur. In effect, the research shifts the focus from the finished artefact to the overlooked features of Wren's early studio pottery such as process, teaching and education, demonstrations of technique and writing accessible instructional texts: aspects that resonate with contemporary craft preoccupations and the increasing visibility of ceramics. My primary research resources are largely archive and collection based, including the extensive but as yet unresearched collection of Wren material held by Kingston Museum. Through an in-depth study of material held in public and private collections and Wren's publications, I will examine how Wren and the Knox Guild can be situated with reference to other craft collectives at St. Ives and Ditchling in the interwar period and analyse their affiliation to other groups, such as the Kibbo Kift and suffrage organisations, and what effect this had on their overall philosophy and approach. The proposed PhD will consist of a written thesis, an exhibition, and a published catalogue of Wren and Knox Guild archival material held at Kingston Museum.

  • Research degree: PhD
  • Title of project: Denise Wren and the Knox Guild of Design and Craft: Shifting the story of interwar studio ceramics from pot to process
  • Research supervisor: Dr Stephen Knott
  • Other research supervisor: Professor Pat Kirkham

Biography

I have worked in museums for the past two decades, interpreting collections via exhibitions, publications and online. As Assistant Curator in the Furniture, Textiles and Fashion Department of the V&A I worked on 20th century textiles and created a microsite on 1960s fashion and fabrics. I was Curator of Photographs at the Museum of London for one year, leading on the exhibition Women in Focus: Photographs by Dorothy Bohm (2012-13). For the past five years I have held the post of Curator at Kingston Museum, curating exhibitions Hope For Beauty: Denise Wren and the Knox Guild (2017-18) and Brilliant Images: Paintings from our collection (2016-17). I am a member of the Social History Curators' Group and the Society of Decorative Arts Curators.

Areas of research interest

  • Interwar design
  • Decorative art
  • 20th century textiles
  • Social history
  • Photography
  • Museum collections

Qualifications

  • MA Art History, Goldsmiths, University of London
  • BA French Language and Literature, University of Liverpool

Funding or awards received

  • 2016 Jonathan Ruffer Curatorial Grant
  • 2018 Decorative Art Society Collections Access Grant
  • 2018 TECHNE AHRC Doctoral Training Partnership funding

Publications

Art Deco Textiles, V&A Publications, 2003

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