Memories of an Apprentice: Florian Gadsby


A potter with an online following in the millions, Florian Gadsby spends much of his time in self-reflection. Here he turns his attention to the work of his former teacher, and memories of his extraordinary apprenticeship.

I spent three years working alongside Lisa Hammond as one of her many apprentices. She’s taught more than a dozen now, some staying a year, others for three, hammering into each an extraordinary amount of skill and a new way of looking at the craft – at least that’s what she did for me.

I was sheepish at first, she, one of the most celebrated potters in the country and a fascination of mine as a young student potter learning the ropes, trying to find a voice. The first few weeks were hard, as you might imagine walking into an unknown studio, Lisa’s domain, and rapidly having to learn where everything is stored and how everything works. The ice broke gradually, but as it was normally just the two of us in the workshop, day in, day out, sheets quickly began to cleave away. I was constantly kept on toes and probably learnt more in those first few months than any other period in my life. Lisa’s teaching is straightforward and to the point – she does, after all, have a business to run and her own pots to make, so we apprentices aren’t lovingly cradled and simply told to try better next time. Rather a solution is immediately given to us. Lisa recognises precisely what it is you’re doing wrong, a skill itself that takes decades of both potting and training others to obtain.

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The apprentices focus mainly on the standard ware range, the ‘bread and butter’ of Maze Hill Pottery, a collection that has become intrinsically linked to Lisa, despite the fact it is only one half of the work she creates. This highly functional range is instantly recognisable, yet it ebbs and flows, fluctuating as her aesthetic develops and new apprentices’ hands take their turn. I’d watch Lisa out of the corner of my eye, in her clay-spattered end of the studio, tackle the more complex standard ware forms: the bread-crocks and oven dishes, thrown and assembled effortlessly, often with a phone pinched between her ear and shoulder. Then she’d switch style, swap tools and fluidly begin throwing a completely different range of work, that of her one-off, more individualistic pots, fashioned from rich red and black stoneware clays that stain everything they touch, much to my annoyance as an apprentice who liked mopping two or even three times a day.

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In time, and depending on the apprentice, Lisa occasionally let us help with her own pots – only after assessing our making skill and attention to detail for a year or two. If she was particularly busy, or wanted to focus on her separate range of yunomi, chawan or a board of leaning back, precarious jugs that look as if they might suddenly speak, she’d ask me to attach the thick lug handles on oval oven dishes, a task I was horrified by at first. It’s one thing to make your own pots and ruin them, but to ruin someone else’s, let alone Lisa Hammond’s, gave me heart palpitations as I pressed the soft clay handles onto the walls of the vessels. Now she was the one watching me.

“Not like that, you’re making them too dainty!” she interrupted, before quickly spinning the banding wheel around and fluently making it look ‘right’, as if child’s play, hands repeating a process she’s completed thousands of times before.

Lisa puts vast trust in her apprentices, of which I was number nine. I’m still in awe at that undertaking and the sustained dedication of passing on her mastery. Everything takes time of course, but eventually I was allowed to pack the soda kiln almost entirely by myself, and with more time she would even ask me to glaze some of her pots, the interiors mainly, a layer quickly poured in and out. It’s a task that’s easy to mess up, especially when glazing unfired pots, a process called ‘raw glazing’. The vessels immediately soften down and can, if done improperly, collapse into a puddle of mud – another harsh lesson I learnt.

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Together we’d glaze large vases, tsubo, the pot held above a wide metal basin, clasped in my two aching arms as she poured over white slip that clung to the pot, wiping it back if need be, fettling chunks away and needling glaze out of her scratched signature, all whilst I crouched, arms now quivering, until she finally deemed it finished. We’d do the same for broad chargers, the cream-like slip splashing over my arms and into my shoes as she once again vigorously poured it over… more mopping.

Lisa’s work surrounded me; it still does. It’s what we used every day to eat and drink from, it lined the walls and was even hidden within the mossy undergrowth outside. So, whenever there’s a chance to look at a new group of pieces, be it an exhibition or in a book, I immediately feel at home again, even all these years later. Yet it’s more exciting nowadays since I’ve flown the nest. There are new shapes, swirls made with the sharp end of a hakeme brush in soft slip. I feel as if I can see how her mind has wandered, or how it has even sometimes been forced. She phoned me up a few days after she broke her elbow and wrist recently, distraught, pissed off, as any potter would be: our hands are our livelihood. She was yanked over by a pesky, excitable dog, not her own, a split-second incident resulting in months of patient healing. Throwing wasn’t an option, which meant hand building became the norm for a while: cups and small, rock-like jars carved entirely by hand, steadily and slowly, an imposed break to her usual maddening pace, the pots propped up and hands carefully working, discovering a new way of making.

