Barbara Cass, Sculptor

Barbara Cass (1921 – 1992) was born in Berlin, Germany. She studied sculpture in Berlin and came to Britain in 1950. Her friend and pupil, Juliane Montgomery, says ‘’Barbara offered me a twelve-month apprenticeship. She was normally quite a solitary person – often showing a bit of a rough exterior to the world – so it was surprising that she took me under her wing. Did she see her young self in me, having also been born and grown up in Berlin, taking the leap across the Channel in her twenties? She was following a different passion though; she was fascinated by what was happening in Britain in the world of ceramics and wanted to become part of it.’’ 

Barbara married a British Officer named Cass whom she had met whilst giving art classes to military personnel in northern Germany, and together they moved to Leeds. Shortly after arriving, they separated, though Barbara continued to use the name Cass. She moved to York in 1952 and set up a workshop in the Shambles, working there till 1961. As her friend Juliane explains, 

‘’She had very little means and worked incredibly hard turning out well-crafted tourist souvenirs to make ends meet. Alongside this she developed her skills as a studio potter creating beautiful tableware – stoneware fired in an electric kiln- and gradually more sculptural work.’’ 

In 1956, Barbara began working in stoneware, which became her chosen medium. She exhibited examples at The Great Yorkshire Show in Harrogate, 1956. During the 1950s she also frequently exhibited the work she created at her studio on the Shambles at Primavera, an influential London gallery owned by Henry Rothschild. Julianne reminds us, ’Often, at the end of a working day, Barbara would sit holding a finished pot in her hands, feeling it’s weight and shape, studying the glaze and describing to me what made the pot ‘whole’. She connected with her pots on a deep emotional and spiritual level and sitting with her in the fading light, connecting to the pots, she felt like Mother Earth to me.’’ 

Barbara left York in 1966, but continued making pottery, first in Henley-in-Arden and later in Stratford-upon-Avon. Her work continues to be an important feature in York. In 2001, York Museums Trust received a large collection of studio ceramics from the collector W.A. Ismay, whose personal collection began with the purchase of pieces by Barbara. Ismay’s collection enabled York Art Gallery to launch its Centre of Ceramic Arts in 2015. Covering the whole British studio ceramics movement, it includes 61 ceramics by Barbara Cass, plus archival records of her time in York. As the Curator for Ceramics has said, ‘’2021 is the centenary of her birth and like many important female potters, she has been forgotten.’’ Barbara will be celebrated in an exhibition and book about the W.A. Ismay Collection, titled “The Yorkshire Tea Ceremony”. 

Information, research and images from Juliane Montgomery with additional information by Margot Brown