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

The Beauty of Craft

Richard Batterham Jar

The Beauty of Craft: A Resurgence Anthology, a collection of essays edited by Sandy Brown and Maya Kumar Mitchell, examines the place of craft in today’s world from many perspectives. “Some time in the middle of the fifteenth century, painters, sculptors and architects, among them Leonard da Vinci and Michelangelo, Brunelleschi and Masaccio, began to question their status and demand equality with the poets. They began to disassociate themselves from the workers of the manual crafts,” John Lane writes in the opening section. “…In due course they were to be accepted as full members of Humanist society, and in the process to establish a hitherto inconceivable concept and realm: the idea of Art as a self-validating, self-referential domain…In consequence, this was the turning point that marked the end of the anonymous craft traditions and the beginning of the Artist as hero, the Artist with his or her unique vision, the Artist as genius – the Artist with clean hands.”  Alas, and some of us would say unfortunately, Artists were now seen as superior to (mere) makers.

Prior to this separation of craft and art, people had been making things of beauty for millennia. Potters, weavers, house builders, carpet makers made objects that were an integral part of daily life, that functioned well yet were also a pleasure to behold. The incised lines on a bowl, the carved beads on a wooden door, the vibrant colors of a blanket were not necessary for functionality but gave both the users and the makers aesthetic pleasure.

Today, the need for handmade objects for daily living is deeply diminished from da Vinci’s era. “Practically every artifact a person uses today, can easily be made from oil-derived plastic, in a large factory, by machine-minders whose chief quality is their ability to survive lives of intense boredom,” John Seymour writes in his essay. In her thoughtful entry Contemporary Concerns: What is the place of craft in a full world? Tanya Harrod writes, “Today more of us are consumers than producers,”

The book is divided into six major sections: World of Craft, Ways of Living, Culture of Community, Caring for Nature, Enduring Skills, and Seekers of Meaning.  Within each of the sections are essays by various authors. Happily, seven of the essays in the book are specifically about pottery, plus two more look at cob (doesn’t everyone working with clay dream of building with cob one day?), and potters slip into a several other chapters. Edmund de Waal discusses the benefits of an urban studio. Geraldine Norman enthuses about the earthenware that Clive Bowen makes in his rural North Devon shop. David Whiting brings us Richard Batterham, whom he calls “both the most faithful and least imitative of the Leachean potters.”

The Beauty of Craft is a project of Resurgence, a magazine The Guardian calls “The spiritual and artistic flagship of the green movement.” The book is not easy to summarize. It contains differing viewpoints. I found it soothing and celebratory.