Those of you who are familiar with my book ‘An Autobiography of Sorts’ will know that the first essay I ever wrote was called ‘In Defence of Tradition: because of the heart, in spite of the head’. In it I made the case for viewing tradition not as something static but as an evolving continuity to be invigorated.
About 18 months ago, an American collector referred me to an essay by T.S. Eliot titled ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’, which he thought closely resembled my essay, at least in essence. I have known and enjoyed Eliot’s poetry, but hadn’t come across his literary criticism.
So before I venture into the story of the first pot I ever purchased, I think it’s useful to quote a few passages which, it seems to me, are highly relevant today. Eliot is of course talking about literature; but it is equally relevant to pottery – every one of the arts, in fact – and I have on a couple of occasions substituted the word ‘potter’ for ‘writer’ in the original text.
Eliot writes, “In English writing we seldom speak of tradition, though we occasionally apply its name in deploring its absence.” And: “Seldom perhaps, does the word appear except in a phrase of censure. If otherwise it is vaguely approbative, with the implication, as to the work approved, of some pleasing archaeological reconstruction. You can hardly make the word agreeable to English ears without this comfortable reference to the reassuring science of archaeology.”
And again: “Yet if the only form of tradition, of handing down, consisted in following the ways of the immediate generation before us in a blind or timid adherence to its successes, tradition should be positively discouraged.”
But, significantly: “…tradition is a matter of much wider significance. It cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour. It involves, in the first place, the historical sense and the historical sense involves a perception, not only of the past ness of the past but of its presence. This historical sense, which is a sense of the timeless as well as the temporal is what makes a writer [or potter] traditional. And it is at the same time what makes a writer [or potter] most acutely conscious of his place in time, of his own contemporaries.”
Bernard Leach was having an exhibition at the Prima Vera Gallery, then in Sloane Square, London. I had from my mid-teens been a great admirer of his work and I was excited to see the show. I think I was about 20 at the time. There was, I remember, a particularly fine, tall, medievally inspired, organically glazed (clay/ash) jug with minimal combed decoration which I coveted, but being a relatively poor student at the time, it was out of my financial reach. So I wandered round to the back of the shop where there were many shelves of pots waiting to be displayed. There I saw a cane-handled salt-glazed teapot made, it transpired, by the late Bill Marshall. I loved it for its strong form, its surface texture and simple impressed decoration. So I bought it.
Much later, I learnt from Bill that it had been fired in a recently built salt kiln at the Leach Pottery in St. Ives. Bill had been taken on as an apprentice at the pottery in his teens and worked there most of his life until he set up his own pottery in Lelant. The teapot had been fired with wood washed ashore from a Scandinavian ship that had run aground off the Cornish coast during a storm and which Bill and others from the pottery had collected. The salt-soaked wood was subsequently dried and used to fire the kiln.
For those unfamiliar with what salt glazing entails, it is simply that the sodium from the salt, which can be introduced into the kiln at high temperature where it vaporises and chemically combines with silica which is present in the clay body, forming what is called a ‘sodium silicate’ glaze. This is the method by which salt glazed pots, drain pipes, water troughs, sinks and even some baths were created before the plastic revolution. It is also the preferred method of pot production for such good potters as Micki Schloessingk and Sarah Walton.
On a visit to my parents I presented my proud new purchase. I asked my mother what she thought of it. I received a non-committal grunt followed by ‘what did it cost?’. I replied £3 pounds. My mother exclaimed loudly ‘Three pounds, for that!’ It clearly seemed to her to be an excessive amount to pay for a brown teapot. She proceeded to use it over the next 15 years and grew to love it.
In around 1981 when I moved with my family to Cumbria, I reclaimed it. Unfortunately sometime during the eighties it was dropped and a 1” hole appeared in the side with several cracks radiating away from. Over time the broken pieces were lost and my once much used teapot retired to a cupboard gathering dust.
When I moved south many years later the boxes containing my collection of pots were unpacked and I rediscovered my injured teapot. I decided to display it on the kitchen dresser. It was good to see it again and it wasn’t long before I remembered it was the first pot I had ever bought and that it deserved to be repaired. After all it had contributed to my visual education during my early years as a potter. And it had, in its own way, enhanced my understanding of form and the throwing necessary to achieve that. It had been a silent teaching presence.
I called up Fiona Hutchinson, a fine pot restorer, working in the Worksop area. She agreed to the repair and I apologised that the broken pieces had been lost over time. My son, Ben, collected it from Fiona a couple of months later. When I saw it I was astonished that I couldn’t even tell which side had been broken, where the hole used to be. I kept turning it around to see where the damage had been. Her skill is remarkable.
The teapot remains one of my prized possessions and sits proudly, restored, on my dresser, reminding me of my early enthusiasm and love of pots, which fortunately has never diminished and probably deepened.