Sandy Brown and The Leach Pottery

On the 8th of October our final year BA Ceramics group took the bus down to Cornwall where we stayed overnight at the Penzance YHA. The purpose of the trip was to introduce us to St Ives and the surrounding area – a part of the UK which has been attracting artists to its beautiful coastline and unique light for hundreds of years. The vibrant community of artists on these shores have included Barbara Hepworth and even JMW Turner chose to paint here.

On our journey down we stopped off at the village of Appledore in Devon to visit the studio of Sandy Brown, a contemporary ceramic artist. Sandy’s brightly coloured, expressive ceramic forms range from domestic tableware to monumental abstract sculptures and ceramic chairs to be sat on. She showed us her current commission – an exploration of surface textures and colours on giant wall tiles and explained how she fires them standing up to prevent warping. There is a child-like joy to her making and an emphasis on playfulness and an abandonment of self-consciousness over precision and neatness. Interestingly, the high energy surfaces which have become characteristic of her work came about after she tried wood firing. The random and vibrant surface qualities you achieve from this kind of action-packed firing made her want to recreate similar effects but with the colours and patterns coming from her own actions instead of the kiln’s. Ironically, she wanted control over the randomness.

When asked if the landscape influenced her work she said that it wasn’t important, and that her memory of being in Australia and the vividness of the natural landscape there was more of an inspiration. However, she explained that she was drawn to being near water and spoke about the importance of stillness in her practice – not starting a piece of work unless she felt still and centred in her mind. Her colourful pieces don’t immediately strike you as to do with restraint, stillness and tranquillity as she suggests in her exhibition guide to Still Point, they lean more towards Jackson Pollock’s action paintings. However there’s a lot to be said about feeling in the right calm and ready mindset before beginning a piece of work. Speaking to porcelain artist Alison Graham at this year’s Made in Roath, she explained that yoga and breathing exercises help her get into a positive frame of mind for making. There’s a lot I can learn here as I often find myself battling against the clay when I’m in a frustrated or stressed mood and only making things worse when it doesn’t work.

Our second visit in Cornwall was to the Leach Pottery which was founded in 1920 by Leach and Hamada. Roelof Uys, head pottery at the Leach today showed us around and explained that about 20,000 pots are made on site every year, a third of which are sold in the shop there. The others go to a group of about 30 wholesalers including David Mellor who sell a selection of craft pottery and woodware by the likes of Svend Bayer and John Leach.

Apprenticeships at the Leach pottery are also sponsored by Sea Salt Cornwall, a local clothing company. As a beginner apprentice you are expected to make 600 eggcups on a kick wheel before you are allowed to progress on to other forms and an electric wheel. Roelof explained that pots don’t really sing until you learn how to make slowly. A kick wheel encourages this as you are forced to conserve energy, resulting in larger, more expressive throwing rings and a fluidity of movement. Tools he also explained, are not particularly important in the leach tradition – hands are all you need. In a more controlled way, it is the expressiveness that springs from spontaneity and freedom that the workers at the Leach are trying to capture in their own way, just like in Sandy’s work.  As Bernard Leach said in his essay ‘Towards a Standard’ ‘It is the uniformity of perfection that kills’.

The colour palette of the standard ware however is a lot more muted – an ash, dolomite and tenmoku glaze are used on most domestic vessels. Sandy, growing up with the Leach tradition taught to her as gospel, rebelled against tradition and started using brightly bough commercial glazes to challenge what was accepted as being in good taste at the time. For myself however, having never being taught glaze chemistry until university and coming from a secondary school where we only had the option of a few primary coloured shop bought glazes in gaudy colours, the Leach tradition glazes hold a charm and beautiful subtlety which I’d never encountered before.

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