Geographically Clive Bowen seems more than appropriately sited as a potter – living and working at Shebbear, in the remoter Devon valleys near Great Torrington. He is close to where the great earthenware tradition of the North Devon coast once thrived, where he learnt to make pots at Michael Leach’s pottery at Yelland, and to Barnstaple, where he got invaluable throwing experience at Brannams Pottery. And to the West, in Cornwall, is Wenford Bridge, where Bowen went to help Michael Cardew fire his “self willed flaming kiln”. There is a good deal of Cardew’s epic approach in Bowen’s own example – in his large capacity wood-fired kiln, his intimate working and refining of local materials, in the sweep and ambition of his pots.
In fact there is something intrepid about Bowen’s whole quest, about his way of life and work in this day and age. Total commitment and nothing less. In this sense Bowen, like his friend and neighbour, Svend Bayer, is an inheritor of Cardew’s mantle. You may earn a living and make a home for your family, but the element of dissent in this kind of existence, the risks one takes in the sheer scale of production, are not to be underestimated. Just as Cardew saw the 19th and early 20th century potters of North Devon as rebels against the tide of new commerce and industrialisation, and his own work as a kind of protest, so there is still something subversive about Bowen’s outlook. The artist potter inevitably works a little apart from the mainstream.
All this sounds romantic enough, but Bowen is not so easy to categorise. There is little escapism to be had in the hard graft of what he does, and his own background is very different, born as he was in urban Cardiff and trained initially as a painter. It is this broader artistic sensibility he brings to his free skills as a decorator, as a pourer and trailer of slip. And while he went on to train in the studio tradition, as a pupil of Michael Leach (who made some splendid and original trailed pieces of his own), his subsequent experience at Brannams, making extensive runs of large utilitarian pots, encouraged a more expansive dynamic in making. A dynamic in which the potter is creatively subsumed in the repetition of throwing and the production of batches of pots, the most integrated forms arising from an integrated flow of working. One that leads to what the painter and critic Patrick Heron called “submerged rhythm”, that is a “…powerful pulse… a rhythm that seems at its most energetic just below the glazed surface” (Patrick Heron, The Changing Forms of Art, 1955). Brannams helped instil, I’ve no doubt, that complete lack of preciosity or intervention, and Bowen’s ability to make the simplest functional forms, exploring his emerging ideas through this language.
His absorption of his materials both as a potter and painter allows him to use glaze and slip (after all, liquid clay) as a true extension of the underlying body, avoiding the sense of separation, of division, we get in some pottery. It is a unity enhanced by his preference for raw glazing. His skill in marrying his gestural drips and pourings of colour to the contours of the clay is one of the more convincing western interpretations of what Shoji Hamada achieved in Japan, a potter whose motion of glazing gave a lasting motion to the form. So it is with Bowen.
His work also owes much to the 20th century movements of expressive abstraction in painting, and recalls the parallel experiments in art and ceramics in the years following the War. If Bowen is an heir of the Devon slipware tradition and one who owes much to Japan, past and present, his pots also relate to the innovative earthenware being made in London in the 1950s, based around the Institute of Education and the Central School. One thinks of potters like William Newland and James Tower, producing slipware and tin-glaze which was inspired as much by the avant garde in France (particularly Picasso’s ceramics at Vallauris) as the ancient pots of the Mediterranean. Bowen’s work has the same southern, rather exotic warmth, a quality of colour a little at odds with our more muted temperate climate. ‘Traditional’ he may be, but Bowen has never aspired to be simply thought of as a maker with some nostalgic bucolic feeling for rural wares of old, misty-eyed for a lost Elysian. His ceramics have an urban intelligence too. He has a diverse interest in the myriad forms of modern visual culture and music. And I was amused to read recently that he has often dreamt of being a city dweller, without an animal in sight, not even a dog. Much as Bowen draws on the past, his exuberant pots, with their deep vivid glazes, have an equally cosmopolitan sensibility.
Bowen fires his massive two-chamber kiln, holding up to 1,000 pots, two to three times a year. Doing it the hard way – each firing requires twenty four hours of constant watching and stoking – shows Bowen’s love of the whole lengthy process. Collecting and refining his raw materials and delighting in the pyromania (or “pyromanticism” as my late father would have called it) is reflective of this creative immersion. As Susan Peterson wrote of Hamada’s approach; “[He] says that the potter is an interior artist working from inside out, as nearly at one with his materials as he knows how to be”. Out of this fluidity of making, there is a wonderful unity in the work – fine baluster and big-bellied jugs, monumental storage jars and garden pots, large bowls and lidded pots, majestic platters, thrown and press-moulded, and an extensive range of smaller items for the kitchen and dining table.
There is an obvious linear dexterity in his combed and sgraffito decoration and animated motifs of sea life, of prawns and leaping fish. However Bowen’s spontaneous drawing is there in the broad abstract applications of slip as well, genuinely luminous colours whose iridescence only deepens with the years, varying in surface from the lustrous to the matt, and all expressive of the underlying red Fremington clay, of the idiosyncrasies that give each pot its individual life. Clive Bowen’s humane work has the strength, energy and joie de vivre we can well find liberating, a passion that has added something new to slipware – concentrating and expanding its qualities in pots of presence and power.