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The Covid-19 pandemic provided another change to her craft. The classes that are taught four nights a week at the pottery, that result in a seemingly never-ending mess that I spent hundreds of hours diligently cleaning up, stopped. Suddenly she didn’t have thirty-two students’ pots and clutter to contend with and their space became hers. She took this opportunity to produce new large pots, colossal jars, some sixty centimetres tall once glaze fired to 1300ºc. She wouldn’t have had space for this process previously and I was jealous when she told me about this period of relative tranquility, the usual bustling, cramped studio instead spacious and calm. She could focus in a way she wasn’t able to before and I’m sure she found it difficult returning to her usual routine.

Alongside these larger pots are the comparatively austere, almost spherical, black-bodied moon jars featured in this exhibition. They sit quietly in contrast to many of her more fiery vessels, covered in a constellation of molten orbs of white feldspar that Lisa mixes into the stoneware, like kneading raisons into a ball of dough. Look on their underside though and you’ll be surprised by flowing black rivulets. These are areas where thick layers of vapourised bicarbonate soda have drenched the jar during the firing, the unglazed, metal-rich clay body reacting with the kiln’s atmosphere and the soda. These monochrome pots, simple in some ways, complex in others, have become a favourite of mine.

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Lisa let me learn in a far more hands-on way than I ever imagined. She cares more than most about the future of the craft and helping to support the next generation of budding potters, as exemplified by her ambitious Clay College, a project that sums up her tenacity perfectly (a quality of hers I hope has rubbed off on me).

One thing that did rub off is an appreciation for imperfection. Fresh from college I was obsessive over quality and if a glaze wasn’t pristine all the way around a pot, I’d call it a second, a pot not worthy of being sold at full price or exhibited. If a glaze partly oxidised and a yellow flash flickered across one side, I’d often even discard it. Lisa, on the other hand, welcomes these unexpected results – it is, after all, what makes soda firing so enticing as a method of glazing your pots. No two objects are alike: they can be similar, in the same family, but never truly identical. The soda-saturated fire deposits molten glass on the pots sporadically, wherever the flame’s path takes it: this is why her pots can have so many different faces. Over time, as Lisa taught me how to soda fire, I started to like these deviant pots. We’d unpack the soda kilns together and appreciate the strange surfaces, the ones that stood out or surprised us, held aloft in the sun, sparkling as the trains rattled past behind us. Soon I saw similar qualities in my own pots in a new light and nowadays these tend to be my favourites.

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Soda firing yields such variety that it makes much of the work subjective. I liked certain qualities that Lisa didn’t but it was always compelling to see her mind dissect a kiln load of new work. With soda firing you can see how the flames have moved throughout the kiln by observing the marks left on the pots. I recommend picking them up, looking at their bases and trying to see where the soda-rich plume has passed, as the evidence is there. That’s partly what Lisa would look for when the kiln was opened: the movement of glaze, new interesting surfaces, the bisecting lines created by her own glazing or the fire itself – anything that made a particular pot stand out. From an outsider’s perspective soda firing can look as if it produces unfathomably diverse results every time, but Lisa’s been doing this for most of her life, so for her even the most nuanced differences are stark.

When an exhibition looms she tries extraordinarily hard to create a body of work that’s one door over from her last. Always attentive to serendipity, she trials unexpected combinations of slips and glaze and melds those together with new shapes. She’d lay out her pots on the workbench, rows of yunomi, each with a label by it, or a note of what she had done simply scrawled on the tabletop, trying one combination after another and exhausting all the materials she had at her disposal.

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Those pots Lisa was unsure about after a firing would be piled into another box. Every Christmas she would get it out and offer the contents to her apprentices, past and present. I have my own collection of Lisa’s treasures, pots that are beyond just pots: they’re sentimental objects. I can see her hands in the clay, the marks left by her tools. Every time I drink from a cup of hers, I’m immediately reminded of my arduous, yet life-changing experience and the friendship made. It’s this that makes Lisa’s, and handmade pottery as a whole, so very special.

Florian Gadsby is a ceramicist, writer and former apprentice to Lisa Hammond.