An Interview with Clive Bowen | Slipware Potter


We spoke to slipware potter Clive Bowen about his love of clay…

Looking around the studio, we’re surrounded by jugs and mugs, plates, dishes, platters, jars – all eminently usable.

I’ve always made functional pots, pots for use in the kitchen or the home. This is my great love: how to present that meal, how to offer food. I think it’s so important. The first time I had a meal at Michael Cardew’s, for example, I was presented with a large bowl of coffee in one of his stem cups, and it was such a great moment. When you have friends and family around, and you lay the table up and you’ve got all these wonderful pots to serve food and drink, it’s just what I love doing. The whole idea of function, to me, is vital to what I make. Whether then that enters the argument of art versus function, I just think it’s all the same: beautiful things to use in your daily life.

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You mentioned the great Michael Cardew – what was it like apprenticing with him?

Well initially I went to work for Michael Leach, who was the second son of Bernard Leach. I had a four-year apprenticeship with him, and he taught me everything about studio practice. It was at the tail end of my apprenticeship that I was introduced to Cardew. I used to help him fire his kiln, and this was my first introduction to wood firing. He was a major influence. I wanted, really, to be slightly English in my approach.

You must remember, I’d trained with Michael Leach, who like his father was looking towards the East, towards Japan and at pots from China, so meeting Cardew was really the turning point: looking instead at English slipware, English medieval pots. At the time I felt I couldn’t use Japanese brushes – that delicacy wasn’t in my nature. I needed something like sgraffito, or combing. I also remember reading that Yanagi, the Japanese philosopher, said to Bernard Leach, ‘We love your English slipware: it’s born, and not made.’ And I thought, ‘Yes!I like that.’

It is a lovely phrase. Do you think having that tangible history to work from has helped you as a potter?

The beauty of living and working where I do is the fact that the North Devon pottery tradition stretches back to the 17th century. The clay was already established, the local slips were available – the whole idea of having everything traditionally worked out for me meant that I had a kick-start. I didn’t have to test anything.

There is a stream, in fact, running through our wood where we dig clay to make one of the decorating slips. It has this rich, ochre colour which gives you a wonderful terracotta under the glaze. It’s also a very nice clay to make pots with, though I don’t tend to use it in the main part of the pottery production. We actually had a famous Japanese potter here, Shiro Tsuijmura, who came down and used the clay straight from the stream and made wonderful pots, back in the early ‘90s. It’s a very plastic clay; lovely stuff.

For the pots themselves, I use two clays: the famous Fremington clay, which the local potters have always thrown with, and a much redder Stoke-On-Trent clay. I blend the two in order to eke out my Fremington supplies. Using the old pug mill, I also mix in this waste grit from the nearby China clay industry in Cornwall, which they locally call ‘silver sand’. It’s mainly mica and feldspar, but it gives it a wonderful texture.

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Is that important to you, being in such direct contact with local materials, local traditions?

The idea of being anti-tradition is a very, very tricky one, really, because no matter what you do I think you have to bring the past with you. If you’ve no past to bring with you, where do you start working from? You have old musicians who worked a hundred years ago, you listen to them to go with the new, or you look to old pots and paintings – I think it’s just something you carry on in your life, looking back. When you’re a young man and full of enthusiasm, in your 20s, you want to be the greatest potter or the greatest person in the world, full of ambition; and then when you reach your 70s, you look back and you think, ‘No, you were just too young.’

I think in the time I’ve been making pots – you know, fifty years now – in that great time everything becomes automatic: I’m not thinking too much. It’s a sort of gut reaction of what you like, and what kind of pot you like, what hits the spot. For example, there is a very influential, favourite pot of mine, an early North Devon jug, made by an unknown potter. They didn’t worry about the clay being kneaded, they didn’t worry about cleaning the bottom – it’s just a perfectly functional jug, made for use, made in quantity. There’s no ego there, there’s no ‘I made this’ sign anywhere. It was this kind of jug, really, that set me on my course.

Looking back, then, what was it like starting out as that ambitious young potter?

I had two children by the time I moved here. We hunted around for a property and found this old, small farm, with plenty of chicken shacks to convert into kiln sheds. I borrowed the money to buy the house, moved in, and started building my first kiln, which was easily done in those days because I just went to the local power station and came back with a pile of scrap bricks. I remember my first firing – in fact Svend [Bayer, renowned wood-firing potter], when he was an apprentice with Cardew, came up to help me and we fired the kiln together. We totally melted half the load, but her half was salvageable. I immediately drove them in my van to the Chagford gallery and, I’ll never forget, the lady who ran it actually took my first pots. I’ll always remember that.

After about five years, I realised that I couldn’t fit any large pots in this small kiln, so I decided then to build a bigger one. Of course, when you have a big kiln you suddenly need help to fire it, because it takes at least 30 hours to fire, so you need to organise a team of helpers. Some people become regulars, others drop by for just one or two firings. I’m ever so grateful that family members come back and help out occasionally, so we have a wonderful atmosphere here.

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Are there aspects of the making process that you especially enjoy?

I really enjoy making things off the wheel occasionally, things like square dishes and tiles. The tile especially gives me a flat, square surface to decorate, like a canvas to play with. To make these I’ve got this rather ancient tile press, which must be at least a hundred years old. It was designed originally for dry-pressing tiles, but I’ve adapted it so that I can slip-trail on the softer, leather-hard clay. I found that the slips would flake off the bone-dry pot, so I’ve had to modify the machinery accordingly.

Pottery is such a therapeutic thing to do. When you’re working, you have to concentrate, and you soon slip into a routine. Out of all the pots I make, I think my favourites are probably the jugs and storage jars; I think the jug in particular is a form that you’ve got to get right. It’s got to feel right, you’ve got to fill it with liquid, if it’s too heavy you can’t lift it from the table – there are all these considerations.

And on top of all that, there is the decoration of course, which is fundamental to your pottery.

There’s that old thing about ‘less is more’, and I find it very hard not to decorate. When I see a pot in front of me and I cover it with slip, I just can’t help touching that slip, making a mark, scratching through it: it’s just something I have to do. Decorating, for me, is part of the pleasure of making pots. Although you’ve got to hold back: you make a mark, and sometimes that mark is it, you’ve got to leave it alone. You can quite easily go over the top and spoil something, you can over-decorate. You’ve got to know when instinctively to stop, and that’s the trick. But I just love the gestures of slip-trailing, mark-making, the whole feel of slipware.

You’ve recently had a lot of success showing in Japan, where slipware seems to be having a bit of a moment.

When I was here as a young man, starting the pottery, a lot of my friends were travelling on gap years. They would say, ‘Oh Clive never likes to go anywhere’, but now it’s kind of reversed! We’re always off somewhere or other.

Over the last ten years I’ve been invited abroad to demonstrate and talk about pots, especially in Japan over the last six or seven years, where there’s been a great resurgence in slipware. Back about ten years ago, they had a major slipware exhibition which was so influential that many young Japanese potters are now starting to make their own slipware. It’s just such an exciting thing to go to Japan eventually, after all these years, but especially to go and be able to introduce slipware there.

This will be your fourth show at the Goldmark Gallery. Do you enjoy working towards an exhibition?

Unpacking the kiln is always exciting. I always like to work right on the edge, so most of the pots are fired for exhibition. I can never keep things back too far: I like them to be as fresh as possible, out of the kiln and into the gallery as fast as possible. Some of the pots I know I’ll probably never see again – just a memory of something I’ve done.