Three New Starts

The war over, demobbed, I faced my Rubicon. I could have remained in Derby and become a potter and teacher. However, I crossed over and chose the art education side where every pupil was to be enabled to develop his/her aptitude and where the grammarians and technocrats were to step down from their ivory towers to help in the developing of the individuality rather than in the the shaping of it to a pattern. 

The Fifties were great but the dream began to fade in the Sixties, was gone in the Seventies and now I’m glad to be out of it …120 Art Schools closed … Tech/Grammarian take over the rest … 

Having retired from the education world I returned to full time Clay working after an exile of more than 30 years (except for 3 brief visits of 1 month each) and decided to go back to the point where I’d been in 1939; so it’s not surprising that people felt a certain Rip Van Winkle atmosphere in an exhibition of my work in London in 1981 and again in 1984.

Emerging from the working life of an Art Inspector and its 90% administration into the present world of ceramics is, in some ways, an enviable experience. There now obtains an inversion of old tenets, for instance all gone are the gods of functionalism, limitations of the medium, painting for posterity, exploiting a medium exclusively within those boundaries said to be peculiar to that medium e.g. earthenware should not attempt to emulate stoneware and vice versa, porcelain is different from both and should only be used in a manner suited to its own qualities etc. etc. Such an emerging potter would not have seen auto-destructive art, where a fabric printer used an acid medium so that the printed cloth went into holes and disintegrated within hours of being finished. 

“A blind man suddenly see’s and everywhere is wonder … Welding, etching, corroding, smoking, breaking and reassembling, coarse, fine, smooth, rough, mixed media, new materials, purism all gone … you know them all and may even be a little blasé about it, but, to me, life is full of wonder and infinite possibility.”

Obviously, I have to accept the label of being dated, the above proves this to be so; however, both concept and enrichment of my pots is through abstraction and working visually into and not onto a surface — this, I submit, is timeless. The pursuit of splash and flick, spot and smudge, pour and splodge, multicoloured lines and dots etc. results in a facile surface treatment of occasional charm; the novelty of a rough glaze and/or body in a new coat; the production of asymmetric shape of accidental limp lumpiness; the reliance upon the colour manufacturer for a range of new surface treatments – all must come and go as does fashion in dress.

Surely such aids only have justification when used as assistants in the hard-fought search for true abstraction — the expression of a concept derived from an inner and/or outer visual source — this is dateless. So, I believed in 1938 and, when beginning again in earnest in 1978, this was the position from which I worked towards the present, going through a transition which might have happened years ago had I continued in Derby.

Recently there has been a comment which indicates my work is type cast as being confined to the tall and narrow. There is, no deep psychological or metaphysical reason for this partially true fact. It has happened because, on coming back to throwing, I have had to re-achieve each time my expertise and the making of many tall cylinders seemed to be the quickest way of doing this.

Therefore, having made three new starts, my tall pots heavily outnumber the fuller shapes — the great advantage of height is that it enables me to exploit the maximum variations of profile, i.e., the longer the line the greater the opportunity for change and accent. One source of line (or profile), I used on many occasions, was from the skyline profiles of Scottish and Irish mountains. During the last year there has been a feeling of “catching up” via the production of some platters and roundels which, though basically stoneware (Hyplas and T. material), are fired three or four times ending at 860 degrees C., using several forms of engobe. These platters are my exploitation of being trained in painting and they form, I hope, a synthesis between a painter’s feeling for paint and a potter’s love of clay — the 3D thrown pot has been supplanted by the flat surface with clay qualities — an enriched “canvas”.

For the moment my back is turned upon the stoneware greys and I am using coloured engobes and exploiting glazes which used to be discarded as faulty, e.g., those which bubble, crater, crawl, crackle an~ craze, pinhole crystallise and surface mist and breakup. With these are incorporated ceramic materials such as board, blanket and fibre glass soaked in colour, body and/or glaze; in fact, any material which will stand up to 850 degrees C. if it will adhere with slip or glaze … a far cry from puritanic stoneware.

