THE STORY Part 1
“A life is a small history in which detail and minutiae are all.”
John Aubrey – Brief Lives circa 1690
I was born in 1934. About seven years passed before I got my hands on some clay. It was the early years of WW2 my brother and sister had been evacuated along with all the other kids in London. I was ill and had to stay home, but the schools were closed so I was left to entertain myself. I did this by digging deep holes in the back yard of 2 Greyhound Road, Fulham.
The holes grew into trenches which I covered with old enamel advertising signs and then heaped with the spoil. I lit fires and burnt myself with molten lead and sealing wax. I lived a busy and dangerous life between breakfast and dinner time. I got down to the yellow London clay from which I made model Anderson shelters. I gave them the authentic look by pressing corrugated cardboard into the surface.
It has been said that enjoying making mud pies or playing with fire are the pre-requisites for a life as a potter. I did a great deal of both. Hindsight tells me I didn’t seem to have a choice.
Time passed, the war ended and after doing two years national service in the RAF I returned to civvy street determined to find a route out of the dull working life that beckoned. I knew nothing. I started making sculpture with plaster of Paris from the local ironmongers slapped on to armatures made from wire salvaged from eggboxes. Someone had shown me some pictures of works by Giacometti. I was hooked. By a process of mutual attraction, no Facebook or Twitter then, I got together with a group of friends, all working their way towards a more fulfilling life than might have ordinarily been our lot. Listening to jazz, visiting museums, going to concerts and exhibitions, meeting together making “art” and above all discussing and arguing about everything under the sun.
We were lucky to be living in London.
It was sometime in 1955 when a friend who worked for British Rail brought me two lumps of dry clay in the form of tubes about six inches in diameter. They were auger castings from a bridge survey down in Devon. I vividly remember the evening I put them into a bowl of warm water. I stood for what seemed like hours, working the clay with my hands, trying to hasten the transformation from dry clay to slurry, enjoying the feel of it. I set the slurry on a plank of wood to dry out and soon got it thick enough to layer onto one of my wire armatures as I had done with the plaster.
The feel of the clay was much more enticing than the plaster. After a couple of days, the clay lost its moisture, shrinking on the unmoving armature and the model started cracking up. I was very disappointed, but I had learnt, at first hand, a lesson about the characteristics of this seductive material. Next I tried making very small things, beads and medallions.
When they had stiffened in the drying process I put them in a baked bean tin and put them in the fire in the living room. Pretty soon they started to explode and bits of hot clay were flung across the room. Exciting and puzzling at the same time. The time had come for a bit of formal instruction. I signed up for an evening class at Putney Art School where I was lucky enough to meet Harry Horlock Stringer who gave me some sound basic instruction.
The evening class was pretty busy and there were only three potters’ wheels. Everyone had to wait for a turn and the allotted time zipped by. I learnt fast.
When the wheel was not available to me I made dishes in moulds, but it was the skill of throwing that held me in thrall. (see film footage 1965) A lump of clay made into a hollow form in a few dextrous minutes – endlessly rewarding.
More time elapsed and I moved to 86, Claybrook Road (now demolished).
Occupying the upstairs flat I laid claim to the coal cellar. A cramped space with headroom at about 5ft. 6ins. (1m68cm) and from somewhere I bought a second hand, home built, “death trap” potters wheel. It was cheap and somewhat unique. Driven by an electric motor connected to a large disc via a rubber belt, the speed variation was achieved by raising and lowering a pair of electrodes, connected to the mains electricity, into a plastic lavatory brush holder filled with salt water.
The electrodes hung on a cord attached to a broom handle pivoted at the centre. It gave off some kind of gas, which failed to asphyxiate me. I went to work during the day and taught myself advanced throwing techniques at night. I was keen.
I needed to stay alive so I set about building a Saviac geared kick wheel designed by David Ballantyne – a very clever man. I still have his plans and the correspondence.
Indeed I still have the wheel. On a visit to St. Ives (a pilgrimage?) somewhere around 1959 I told Bernard Leach about the Saviac Wheel. He was a bit sniffy and called it “a great cumbrous thing”. He was wrong. Later I had a St. Ives kick wheel as well, and comparing the two was like putting a Trabant and a Citroen DS side by side.
