Alfred William Finch was born in Brussels 1854 as the eldest born of English parents. After having studied painting in the Brussels art academy he is known to have been a member of several avant-garde groups of artists, the best known of which probably the group 'Les Vingt'. At the end of the 1880s Finch became acquainted with the pointillistic paintings of George Seurat, got interested in the theory of separating the colours and began also himself to study and experiment in pointillism. This is considered the most noteworthy period in Finch's painter's career.
The year 1890 became a turning point in Finch's work: he left painting for a rather long period and turned with great interest to the study and design of ceramics. He began his activities in the new branch at the Boch Keramis works in La Louvière. Then he is known to have worked in an atelier of his own in Virginal and finally in Forges, a region with long traditions in the produce of vernacular ceramic utensils.
During the 1897 world's show in Brussels the Swedish-born Louis Sparre became interested in Finch's ceramics and invited him to Finland as organizer and artistic leader of the ceramics department of the Iris factory that Sparre was about to establish in Porvoo. Finch accepted the invitation, partly because of his bad economy, partly of eagerness to make true his long-nourished dream: to make a voyage to the North.
Finch's stay in Porvoo did not last very long. After five years, in 1902, the Iris factory had to lay down its production. But there was a wish to keep the internationally well known Finch in Finland. Some friends of his arranged for teaching work to him in Helsinki: at the drawing/art school of the Art Society he taught drawing and graphics, at he Central School of Applied Arts ceramics. Finch was the first ordinary teacher of ceramics of the school and he remained in this commission until his death in 1930.
Portraits of Finch have generally been skissed as this type of chronological series of events. The chronology has later got new features. As one event of the Finnish-Belgian cultural exchange programme in 1991 a large retrospective exhibition of his works was put up being simultaneously the main event of the Ateneum Museum that autumn. As part of this project an exhibition book about the artist's life and works was published. The book, among other things, gave a more complete picture not only of Finch's works and the person behind them, but also of his importance for Finnish industrial art.
The A.W. Finch exhibition was an interesting opening to the following year. In 1992 ninety years had passed since the introduction of education in industrial ceramic art in Finland. The interest is not diminished by the 'European' personality of Finch, whose works got their tensions not only from the different fields of art but also from the influences of various geographical areas.
THE ARTS AND CRAFTS MOVEMENT
Finch was active in an era of powerful industrialisation the negative effects of which had resulted in a search for the opposite values. An example of this is the movement called Arts and Crafts based on the ideas of the two Englishmen John Ruskin and William Morris. The movement objected to industrialism and the lack of spirit of mass production. It also criticized art and design directed only towards the elite, and art as an end in itself. On the contrary, art ought to be 'social', add to the equality in society, emphasize individuality and craftsmanship, 'Art in All for All'. The artists were in a way responsible for their whole surroundings. It should be everyman's right to experience esthetics.
The Arts and Crafts ideology of utility had a great influence on A.W. Finch. Ignited by it Finch left painting for arts and crafts and began to put in practice the ideas of the movement in ceramic art.
In his ceramic production Finch from the start emphasized the importance of skill, material knowledge and combining tradition with new impulses. At a time when science inspired art, Finch also applied the scientific colour theory he had used in his painting to ceramics, and likewise the theories of harmony, rhythm and measure. Such approaches were new in ceramics at the time.
The research work of Finch resulted in new practices in both form and glazing, which made his ceramic pieces characteristic among the common production of the time. The originality was enhanced by the experiments and practice of Engobe ornaments, relief ornaments and Sgraffito techniques, which were adopted as characteristics of Art Nouveau ceramics.
Finch had an altogether modern hold on the technical adaptations in ceramics. On the other hand he strove at giving his work not only outward form but also spiritual contents and in this way 'transforming life into something that would simultaneously be more beautiful and simpler'.
THE IRIS CERAMICS
The Iris Factory established by Louis Sparre in Porvoo was an act in the spirit of Morris and Ruskin. The goal was to create a modern home for modern man. The factory produced different interior design articles, such as table settings, vases, lamps, and furniture. Iris also delivered complete interiors to customers both in Finland and e.g. St. Petersburg.
In the Iris ceramics made in Porvoo Finch continued his earlier line now adapted to the local conditions. The material chosen was Finnish red clay and the articles produced had both a Central European and Finnish form language. They were decorated in intense colours. The table settings had to fit into the surroundings and still have bold shades.
Finch made journeys from Finland keeping contact with the influences of the time and also took part in exhibitions arranged in Europe. He was well esteemed abroad. But in Finland his table setting designs were considered strange, and they did not find the deep lines of customers. In this respect the basic ideas of 'social design' upheld by the Arts and Crafts movement, were not realized.
TEACHER OF CERAMICS
In his teacher's role Finch aimed at developing the sense of esthetic form and proportions. When Finch started his teaching in the Central School of Applied Arts a potter's wheel and a wood-heated oven for firing in low temperatures were purchased. The material used in the training was Finnish red clay and ready-made glazes. It was essential to gain a good skill at the potter's wheel and a balance between forms and ornaments. Finch considered material knowledge important, but due to the circumstances, the training in this respect was rather modest.
The goal of Finch was to train his students to become ceramic artists capable of working independently. Models for this idea of Studio Pottery were the ceramic workshops of England, the United States of America, and France. In Finland, however, the work conditions of ceramists had not developed very far, and at the beginning of the twentieth century there were just a few ceramists working independently.
The pioneer work for the benefit of ceramic art had still been done, and Finch's students went out to conquer the world. Many of them later gained international fame, the best-known perhaps being Maija Grotell, Toini Muona, and Elsa Elenius. The last-mentioned afterwards became the successor of Finch's educational work.
The author is Assistant at the Institution of Ceramic and Glass Design at the University of Art and Design in Helsinki. She is working on her Licentiate thesis about ceramics and the function of the ceramist in Finland from the beginning of the century to the present time.