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.