Richard Batterham: A Potter’s Potter

Richard Batterham booksI am looking at two complimentary books that celebrate the work of Richard Batterham, the quiet and deeply revered UK potter who passed in 2021 at the age of 85. I like them both and think that if you are a potter, or a lover of handmade pottery, you will too.

Richard Batterham: 1936-2021 is the Goldmark exhibition catalog by Mike Dodd that accompanied the show and sale of Dodd’s personal collection of Batterham pots. It is illustrated with the richly evocative Jay Goldmark photographs we have come to expect from Goldmark catalogs plus some wonderful Ben Boswell portraits of Batterham at work in his shop. I so enjoy photos of potters at work.

The second, Richard Batterham: Studio Potter is a lavish hardcover from the Victoria & Albert Museum that also accompanied an exhibition. It begins with an early essay Batterham wrote about his work (writing about his work was something he seldom did). Thoughtful essays by Sarah Griffin, Tanya Harrod, Nigel Wood, Garry Fabian Miller, George Young and Rebecca Knott and Rebecca Luffman follow. Full and half page photos of individual pots and small groups of pots fill more than half the book.

Batterham made jars, boxes, caddies, bowls, tazzas, jugs, bottles, teapots and what he called “everyday pots” such as soup bowls and mugs. He made his glazes from various wood ashes and feldspars and fired in a three-chambered combination wood and oil kiln that he built. When asked why he used a kick wheel, he said, “…all the best pots were made on wheels such as this, why should I want anything else?”

When he was 13, his father sent him to Bryanston School in Dorset where he was introduced to pottery. His teacher, the aptly named Donald “Don” Potter, did not teach in the do this, do that manner, but  encouraged and urged and drew out the best in his students. He was a huge influence on Batterham, who spent most of his last two years at the school in the pot shop.

Later, National Service, he joined the Leach Pottery as an unpaid apprentice. Here he met Dinah Dunn, whom he married, and Atsuya Hamada, the son of Shoji Hamada, who became a lifelong friend. Batterham’s kick wheel was modeled after Atsuya’s.

Batterham worked slowly and quietly, and paid no attention to trends, contemporary art criticism or the buzz of the gallery world. He believed that this quiet, focused life was important to his work. Outside his workshop, he kept vats for drying clay and grew fruits and vegetables for Dinah and their five children. Inside, he paid close attention to the details of his pots. His handles were unparalleled. He made his signature split or double rim jug repeatedly, in various sizes and glazes but always with the same form. His caddies could be massive. He limited his decoration to a few simple incised or raised lines. It was the shape and feel of his pots that interested him most. They did not require ornamentation.

Despite his lack of interest in the competitive show world that defined much of 20th  and now 21sr century ceramics, Batterham did agree to show, setting his very best pots aside for these occasions. Other potters admired his work. Unable to pot after 2019 due to failing health, he participated in the making of Richard Batterham: Studio Potter.

Mike Dodd book and jugMIKE DODD

Mike Dodd attended Bryanston seven years after Batterham and was also deeply influenced by Don Potter. Later he periodically visited Batterham and collected his pots,  a collection that was the basis of the Goldmark exhibit. So, it seems appropriate to include Sebastian Blackie’s catalog for Goldmark, Mike Dodd: Shaping the Land, here. I do not own any Batterham pots but I do have a small jug by Dodd that I treasure. This is the fifth little book on Mike Dodd that Goldmark has produced.

Dodd is a classic potter. He embraces tradition as inspiration, as a starting point for his work but not as an end. His pots are deeply rooted in their origins. He gathers his own materials: clays, feldspars, granites, basalt, river iron and silicas from the landscape that surrounds his studio. He uses ashes from local trees and plants. Dodd is a master of his materials. He is known for his large covered jars, vases, bowls, jugs and platters all made with materials he has sourced himself.

These books have been on my shelves for a year now. I pick them up and look at them in free moments and wish I could actually lift the pots off the pages and hold them. I recommend each of these books to potters and connoisseurs everywhere. Even a potter who buys glazes in jars and perhaps spends hours in intricate decoration, will be moved by the honest beauty of the pots of these two potters.

Richard Batterhan 1936-2021, Mike Dodd, Goldmark Gallery

Richard Batterham: Studio Potter 978-1-83851-028-2, V&A Publishing

Mike Dodd, Sebastian Blackie, Goldmark Gallery

Commeraw’s Stoneware

           If you read one book on ceramics history this year, or even just one book on ceramics, make it A. Brandt Zipp’s densely researched and richly illustrated book about Thomas W. Commeraw, Commeraw’s Stoneware: The Life and Work of the First African-American Pottery Owner. Commeraw’s robust stoneware, his jugs and jars, the sure-handed cobalt decorations, have long been esteemed by collectors and connoisseurs of early American pottery, but little was known about the potter himself. It was assumed that, like his contemporaries working in the late 18th and early 19th century Lower East Side of Manhattan, he was white. The well-known ceramic historian William Ketchum even argued that he was of French extraction, a misconception that grew into myth and stuck for years.

