Back in Action

I’ve not been away, but I’ve not been visiting, let alone updating, the site.  It has been a busy year throwing, firing, exhibiting, while handling ongoing situations which have nothing to do with the pottery.  However, a couple of people recently told me the site could not be accessed and I thought I’d better do something.  My web designer got it up and running again, but says I need to start again from a whole new platform, as I am dangerously out of date.  I’ll try to do this over the winter and in the meantime I’ll try to photograph some new work and post it.

I did Wardlow Mires again, which was very enjoyable.  I was too late in my application for just about every other big fair – either that, or else the fee to take part would have meant me selling just about every pot I’ve got!  Getting the balance between making and selling affordable “everyday pots” and doing stuff to sell in galleries at “art” prices is a tricky one, but I need to do both.

By the way, since the site was resurrected, almost every contact I’ve had through it has been in Chinese or Russian.  Do other websites get this?  Are these genuine enquiries for pots, or are they from women offering themselves to me as wives, or short-term companions?

Dinosaurs

In a recent article in Ceramic Review Sven Bayer, the “big potter”, a one time student of Michael Cardew, raised the possibility that he was a dinosaur, one of a dying species raised on a romantic notion of reviving and continuing a tradition of hand made pottery for use.

I’m sure there was an element of jokiness, but I was a tiny bit alarmed. Sven has been one of the handful of potters selling at David Mellor, a shop selling hand made kitchen and tableware alongside knives and forks, kettles and saucepans on the high street (OK, so it’s a posh high street off Sloane Square!). There is an online store too. Sven made pots in quantity, fired them in a vast wood-fired kiln which gave them the sort of flashed surfaces that some studio potters would feel warranted a plinth or a glass case and a three figure price tag. Sven asked no more for his work than you’d pay for decently designed factory made ware. Was he really now questioning that ideal?

Around the same time that article appeared I took part in Ceramic Wales at Glyndwr University, and listened to a talk by Alex McErlaine on the future of “Domestic Ware”. For a start Alex thought we should call it “Table Ware” and/or “Kitchen Ware”, to get away from the connotations of everyday drudgery in “domestic”. Preparing and cooking food and presenting it well has nothing in common with vacuuming, dusting or squirting coloured disinfectant into the lavatory.

Alex went on to give us a brief history of that branch of pottery in the 20th century and ended, with some optimism, with images of the work of younger potters at work today. I wasn’t entirely convinced that designing prototypes and farming out the making of the pots to the Far East (or Poland, or wherever the best deal could be had) really counted. However I could see that the pots of Fleen Doran and Sabine Nemet were in the “great tradition”, albeit on a smaller, more intimate scale than practiced at Winchcombe (Cardew, then Ray Finch) or at Muchelney (John Leach).

Then, a couple of weeks later, I went to the opening of “Richard Batterham: a Life in Pots” and my spirits soared. Working with a range of forms, established by the late ‘60s, and with only subtle variations and developments of these over the decades Batterham, now eighty, has made a wonderful body of work, entirely around the idea of useful pots. The CAA gallery, where the show was held, was full of beaming potters. Perhaps it was just my imagination that they rejoicing in the confirmation that they were doing something worthwhile. Sven Bayer was there.

Alan Caiger-Smith at Aberystwyth

It’s nearly a year since the big Aberystwyth ceramics festival, so it’s time I wrote something about it. The highlight for me was the talk by Alan Caiger-Smith which beautifully articulated the “meaning” of decoration, and described the mystery and excitement of rediscovering the art of lustre. Alan was an established potter when I began making pots in 1972, but the “in thing” at that point was stoneware, oriental glazes, salt and English country pottery. Alan C-G at the Aldermaston Pottery was embracing different traditions – earthenware, tin glaze, majolica and, relatively recently at that point, lustre. Young potters in the ‘50s, when Alan started potting, were looking towards the Mediterranean at least as much as the Far East for inspiration (and why not? – think of those joyous works by Picasso of that period, or of late Dufy, or of Brigitte Bardot), but for the young potters of the late sixties more rustic stoneware was somehow closer to the roots (like the blues compared with any music from the ‘50s).

