A Quiet Time of Contemplation and Ceramic Creativity

Two covid lockdowns and a brief period between them when we were theoretically allowed to return to something like normal life but were effectively still housebound, has been bad for my ceramics productivity.

Potters who are lucky enough to live above their studios or work in their garden sheds may hardly have noticed a difference; indeed their production has probably increased. But my family lives in a west London flat, and I share a studio at Kingsgate Workshops in Kilburn. At least I used to share that studio. Because most of my family are considered highly vulnerable to the damned virus, I have had to sit at home, pondering pots more than making them.

But recently I’ve been thinking about what that isolation and reduced activity really means. This has not been an entirely bad period. Not by a long chalk. I had become a slightly lazy potter, making forms that were familiar to me and always doing it on the wheel. Pre-covid, I was really not taking enough time to think, look for inspiration and sketch new ideas. I didn’t realise how important such quiet time is.

I now cherish it. My sketch books are filling with ideas, and while I haven’t been able to use a wheel, I have returned to hand-building after years of eschewing it as the poor relation of the wheel.

Coiling, slabbing and pinching at the kitchen table are slow, methodical processes, but they are hugely versatile techniques for making pots, and they encourage contemplation. The relatively few pots I’ve produced in recent weeks are very pleasing. I wouldn’t have made them seated at that whizzing wheel in the studio. They sit on shelves in the flat, unfired, bone dry and delicate. A slight knock could destroy them. I’m looking forward to getting back to the studio, where my first task will be to glaze and fire them.

Meanwhile, I continue to sketch, look for ideas and create slowly. Things are changing, though. My friend Chris Bramble, a fabulous potter and sculptor who runs our studio, has kindly lent me a small electric wheel, and it is now sitting in the middle of our kitchen waiting for me to sit down to it, slap a ball of wedged clay onto the turntable and see if my throwing skills have faded at all.

“Come on, clay-boy,” it whispers. “You know you want to.” Well, I do, and I will, with great pleasure. But I hope I won’t simply return to frenetic less than imaginative production. I’ve enjoyed the slower pace of potting since covid became our uninvited guest. I realise now that ceramics and, I suppose, art generally are as much about contemplation and exploring new methods as they are about productivity.

We’ve all heard the wonderful news about the breakthrough in vaccine research, and, boy, is that welcome. We can now really start looking forward to a return to normal life, and that can’t come quickly enough. When I am back among my friends and colleagues at the studio, enjoying the chatter (which is not necessarily about ceramics), and the critical appreciation of each other’s work, I’ll look back on this period of enforced slowing-down with some fondness. I know I’m a better potter for it, and I may even be a better person.

Do I have clay in my genes?

I certainly have it on my jeans. In fact I have it all over them and on my T-shirt. And my trainers. The stuff gets everywhere. But is there something in my family history that led me to the wheel, to wet clay and buckets of glaze?

I knew that something provoked my interest and led me to develop skills as a potter over the years, but I thought my main influence was early exposure to ceramic artists when I lived in South America as a child in the 1970s. There I saw and came to love both the remarkable pre-Columbian pottery in slip-decorated and burnished earthenware, and modern work by great South American potters

But later, well after I had begun working in clay and was developing a style of my own, I discovered that I am closely related to a family of highly successful commercial potters.

Working and developing their products from 1858 to 1939, the Goss family’s firm created fine white porcelain, which came to be known as crested china or more simply, Goss China. From their pottery in Stoke-on-Trent, William Henry Goss and his employees actually created a market. They capitalised on the birth of tourism. Goss China, with its eagle brand stamped on the bottom of every piece, bore the names and crests of holiday destinations around the UK, particularly the seaside resorts, and even of towns across the British Empire.

Workers and their families enjoying holidays, perhaps for the first time, would buy the souvenir ceramics and take them home, where they would be proudly displayed on mantlepieces, reminding them of the days they sent in Scarborough, Bognor Regis or even London. Goss China had and still has a style of its own, and is still enthusiastically collected. You can pick up a modest piece for just a fiver. (The photo at the top of this post shows two typical Goss pieces.)

But it would appear that, successful though the crested china business was, at least one of WH Goss’s brothers left the UK to make his fortune independently. He ended up in the Falkland Islands, where I was born and spent my early years. He too was a successful businessman, running a hotel and a pub, and his descendants are still in the Falklands. I am one of them.

It is probably just coincidence, of course, but did I inherited a feeling for clay and a determination to make beautiful things from from it? I like to think so.

I will never make Goss-style delicate porcelain crested souvenirs, however, because, quite frankly, I don’t particuarly like Goss China. I do, however, admire my ancestors’ work and their business acumen. But it’s just not my cup of tea (and by the way, the Gosses made many fine cups and saucers). Creating a market from scratch for a type of pottery that is still collected was an amazing achievement, and I’m proud of my Goss China genes.