            Zipp, is a founding partner of Crocker Farm, the premier auction house specializing in historic, utilitarian American ceramics. He grew up steeped in knowledge and appreciation of early American pottery. While researching another potter, Henry Remmey, a contemporary and neighbor of Commeraw’s, he saw a B after Commeraw’s name in the 1810 census.  At first perplexed, but looking further in the census records, he discovered that the B was for black.  Commeraw was listed as black in the 1800 census with a household consisting of 6 people of color. Thomas Commeraw, the famous stoneware potter favored by collectors and museums, was not a white man of French heritage, but a free African-American.

            After this startling and important discovery, Zipp spent almost two decades researching Commeraw’s life, sharing what he learned in lectures and essays. I believe there were some university presses who were interested in publishing the results of his work. However, Crocker Farm publishes wonderful catalogs of their auctions and so brought that sensibility to this project. They published the book with an astonishing wealth of illustrations. Turning the pages, looking at pot after pot, you feel an intimacy with the work. With Zipp’s guidance, we see Commeraw’s handles change, his efficiencies evolve. Zipp also shares his research journey, how and where he learned various details and facts. He includes illustrations of the primary sources he relied upon. The book is well documented with notes and, always a criterion for me, a good index

            Even without Zipp’s research, Commeraw was known as an extraordinary and influential potter. He was one of the first, if not the first, to stamp his brand on his pots. He sold his wares well beyond New York. Other potters imitated him. But now we know that as a child he was enslaved by the potter William Crolius and received his freedom upon Crolius’ death. We know about his leadership roles in his community and his church, his abolitionist activism at a time when most blacks in this country were enslaved, his singing, his optimism when he and his family left to found Liberia, only to return to the US disappointed. And now we know that this enterprising potter, long assumed to be a white craftsman, was a free black man who made magnificent pots working for himself.

            Do yourself a favor: Read this book. I will reread it before the year is out.

Commeraw’s Stoneware: The Life and Work of the First African-American Pottey Owner by A. Brandt Zipp (979-8-218-00290-9)

Mary Fox Memoir

Canadian potter Mary Fox shares her professional and personal experiences and insights in her memoir, Mary Fox, My Life as a Potter published by Harbour Publishing. Fox is known for two astonishingly different bodies of work; her elegantly simple functional ware, and her sculptural chalices with soaring stems mounted in found rocks.   She began her life in clay as a teen. During her early years, she focused on production pottery, masterfully throwing matching mugs, bowls, dinner plates and earning a living.

Tragedy struck when she was just thirty and coming into her own creatively. She and her beloved partner Heather were incapacitated with a debilitating disease, later diagnosed as myalgic encephalomyelitis (sometimes called chronic fatigue syndrome). Fox was unable to work for five years. Gradually, she regained much of her health and could make pots again but Heather’s  decline required hours of draining care- giving. Heather died in 2007.

The pain of illness and loss had a profound impact on Fox, which she frankly discusses and confronts in the book. Her focus though, is sharing with the reader what she was making, what she was thinking about in the studio, the various processes she was experimenting with, and the risks she was taking. We see her build her studios, raise her house to two floors, add a gallery space, and buy and learn to fire a computerized Blaauw gas kiln. She frees herself from decorating her tableware, even though it is popular, falls in love with lithium glazes, shifts her selling strategy, and collects interesting rocks to use as pedestals. She pushes both herself and her clay to make ever taller and thinner stems for her sculptural chalices. Eventually, she collaborates with glass blowers. Committed to giving younger potters and future generations of potters time, space and a good footing, she has begun The Legacy Project. Her home, equipped studio and gallery, supported by an endowment she is working to fund, will be a place where young potters can come and work for a few months unencumbered and undistracted.

Fox calls this book My Life as a Potter but she could easily have called it Adventures in Clay. It is a  chronicle of her artistic journey. We have too few potter’s memoirs, I think. This is a good start.

 

Mary Fox: My Life As A Potter, Stories and Techniques

978-1-55017-938-5

 

Life in the Studio

Frances Palmer’s work has been featured in numerous design publications such as T, The New York Times style magazine, Elle Decor, Martha Stewart Living, and others. Bergdorf Goodman, Barney’s of New York and other high end have carried her pieces. This month, Artisan published her lavishly illustrated memoir, Life in the Studio: Inspiration and Lessons in Creativity.