I’d already thrown in my lot with the stoneware crowd, but I was teaching near Aldermaston and visiting the pottery quickly appreciated that it was firing with wood, that lustre was at least as much a venture into the unknown as salt glaze (much more so, really), and that pots whose shapes looked simple, almost bland, took on their true form only when decorated. I saw the model of a co-operative pottery workshop, consistent with the traditional rural pottery. It was pretty special then and, at this distance, Alan Caiger-Smith’s Aldermaston, which finally closed in 2006, seems an even more remarkable achievement. 

At Aberystwyth I bought Alan’s book, Pottery, People and Time, which I had somehow missed when it was first published in 1995. It’s a wonderful read – profound, humorous, generous and practical. My favourite chapters were probably the one in which he describes walking the old pony trail from St Ives to a tin mine (to learn more about this material essential for his glazes) and getting lost in mist and rain before eventually reaching a welcoming inn – “an altogether splendid day”, and Centering, a moving, philosophical meditation on throwing, which begins and ends with an account of Michael Cardew’s burial.

Pottery, People and Time by Alan Caiger-Smith, published by Richard Dennis, 1995.

KFL and NCPA: Are they perhaps related? We should be told!

(Apologies to anyone looking for news of my pottery; I’ll write that later). The Kids for Life scam goes on relentlessly, and now a couple of correspondents have drawn attention to the possible link between this and an almost identical scam run by the bogus National Crime Prevention Agency. Craig (see comments) came across a reference to KFL in the NCPA “magazine”, while another has found a Southport connection between both organisations. All this sleuthing should meet with the approval of NCPA (“Putting Crime out of Business”) in whose logo the letter C is a magnifying glass with a big fingerprint in the middle. Is this theft from Cluedo? Has anyone told John Waddington? Has anyone informed the National Crime Prevention Agency? It’s worth having a look at the scam forums relating to NCPA. While at it visit www.bookkeepers.org.uk/Forum/?type=&cid=0&tid=88210&lp…1… Your visit to the sites should ensure they stay on page 1 of the search engine. One correspondent who had wisely stopped answering the numerous calls for payment to KFL/Inpress Media from different numbers decided to trace them. The most recent was from a law firm with a “school of Inpress Media” type logo incorporating the Scales of Justice. I’ll not name the firm (two initials), but if they do contact you search the name of their lead (only?) solicitor and you’ll find him associated with a very dodgy customer indeed back in 2014/15. So don’t give way. Incidentally, in an early reply on my site I referred to a “bona-fide” Australian Kids for Life. That site, which had a very similar “heart” logo to our friends in the North West, and where photographs seemed to suggest celebrity backing, has disappeared. Maybe it wasn’t the real deal either. Is it the same as the “closed down” site in China referred to by Shaun in the comments below? Here are recommendations from the 50+ comments below for who to complain to: Action Fraud on 0300 123 2040 The Charities Commission (involves a form) Trading Standards The Police (especially if debt collectors are involved) 

New Kiln (and a bit more on “Kids for Life”)

It’s about time I put something on this page. As any potter knows, there is not always a great deal to report, so here are some pictures of the catenary kiln. It is a very satisfying form to make. Just hang a length of chain from two nails in a piece of Stirling board, placed apart the intended internal base measurement of your kiln (usually a multiple of 9 inches, the standard size of a brick). Adjust the chain until the arch formed is to the desired internal height, typically about the same as the base width. Use a can of spray paint (or a hand spray) to record the curve. Cut it out with a jigsaw. Make a copy. Join the two arches with battens and wrap the whole lot in dampened hardboard sheets. That’s your arch former (“centring”). The next bit is more tricky: most of the bricks are standard “straights”, and a bit of mortar is all that’s needed to add the slight curve of the “sides”, but you will need wedge shaped bricks at the base of the curve and especially at the top. Soft bricks can be cut by hand (you’ll get through a lot of blades), but you can buy them in standard sizes. I made paper cut out versions to test the idea full-scale first, then ordered from a supplier (for pizza/barbecue ovens). I still had to do some cutting for the very top.

