Studio informationa chronological look at Alan's work
1965 - 1984 Marnhull, North Dorset

Marnhull, Dorset.

This massive tile order had led to my purchase of a vast stone chapel like building in Marnhull, North Dorset and eight or more electric kilns. I was immediately approached by locals in the village, where work was in short supply. These village girls and ladies turned out to be far more productive, if less exotic, than the motley crew in London. Over the next months the studios in Greenwich were wound down and sub-let, all production was moved to Marnhull. A large propane kiln was installed and the big electric kiln and a couple of smaller ones were moved down from London.

Some of the girls now turning out tiles at Marnhull proved equally adept at working on the simple coiled repetition of vases and lamp bases. It took me some time to recover from the stresses of the huge mail order contract. But I began again working on tall coil pots but moved more and more to making large “disc” or oval forms, usually built up from a thrown bowl shaped base, flattened to an oval, then coiled up from the thrown rim. I think I was then tending towards more “ female “ forms than previously. I was still supplying Heals and the CPA but the drive to London, and the growing congestion up there, made this practice increasingly irksome. We were also finding more and more demand for tiles from overseas, Norway, USA, Australia and Germany mainly. I had to take on more workers from the area, mostly either related or friends of friends.

The key workers were extremely reliable and bright, and funny. The atmosphere was very convivial. They were a wonderful bunch of people and my children were able to grow up in the last of a real “village” atmosphere, they could fetch fresh bread early from the baker and we had a field behind the studios where we tried to keep sheep, hens, ducks and geese, which often needed efforts from the pottery staff when the sheep escaped and stampeded up the main village street!

We had difficulties in the early 1970’s when the Three Day Week came into force but, in spite of the restrictions on using power, the girls produced the same quantity of tiles and I was able to confine pottery firings to the allowed period of power supply. Inflation and ever rising material costs eroded our viability and union troubles hampered export sales.

The then buyer changed at Heals. We were visited by the new buyer but I was not disconcerted when she obviously did not show the same enthusiasm for my work. I never got another order and I felt fine about that! An era was over.

A growing emphasis on world resources led me to a desire to “downsize”. While not laying off assistants I let natural erosion take its course. I built a wood burning kiln to attempt greater self-sufficiency and sourced my fuel supplies from waste in local Forestry Commission woodlands. But it was a romantic rather than a realistic concept. Over and again I loaded my big van and laboured in the local woods, built huge piles of branches near my handsome catenary arch kiln. I only fired it twice. It was hopelessly inefficient, though immensely dramatic, a towering pillar of smoke and great tongues of flame.
But the long hours of backbreaking work to fire it, starting before break of day, and the alarming diminution of what had seemed ample stocks of fuel soon cooled my ardour.
I got some handsome results from the only glaze firing I attempted but I saw that this was not my way forward.
I went back to the propane kiln and I demolished the old electric one, it had served me well.

I also decided to seek more local markets and give up contact with London, Heals, the CPA and distant galleries. I exhibited with the Dorset Craft Guild, local galleries in Shaftesbury, Ringwood and Lyme Regis. Tile orders diminished as the effect of Laura Ashley designs took over in the UK but overseas demand continued.

As assistants left I tried developing a range of simple vase forms ( I had long abandoned lamp bases because of the tedious business of wiring them up) using extrusion rather than throwing. Using my pug mill I made thick walled cylindrical tubes which I grooved while turning them on a kind of lathe, using an old spit motor. By holding cutting tools against the slowly rotating cylinder I cut spiral grooves of various depths and angle of cut. I have always enjoyed the spiral as a design element. Some cylinders I simply fluted vertically, freehand.

I also experimented with massive bowls. I had made similar heavy vessels at Greenwich Studios in the coarse fire clay, these were heavily mottled from impurities burning out. The heavy bowls made in Dorset were a mixture with a heavily grogged, purer clay with the wedged in addition of a quantity of cork granules, an insulating material I had come across. The cork addition somewhat reduced the sheer weight of these massive vessels and gave a broken, granular texture to cut surfaces after the cork burnt away in the biscuit firing.

The disadvantage of the broken surface was its abrasiveness. But I made an asset of this by smoothing on a layer of porcelain slurry to the bisque, the coarse texture being filled and giving the unfired porcelain a surface to key on to. The final glaze firing fused the porcelain clay to the stoneware and, because of varying shrinkage rates, favouring the development of crackle effects, veining of the porcelain which could be emphasised with colourants and glaze.

The bowls were more often rectilinear in form, a round, carved out depression forming the bowl within the squared off outer. Other bowls were cylindrical in section, carved or fluted in various ways, somewhat like the fluting on plant stems. These have been referred to as “cog” bowls as this is another affinity.

These simple forms were made as a respite from a series of double walled forms made by first throwing a globular inner form, standing on a cylindrical base which was then coiled on to forming an outer layer enclosing the inner sphere. When the clay state suited I cut out circles in the outer surface, inserted “pinched” bowls, smoothing the joins, then modelling away contiguous walls and piercing the walls in places to give “glimpses” of neighbouring concavities. Slow work.

It was during this period that I took further the idea of one form within another. I have always been intrigued by the frequent use in Art Nouveau objects of metal encasing glass or porcelain, fragile materials being “protected” by something robust. It was obvious to think of a delicate seeming material like porcelain being encased within rugged stoneware. Problems were obvious because of the differing shrinkage rates and the need for one substance to “slide” across the other. I tried all sorts of materials, settling in the end for lard, a cheap means to keep surfaces from bonding, and pastry, a material behaving somewhat like clay in the forming, but disappearing without trace in the firing. My mistake at first was to use self-raising flour which dramatically separated the layers as the pastry “rose” but which gave me just another permutation to try!

I also took further the effects of additives to the clay body, though this time by adding materials to a “slurry” coating. Often cork as before but now I tried a host of experimental textural additions. Some worked, some didn’t. Certain qualities were advantageous: some resilience in the material if possible to aid shrinkage and a benign nature during combustion. Also low cost! An immediate source were the various forms of tapioca! Seed pearl and medium pearl I think it comes in. Little spherical balls of pleasantly un-uniform size that smells of toffee as it burns out in the kiln. And there was more - mustard seeds, pepper corns, dried peas etc. etc. but not so cheap!

The final stages at Marnhull were miserable. I was left with one faithful assistant. All the others had gone their way as their families grew. The end was delayed by the arrival from a kitchen furniture manufacturer of an enquiry for a range of broken textured tiles for work surfaces. I did experiments with colemanite glazes and submitted samples. These were accepted and it seemed a straightforward job, they would collect the finished tiles with any of their delivery vehicles in the area.

So we set to, but doing the glazing in quantity showed up the snags of colemanite, the “spitting” in the firing coated expensive kiln furniture and electric elements. I seemed to be barely breaking even and it was tedious work! Then one evening I saw the tiles being advertised on national television. No one had told me they were going to do this! And within a few days the firm rang to ask me to increase production twenty times! They were puzzled and perhaps hurt at my response. I told them it was the end of the line. I was calling a halt and calling it a day in the studios I had extended so much during the glory years. It was time to move on.