Tonight is the private view of the London Potters Members’ Exhibition and it will be my first public appearance for quite a while. There are 90 exhibitors and we are allowed only 3 pots each, so it will be an interestingly varied show.
Life is bewildering at the moment. The house is having major and long deferred subsidence insurance work done and we are in temporary accommodation. We’re also having major renovations immediately following the insurance work, as this hasn’t been substantially tackled since I salvaged the derelict house nearly 40 years ago. This means immense disruption at the moment, but we look forward to returning to a brand new, 1840 house in the new year.
Part of the work involves rewiring, including a 40A cable to the new Potting Shed at the end of the garden. The kiln is ordered and as soon as we have power Northern Kilns will come and install it. The wheel that I brought with me from Harrow is already there and although it will all be very cosy there is space for a tidy studio. My journey towards old age as a potter will then commence.
When we left the house the acers were looking the best that I remember. I hope that the garden can survive the winter untended and be brought back up to standard in time for Garden Open Day next year. Meanwhile we occlude the present and look forward to a bright future.
Due to considerable, serious distractions over this past year it has been a relatively non productive period for my ceramics and the website need serious renovation as well. However, there have been some significant developments.
We’ve had a Posh Shed built at the end of the garden and this has been named “The Potting Shed”, an indication of its future purpose.
I painted the inside white leaving the wood trim unpainted to make it look a little as though it has Japanese paper screen walls
Two days ago I spent the day assembling the Dexion shelving to rehouse the pots that I have in the house and garage. Then yesterday I started to move the pots. For the large number in the garage, to avoid leaving the front door open for a long time, this meant moving them to the front doorstep in batches, then through the house to outside the garden door where they got dusted before taking them to The Potting Shed at the end of the garden. The job is about half done, but I need a break before doing the rest!
Now I need to get a 30A electricity supply to the shed and I am hoping that I can get a kiln that will fit in this corner:
If I can and I am tidy and compact, then I am sure that there will be room for my wheel, a wedging bench and a sink. Clay can live in a weather proof chest outside in what’s left of One Tree Wood. The one tree itself remains with The Potting Shed built round it.
So there are signs of life again in the old dog …..
This is the Acer that good friends helped me (or rather, I helped them) to re-pot last autumn after one of the storms blew it over and smashed it’s previous pot. It looks as though it’s been in its new position for 20 years and is about 20 feet wide in parts.
This morning I did a lot of tidying up jobs and sat on a bench to admire my work, already quite tired. My eye fell on the old brick path that we laid about 30 years ago and which needs the moss and mud scraping up once a year. Friends are coming from California in 10 days so I thought that I’d just do a tiny bit to show what it would be like when I got round to do the job properly, although the poor, overshadowed lawn will take longer to recover from the winter. Of course, a couple of hours later I’d done the whole job and was completely exhausted. I sat this time with coffee to admire my work, enhanced by the first use of a lovely porcelain mug given to me on Sunday by my ceramic teacher Kyra Cane.
That’s the only ceramic interest in this post, but I thought about what I had just done: how it looks a bit brash although not the perfect job that somebody else might have done. It made me think that until it mellows in a few days it will look a bit self-important and I see the garden as a whole, like a painting or indeed, one of my pots. No particular part should say, “Look! I’m the most important!” Every part should contribute in it’s way, unostentatiously, to the overall effect. I spend ages doing things to make it look as though everything has just happened by chance!
Picture by Sussie Ahlburg.
A lovely review of Harrow Ceramics Final Show “Material Matters” by Christina Lai has just been published in Ceramics Art and Perception, Issue 94, pp 73-77. The show was in July 2012, so it’s long after the event but very warming after the stormy, wet winter. I don’t see a way to post a link to it and I’m sure that I’m not allowed to publish the whole article here. The review is equally flattering to the history of Harrow Ceramics, the teaching staff and to each of the seven of us final graduates. Forgive me for quoting just the small part of it devoted to my work.