The result is the neatest of the three catenary kilns I’ve built (so far; they tend to warp a bit after a dozen firings). I have braced it with steel, for although the catenary curve should be in perfect equilibrium, the flat end walls, not being keyed into the structure, tend to bulge out during firing. 

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That’s enough of that (though, by the way, the architect, Gaudi, designed a whole church upside down by hanging chains). Results so far (five firings) have been encouraging.

The next bit will be (even more?) boring unless you have already been approached by Kids for Life to take out advertising in a magazine intended to “raise awareness of cancer in children”. Two previous news posts dealt with this and have attracted around three dozen “comments” from businesses who have felt themselves duped of a sum in the region of £150-£400 for an advertisement that received no circulation. Last week I received a letter from the chairman of Kids for Life requesting that I remove these comments as they are generating negative publicity for his cause. Kids for Life, he points out, has made donations to appropriate charities. However this is not exactly what the complainants were paying for, however generously disposed they feel towards sick children and their families. I have suggested that only when he has demonstrated to all the correspondents on my page that their advertisement was distributed across their region, as promised, and that his donations to charities are proportionate to the income he has generated from businesses such as theirs, will it be appropriate to close the correspondence.

Fun and Games in Notts (With a note on “Kids for Life”)

I attended Earth and Fire at Rufford Abbey at the weekend. This was my first large festival as a solo stall holder for thirty-three years.

There have been changes in the intervening period. Earthenware and porcelain potters who use colour have been provided with a much broader palette of reliable colours than back then and have the expertise to use them to joyous effect. There is also a “monochrome school” whose cleanly crafted work in whites, greys and blacks fits into a contemporary minimalist context. Sculptural ceramics of all types is in robust good health. At the stoneware end of things, wood-firing and salt glaze which were still at the cutting edge when I became semi-dormant in 1983 are tame stuff compared with the long firings in “anagama” beasts of kilns by younger potters. The “useful pots at affordable prices” school is largely, with notable exceptions, in the hands of continental potters, particularly Dutch and German. Their stalls, stacked high with honest pots for cooking, eating and drinking, continue a market tradition going back to the middle ages and before. There was much to enjoy and much to think about.

It was fun meeting other potters. Ceramics/pottery is wonderfully free of the “irony” (and cynicism?) that has been a key element in fine art for several decades. I was even stupid enough to volunteer for the “Potters’ Games”, winning a losers’ medal in the relay and a winners’ in the “Pairs Throwing Challenge” in which Scottish-based potter, John Christie, and I (Welsh-based) made a bowl (one hand each) which we felt to be a “most vigorous contemporary expression of the English countryside” (Bernard Leach). Long live the Union!

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Centring the bowl with John Christie                      My Stall

The Kids for Life scam does not seem to be over yet. Long after the Charity Commission told me it was investigating complaints about the “charity” and its printer/fund gatherer Inpress Media, I have heard from other potters and an architect who have been targets of the scam. My advice is refuse to do anything over the telephone; ask for a proper letter. I bet you’ll hear nothing more. If, as happened to one potter, they print your “advertisement” without your agreement and then demand payment, stand firm. They, Andrew Peter Ager and David Parker, are bullies, but will back down, either blaming the other for a “misunderstanding”. What they almost certainly won’t do, unless you are prepared to involve a solicitor, is refund money once it’s been paid.

Always report any approach from these guys to the Charity Commission. There is, by the way, a bona fideKids for Life in Australia, but they are unlikely to contact British artists!

