A#19 Kim Jones

Hylton Nel: This Plate Is What I Have To Say

Words by Isaac Benigson

Works by Hylton Nel featured in A Magazine Curated By Kim Jones (2019)
Photography by Dham Srifuengfung

On the occasion of the exhibition Hylton Nel: This plate is what I have to say at Charleston House, British artist Isaac Benigson details his longtime friendship with the South African artist and contributor to A#19 Curated By Kim Jones (2019). From his childhood visits to Nel’s home in the Western Cape to their recent jaunts to London antique stores, Benigson reflects on the breadth of knowledge and artistry imparted by the South African ceramicist and collector. The exhibition runs through September 10th, 2023 at Charleston House, London.

Words by Isaac Benigson

Hylton Nel: This plate is what I have to say opened on the 24th of March 2023, three days before Hylton’s 82nd birthday. This exhibition is along the lines of a retrospective, chronologically reviewing the South African artist’s career thus-far. The exhibition features over 250 decorated plates, each detailing an idea or an image that conveys a message or depicts a day in the life. Held within the barns of Charleston House, the exhibition lies adjacent to the former home of some of the most culturally significant figures in 20th century British art and culture.

In 1975, when my mother was 21, she attended what she often described as her first ‘grown up’ dinner party. In the provincial South African city of Port Elizabeth where she had grown up, she speaks of being invited by this extremely handsome art school professor to dinner. Upon stepping into his house, she was instantly struck by something – a sense of beauty – that she had never encountered before. All the other guests at the dinner were older than her, but she was not intimidated, rather she felt as if her eyes had been opened to another world. The magnificent, handsome man was the renowned South African artist-potter Hylton Nel, then in his mid-thirties, ensconced in a bohemian life in Port Elizabeth. My mother and Hylton have had a strong bond since — not only in their friendship — but also in their mutual adoration of Chinese ceramics, antiques, and gardening. In turn, my life has been enriched by Hylton’s ceramics adorning my home, as well as an annual pilgrimage to his farmhouse in the interior of South Africa. Lined with cascading bougainvillaea and mint green shutters, his home is a rare jewel resembling a Tangierian villa which can only be found within early editions of World of Interiors magazine.

Portrait of Hylton Nel featured in A Magazine Curated By Kim Jones (2019)
Photography by Pieter Hugo

Hylton’s arrival in London for his exhibition at Charleston House brought new excitement as he and I trawled antique shops across town. Beginning with the Portobello Road Market on Saturday morning, we continued through to Covent Garden Antiques Market on Monday, before proceeding to various antiquaries and dealers. Surrounded by such an environment of objects with virtue and meaning, I was inspired by Hylton’s avid purchasing of beautiful and interesting artefacts. Hylton’s antique shop in the 70s and 80s in Cape Town, The Metal Snake, was a landmark trading post for junk and treasure alike. In Hylton’s words, ‘there’s nothing like [antique] dealing to sharpen your sensibilities, because your living is dependent on your specialist knowledge and your responses.’ His has an expert knowledge on the world’s ceramic history and the detailed processes of glazing and firing, complemented by his immense vigour and wit when executing his pieces. Dealing and collecting, going hand in hand for Hylton, unifies with his artistic practice, one that is influenced by his broad interest in a myriad of ceramic and pottery sculpture.

Below, Hylton and I began our conversation by discussing how he became interested in antiques and objects.

Works by Hylton Nel featured in A Magazine Curated By Kim Jones (2019)
Photography by Mario Todeschino

Hylton Nel: Treasures, and the way they move around the world and change hands is interesting for me. From a very young age I was interested in objects. I bought a book recently called The History of the World in 100 Objects and one entry was about an amazing neolithic jade tool. Things made of jade have interested me since I was a young boy. During my time at boarding school in Kimberly, there was a shop quite far from the school. There was a Chinese shop which was owned by a family with three incredibly good looking boys, so I often went to look at the Chinese objects they sold but also to see these unbelievably beautiful boys. I also remember a hairdresser in Kimberly who had a cabinet from which he sold objects. From him, I bought a white Guanyin, for which I had to save a lot of pocket money. It was modern but I found it incredibly beautiful.

Isaac Benigson: That reminds me of the book you introduced me to, Denton Welch’s Maiden Voyage, about the young man who is fascinated with Chinese ceramics and receives a Ming blue and white brush pot from an antiques dealer.

HN: When I was at art school, there was a cabinet of treasures in the library. And in it there was a Tang horse, a Song period brush pot, and a Greek Tanagra terracotta figure. There were various things but those were my favourite.