“…. I started with Peter Willis’ tableaux of pots in various shapes and heights of bottle kilns. Smoking, bottle-shaped hovels were an everyday sight during the 18th to mid 20th century heydays of the Staffordshire potteries. Willis’ clean, sleek forms are perfect canvasses for the unexpected. Bubbled, rugged crusty textures emerge against glossy drips of earth-toned glazes. Willis calls his work ‘an expression of concern for fellow men who labour in distressing conditions, for us to have happy and secure lives’. A personal, conflicting conscience may not be the first impression one feels, perhaps hinted only from the oxide stained streaks and contours (blood, sweat and tears?). Nevertheless it is obviously cathartic, poetic, like a subliminal watercolor painting imbued with memories.”
The pottery at Abuja, Nigeria in 1965
I have just come across this photograph that I took in December 1965 as I was driving round Nigeria in an old and indestructible Peugeot and passed through Abuja. This was long before I thought that I’d have a life in ceramics but I was interested in the local, utilitarian pots, so I stopped to investigate the pottery. It is here that Michael Cardew had worked for 15 years and he must have just left. Of course, I knew nothing about him then. When I unearth my journal of that period I’ll post contemporary impressions, but I have a distant memory of feeling disappointed that the ceramics looked rather European, although I did buy a few small pieces to bring home.
I was much more proud of a real cooking pot that I had bought in the very unsophisticated Yoruba village of Igbo-Ora where I had lived for 8 weeks and somehow I got that home as well. I still have it, grass bonfire fired earthenware, very simply decorated with a corn-cob rolled round the rim. Although it was very serviceable for cooking over an open, log fire, it is extremely fragile and I have no memory now of the miracle I invoked to get it home safely.
These simple pots were coil built, while walking round and round a smoothly hollowed out tree trunk as the base mould. Being round bottomed, cooking was done with the pot supported on three stones while three logs were slowly pushed in between them as they burnt. You could, when passing, tell that there was a village hidden nearby in the bush by the delicious, caramel smell of plantain deep frying in the boiling, amber coloured palm oil.
My half century old Igbo-Ora cooking pot.
Am I too late to recall Christmas day? In late January, winter doesn’t seem to have displaced the monsoon season yet so I’ll indulge myself.
It was a quiet day for us, anticipating our annual trip to Venice for The Great Dinner on New Year’s Eve with a group of Venetian friends. It was a bright and sunny day and our Christmas dinner was well in hand so we thought that it would be a good, rare opportunity to take Tippecanoe on a drive through the very heart of London, as there would be no commercial traffic, no congestion charge and few private cars. Only the last of these assumptions was a little out of place as those that there were, were full of people unfamiliar with London, cars full of dazzled children and bewildered drivers causing congestive cardiac failure. Thus I have a “drive your Studebaker” memory to share.
It’s only a few minutes from home along the Euston Road from King’s Cross before turning left at Park Crescent into Portland Place. I lived at International Students’ House in this handsome, Nash crescent when I was a student half a century ago. Soon passing Broadcasting House, the number of people about is quite surprising, but little traffic so crossing Oxford Circus into Regent Street is an unfamiliar breeze.
The Christmas lights of Oxford Street stretching out left and right and Regent Street glittering ahead look lovely and have attracted remarkably large crowds that increase as we progress in stately fashion down Regent Street. Tippecanoe is a great bonus for the large crowds of visitors here for the sights and lights of Piccadilly Circus and we’ll be in many people’s photographs of their Christmas visit to London. It occurs to me that the absence of public transport on this day makes it all the more remarkable that there are so many people and also makes the roads in this part of London far less congested than usual.
From Piccadilly Circus we go down Haymarket sidling across to the left ready to turn towards Trafalgar Square. This area is the cause of real confusion for drivers unfamiliar with London. However, people are always kind to Tippecanoe and we make our way through the congestion like the Queen Mum progressing through a crowded room.
