In his own words

To have been making pottery for so long came about accidentally, as I shall explain later. If I had encountered certain influences strongly enough, I might well have been permanently deterred. I had tried my hand at wood carving and working in silver and copper before I taught myself some of the pottery skills. I could see that jewellery making might earn me a living, and it would involve a workshop, flame and drama too...

Blurring the look and feel of things with shrink wrapping was a long way off when I was little, out shopping with my mother. I could learn how things felt, as well as watch skilful things being done. There was much to smell as well. My mother bought sugar loose at Arthur East's - a corn, seed and fuel merchants. This was a long bare wood floored cavern with a high wooden counter to one side. There, one of the brown coated men dug into one of the bins behind him with a grey metal scoop, tipped the contents into a gleaming brass scoop on his scales with their handsome brass weights, then poured out the sugar onto a big sheet of thick blue paper. Then he did some origami and a plump parcel appeared without use of string, tape or anything else. Just clever folding. I, meanwhile, was free to dive my hands into any of the long rows of bulging open sacks in lines down the shop floor, their tops neatly rolled down. They held wheat, barley, oats, dried peas, beans, and on and on. Some held dog biscuits in many shapes and sizes, some were multicoloured and looked tasty. They were not, I found! Coal was on show in an adjoining room. Shallow trays held samples in many grades and lump sizes, many different patinas and smells.

Back in the street again there would often be more to watch and wonder at. Men doing fascinating, skillful things. A man up a ladder painting ornate lettering above a shop front with brush and mahlstick. I marvelled at his steadiness of hand as the letters were outlined and filled, with flourishes. Somewhere else a man might be burning off old paint before repainting. This was really dramatic, beginning with the ritual of firing up his blackened brass blowlamp. First the warming up from the almost invisible delicate blue flames of methylated spirits. Then main ignition after pumping up pressure in the paraffin reservoir. The thrilling, throbbing, long blue flame leaping out and the man letting it lick over an area of old paint until the surface began to heave, blister and bubble and then his metal scraper blade followed the flame, lifting long writhing snakes of molten paint, often still flaming as they fell to the littered pavement. The smell beckoned from afar. Solvents then had good smells, turpentine, linseed oil, none then minded the high lead also in the paint. Sometimes there would be someone putting in a window, thumbing putty down the edges, smoothing it with long knife movements, giving the trimmings out to the eager hands of small boys for them to delight in its plasticity, rolling it into balls and thin rolls, savouring its fragrance.

But the greatest spectacle of all was the open-fronted smithy on one side of the wide square in the town centre, where cattle markets were held. I stood in wonder there for hours as massive, quiet carthorses stood patiently as their huge shaggy hooves were fitted with new shoes. One of the smiths would cradle an obediently lifted hoof between his knees, prising off the old worn out shoe, then another smith would fish out a new shoe from those buried in the bright glowing centre of the hearth at the dark recesses of the forge, where the bellows were. Holding the hot metal in long heavy tongs he offered it up to the naked hoof and a great burst of smoke rose with the pungent reek of scorched horn and hair. The great horse seemed oblivious of the drama. Then the shoe would be reheated, reshaped, tried again, then quenched in a bucket of scummy water. Flame, smoke, steam, the clang of hammer on iron. The rough whitewashed wall hung all along with mysterious tools of their majestic trade.

This looked like real work to me. I wanted to do something like that when schooling was over and I was free. It was the workshop itself I yearned for. On my way to Saturday children’s cinema I always peered through the crusted glass window of a long narrow workshop, probably a long roofed - over stable yard. Unevenly paved, with whitewashed brick walls, again hung with rows of interesting looking tools, it was perhaps a metalworkers den. A couple of gas cylinders with brass gauges stood on a trolley. At the very end I could make out an old cast iron stove, a pipe chimney snaking up. And to one side, the slant of an open tread wooden ladder going up. From outside I could see that a single room had been added as a second storey and the staircase must lead to it. So the fortunate occupant of this paradise could have a bed up there, live right over his work! Bliss...

So, looking back I see my life has been a pursuit, often very successful, to find a place to live and work in. Later I had added a big garden to the essential ingredients.

I have been very fortunate too to find what I was looking for in superb surroundings. I knew also that I wanted to make things - I wasn't sure at first what they might be!

To have been making pottery for so long came about accidentally, as I shall explain later. If I had encountered certain influences strongly enough I might well have been permanently deterred. I had tried my hand at wood carving and working in silver and copper before I taught myself some of the pottery skills. I could see that jewellery making might earn me a living, and it would involve a workshop, flame and drama too. When I came to open a gallery I still fancied myself as a painter, half my meagre income came from jewellery making and I half heartedly tried the treadmill of making domestic pottery.

My lucky single year at Goldsmiths with its encounter with the late Kenneth Clark’s teaching and example had made me even more sceptical of the real value of the kind of pot making advocated by certain prestigious figures in that field. Handsome thrown cider jars were often shown off as the tours de force they no doubt were. But what damn use were they? I didn’t know anyone who wanted bulk supplies of cider on tap! And if I wanted a good teapot I bought a nice round shiny black earthenware one as were churned out in Stoke on Trent, maybe still are, I didn’t want a cold, heavy handmade one that didn’t pour well., except maybe by Richard Batterham, I’ve got lots of his stuff. But Kenneth Clark, in turn influenced by Dora Billington’s beliefs that all available pottery techniques should be studied and, if of value, employed to suit a purpose. The attempt by some to declare some techniques as inherently too evil to risk use didn’t wash with Kenneth, or myself. Kenneth Clark and his associates were obviously working very happily to cater for the needs of the present day, not yearning for some, probably mythical, romantic past of noble craftsmen before the Industrial Revolution screwed up the world, but at least it improved dentistry, as P.J O'Rourke wisely points out.

Because, at Goldsmiths, I learnt to appreciate those primitive ways of pot forming, I came to favour the qualities that come naturally from them. Pots formed solely with the hands invite being picked up and handled. Perhaps even caressed. From an early age I responded to the stone tools exhibited in archaeological museums, especially the hand axes. All those tools were of course handheld, made to fit the hand, wonderfully simplified, economical, Visually superb, but with a definite purpose. My pots may use their forms as a starting point but, because they are hollow can hold water and if desired people can use them for flower arrangements and this I like. I have seen many wonderfully imaginative examples. My pot is only a component of another’s creativity. When I sold through my friend Berey Pealing’s shop in Lyme Regis, Annie, his wife, often made an arrangement in one of my pieces for display in the main shop window. She used bits and pieces she had found on the seashore during her early morning walk. It helped to sell the pot, people were being shown that the pot, maybe unconventional in form, was still capable of other functions. Buyers, often from a city, asked if they could take the display as well. While, for me at least, there was a golden period at the Devon Guild of Craftsmen, under the directorship of Andy Christian, I was allowed to set out my pots for myself in my allotted show space with quick additions of whatever dried stuff I could find along the river bank.

There it is. My pots have no deep “message”, or not consciously. They have the simple forms I personally warm to and I try to give them a variety of pattern and texture that I find sympathetic to the touch, not just the eye. Colour is not all important, but surface is. I hope my pots invite being picked up and felt. I once was visited by a party of blind children and that really was heartwarming as they exclaimed over the feel of what I'd been working on. At the Devon Guild I once observed an old lady embrace a large pot I had on display. "Oh dear!" she exclaimed, embarrassed by her impulsiveness, "I don’t know why I did that!" It certainly made me feel good. Another woman, while I was putting out my pots, said, perhaps accusingly, "my husband sits in the evening holding the pot of yours we bought!" How nice.

Alan Wallwork, August 2012