One of my first memories, when being trained as a teacher, was seeing a child, running in from the playground, filled with excitement about a happening and vainly struggling with words to give it expression to the teacher and stamping the floor with frustration at her inability. At this moment it seemed to me that the main purpose of education was not to encourage the storing up of facts, and then delivering them up on request but should be more to do with enabling people to communicate in that medium which was suited to them. The child above was using the hardest medium of all and could have done much better saying its say in music or drama or paint or clay or maths etc.

“We are gregarious animals and as such have a basic need to communicate. So we, in education, believed in the 50’s. This digression is to explain the violent change which has taken place in my work. After years of self-assurance in the stoneware of the R.C.A. in the 30’s era, I began to see that my products were being created in a Diogenes-like aesthetic.

True there was no hang-up about whether potters were artists or not, but not only was there a turning away from function but there was also a rejection of others in our time. Staite Murray received his impetus from old Japan, Sam Haile from Mythology, H. Hammond from far Eastern brushwork and mine moved towards Cubism. Looking back, it seems as though none of us attempted to communicate with others – in general we stayed in our tubs, and it has taken me 50 years to climb out of mine.

I attempt now, via my platters, not so much to present a ready-made visual statement of an environment, but to put before the spectator a series of hints about the existence of earth, fire, air and water, and so to set them down that a dialogue between her/him and me can take place. This involvement can bring about a contribution from the other person’s imagination and mutual interplay can take place — a conversation of a kind with words reduced to a minimum has often happened and, as it does, I am reminded once again of the child running in frustrated by lack of fluent speech, my onlooker and I can communicate with a minimum of that most difficult medium. 

“In beginning again, it was impossible for me to free myself entirely from the past — the anarchy was too great — so I decided to retain one lifeline: the Vessel.”

Using a slabber, I produced a 24″ wide by 5/8″ thick sheet of clay which was about 26″ long. To encourage this to become a container demanded the formation of sides therefore it was natural to erect a wall. There was, to hand, a flat strip which had been cut off the slab because, in moving away from the roller, the clay had elongated its shape too much (even as I write this, I realise how conditioned to the circle I am by throwing). This strip did not go far round the slab, thus the opposing edge had to be lifted slightly to “dish” the shape (see Platter I).

The next series was involved in lifting the edge to increasing heights, the overall plan view moving towards the rectangular (Platter II). After this there was an urge to return to the round but at the same time a desire to retain the flat “canvas”. The slab was placed upon a circular bat and put on the wheel — continuous vertical walls were erected, being made from the surplus cut away from the edges overhanging the bat. These walls were placed within the edge of the slab, because, although the potter still thought of his vessel, the painter began to take over and to incorporate them as textured units within the overall design and to move them within confines of his canvas as suited his concept. (Platter III).

In the later stages it is hardly surprising to see the inevitable synthesis take place where the walls are taken over by both potter and painter to form a thrown frame around all. This frame is a container in all senses standing up as it does 3/4″ 1 1/2″ in height and satisfying the painter’s traditional practice of containing his canvas. (Platter IV). Decorating the platters is in the same vein as the making. The plastic clay provides the potter with all his options of impressing, of scratching, of taking away and of applying processes. The engobes enable the painter to experience his pleasures in thin washes, heavy impasto, knifing, scumbling etc. He also has a bonus because the three-dimensionally treated clay surface is so much more exciting to paint upon than a plain primed canvas and the facets add colour to colours.

My lowest engobe firing is only 850 degrees C., and therefore enables further enrichment by the incorporation of any material which will stand this temperature, metal, glass, rock, even bone.

“The future? Well, the present scope is vast, but the space scene is making even wider horizons come into view by producing higher fired ceramics, light weight substances and heat shock resisting materials. Are we not lucky that there seems to be no end to all the variations possible in our craft once we cross the boundaries of tradition? Next year I’ll … and after that … 

and then …”

The Creative Space

Once home to several thousand chickens, the sheds became a place of retreat, space for Bob to experiment, throw, glaze, and fire countless ceramic pieces.

 ‘If it wasn’t of a high enough standard, he would smash it there and then’ – Maurice Barrett would later recall.

 As well as a place of work, it also afforded Bob space to organize and sequence his work, to step back and reflect upon his craft.

“This space is hardly describable as an exhibition because there is too much in it – I use it to set out the work chronologically to see where I have been, what now and where next.”