Potting for a living – Jonathan Chiswell Jones
January 29, 2021
There is a remarkable, thirty minute black and white film, made by Jon Anderson called: ‘Isaac Button, country potter’. If you watch it on YouTube you will understand better what I am talking about but switch off the sound, it has been added later. The film follows one of the last potters in England from his digging the clay around him to opening the great coal fired kiln, pipe in mouth, allowing himself a smile as the long process is completed.
The film celebrates the work of a consummate craftsman. His mastery of every process is complete and utterly beguiling. There is neither music nor speech; the film says everything. The irony of course is that this wonderful man was one of the last of his kind, and the film was made precisely because there was insufficient demand for his pots, and what he showed was a piece of history.
Bernard Leach, the father of so many potters of the sixties, sold a similar vision with a Japanese twist. In ‘A Potters Book’ he held up for admiration the unknown men and women who left us so many beautiful objects- from temples to tea bowls. Leach taught that through years of practising a skill, we could learn to transcend the Ego and create this unself-conscious beauty. There was irony here too, because Bernard Leach only survived as a potter because he sold work in Japan for prices which clearly indicated this was seen as Art and by no means the humble output of an unknown craftsman.
These contradictions were not apparent to me when I set out, 45 years ago, to earn my living making what we called- ‘pots for the people’. That meant simple, cheap and useful pots. But twenty five years selling to passers-by at Drusilla’s Zoo Park taught me that ‘the people’ were generally more interested in adding long lenses to their Japanese cameras than in plain brown pots. However, I was young and keen, and we made a living. In many ways, choosing to work in a place which brought thousands to my showroom, protected me from the difficulty which handicaps so many dreamers- how to sell the work we love to make.
Things change. Markets change. Taste changes- ones own as well as others. Owners of zoo parks change, and potters who were comfortably placed find themselves sailing through the air with a well-directed kick up the backside. Divinity might shape our ends, but it can be painful.
We landed in a beautiful brick- built farm building not far from the place chosen by the Romans and a thousand years later the Normans to set foot on these islands. Here we had space and peace and everything we could dream of, but visitors. There is often a ‘but’. it’s what keeps life interesting!