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What Would Val Barry Think?

Nic Saintey (Head of the Ceramics Department) looks at the back story to Val Barry as a studio potter and poses the intriguing question about what the artist herself would make about the contents of her studio being sold at auction.

Val Barry unloading her kiln at Crouch End.

Val Barry unloading her kiln at Crouch End.

I wonder what Val Barry might think about the contents of her studio being sold at auction? It might seem like a strange question as every artist surely wants recognition or at the very least to make a living from their profession. Val Barry was certainly pragmatic and was quoted in 1983 as saying 'The process of acceptance is long and slow, interest starts with museums and collectors buying and is fuelled by their bidding for those pieces which eventually turn up in salerooms'. Certainly, there were a number of institutions that acquired her studio pottery, amongst them the Victoria and Albert, the Manchester City Art Gallery, the International Ceramics Museum Faenza, the Bendigo Art Gallery in Australia and the Pennsylvania State University Museum.

Val Barry admitted to a dislike of the commercial pressures that came with recognition as she felt it was disruptive to the creative process, 'My life is my work and I work every day', which seems great for productivity but hardly conducive to a 'normal' life. She further clarified this by saying 'all artists create out of compulsion and are only truly themselves when doing so'. Still, it would be wrong to think that Val Barry lived in a bubble as she was certainly aware of what people thought. Her scrapbook is testimony to this as she kept all her exhibition catalogues and folders of press cuttings, and not just the flattering ones! The 1986 Barbican exhibition of sculpture that she organised under her maiden name of Val Fox was reviewed by the London Standard as being 'pretty wretched stuff made worse by the architecture' although to be fair, this was in her second incarnation as a sculptress and it didn't mention her work specifically.

Evidentially, she realised it was important to meet her public as her archive has a record of a grant application for travel to the Graham Gallery New York where she was exhibiting 'it is increasingly clear that understanding of my current oeuvre can only be furthered if I am present at the gallery to meet the press and visitors'. Applying for such a grant suggests that although she actually seemed to make a living as a potter during the 1970s and 1980s, she wasn't exactly 'cashing it in', a fact borne out by her teaching up to seven sessions a week at the South London Institute in Lambeth. She did say that despite a growing international reputation her accountant commented 'there's not much to show for all this Mrs Barry'.

Press cuttings and exhibition catalogues from the Val Barry archive.

Press cuttings and exhibition catalogues from the Val Barry archive.

Like many artists, she seemed driven by her work and one gets the impression that she felt compelled to push any idea to its theoretical limits. An idea for a pot started as a pencil sketch and progressed to a template on graph paper, so she could cut out precision rolled slabs of clay. Inevitably, she increased the height and depth of her pots by grogging with granulated iron and discretely curving or distorting her forms to cantilever and give them balance. Despite the fillet like appearance of her sword and sentry forms, they remain incredibly stable and whilst their precarious presence has an underlying tension, there is a calmness about them.

A profile view showing how the curves help to provide stability in her sword forms.

A profile view showing how the curves help to provide stability in her sword forms.

So going back to the question, 'what would Val Barry think?' I can only shrug my shoulders. As an artist, she would have wanted recognition, so it is something of a puzzle as to why, when she prematurely retired to Devon, she stored away twenty boxes of her work. Perhaps she wanted to be remembered as a bronze sculptor and not a potter, or perhaps after a prolonged court case with her foundry (which she won), she became dispirited and lacked the compulsion to create any more. Who knows, after a chaotic move from London to Teignmouth, she may just have forgotten about the boxes in her garage. I hope that with the forthcoming sale, her reputation is re-established and anyway, perhaps the real question should be 'what do you think?'


  • Bearnes Hampton & Littlewood
  • Ceramics
  • Studio Pottery
  • Val Barry

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About the Author

Nic SainteyNic Saintey
Ceramics and Glass

Nic Saintey has been a director of Bearnes Hampton & Littlewood since 2003 and heads up the Ceramics and Glass Department. He is part of the team specialising in Chinese ceramics and works of art.

Nic's first career was in the Armed Forces where he served both as a military parachutist and paramedic. He joined a firm of Somerset auctioneers in early 1995 and Bearnes during a period of expansion in June 2000.

His effervescent nature, sense of humour, broad knowledge and experience has seen him appear as an expert for BBC television programmes. He undertakes regular talks to both academic and general interest groups talking on subjects as diverse as Staffordshire pottery and pop culture, Chinese porcelain and the troubled relationship between Britain and the Orient, the English drinking glass and the Donyatt potters.

He is an occasional contributor of articles for national and local publications and is equally fascinated by the stories attached to pots as he is about the objects themselves.

His personal interests include Oriental and domestic pottery, but especially that produced in the West Country.

Accompanied by his Lurcher Stickey, he is a keen Moorland walker (but only in the winter), an increasingly slow runner and a chaotic cook who always eats his own mistakes and, yes of course, he collects pottery!