I’ve always been highly suspicious of anyone who is described, or describes him- or herself, as a connoisseur. It’s a term you frequently hear bandied around in art and antiques circles. But what does it mean? According to the artist and critic Jonathan Richardson in his book Two Discourses, published in 1719, connoisseurship has three basic aims (as summarised by David Freedberg, Pierre Matisse Professor of the History of Art at Columbia University):
“firstly, the making of judgments of quality (‘the Goodness of a Picture’ as Richardson put it), secondly the assignment of hands [i.e. attributing it to a specific artist], and thirdly the distinguishing of originals from copies (including of course, the identification of forgeries).”
I am both sceptical and cynical about connoisseurs. Sceptical because in relation to an object where documentary or scientific evidence is lacking, there’s no real proof that a connoisseur’s subjective opinion on its authenticity, formed by the eye alone, will be any more correct or truthful than a lay person’s uninformed judgment. Cynical because over the past century and more many so-called connoisseurs have been exposed as charlatans or fraudsters. Look at the extraordinary history of Rembrandt attributions, rife with politics, rivalry and corruption; or read the story of Han van Meegeren’s trial in 1947, where famous connoisseurs were exposed for their gullibility in authenticating his outrageous forgeries of Vermeer paintings.
By contrast, I’m comfortable with the use of the term expert in connection with the appraisal of works of art. An expert will rely on scholarship and documentary and scientific evidence, and not solely on personal judgment. Take for example Mme Laurence Fligny of Paris, a world expert on mediaeval European sculpture. When I sent her a photo of a statue I had bought cheaply in a local auction in Edinburgh, she knew instantly not only the name of the sculptor who carved it around 1430, but also the location of the church in Burgundy from which it had been looted by French revolutionaries in 1794. Her authentication of my statue was absolutely and perfectly authoritative. Now that’s what I call expertise.
Historically, the distinction between the connoisseur and the expert has tended to be bound up with class and snobbery. Amateur versus professional. Collector versus dealer. Gentlemen versus players. But in today’s art and antiques market, it is hard to tell any difference between the two. The subjective use of the eye is readily backed up with science and technology to analyse materials and techniques, and with formal academic research from universities and art institutions, to the extent that the two terms can be used fairly interchangeably. The qualifications for either title are the same: you need to know a lot of stuff about something or someone in the arts or antiques field, and you need to be accepted by the interested public as possessing an authoritative voice.
For myself, I have always been keen to avoid being authoritative about anything. I have no desires or pretensions to being regarded either as a connoisseur or an expert (although some people who have read my book Random Treasure have kindly suggested otherwise). I much prefer to align myself with the I-don’t-know-much-about-art-but-I-know-what-I-like school of art appreciation, whose adherents don’t feel the need to justify or explain to anyone (including themselves) why they are attracted to some objects and not to others. They also have a ready-made excuse for avoiding the hard work associated with true scholarship.
When you listen to a connoisseur or an expert commenting on an artwork, you might hear this type of comment: “this eyelash is obviously not the brushwork of The Master”; or “that line is manifestly painted by someone in the artist’s workshop and not by the artist himself”. Such pronouncements might be matters of opinion or the findings of scientific analysis, but either way, I would never have expected to hear myself saying anything of the sort. I wouldn’t pretend to such taste or knowledge about anything. Or even if I did pretend, I wouldn’t have the confidence to say it out loud.
Against this background, imagine my discomfort last week when, in a sudden and painful onset of self-awareness, I discovered that I myself was beginning to exhibit some disturbing characteristics of connoisseurship and/or expertise. Here’s how it happened.
Readers of this blog or of Random Treasure will know that I’m a keen collector of British studio pottery. One day a few years ago I bought in my local auction room a stoneware charger which I thought very pleasing and which bore a potter’s seal mark which I didn’t recognise. On bringing it home, I consulted the book of marks and soon discovered that the potter was Alexander Sharp.
This was a new name to me, but because I liked this first piece so much, I started looking for others. And I found them. Alex is largely unknown or ignored, and there’s virtually no demand for his work, but there’s quite a lot of it available to be discovered very cheaply in the auction rooms and charity shops of his home country of Scotland.