IB: Perhaps we can talk about your first exhibition, at your studio in Port Elizabeth, in 1979…

HN: I had taken a sabbatical from teaching ceramics at the art school. It was mainly plates and a cat vase. It was a slow process starting to become an artist.

IB: I remember you telling me about when you lived in Cape Town that someone had remarked that your house had reminded them of Charleston.

HN: Yes, it’s because I had painted the walls, I had made dados and painted images of ancient Chinese bronzes and angels from Buddist cave paintings. The house also had a nice bit of garden and an inside courtyard type atrium — and that was where Bernard (Hylton’s partner for 40-something years) had the best display of orchids, filled with cymbidium orchids. I think all the places I have lived in have had a similar sensibility.

Installation views of Hylton Nel: This plate is what I have to say, Charleston House

IB: Antiques and objects play an integral role at Charleston…

HN: Yes, they do, it’s things from another time place that the Bloomsbury group gathered to make their house look nice, and to make it livable for them. Sometimes I think it’s necessity that makes them paint otherwise quite plain things in order to jolly them up, and to make it pleasant for themselves. That one room, the dining room and the repeat pattern on the dark wall, I like very much. It makes me think of that group of painters, the Nabis, and specifically Vuillard who used pattern on pattern.

IB: When I look at the things in the Charleston dining room, it reminds me of your plates and your use of repeated pattern motifs in some of your work.

HN: Yes, working with a circular shape, it has always been fascinating to make a border pattern. I find it very exciting to consider that idea of use and display, I like things that are useful. Something you like that you can use, unlike a picture which you see on the wall occasionally. Something which has a use, that you engage with, unlike things on the wall or mantle or shelf which you engage with differently. And so the things that I create can become part of one’s daily life. Visiting 18 Folgate Street, the Dennis Severs House, there is a little note at the front which reads: ‘Instead of just looking at things, think what things can do in a space.’ Objects play an important role to make a place livable, friendly and aesthetic. I think of gardening, where you could have trees, lower shrubs, under plantings, flowers – you need different sizes and importance – one can compare having objects in the home to planting a garden.

IB: There are extraordinary plates in the exhibition, and both the individual or grouped plates almost act like diary entries.

HN: Yes, I just write down things that have to do with that day or that time. But the plate remains a plate regardless of whatever I’ve put on it, whether it is a flower or a bit of writing, and they become quite a touching record of a fleeting time, which one otherwise might forget.

IB: I adore the plate inscribed with Champagne for my Real Friends.

HN: Those are the words of Francis Bacon, and of course there is the reverse Real pain for my Sham friends. I thought that was a good thing to say…

IB: I feel it’s a companion piece to your plate, A Good Queen Always Turns.

HN: I can’t remember where I got that from but in dealing with people who are not queens, they also could turn, start off good and end bad.

In the early 1990s, Hylton was interviewed and photographed for a publication entitled Contemporary Ceramics in South Africa and his work was dubbed as ‘ritual vessels for addressing the great unknown’. In many ways, this idea still holds true, with his plates often conjuring ideas and images, both as ornament and vessel, for use and display. They are objects of pleasure. A cross section of his plates, from naughty homoerotica to a series recording the last few days of 2004, when ‘we supped on pickled tongue of beef and watched Blackadder and someone in the town was stabbed,’ the Charleston House exhibition proves a new survey for the work of the fantastic Mr. Nel.

A plate by Hylton Nel dated 4 January 1991 © Hylton Nel, courtesy Stevenson, Cape Town, Johannesburg and Amsterdam

A plate by Hylton Nel dated 4 October 2004 © Hylton Nel, courtesy Stevenson, Cape Town, Johannesburg and Amsterdam

A plate by Hylton Nel dated 10 January 2003 © Hylton Nel, courtesy Stevenson, Cape Town, Johannesburg and Amsterdam

A plate by Hylton Nel dated 11 February 2004 © Hylton Nel, courtesy Stevenson, Cape Town, Johannesburg and Amsterdam

A plate by Hylton Nel dated 14 January 2008 © Hylton Nel, courtesy Stevenson, Cape Town, Johannesburg and Amsterdam

A plate by Hylton Nel dated 16 August 2011 © Hylton Nel, courtesy Stevenson, Cape Town, Johannesburg and Amsterdam

A plate by Hylton Nel dated 20 April 2010 © Hylton Nel, courtesy Stevenson, Cape Town, Johannesburg and Amsterdam

A plate by Hylton Nel dated c.1974-82 © Hylton Nel, courtesy Stevenson, Cape Town, Johannesburg and Amsterdam




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