A Universal Language by Emma Crichton-Miller

6th September 2022


The superb craftsmanship of QEST Scholars is recognised all over the world, writes Emma Crichton-Miller

Works by QEST Scholars can be found in museums across the globe. The Victoria and Albert Museum’s sculpture department recently acquired Eleanor Lakelin’s Echoes of Amphora Column Vessel 1/20 (2019-20). Lakelin began her working life as a teacher before retraining as a furniture-maker and wood-turner. Her 2018 QEST Scholarship enabled her to pursue her ambition to develop larger-scale forms.

Two of Celia Dowson’s ceramics, meanwhile, have been acquired by the Yingge Ceramics Museum outside Taipei, following a residency in 2019. Dowson graduated in ceramic design from the University of the Arts London, Central Saint Martins, and was able to complete a two-year postgraduate degree at the Royal College of Art thanks to a QEST Tom Helme Scholarship.

Sculptor Thomas Merrett used his 2014 QEST Scholarship to travel to Italy for a workshop at the Florence Academy of Art. This traditional school offers a high level of training in observational drawing and sculpture from live models, which Merrett says “has had a huge impact on my career”. His piece, Untitled, acquired by the European Museum of Modern Art in Barcelona, reflects this rigorous training.

We asked the curators and directors of the three museums why they chose to acquire these works.

Hsiao-Cheng Chu, speaking on behalf of New Taipei City Yingge Ceramics Museum, on Celia Dowson’s Jiufen and Yangmingshan

Why did you choose to acquire these works?

Celia was selected for the 2019 Taiwan Ceramics Residency Programme. This was established by the museum to encourage ceramic artists, both local and international, to experience life in a pottery town for three months. After the residency is completed we select one or two pieces the artist has made.

Celia’s laborious techniques not only offer a new perspective on ceramic slip casting, but also showcase the beautiful landscapes of Taiwan as seen through her creative eye. This will allow our community to observe their surroundings anew, as well as understand how they can be interpreted in ceramics.

What do they add to the collection?

The theme in 2019 was “The Aesthetics of Living”, for which Celia’s work was a perfect match – it was no surprise she made the cut. Each piece was made in porcelain using a combination of slip casting and throwing techniques, and the coloured stains she used for the landscapes were collected locally.

How have visitors responded to Celia’s work?

She held workshops in the museum and at National Taitung Junior College, where she shared her experience. Our participants were eager to learn from her, especially given her techniques are not commonly seen in Taiwan.

Melanie Vandenbrouck, curator of sculpture at the V&A, on Eleanor Lakelin’s Echoes of Amphora Column Vessel I/20

Why did you choose to acquire this piece?

What interested us first and foremost was how her work expresses a deep understanding of her material, horse chestnut burr. This is a very hard wood, with a knotty grain, so is very challenging to work with. Usually, people who carve in wood are trying to avoid imperfections, whereas Eleanor’s work is all about revealing what is hiding beneath the bark.

Secondly, she defies artificial curatorial boundaries. She is questioning our expectations about material and form. Is this a piece of ceramic because it is in a ceramic idiom, or is it architecture, being made like a column, in segments. Then again, it is made using furniture-making techniques, but is declaring itself to be a sculpture. Those different aspects work together so beautifully. You are reminded of classical form, which is all about poise and balance, but then there is also the almost Baroque, chaotic effect that the burr brings to the fore.

What does it add to the V&A’s collection?

There is something quite artificial about the way we categorise objects as sculpture, ceramics or architecture because many makers work across media, across perspectives and sometimes collapse those perspectives altogether. This is definitely what this work does. We’re talking about craftsmanship but from the perspective of sculpture – and showing how this artificial distinction between fine and decorative arts has eroded.

How have you displayed the work?

We decided to display this work in the Gilbert Bayes Sculpture Gallery, which sits between the Cast Courts. Eleanor’s work has been placed near the cast of Trajan’s column, so when you look at Echoes of Amphora Column Vessel you can see its relationship to the classical monument. There is also a display nearby dedicated to wood carving in 15th and 16th-century Europe, and it’s interesting to see the comparison. She is collapsing time in one piece.

What can you say about its techniques?

There are extraordinary layers of making, from forensic investigation when peeling the bark off and then carving and sandblasting. Eleanor’s way of working with wood is very intuitive and empathetic. Her ethical approach to the material – sourcing sustainable wood that is diseased or has been condemned – is mirrored in her respectful handling of it.

José Enrique González Rodríguez, director of the European Museum of Modern Art (MEAM), Barcelona, on Thomas Merrett’s Untitled

Why did you choose to acquire this piece?

We chose Untitled because of the symbolism of the female figure, its execution in stone and the strength it conveys with little detail.

What does it add to the collection?

Works by living artists constitute the main wealth of the MEAM’s collection – it includes nearly a thousand works by artists from five continents. This piece adds to the museum’s sculptural holdings, introducing a more contemporary character.

How does the work relate to the rest of the art in the museum?

Merrett’s piece has become part of a group of sculptures that are more connected with current artistic trends, which the museum wishes to promote.

How do you think the public responds to it?

The museum’s audience is always interested in learning about new artists and their work, and Merrett is a contemporary artist that we want to make known.

How has the work been exhibited?

The work is part of the museum’s permanent display. We like to mix pictorial and sculptural pieces as we feel they complement and enrich each other. The distribution of our permanent collection in the museum is not static but different each time, creating new narratives every time that the collection is exhibited. We believe that the same piece can offer a completely new dialogue depending upon the pieces that surround it, and we like to experiment with these interactions.

This article was written by Emma Crichton-Miller and originally appeared in the Summer 2022 issue of the QEST Magazine. Emma is a freelance journalist and regular contributor to The Financial Times.

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