As a result I was able to form a collection of his work which currently comprises around 25 pieces covering the whole of his long potting career. These include a group of very special pots which I acquired directly after meeting with his charming elderly widow Elizabeth.
I won’t tell you much about Alex Sharp here, because I’m saving up most of what I know about him for a future publication. For the purposes of this blog posting, you need to know that he was born in 1918 in the West of Scotland, and that when he decided as a young man to become a potter he travelled to St Ives in Cornwall where he was trained by Bernard Leach. While there, he became one of a small number of potters privileged with permission to use his personal seal on his pots alongside that of the pottery.
On his return to Scotland in the early 1950s, Alex took up employment with Highland Home Industries (HHI), an early job creation agency funded by the government. For HHI he set up and managed a pottery and training workshop at Morar in Inverness-shire. Then around 1961 he established the Isle of Bute pottery in Rothesay. After retirement in 1984, he continued potting in a greenhouse at the bottom of his garden in suburban Glasgow until shortly before his death in 2010.
Naturally, I wouldn’t have collected so many of Alex Sharp’s pots if I didn’t think he was a good potter. I fact, I believe him to be by some margin the best studio potter Scotland has produced, even though he’s so little known and remembered among the collecting community.
But note, please, that my opinion of Alex Sharp as an outstanding potter has not been formed as a connoisseur’s or an expert’s judgment. I simply happen to think that his best work is beautiful and stands up very well in comparison with the best work of the most celebrated potters of the Leach school. It’s merely my private opinion, and I haven’t tried to set myself up as an authority of any kind.
But then I bought a slipware casserole dish on eBay, which bears the MP seal for Morar Pottery and was advertised as the work of Alexander Sharp. I was the only bidder and won it for the modest price of £7.99. This in fact is slightly more than the average price which I’d expect to pay for one of his pots.
The dish duly arrived in the post. I unpacked it and examined it. Its picture is above. It is made in a red-brown earthenware with a yellow slip glaze and finger-wipe decoration to the lid. On the base, the MP seal mark for Morar Pottery, but not the personal AS seal mark which Alex used on some (but not all) of his own work. His wife told me that he could be quite absent-minded and she was always going on at him for forgetting to use his personal seal.
Alex used a lot of different clays in his work, and this looks identical to the Fremington-type clay found in South-West England and used by many of the Leach-influenced potteries there. I also own another piece – a slipware bowl – made at Morar in the same clay as the casserole dish, so I presume that Alex had one or more shipments delivered to Morar from Devon or Somerset.
There’s also clear evidence of the influence of South-West England in the glaze and decoration. Or to put it more plainly, the lid of my casserole dish is a direct copy (or rip-off) of the early standard wares produced by the potters at Winchcombe pottery in Gloucestershire. This pottery was set up in 1926 by Michael Cardew, Leach’s first and most famous apprentice, after he left St Ives, and then continued under the ownership of Raymond Finch. Below left is a photo taken from above of the lid of my casserole dish. Below right (scaled to size) is the lid of a jar in my collection made by Charlie Tustin, one of the Winchcombe potters who worked there from 1935 to 1954. See the likeness?
There’s nothing wrong about Alex having copied Winchcombe forms and designs. At Morar he was running a job creation scheme aimed at training local young people to carry out work with commercial potential, with an overall objective to stem the outflow of population from remote Highland areas. Simple designs, easy manufacture, low technology, cheap prices and tourist appeal were required. What could be more suitable than adopting the centuries-old traditions and techniques of country earthenware pottery such as that made at Winchcombe? Lots of other slipware potters worked in precisely the same tradition. Many still do.
All of the above commentary, however detailed it may be, and however boring to anyone uninterested in slipware, is derived from a collector’s simple observation, and has nothing to do with the observer being a connoisseur or an expert. But wait! When I looked more closely at this dish, newly unpacked after being delivered by the postman, I noted that there’s something not quite right about it. Aaargh! Instant connoisseurship! Instant expertise!
