Natural Histories: Cecil Baugh, Egyptian Blue (1992)

Cecil Baugh - Egyptian Blue (1992), Earthenware, Collection: NGJ (Gift of Sonia Jones)

Cecil Baugh – Egyptian Blue (1992), Earthenware, Collection: NGJ (Gift of Sonia Jones)

The work of Cecil Baugh, Jamaica’s master potter, holds an important place in the history of Jamaican art. Though there is a long tradition of pottery in Jamaica dating back to the Taino, Baugh was the first to systematically explore pottery as fine art; researching and utilising local clays and forms extensively and developing a number of glazes such as Egyptian Blue shown here. As a young man, Baugh’s work consisted largely of traditional Jamaican pottery- yabbas and monkey jars- used for domestic purposes. He soon began to experiment with developing his own style. In his  book, Baugh: Jamaica’s Master Potter (1986) co-written with Laura Tanna, he writes:

I thought of glazes but the transparent lead glaze was the only one available. So I started off to experiment. None of the other traditional potters were making coloured glazes but I could see the imported pots were coloured and I thought, ‘Well I’m using clay. Why can’t my pots be coloured also?’ I’d never done science in school so I had to learn by trial and error. […] Then by accident one night I discovered the Egyptian Blue. […] So I found the original method that potters in Egypt had developed, without my ever reading a book about it.

Frustrated by the fact that his earthenware pots were always porous, in 1948 Baugh took his experimentation further and went to England. There he worked extensively with seminal British potter Bernard Leach at the St. Ives Pottery in Cornwall. There, he gleaned further technical information about making and firing earthenware, and about the critical value and appreciation of pottery. Upon his return he began to apply all he’d learned in England to local materials and forms. He also began to teach. He was the founder of the Ceramics department at the Jamaica School of Art and mentor to many potters including Norma Harrack and Gene Pearson.

The influence of Baugh’s work cannot be overstated. His commitment to the use of local materials and pottery as a fine art, broke the craft-fine art distinction and asserted indigenous materials as equivalent to imported options. This was an important political statement. In the words of the late Prof, the Hon Rex Nettleford: Baugh’s talent “springs from the rich earth of this country, earth which he used to tell our story in so many different forms and shapes and glazes”. His research is the basis of much contemporary pottery practice and has also helped to establish the importance of traditional pottery as a folk art-form in Jamaica.

Nicole Smythe-Johnson


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