HILTON NELL, Charleston — The pioneering potter is still pushing boundaries

About 20 years ago, in the days when the Fine Art Society, the greatest of Bond Street dealers, still had a palatial and revolving precinct opposite Sotheby’s, I came across a strange but very unique plaque: „Though the Church could not. Bless it is always broken”.

Created by master South African potter Hilton Nel, this plate dates from the late 17th century, but has been creatively reinvented, making playful use of old ceramic forms in a purely ahistorical way. Its implicit, counterintuitive inscription shows how modern artefacts can be treated as part of a creative continuum, rather than as sterile works of art.

In 2007, I chose Hilton’s job Discerning eye Exhibition at Mall Gallery. Rice pots occupy the curious area between craft and fine art, not clearly defined, a kind of borderland. That territory has expanded in recent years, thanks to British ceramist Grayson Perry’s recognition that the medium of pottery can be used as a fine art vocabulary – full of ironic, complex folklore and political connotations.

Nell, now 82, describes himself as an „artist-potter,” and this perfectly captures his sense of being both a craftsman and a conceptual artist. In March, thanks to the interest of Kim Jones, the creative director of Dior Homme and Fendi opened an exhibition of historically arranged rice plates in a gallery at a Charleston farmhouse in East Sussex. This palette is what I have to say.

Plate dated c1974-82 © Hilton Nell, Courtesy Stevenson, Cape Town, Johannesburg and Amsterdam

The hand-drawn plate shows a shirtless boy smiling with two small red bumps on his cheeks and two feather plants behind him.

Plate dated 11 February 2004 © Hilton Nell, Courtesy Stevenson, Cape Town, Johannesburg and Amsterdam

Paddy was raised by an African family on a farm in the Northern Cape of South Africa. At Rhodes University in Grahamstown in the early 1960s, he began to experiment with ceramics with independent thought and imagination, creating pots that subverted the more conservative, Japanese-inspired tradition of Bernard Leach, which then dominated art schools in South Africa. Britain. It was a way of rebelling against his father who wanted him to become a doctor. He was greatly influenced by discovering Greek terracotta figurines and thong horses in a cupboard at art school. He took one of the thong horses out to enjoy the rest of the night.

Like many young South Africans, Nel left South Africa after university, but instead of going to England, he thought he would meet other South Africans or the Netherlands. Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp. Here, he moved from painting to ceramics, in which he claims to have found a more free expression through the creation of inventive, often politically and psychologically subversive, imagination.

He was able to travel, discovering Greece and visiting Flemish baroque churches. By the time he left Antwerp for England, he was living in Richmond, selling pots to the British Crafts Center in Covent Garden. For a time, he ran an antique shop in Whitstable and had a keen eye for objects and furniture.

Hand drawn plate showing a nude man against a green background with trees and grass

Plate dated 4 October 2004 © Hilton Nell, Courtesy Stevenson, Cape Town, Johannesburg and Amsterdam

The hand-painted plate shows a woman lying face down on a bed

Plate dated 4 January 1991 © Hilton Nell, Courtesy Stevenson, Cape Town, Johannesburg and Amsterdam

In 1974, Nel returned to South Africa, where he first taught in Port Elizabeth, before moving to Cape Town in 1987. In 1991, he gave up teaching to move to the country and focus on his studies full time. Ceramics. In 2002, she and her partner, Bernard Wilke, moved back to the Karoo – a bleak, open space northeast of Cape Town – where they created a rural paradise with peacocks and cats, a large garden, a huge mess of pottery painted putty pink. A corrugated iron outhouse and rooms filled with various objects and ornaments taken from antique fairs.

Since then, he has created an astonishing range of pots, plates, jars, vases, ceramic figurines and small figurines, all decorated in his distinctive style, a kind of freely expressive colloquialism, often featuring an erect penis. He doesn’t concern himself with conventional good taste, instead using images that look like those drawn for children’s books, almost always with inscriptions in his childish cursive hand, often suggestively suggestive, written in English and Afrikaans.

The decorations on the pots in the exhibit are reminiscent of cats and friends, as well as the election of Barack Obama. They are a kind of visual biography, each dated. Nell first sold her work in England in the late 1980s at an exhibition at Christopher Farr’s carpet shop in Primrose Hill, north London, where it was spotted and admired by World of Interiors’ Doyenne Minh Haag. He held his first exhibition at the Fine Art Society in 1996.

Three rows of colorful plates are aligned against a white wall
A display of plates by Hilton Nell at the Charleston Farmhouse Show in East Sussex © James Bellorini

Until now, his work has had a small cult following, known mainly to private collectors who appreciate the obscurity of its status. The exhibition in Charleston shows how Hilton absorbed ideas from his own collection — the moment he began dating his work in 1986, and the beginnings of his mock-humorous use of the penis as a decorative motif; Two penises greeting each other from a plate from the mid-1980s; And a pink penis with the words „Hic habitat felicitas” („Here lives happiness”).

Obvious analogies through this exhibition are, firstly, the ceramics of Quentin Bell, son of Clive and Vanessa Bell, who took himself to train as a potter in Stoke-on-Trent in the late 1930s. A rebellion against his father’s interest in French and Italian art. Later in life Bell owned a kiln in Charleston, where he produced similarly playful and eclectic figurative studies. Another comparable figure is Perry.

But Nel appears to be a unique individual: fiercely independent, slightly anarchic, charming and shy, freely experimental in the history of ceramics, adapting techniques from history, focusing on the personal without ever taking himself too seriously. Comedies – with arcane imagery, and a powerful belief in sexual freedom. This is a wonderful exhibition of a potter whose work should be well known.

Until September 10, charleston.org.uk

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