Whitehall is easy going and by now dusk has set in, so the flashing of cameras is all the more startling as we turn into Parliament Square and Bridge Street where there is hardly room on the pavements for all the crowds. We turn off left along The Embankment just before Westminster Bridge and so along the Thames all the way back to Blackfriars Bridge where we turn inland again and make our way home in a now darkening London, with a quick view of the floodlit West front of St. Paul’s up Ludgate Hill. So back to Islington and the quick, final stages of cooking our traditional Christmas beef wellington.
On my way to the studio today, thinking about new glazes to make when I got there it occurred to me that I should test them, like all grown up potters. But I realized that I wasn’t going to and that led me on to thinking more deeply about what I do and why. I thought, well, it’ll be an experiment. The prospect of surprise is really exciting. Occasionally the result is dreadful, but more often pleasing and something to be worked with in future, or occasionally thrilling. I do of course make glazes for the appropriate firing range and there is always some relationship to what I am expecting, but I never quite know for sure. Same with my rough mixtures of clays and oxides to make the bodies.
Then I realized that virtually all my work is experimental. Every piece is new and different even if I have a common feel for a number of pots. I never aim to make a series looking the same (for one thing, I’m not skilful enough) and every object is a new attempt at making something fresh and new that will please me. Just to see how well an idea works, as much as anything.
But there are some important ground rules that I also fail to obey. I have put the picture of this small bottle here because I was absolutely delighted with the glaze (although the blisters are absurdly fragile). But how did I do it? Oh dear, oh dear! No record! I think I’ll remember – but of course I don’t. It’s so difficult to keep notes when your hands are covered with wet glaze. And in any case, there’s a new idea just popping up for the next pot and I must try that before I forget it. It’s all so exciting.
I’ve been bowling along this afternoon, first in Tippecanoe on his first trip to the studio, through the quiet Sunday streets, then fiddling with the new tea bowls. They’re not dry enough for bisque firing for a while yet in this weather. I am toying with idea of raw firing – all-in-one firing. It’s worked before and saves time and energy. It used to be the normal way to glaze fire pots, two firings, bisque and glost, becoming more common with commercial ceramics. They are all different (nothing to do with it being far more skilful to make them all the same, of course) but the glazes will be the same, and dramatic, I hope. But they have to be useable as tea bowls, at a push.
Somebody has just asked me about initial influences in ceramics and that made me think of childhood. We lived on solid clay outside Oxford with a 2 acre hawthorn wood alongside the house, bought for £200. A real jungle for us boys to get lost in all day! We cleared some spaces for vegetables or geese (not in the same place!) and the grubbed up hawthorn trees made great Guy Fawkes bonfires for gatherings of many friends. We noticed that the clay attached to the burnt tree roots became red brick. So the next step was to make it into little objects to fire in the kitchen Beeston Domestic Boiler, easily achieving earthenware maturing temperature. Indeed, on other occasions we’d watch lead boiling on top of the white-hot coke inside the stove. I’m waiting for the dementia to set in……
This was my second day back at the studio. We had a peaceful break in Venice for our annual gathering with friends there for the New Year but I promised myself that I’d be back at work on the first Monday of the year. The first day was mainly tidying up, stocktaking and ordering new materials. Today was the first day of making.
It’s a new project, quite different from my usual bottles, to make some tea bowls, but I’m using my usual, mixed clays to give an agate effect. I think that I may also have found a way of throwing a layer of completely different clay on the outside of part of the bowl. It’s too soon to be sure that it will work, but it’s fun trying new ideas – this one thought up after waking this morning and waiting for the alarm to say it was time to get going.
Wedging the clays today (always the hardest work of my process) followed by throwing. Then guessing how dry things will get overnight and what precautions to take, as I have to turn the still damp but firm clay tomorrow. Better still too wet than already too dry, so a loose covering of plastic sheet.
And tomorrow morning a very large delivery of clay and glaze making materials that will have come up from Devon overnight – so another early start.
But tonight, the highly praised production of “American Psycho” at our local Almeida Theatre….
Oh – and a confession. The picture is a sham! I’d already cleaned up and was about to go home when I remembered that I wanted a picture for this blog, so I got very slightly muddy again for the pose.