Bernard Leach called Edwin Beer Fishley (1832-1912) “the last peasant potter.” It’s true that old time country potters who dug their own clay and threw it by the ton in rural workshops were dwindling in number but Edwin Beer Fishley was not the only one left. Indeed, Edwin Beer passed on the tradition to his grandson, William Fishley Holland (1863-1944) whose son, George Tonkin Holland (1950-1959) also became a potter. Still, one can see what Leach meant. Edwin Beer was a talented thrower and decorator descended from the fabled family of slipware potters, the Fishley brothers, fathers, sons, and occasional daughter. He produced big-bellied harvest jugs inscribed with poems and images; baking dishes that he made oval by cutting out a leaf shaped hole in the base and squeezing the hole closed; and an astonishing variety of pots to suit the changing tastes. Leach was impressed with his work and later, Michael Cardew learned from his grandson William Fishley Holland.
The collector John Edgeler tells the stories of the many generations of Fishley potters in The Fishleys of Fremington: A Devon Slipware Tradition. Retired from a career in finance and a collector since his early teens, Edgeler has devoted himself to the pots of Michael Cardew, Ray Finch, and the work of the early slipware potters who preceded them. He founded a small press, Cotswolds Living, in honor of his bookseller dad, Bill Edgeler and has published a carefully researched and interesting list on English slipware. I will look at a few more of his books in upcoming weeks.
Before writing of the Fishley potters, Edgeler describes the countryside and the glacially deposited beds of red and white clays that enriched the area and enabled a thriving pottery industry. He gives an overview of North Devon slipware, the manner of making, and the typical shapes and methods of decorating thus placing the Fishleys in the context of their time and surroundings.
There are maps, old drawings of the pot shop and kilns, and lots of color photos of the lively old pots. I love the black and white photos of the potters dressed in tweed jackets or vests, caps on their heads, their torsos wrapped in generous aprons that almost reached the floor. How could they work in such attire? But work they did. Harry Juniper, the traditional slipware potter whom Edgeler interviewed in the summer of 2007 when he was in his sixtieth year of potting said, “I knew Fishley Holland very well. I rather liked him, a cocky little bugger…he was great, he turned up at Yelland and started criticizing Michael [Leach] as being too slow and laid back. The Fishleys worked – they bragged of a thousand plant pots a day. This was what they were like, they boasted about the work, they loved it, it was damned hard work.”
Well yes, “damned hard work.” And we might add they made, “damned nice pots.”