The distinguished Harrow School of Art had been incorporated into the University of Westminster and being accepted as a half time student for the BA in ceramics I was now, four decades after the first time, a university undergraduate again.
It was a close shave. Just after the Final Show of the previous graduating class the whole department of Media, Arts & Design burnt down in a spectacular fire. The successful and extraordinary labours of the Head of Course, Kyra Cane and her team during that summer holiday meant that we had a huge, temporary tent and all new equipment to start the course on time for the new academic year. Some things weren’t there yet, but it takes a while to get things made ready for firing and by the time they were dry enough, the new kilns – lots of them – had been installed in their new building.
I should be introspective for a moment and write about the emotional basis for my work. I have always felt concerned about the poor conditions that huge numbers of our fellows still and always have worked under to make life comfortable for those of us who are (relatively) extremely privileged. To me the photographs by Sebastião Salgado of open cast mining are an uncomfortable reminder and in our own country, not so long ago, the conditions of the workers in the Potteries were life shortening and impoverishing. Thus the pretty, Wedgwood ornaments that we put on the mantelpiece came from the exploitation of many of our society.
It seems to me that millions of humanity will not for ever accept this exploitation and that sooner or later the comfortable, middle class life that I lead will be assaulted from below or within by huge and unknown forces.
I wasn’t conscious of this influence for a long time, but looking back on the things that I made from the very earliest days I see it at work. As I became more aware of it, it took different forms, but has almost always been there although after a phase illustrated here I have tried to tame it so that it isn’t too blatant. I realise that you don’t need to know about it: I really want the work to be seen as at least attractive and I would love it to be seen as beautiful. If that derives from my disturbed conscience then I am more than content.
Another idea was to make smooth, “clasical” pots that I then attacked by hitting, stabbing or throwing stones at them. (I missed more often than hit them.)
Here’s a picture from one of our “Interim Shows” about the time that my style was about to change towards what I have been doing, so far, ever since:
We had great teachers at Harrow, without exception. In our first year, here was Daphne Carnegy again, teaching us physics, chemistry and geology, glaze making and all the basics for the years to come. I was fortunate in having a scientific background, already knowing the symbols for the elements, understanding valency and the difference between oxidation and reduction. What a crash course for many of the others! There was enough for me to learn without all that.
Most of us were “mature” students but I was at least a generation older than the next oldest. We were a dwindling corpus as the university quickly announced that our ceramics course was to be sacrificed to keep the rising tide of accountants away from the other arts courses for a few years. As colleagues graduated, there were no more following in our wake. In the end there were just 7 of us half timers, bribed to get through the six year course in five so that they could get rid of us. This was very hard on our teachers, but their attention to us and our development was never less than inspirational and we got quite exceptional attention.
University isn’t just about learning a subject from books and lectures. We learn from each other as well and being mature students we had a great variety of backgrounds. Mutual criticism, comments, advice and companionship – and maybe some competition – is both enjoyable and valuable. I’d work away at my wheel in the corner (a choice spot allotted to me by my colleagues) listening and learning. And occasioanally commenting. And of course, I have a long memory of stories from times past and lost.
My work began to change as I realised that for me, throwing is the most expressive and rewarding way of working. The quick results and the creative input of the process itself add to the excitement. The considerable physical effort involved in wedging the clays and throwing, specially for large pots, is symbolic of the struggle they represent. In this next phase, the ragged tops of many of the pots represent the threat to a comfortable way of life. And as always, from the very beginning, I was doing all I could to incorporate the exciting “colour and texture” that I find thrilling in other people’s work. Talking of which, after a lifetime of collecting and admiring other potters’ and artists’ work, to acknowledge the many people that have influenced me would be an impossible task, but how very, very much they have inspired me! Much of it must be quite subliminal.
We all enjoyed the tradition of parties at Harrow, all contributing to the spread and it did a lot for the spirit of community. Here are some pictures of one Christmas party:
The very first day of our final academic year happened to be my 70th birthday. I thought that I should take in a cake to mark the occasion. When I arrived I found the studio decorated for a party and eveybody had brought food and drink. A really moving and wonderful surprise.
I started to use mixed clays for my throwing, from earthenware to porcelain, often with oxides or other inclusions mixed with some of the bodies. I wanted the resulting pots to be rough and dark at the bottom, gradually becoming smoother and lighter at the top. I tried but failed to find a way of throwing a lump of mixed clay in a way that predictably brought particular clays out at the top, so I started throwning the pots in two or three sections with different mixtures in each and then assembling them when firm enough to handle. And about now I found that I was calling them bottles, rather than pots.
My interest in the Potteries, encouraged by two field trips from Harrow for weekends exploring industrial processes from brick making, slip casting toilets and the Wedgwood works to the design of Jaguar cars (Really! No cameras allowed!) led me to the realisation that the bottle kilns were the perfect inspiration for this thrower. I had always loved them and here was the embodiment of my social concerns in a beautiful building style that has been the inspiration for the shape of all my bottles since.
At university I found myself doing all sorts of things I’d never dreamed that I’d do. Life drawing, a course in Modernism, Print making – which I loved and returned to for a particular module that had to be non ceramic. There was a wonderful module doing an in-depth study of a conserved ceramic work more than 100 years old. The investigation of a ceramic mural salvaged from a local pub in my GP’s waiting room took me to Ironbridge to interview the woman who restored it and a fascinating study of the history of King’s Cross and the Caledonian Road – and it’s a truely remarkable mural too.
On another of our excursions we took over a youth hostel on the rugged Pembrokeshire coast for some days of drawing, painting, constructions on the beach, walking and conviviality over excellent evening meals. The rock formations and colours were inspiring for my work and also for the later print-making that I enjoyed so much.
As the end of the course approached we moved into the remains of the old, burnt out department and the huge, temporary tent that had been our home for 4 years was removed. This left us with a 300 yard journey between the throwing and glazing studios and the kilns, increasingly across a building site.
For a brief period the university authorities forgot we were still there and the route was completely obstructed. Making this journey at least four times with each pot was at best hazardous and occasionally disastrous.