The weight! It’s too heavy! Alex Sharp would never have used so much clay when throwing an earthenware pot. Professional potters tend to be parsimonious with their raw materials and usually produce strong, robust pots with the thinnest walls that they can get away with. If you spend as much time as me hanging around the bric-a-brac shelves in charity shops, you soon learn to recognise which ugly brown pots are the deliberate work of potters who do it for a living, and which ugly brown pots are made by evening class hobbyists. You don’t need to invert them to look for the marks on their bases. You simply need to hold them and feel their weight and heft.
The shape! It’s too flat, too clumpy, too squat! This dish is low and flat with thick, clumsily formed handles, a sloppily-finished base and an inner rim for the lid which is set too deeply for a neat fit. Alex would have been incapable of making an object as inelegant as this.
The lid! It’s ugly, thick and undersized! The diameter is about 3mm less than it should be to fit the pot cleanly. The application of glaze to the underside is ghastly. The knop (or knob) is a great ugly brutal shapeless blob of clay, disproportionately big. It’s unspeakable. If Alex had crafted a knop like this, the dish would never have made it out of his pottery and into the public eye.
The glaze! It’s unevenly applied and splotchy! There are nasty stains and scratches and variations in the thickness of the yellow slip glaze, which is applied so thinly over the edge of the top rim that most of it has disappeared. Many slipware potters like to include subtle variations in the colours and tones of their slip glazes, but they do so deliberately and artfully to add character to their pots. But here, it’s just messy, and Alex Sharp didn’t make messy pots.
The decoration! It’s . . . it’s . . . er, actually it’s not too bad! The wavy line decorating the lid is quickly and casually applied and has a professional look. It’s a line which could almost have been drawn by the finger of Charlie Tustin or that of his more famous brother Sid, or those of many other noted slipware potters. Clive Bowen could have drawn that line. Or Alan Frewin, or Philip Leach. The line is the only bit of the whole casserole dish that I believe in!
My inevitable conclusion is a connoisseur’s or an expert’s judgment: This dish is not thrown by Alex Sharp but by someone else in his pottery. And yet that line could not have been drawn by anyone other than the professional potter himself.
Yes, I have made an attribution. To use Jonathan Richardson’s terminology, I have assigned a hand. Two hands, actually. I’ve decided that the casserole dish and its lid were thrown not by Alex Sharp but by an anonymous locally-employed HHI trainee at Morar Pottery. And I’ve decided that dish’s principal decorative feature, the wavy line on its lid, was drawn not by the trainee but by the more confident hand of Alex himself.
See what I’ve done? I’ve used my eye, my background knowledge and my experience to make precisely the same kind of judgment that I deride when it comes from a connoisseur and that I admire when it comes from an expert. And then I have announced my decision to the public via this blog. What’s more, I don’t believe there’s anyone in the world (excepting Alex’s widow) in a position to challenge my authority. In the world of Alex Sharp scholarship, I have set myself up as connoisseur and expert numero uno.
I find this a very uncomfortable position to be in. It has crept up on me merely through carrying on the innocent pastime of collecting and looking at Alex’s pots. I have no wish to be (or to be regarded as) the world’s foremost authority on his oeuvre. I don’t want to be his gatekeeper, the guardian of his reputation, the barrier to be crossed for authentication of his work. It’s a heavy responsibility to carry, and it doesn’t at all suit my self-image as a hobby collector and a dabbler.
Fortunately I have a couple of mitigations lined up to assuage my discomfort. First, I haven’t yet published a learned book or article about my subject, so I have no documentary credentials to cite as the go-to person for Alex Sharp expertise or connoisseurship. Second, there’s no-one who wants to go-to me anyway, simply because, sadly, tragically, I’m currently the only serious collector of Alex’s work and nobody else is much interested.
Which makes me number one in a field of one. Big deal.
 Freedberg, D., Why Connoisseurship Matters, in: Katlijne van Stighelen, ed., Munuscula Discipulorum: Essays in Honour of Hans Vlieghe, Turnhout: Brepols, 2006.