Jugs, bowls and busts give modern ceramics a voice in historic home re-modelled by Soane
Say the word exhibition and you would usually imagine artworks showcased against a backdrop of anonymous and inoffensive whitewash.
But the bold and intriguing new collection of modern ceramics currently on show at Port Eliot confirms that such familiar everyday items as bowls and jugs come into their own when placed on, in and around elegant period furniture, grand family portraits and rare flourishes of interior design.
This concept makes even more sense when you learn that the striking pieces gathered under the title Marking the Line: Ceramics and Architecture have all been created in response to the life and work of Sir John Soane, the design visionary who remodelled the Grade I-listed mediaeval priory and house at Port Eliot in the 18th century.
Here, in this grand and beautiful property, still the properly lived-in family home of Lord and Lady St Germans, the diverse works offer a captivating and intricate look towards the future in a historic setting.
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Ceramicist and trained architect Nicholas Rena's simple but powerful abstract yellow, orange and green forms entitled Persephone, Rites of Spring will sit alongside psychological reinterpretations of Soane's family portraits – including Fanny the Dog – by Christie Brown.
Brazilian ceramicist Carina Ciscato's delicate yet tactile ceramic vessels give a nod to Soane's architectural quirks, while the British artist Clare Twomey presents 1,000 white bone china bowls, their inner rims carrying quotations in gold lettering outlining the impression that a man would like to leave in the world.
Their objets d'art, large and small, contrast with and complement some of the most dramatic and idiosyncratic settings Soane ever created. There are pieces thoughtfully placed throughout the ground floor, including his significant redesign of the magnificent Round Room, which is now dominated by the Riddle Mural, painted over a period of 20 years by the celebrated and controversial Westcountry artist Robert Lenkiewicz.
Port Eliot is one of just three locations in the country that is hosting the exhibition, which is curated by international ceramics expert Joanna Bird. Her aim was to inspire lovers of art and architecture, through innovative and site-specific new works set against Soane's signature convex mirrors, domed ceilings and playful use of light.
It has arrived in Cornwall from the Sir John Soane Museum in London, and in July it will complete its tour at the architect's weekend retreat of Pitzhanger Manor in Ealing, west London.
"To gets Arts Council funding we had to come up with an ambitious project, which I think we have achieved. And I really wanted one of the places to be a long way from London," says Joanna.
She was introduced to Lady St Germans by a mutual friend who told her about the Soane connection.
"It just evolved in a very nice way," adds Joanna, who is delighted with the show's impact at Port Eliot.
"The exhibition feels like it has got a new life because it is now in a home. At Port Eliot it flows through the rooms so graciously and it feels so right there," she says. "We haven't removed much of the St Germans collection at all; we have worked within it, using the spaces that were available."
Catherine St Germans is equally thrilled with the show.
"As you make your way around Port Eliot it is possible to detect the hands of many architects, but none more so than Soane, who made the house the way it is today," she says. "We are excited to bring an important new exhibition with a clear Soane influence into a house which shows powerful evidence of the range of his talents."
Joanna is a passionate ambassador for ceramics.
"Ceramics come forward in a way that sculpture and painting cannot in a way," she observes. "They are so sympathetic; they complement and add to whatever else is there.
"They are not the humbler craft. I firmly believe they deserve their place as works of art."
Joanna exhibits internationally and works with artists on commissions, collaborates with museums and architects, advises on acquisitions and is at present working with a young artist developing a new ceramics gallery at Chatsworth. She hand-picked the four contemporary artists, as well as the locations.
There are several educational events taking place at Port Eliot in conjunction with the exhibition. On May 31 and June 1, the Elemental Firing workshop with Carina Ciscato involves raku firing and floating kilns on the river; on the same days there will be an exclusive talk and tour of the exhibition with the curator and artists from 6.30-8.30pm; on June 2 and July 7 Carina is hosting hands-on family ceramic workshops; also on July 7 there's a ceramics talk and tour of Antony House near Torpoint with Sir Richard Carew Pole at noon and a Port Eliot exhibition tour with Lord St Germans at 3pm. Finally, on June 15 and 16, Cornwall-based ceramicist Jenny Beavan is holding a two-day ceramic workshop for adults from 10am to 4pm.
The Marking the Line exhibition is at Port Eliot, St Germans, Cornwall until July 15. The house, and gardens, are open daily, except Fridays, from 2pm to 6pm (last admission at 5pm). For more information visit porteliot.co.uk or phone 01503 230211.