The potter, Ursula Mommens, who died at the age of 101 seven years ago today, was without doubt one of the most fascinating people that I have had the privilege to meet and get to know. Born in Cambridge in 1908, Ursula Mommens was brought up in the small village of Downe in Kent in a house near to that in which her great grandfather the naturalist, Charles Darwin, had lived.
Although always inquisitive and bright, she didn’t terribly like school but I do remember her telling me that she was always very fond of music and learnt to play the cello there, as the teacher was extremely good. It wasn’t until later in the conversation that she mentioned that the teacher was in fact the composer, Gustav Holst. Then again to her he was probably just the friend of her relative, Ralph Vaughan Williams, so perhaps it wasn’t a big deal.
She continued to love music throughout her life but it was during a visit to the Ideal Home Exhibition at the age of 14 that she saw a man demonstrating how pots were thrown, which inspired her and resulted in her mother, herself artistic, sending Ursula to pottery classes at weekends. She was a direct descendent of Josiah Wedgwood, so perhaps not so unusual a direction to take.
A few years after she began potting Ursula started attending classes at the Central School of Art in London two days a week. It was while she was in London that she happened upon an exhibition of pottery and went into the gallery to have a look. While she was doing this, Charles Vyse, the potter came in and was fascinated to see a young girl looking at the work so carefully. He started up a conversation and suggested that she would do better to take the pots she had made at the Central School and “show them to Mr. Murray at the Royal College of Art”. This she did and William Staite Murray agreed to take her on, leading to “two wonderful years” at the RCA in Kensington.
After the Royal College, she set up her first pottery during 1932 in an old cookhouse in Downe where she made functional earthenware. She always believed that pots were for use and was especially enamoured by the brushwork she saw on early Persian and Hispano-Moresque wares, ideas that were to stay with her throughout her career. A year or so later Ursula was introduced by her brother, Robin, to his friend the painter, Julian Trevelyan, upon Trevelyan’s return from working in Paris. The pair got along straight away and it wasn’t long before they were married. They moved to Durham Wharf by the Thames in Chiswick in 1935 where there was space for a studio for Julian and a pottery and kiln for Ursula. In Chiswick, the Trevelyan’s were very much the centre of the artistic and literary scene with the likes of Henry Moore, Roland Penrose and Cyril Connolly regular visitors and their home hosting the “sending off party” for W. H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood before their visit to China in 1938.
In the pre-War period, Ursula exhibited her pots at two significant exhibitions, firstly at the Brygos Gallery with other Staite Murray pupils and then alongside her husband’s paintings at the Bloomsbury Gallery in 1934. She remained in Chiswick until her kiln was blitzed and then was given the opportunity to join Michael Cardew at Winchcombe and Wenford Bridge, following a chance meeting with Bernard Leach, who told her of the vacancy. I always remember the pots that she made during her time at Winchcombe that adorned her living room when I visited her and I suspect always remained as an influence on her later work.
In the late 1940s Ursula and Julian separated and then divorced and from the early 1950’s she potted in Sussex, where she originally moved with her second husband the Belgian sculptor, Norman Mommens. There she continued to work at the pottery she shared with Chris Lewis, who joined her in the 1970s, until she finally stopped pottery in her late nineties. In her later years, she worked mainly in stoneware but started to use porcelain as well in the 1990s.
I first showed Ursula’s work in my first Harlequin Gallery exhibition in 1999 but she did then go on to have major exhibitions with me in 2000, 2002 and her last exhibition of new work at the Harlequin took place during July 2004. She celebrated her 100th Birthday during August 2008 and to commemorate this event a small retrospective of her work was included in the exhibition at the Harlequin during October 2008.
Looking back, I will always remember her enthusiasm for life, her interest in everyone she met and her youthfulness, probably highlighted by her month travelling around India by public transport with friends when she was 88 years old. Last but not least her appreciation of the ceramic tradition and her contribution to that tradition through the lovely pots she made.