I love to read memoirs, especially memoirs of potters and gardeners. This is both. Palmer, who lives in a rural town in what we in Connecticut call the Gold Coast, home to many affluent residents with jobsin New York City, has a beautiful purpose-built barn for a studio.  Actually, she and her husband did not initially build it with the intention that she take over the whole thing, but you know how potters are. She makes her pots, mostly vases, on the first floor. She uses the second floor to pack and ship them and more importantly photograph them.  She stores her dahlia tubers in the cool basement.

Palmer’s cutting garden.

Outside the studio, on an old fenced-in tennis court, she grows masses of flowers in raised beds. She cuts and gathers the flowers and uses them to create extravagant arrangements in her vases. She photographs these tableaus in the natural light of an east window of the barn in the morning and a west window in the afternoon.

Palmer thinks of herself as primarily a potter, and it is pots that she sells. However, it’s her dramatic photos that have brought her 72,100 followers on Instagram. She also has a horticultural reputation and teaches a class on growing dahlias at the New York Botanical Garden.

In addition to vases, Palmer makes cake stands, fruit bowls with pedestals, pitchers, and planters embellished with fluting, sprigs, and beading. She works on the wheel, hand builds and uses her own drape molds. She works primarily with porcelain but also uses a red earthenware clay which she glazes only on the inside. Recently she added a wood burning kiln to her studio.

In Life in the Studio, Palmer shares her methods of making, tips on growing flowers, and a few favorite recipes. She tells us how she and her work have grown and evolved through the years, how she came to photography, and what her hopes are for the future. If that isn’t enough, the book is nicely laid out and seductively pretty.

A delightful memoir

978-1-57965-905-9

 

On Color

On Color by David Scott Kastan with Stephen Farthing is a discursive look at color through the lens of art, literature and material culture. It began as a series of discussions between Kastan, a professor of English at Yale and Farthing, an artist and Emeritus Fellow at St. Edmund Hall, the University of Oxford. Happily, they decided to share their thoughts and turned their private chats into a book of provocative essays.

Through chapters with such headings as “Orange is the New Brown,” “White Lies,” “Basic Black” and “At the Violet Hour,” the discussion ranges from Audrey Hepburn’s dress in Breakfast at Tiffany’s to Monet’s waterlily paintings to Moby Dick. They touch on the science – physics – of color, and what it means to see a color – when you see red is it the same red I see? -but their emphasis is on the many, sometimes conflicting, connotations we give to colors.

Luis Egidio Meléndez, National Gallery, London

When they write of art, they mean paintings and actual paint. There are no ceramics in this book except as included in a painting by Luis Egidio Meléndez. Still, I found their ideas useful and thought provoking. In “Moody Blues” they contemplate “something blue” and “true blue” as well as the blues and what a blue note is. “In Dy(e)ing for Indigo” (they treat indigo and blue separately) they examine the difficult and stinking labor involved in producing the dye and the dependence of dye production on slavery.

I found my mind wandering to the long history of cobalt blue in ceramics in China, Persia, and the Netherlands. I thought of the blue brush work on salt glazed jugs that early American potters favored. The palette I use in my work is earth toned and subdued but lately, I have been putting bands of cobalt on my rolled-rim bowls. These were inspired by my grandmother’s large mixing bowl. Hers was factory made, probably in the thirties. Each time I put a blue stripe on one of my bowls, I think of her, her kitchen, and the cabinet my grandfather made where she kept the bowl. These blue stripes often inspire memories in others. They will tell me about their grandmother or say that their mother had a bowl with brown stripes. So, I add these personal meanings to the meanings that Kastan and Farthing give.

I like the breadth of On Color. It added to my understanding of color and stimulated me to think about color in new ways. It is a rich and useful read.

 

 

On Color,Yale University Press

Don Potter Master of Many Crafts

Mixed wood ash glazed pot by Don Potter.

How could a potter with such a perfect name as Don Potter have left my consciousness? I know I had read briefly about Don Potter in Phil Rogers’ book Ash Glazes because I have two well-read editions the book on my shelves. Yet but despite his perfect name, he slipped my mind completely, until I read about him in Mike Dodd’s autobiography. Dodd not only praised Potter profusely, but recommended Vivienne Light’s book about him, Don Potter: an inspiring centurypublished by Canterton Books in 2002. Only a thousand copies were printed, but I was able to get a nice clean copy.

The man was a genius. He was a master of many crafts: metalwork, woodcarving, stone carving, lettering, and pottery. In addition, he was a talented cellist and expert lassoist. And an inspiring teacher.

He had studied direct carving with the great sculptor Eric Gill but knew nothing of pottery when he accepted a teaching position at Bryanston School where he would be teaching ceramics as well metal and wood.  He turned first to Amy Krauss for instruction, so that he could stay ahead of the pottery students. Once the first year was over, he sought out Michael Cardew and Ray Finch quickly becoming highly skilled and a master of form. He dug clay and mixed glazes for himself and the students and became a fierce advocate of using local materials. The only thing he purchased was sand!

The pottery workshop at Bryanston was in the dark and dusty basement. Potter tore down the old coal fired earthenware kiln, and built a wood-fired stoneware kiln. Students recalled that he “lugged a great oxygen cylinder from the metalwork department” (which he also taught) and the “temperature soared.” Indeed, more than once the walls of the stairwell glowed when the he was firing the kiln!

Potter would take small groups of students to visit Katherine Pleydell-Bouverie where they could watch her work and look at her collection of pots. He invited Ladi Kwali to come to the school and demonstrate. He encouraged his students to look at pots wherever they went. In each of the disciplines he taught, there were students who went on to make it their life’s work and who achieved greatness. In pottery, in addition to Mike Dodd, Richard Batterham credits him as the inspiration for his career in clay. Other of his pottery students who went on to great success include Rodney Lawrence, Kit Opie, Michael Gill, and Terrance Conran who made a career in design and as a tastemaker.

Of course, I wished there were more pages devoted to Potter’s pottery – and more photos – but the chapters on metal, wood, stone and lettering are interesting also, if not quite as engrossing to me personally as the clay chapter. By the end of the book though, I was glad to have met this man, if only on the printed page: a man who could do almost anything with his hands. He was a maker and an artist, yet, as Light makes clear, he also thought deeply about the work he was doing.

Alan Caiger-Smith and the Legacy of Aldermaston Pottery

Book cover“First experiments involved rolling mothballs down a slide into the saggar, and also inserting oily rags at the ends of sticks, but neither were successful, with Caiger-Smith nearly losing his eyebrows in the process. Then he had a brainwave and inserted pieces of fudge on a long metal rod, these melted as soon as they started to burn, enabling more fudge to be immediately inserted, so keeping up the reduction without the risk of being gassed. At last there was success,” Jane White writes in her brilliant new book, Alan Caiger-Smith and the Legacy of Aldermaston Potter

Caiger-Smith spent years perfecting his highly prized lustreware inspired by the luminous pots made in 800 CE in what is now Iraq and later in Spain and

Lustre pitcher by Alan Caiger-Smith

Italy during the Middle Ages. By the twentieth century though fine examples of lustreware could be seen in museums and mosques, knowledge of how to achieve this effect were forgotten.

From his earliest potting years, Caiger-Smith was intrigued with the beauty of

lustre, preferring it to the Chinese and Japanese inspired pots of Leach and his followers. Through trial and error, (at times disastrous), extensive research, and by translating Ciprian Piccolpasso’sThe Three Books of the Potter’s Art,published in 1557, he at last mastered lustre and gained a wide audience for his work.

Caiger-Smith also specialized in tin-glazed maiolica and is known for his brushwork. He wrote two definitive books, Tin-Glaze Pottery in Europe and the Islamic World: The Tradition of 1000 Years in Maiolica, Faience and DelftwareandLustre Pottery: Technique, Tradition and Innovation in Islam and the Western Worldas well as numerous essays and articles.

White’s approach is particularly interesting and lively. Rather than write a conventional biography of Caiger-Smith, or a typical monograph with appreciative essays by various authors, she focusses on his workshop, Aldermaston Pottery, and the potters who worked there. At Aldermaston, individual potters saw their pots from start to finish; throwing, glazing, decorating and firing, to the shop’s standard designs. Other workshops operating at the time separated tasks with different people working as throwers, glazers, decorators or kiln men and women. Caiger-Smith also believed that it was crucial to bring in people who fit well with one another and after that, everything would follow. Sometimes he took on potters with no skills whatsoever because he liked them and then taught them all they needed to know to take a pot from start to finish.

White tracked down numerous potters who worked at Aldermaston Pottery and sprinkles quotes and old photos from them throughout the book, giving us vivid descriptions of life in the workshop. Caiger-Smith not only trained and paid his potters but provided them with housing in the village. They had parties, worked together, took on difficult challenges such as making very large exhibition pots, and became friends. Many went on to open their own potteries after they left.

The book concludes with a warm postscript from Alan Caiger-Smith, now almost 90, in which he shares a few memories and gives generous thanks to the many involved in the book and in his life and work. Those who read this blog, know I have a fondness for biographies and profiles of potters (and wrote a couple myself including Guy Wolff: Master Potter in the Garden). Alan Caiger-Smith and the Legacy of Aldermaston Potteryranks amongst the best.