The pots began to accumulate and I needed to fire them. I bought a small second hand kiln and managed to get that down the narrow stairs into the cellar. The six kilowatt kiln was almost beyond the limit of the normal domestic power supply. The cable I ran down the stairs from the flat got warm during firings!
In addition to thrown pots I made moulded dishes and began to sell to anyone interested enough to part with some money. For a short time some of the dishes were marked CBP
and some were sold to Dryads, an old fashioned firm near the British Museum that specialized in craft tools and materials. I also began selling to Heals of Tottenham Court Road.
A noted collector from Holland, Van Achterburgh had seen some work that interested him and he sent a Dutch potter Jan de Rooden as his trusted buyer. Van Achterburgh had a large collection of contemporary studio ceramics from all over Europe which was shown at the Boymanns Museum in Rotterdam and some of my thrown work was included. In a few short years, with very little money and hardly any tuition I had taken the first steps towards a new life.
By this time I had got hold of two books. “ A Potters Book” by Bernard Leach and the Faber monograph “Artist Potters in England” by Muriel Rose.
Both gave me inspiration and depression in about equal measure. I wanted it to be me making those pots, running a pottery full time, but try as I may I could only see people with money and education behind them being able to carve out a career in what was a somewhat esoteric calling. The questions were - How do I get more time to work with clay? How do I move from a small terrace house in Fulham with severely limited space to somewhere with greater potential? A moment of inspiration – I will become a school teacher. They have long holidays and better pay than a lowly clerk working in Ealing Town Hall.
There was a snag when I looked into it. I had missed the eleven-plus examination while on an extended convalescence in Switzerland. My Secondary Modern schooling had let me down, and to be fair, I had probably helped to ensure my lack of qualifications would come back to bite me. Why do homework when you can go out on your bike, for my passion by that time, 1948/49/50 was riding the bike, training for the occasional road race.
Back to my future. The date was 1959. I applied to London University for special entry for teacher training. A couple of days taking tests and writing stuff, proving I had enough brain cells and I was accepted. I still had to pass the interview so I toddled off to Trent Park Training College wearing a borrowed tweed suit because I thought it made me look like a schoolmaster. I took a bag of pots as proof of my worth, but nobody was interested. I kept offering to show them my work and they kept asking me questions about children and why did I want to teach. Not unreasonable when you think about it. For some reason they accepted me. I was in and going at an oblique trajectory towards my goal. I really should have tried for art school, to which I was better suited, but no one told me that you didn’t have to be a genius to apply. I was fumbling in the dark towards a distant goal. I was naïve and lacked confidence.
The two years from 1960 to 1962 were transformative. Going to Trent Park turned out to be the best bit of luck I have ever had because I met the woman who eventually became my wife, my life long companion, supporter in all my endeavours, and mother of our two boys.
I worked hard and did well. The academic studies were a pleasure; the practical skills were a breeze. I travelled daily from Barons Court to Cockfosters and back which gave me time to read widely about all aspects of my studies including ceramics. I also made a lot of pots, some of which I sold, others were kept for my final exhibition
which counted for a significant proportion of the assessment of the success or failure of my studies. I passed with distinction.
Around 1961 I became an early member of the Craftsman Potters Association and got a number TP102. How many numbers do we have to identify us? I was determined to be identified by my work. Honey glazed earthenware was my stock in trade, soon moving on to oxidized stoneware.
The only fly in the ointment was the teaching. I did it, but I didn’t really enjoy it. My mind was elsewhere.
In 1963 I had my first one man show at the Craftsmen Potters Association in Lowndes Court off Carnaby Street. No photographs of that show exist, but drawings do
which give an idea of my work. After one year I had left full time teaching and took part time pottery teaching at the Central London Institute and Paddington Technical College where, oddly enough, I had Hans Coper’s son as a pupil. He seemed unmoved by the eminence of his father as a renowned ceramist and took little interest in the subject. He had his own path to tread. Everyone has to make their own mark in life and I was energetically engaged in making mine.