St. Ives, Slipware, Wheels and the Nance Brothers

Potters – throwers anyway – all admire the Leach Kick Wheel. It was designed for the Leach Pottery in the 1940s and later licensed to Woodley’s who manufactured them for wider sale. I used to have two in the pottery at Bristol School of Art bought from Cheltenham when they closed their ceramics department. I have reluctantly passed them on now – Steve Carter of the St Werburghs Pottery in Bristol is custodian of one, a little battered and sporting various repairs. They spent their summer’s on the farm at Bickley making for our kilns there. It’s lovely sitting throwing under the shade of a hedge. I digress…

The Leach Pottery wheel was designed by Dicon Nance who was an apprentice at the pottery in the 1920s and after leaving the pottery had become more involved in working with wood, working with his brother Robin who made furniture and had a workshop and gallery in St Ives. Dicon designed the wheel alongside David Leach’s drive to improve the viability of the pottery as a business and made all the original ones. David Leach later modified the design and sold it to Woodley’s who manufactured and sold them.

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One of the original ‘Leach’ wheels (with its top removed) at the Leach Pottery in St Ives in 2012

Dicon and Robin were very much part of the creative community in St Ives from the 1930s through to the 1960s but have been largely forgotten. The snobbery that set the potters on a lesser plane than the painters and sculptors was the more effective in suppressing the woodworkers and they did not have a loud exponent as the potters did. Apparently when the Penwith Society of Artists was formed there were three classes of membership – ‘advanced artists’, ‘traditional painters’ and ‘craftsmen.’ The Nance’s main products where small furniture; ladder-back chairs, stools, small tables and wooden tablewares. They also worked closely with other artists and as well as working on the Leach wheels, Dicon and Robin making frames for painters including Ben Nicolson, the plinths and supports for many of Barbara Hepworth’s sculptures and small tables mounted with Bernard Leach tiles. They had two shops in St Ives and sold not only their own work but a wide range of other goods including ceramics, textiles, prints and basketry.

My particular purpose here is to celebrate this superb carved platter.

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Carved platter by Robin Nance, St Ives 1954.

This was bought from Robin Nance in St Ives in April 1954 by my parents on their honeymoon. It is an interesting example of the crossovers that occurred between the different artists and makes in St Ives. Although it is superficially very like the work of David Pye, it is quite distinct in its origins, aesthetic and method of manufacture. The close relationship that Dicon had with the Leach pottery from the 20s evidently extended creatively to Robin. This is a reworking in a new material of an English slipware dish, a theme most effectively explored in clay by Shoji Hamada. The wooden platter/trencher is here making clear reference to tradition and a material – hand – tool relationship that is direct and at least apparently uninfluenced by the mechanical. The Nances, like their friends Harry and May Davis, did not adhere to Leach’s call for a denial of the machine but nonetheless otherwise reflected an Art and Crafts Movement stance towards design, materials and a reverence for tradition.

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A small hump-moulded, trailed and combed slipware dish. Bristol, 1700-1725. Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery

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Hump-moulded slipware dish sherd. 18th/19th century. Bristol

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Nance has chosen to cut the interior of the dish by hand with a gouge, finishing crisply against the everted rim. The soft irregularity of the raised lines and the lapping of the pattern of the grain across them creates an entirely wooden aesthetic and energy that responds directly to the ceramic without risking mimicking it. It has the dynamic of the slipware dish but translated fully into wood. Leach and Hamada had been exploring English slipware in the 20s and 30s when Dicon was at the pottery and these dishes are clearly a response to the same engagement with the subject.

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Some of the information here comes from an article called ‘Lost Art’ by Phil Whitfield published in Good Woodworking (Issue 207, Nov 2008).

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7 Responses to St. Ives, Slipware, Wheels and the Nance Brothers

  1. Jonny Nance says:

    I’m impressed by your research and observations and would like to make contact.
    Best wishes
    Jonny Nance (Dicon’s son).

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oliver Kent says:

      Hi Jonny,
      Great to hear from you. I sent a message via the St Ives Jumbo website with a contact email address (I prefer not to use the blog comments box) in the hope that it would reach you. Do contact me. Regards, Oliver

      Like

  2. Margaret goode says:

    Just noticed this article. I have a much admired large Robin Nance table.that my husband bought ffrom the workshop in St Ives in 1957… came up by train to Stratford upon Avon with chairs…subsequently chairs sold to a board room in Birmingham. Also I still have a very small
    Collapsible book case…built for paper backs?

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Virginia Rosen says:

    We still have a Robin Nance standard lamp bought by my parents in the late 1940s. I remember well the workshop on the harbour. I think it is an ice cream shop now.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Sue says:

    I have just picked up two beautiful bookends look and feel solid oak.. at our local church fayre.. amazing what you find! They are both market robin nance st Ives with his seagull logo. Perhaps someone could tell me when they were produced? Thanks

    Like

    • Oliver Kent says:

      Hi Sue. I don’t know about the marks. The pieces I have are stamped Nance Workshops St Ives and were bought in 1954. There are some larger pieces of furniture on auctioneer’s sites with seagull marks but they are not dated.

      Like

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