Potters, don’t be mugs!

There is a nasty little scam going on, targeting artists and craft workers. You’ll get a cold call from “Kids for Life”, a “charity” helping terminally ill children. You’ll be offered advertising space in their magazine in which you will be declaring your support for the charity. The guy talks fast and, if you’re a mug like me you’ll be thinking “OK, I doubt I’ll get enough sales to cover the cost of the ad, but it’s going out all over Wales, so you never know, and, in any case it’s in a good cause. Within about 24 hours you’ll see the draught copy (graphics lifted straight off your website) and you’ll be invoiced by “Inpress Media”, a company that may well be bona fide.

A copy of the magazine will arrive – pictures of children with shaven heads, trite articles. Check the ads from the “supporters”. Unless it’s from an artist or craft worker you will find it is a fake. The email addresses don’t exist. Google the company names. They don’t exist either.

Not long afterwards “Kids for Life” will call again asking you to update your “subscription”. I have contacted the only other genuine advertiser, a painter, and he tells me the guy became “abrasive” when he began questioning him. I raised the issue of a scam (I’d heard, by now of this trick) and pretty quickly – “OK mate” – he hung up.

Infinitely worse things than this have happened to my family, so I’m not going to beat myself up about it, but what makes this scam particularly despicable is the exploitation of sick children. It is going to make the task of genuine children and cancer charities that much tougher.

Michael Cardew: Hero or Monster?

Michael Cardew was arguably a stronger influence on the British studio pottery movement than Bernard Leach.  His revival of the old slipware pottery at Winchcombe to make useful and affordable pots consistent in their forms with traditional pre-industrial country ware was a model followed by numerous young potters through the 1960’s and into the 1970’s.  Recruitment to the cause has been slower since, but it’s not over yet.

 

I read Cardew’s autobiography “A Pioneer Potter” when it was published in 1988. It remains my favourite “pottery book”, beautifully written and hopelessly romantic.  As a guide to making pottery and living by it, it is a terrible warning about what not to do – massively wasteful firings in kilns (circular, for aesthetic reasons) whose fireboxes had been built without a proper understanding of their design, intensive, largely fruitless, searches for raw materials in West Africa for making a stoneware body in a country where there was a plentiful supply of earthenware clay which the locals had used successfully for millennia. I always wondered, too, just whom the African stoneware pots that he and his apprentices made were intended for.

 

Amongst other unanswered questions in “A Pioneer Potter” was what the colonial and government administrators who funded Cardew thought of this Pottery Officer, who failed to deliver more than a fraction of the routine ceramic ware they ordered, failed to train more than a handful of apprentices and who apparently rejected Western values to “go native”.  And of course there is the matter of his treatment of his wife and children, abandoned to fend for themselves on Bodmin Moor while he, Gauguin-like, indulged his romantic fantasy as a “primitive” potter and his love for one of his assistants.  Of course Cardew suffered hardship too, but he did receive a salary (though, admittedly, not during the last two years at Vumé).

 

Tanya Harrod’s biography of Cardew, “The Last Sane Man”, answers most of these questions.  Recorded comments by his employers in Africa note “(He is)…very difficult to work with, very self-centred, no business ability and no administrative ability” and later “Cardew is taking us for a ride”.  His wife, Mariel, must have been a tough woman.  She found employment and saw to their sons’ education.  She shared with his friends the conviction that Michael was a “great man”, and must have accepted that he was the sort of “great man” (Gauguin, Picasso) of whom one must tolerate selfish, unreasonable behaviour.  There is ambivalence in Michael’s eldest son, Seth, who, in Harrod’s words saw his father, after his return to England and in his later life as a pottery guru, as a “petty domestic tyrant” and “the devil”.

