I am writing a biography of Dora Billington and would be glad to hear from anyone who has any information about her or any of her work in their private collection.
Dora Billington (1890-1968) was one of the most influential people in British studio pottery, particularly because of the potters she taught at the Central School of Arts and Crafts. Among those who studied with her are Gordon Baldwin, Alan Caiger Smith, Nora Braden, Katherine Pleydell-Bouverie, Stella Crofts, Ray Finch, Quentin Bell, Kenneth Clark, Ann Wynn-Reeves, William Newland, Margaret Hine, Nicholas Vergette, James Tower, Ursula Mommens, Helen Pincombe, Gillian Lowndes, Tessa Fuchs and David Queensberry. She was at the Central for almost forty years but the most important period in terms of the impression she made on ceramics was the decade after the second world war, a period of great innovation when studio pottery was threatening to go stale. The new ceramists were taught by Dora Billington when she was in her sixties and, despite her age and old-fashioned appearance, she encouraged young people and was interested in new ideas.
She also contributed to ceramics and the crafts by writing. “The Art of the Potter” related the making of pottery to its historical and artistic context, and “The Technique of Pottery” was at the time the most thorough and well-informed account of ceramic technique for studio potters. She was active in the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society and was on its modernizing wing. She helped to set up the Crafts Centre, a gallery in the centre of London that eventually morphed into the Crafts Council and Contemporary Applied Arts.
Her importance is universally recognized but almost nothing has been written about her. The little that has been published depends on her books and articles and an interview she gave to her colleague John Farleigh for his book “The Creative Craftsman”. She had her own studio and won international prizes for her pottery but most of it is in private hands and is never seen. Her work for the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society is virtually forgotten. In some ways she is an enigma.
How could an influential artist, writer and teacher leave so little trace? The main reason, I think, is that she was a single woman. Although she lectured and published, she did not promote herself aggressively or turn her work into an ideology. There is no archive, no diary and little correspondence. She said that she was interested in pottery almost to the point of obsession but her main activity was teaching. She expressed herself through others; her legacy is in her students and she has left little of herself.
If you have any information, however, slight, do please email me. – Marshall Colman
Dora Billington. (Courtesy of Central St Martins School of Art)
Tobacco jar and cover, glazed earthenware, painted by Dora M. Billington, England, 1923. (Courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum)