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.