Friday, 11 September 2015

Rob Knottenbelt’s early production ware

Studio glass is a funny business. The term suggests the artist or craftsperson working alone or with minimal assistance in a small and largely self-contained facility, hence ‘studio’. There was once a debate in the parallel world of studio ceramics whether that practice is an art or a craft. Such debates are, of course, pointless, because the same tools and techniques can be harnessed in either direction. Whether the output is art or craft is a question of intent and that, dear reader, is largely a matter of economics.

The artist has always straddled two paths: one in the direction of making an impression, and the other toward making a living. Some have had it lucky with a rich sponsor to foot the bills while the artist brings forth their artistic vision, while others have found security in employment by the Church (or its modern equivalent, the university). The alternative is to make something saleable, and use the proceeds to subsidise other more risky ventures.

So it is no surprise that the independent glass artist who has a hankering to impress with her art will have at the same time a line of business where she make things that people actually want. Indeed, it was one of the founding principles of the Jam Factory glass workshop that trainees should make items for sale to help defray the cost of their training. Many established glass artists will distinguish their ‘exhibition’ works for show from the ‘production’ ware to pay the bills.

The artistic creations of Rob Knottenbelt are well documented, not least in three major articles in the glossy journal Craft Arts International in 1989, 1992 and 2005. During much of the period of his major artistic output, from 1984 until 2002 or so, he also produced a line of sturdy wares carrying the mark of his Britannia Creek Glass studio in Wesburn, Victoria.

But what of the time after Knottenbelt’s graduation from the Jam Factory in 1977 and before the move to Victoria in 1983? His résumé describes his activity as follows:

After an initial 18 months at the Jam Factory he built 2 hot shops as part of artist cooperatives in Adelaide before moving to Victoria in 1983.

What was Knottenbelt making in this period?

The point of reference for what follows in this essay is the first item, which was shown and sold in the graduating class exhibition at the Jam Factory in late 1977. It is small, a little over 11 cm high by about 10.5cm square, but rather chunky at 870g in weight. It is inscribed on the base with the artist’s name and the year 1977.

Note several distinctive features of this piece. The general square shape of the lower part was common currency at the Jam Factory at the time, but the strong curve inward and then the flare out to the rim are unusual. The vaseline colour of the slightly uneven trailed lip is another feature to observe. The swirling brownish trails of silver chloride, undoubtedly the influence of Sam Herman, also appear on works by the other trainees at the time (Peter Goss, John Walsh, Tom Persson). However, the more general colouring by a white flocculent wash that clusters around tiny random bubbles is more distinctive of Knottenbelt’s work.

Compare now the previous item with the following one, which is quite small, only about 7.5cm high by 10cm diameter. Note the narrow waist with a strong flare to the lip, the Vaseline trailed-on lip which is slightly uneven and, especially, the flocculent wash clustered on tiny random bubbles. That adds up to strong evidence of a common maker with the first item shown above.

Two other features can be seen on this second item that were not evident on the first. One, which will play a key role in what follows, is the obvious maker’s mark of a scratched arrow pointing radially outwards. The other, perhaps less important, is what appears to be a four-leaf-clover shape to the pontil scar.

What is missing on item #2 but obvious on the reference piece is the swirling silver chloride trails. Here is a pair with copious trails and clearly from the same series. They have the same general shape characteristics, the vaseline trailed lip, the scratched arrow on the base (in the NE quadrant of the second photo) and the four-leaf pontil scar.

Two more items from the same stable are shown below. The bowl shares the distinctive shape characteristics seen already with the others, while the elongated bottle with its button rim adopts a shape that was something of an international favourite in the 1970s. These two are clearly siblings of each other and, apart from the shape of the pontil scar, they are clearly by the same maker as the others shown above. They appear to be a little more refined than some of the others, so perhaps these were made a little later.

I hope by now, dear reader, you are at one with me on the unity of all these pieces, which clearly points to them being production ware of Rob Knottenbelt from the early days in 1978-83 when the influence of his Jam Factory training was strong.

Now regard the next little bowl, which also shares many of these characteristics. The tight waist and strong flare to the rim are somewhat muted compared to the other bowls, and the swirling trails are less Sam Herman in influence. However, the general shape is still there, as is the trailed vaseline lip, although here it is more neatly applied than on some others. And there is the same maker’s mark of the scratched arrow pointing radially out.

But what of that general colour? It is a little hard to see from these photos, so a closer look is needed. This bowl now resides in a collection that is conveniently available online, where the item in question is shown in a high resolution photo. Note the familiar flocculent wash around tiny random bubbles in this enlargement of the detail.

(source of original image)

The collector who now owns this little bowl reports his attempts to find the maker as follows:

This piece is most likely made by Robert Knottenbelt and signed with a simple arrow mark although I am still waiting a call from Robert to confirm this. Robert has contacted me and he can not be sure if it is one of his pieces however has said that it could well be an early piece of his production work using silver chloride and enamels done in about the 1980’s. (source of quotation)

Although the artist himself cannot be sure, our evidence clearly points to these items marked with the arrow as being early production ware of Rob Knottenbelt, from the period 1978-83.

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