 

I made an unplanned visit to Cardew’s Cornish pottery in the late 1970’s, having spotted a sign to Wenford Bridge while driving south.  The man himself was in his bed.  This, I was told by the young students/disciples was a good thing.  They had been firing the kiln and Michael’s fussing and fretting had driven them to despair.  He did appear later, passing through the kiln room, looking grumpy.  I didn’t have the effrontery to approach the living legend.

 

“The Last Sane Man” is a very good book indeed.  It complements “A Pioneer Potter”, certainly not replacing it.  You need to read both and to see the films of Cardew, notably “Mud and Water Man” to get near to understanding his drive, his “wrong-headedness” (?), his charisma and what he saw as his message.  I think if I met him at the age I am now, there’s much that I’d want to question him on (always assuming I wasn’t struck dumb by his huge personality), particularly as regards his twenty year African adventure, but if I’d met him at twenty years old I think I could easily have become a disciple.

 

Tanya Harrod: “The Last Sane Man: Michael Cardew, Modern Pots, Colonialism and the Counterculture”, Yale, 2012

Exhibition Season Opens

Visited the London Art Fair a couple of weeks ago where Wolsely Fine Art were showing some of my stuff on their stand.  A bustling show, with galleries from all over the country exhibiting and selling.  It was good to see quite a few examples of pottery  (‘ceramics’, if you prefer) amongst the paintings, drawings, prints and sculptures.

I’m in a couple of shows starting in February and March, and then, come the summer, looking forward to taking part in a “Borders’ Potters” exhibition at the beautifully sited Monnow Valley Arts Centre (home of Wolsely Fine Art) and opening our own doors for Powys Arts Month.  I’ve also pencilled in another Hammersmith Exhibition, with Julienne, for late June.

A firing, opened yesterday, gave a sharp reminder about biting off too much, though.  Too many pots, intended for these shows, showed bloating, almost certainly caused by firing too fast, and probably too high as well.  A reminder to stick to the proven firing schedule.  You can’t send seconds to exhibitions.

A Traditional Pottery In Greece

Last year I stayed for a week with an old friend on the Island of Aegina, lying in the bay about sixteen miles out from Athens.  While there we visited one of the three old potteries still operating there. For centuries, up until the mid 1960’s, Aegina had exported pottery, particularly “water-coolers”, all over the Aegean. Refrigeration and bottled water has killed of the trade, though the coolers are still made, mainly for the tourist market. While the traditional coolers were porous (the evaporation of the water from the surface of the pot was what made them work), the modern ones I saw were glazed internally.  Some had (non-traditional) coloured floral decoration.

 

Our potter marked his pots with what would be called over here a “sprig” using a mould first used by his grandfather. He used two different clays, both quarried on the island. One fired to a terracotta red, the other a paler yellow-cream. He washed and prepared them in open tanks behind the workshop. Neither was especially plastic as a throwing body. Both were quite dense after firing and the redder clay, if lightly burnished, was more or less impermeable.

 

Sadly (to me) the pots are fired in modern electric kilns, but our potter was in the process of rebuilding his grandfather’s wood-fired kiln. This was (externally at least) a big brick cube, with the fire underneath. The fuel he was assembling was trimmings of olive and one would imagine that a considerable quantity would have been needed to fire this up-draught kiln to even low earthenware temperature (but it would have smelt great!).

 

I didn’t get to use his wheel, which was an electric one of some age on which he sat “side-saddle”. I don’t know what the traditional wheels were like, but, of course, it is from the Aegean that some of the earliest thrown pottery comes. There is a fine small collection of pottery in the museum in the island’s main town. It is apparent that the ancient inhabitants used water-coolers identical in form to the modern ones.

Our conversation was restricted by our ignorance of one another’s language (notwithstanding the interpreter’s efforts of my friend’s Cypriot wife) but at the end of our visit he presented me with a small water-cooler straight from the kiln.

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Since then, my friend has sent me a link to an interview given by our potter to a local magazine: http://www.aeginagreece.com/aegina/pages/articles/culture/pottery_food_mesagros.html