Not being a potter myself

Studio Pottery - an outsider's view

Like Maria McCarthy in the Autumn 1999 issue, I started by seeing if I could live down to my status as an "outsider". But it's no use. My full forenames are Thomas William, and I am the fourth successive Greenwell to start with a redundant Thomas. My great-great-grandfather, Thomas George Greenwell, was called Tom (as is my son). And where did he get this name from? Why, his mother's father, Thomas Henderson (1770 - 1838), of Hylton in Sunderland. And Thomas Henderson was..... a potter. What's more, I have his indenture to the potters Christopher and James Maling, signed on 23 September 1791. In many respects, it's a pro forma, my great-great-great-great-grandfather swearing, as other tradesmen had to, potters especially, no doubt, to refrain from Fornication and Adultery, doing Hurt or Damage to his Masters, and agreeing not to Haunt or Frequent Alehouses. He wasn't even allowed to contract matrimony with a woman during the term of his agreement. For forswearing these and other unpotterly activities, he was guaranteed four shillings a week for the first year rising to six shillings and sixpence in the sixth and last year of his apprenticeship in the Art of Keeper (?) of Flat Earthenware.

So there we have it. Genetically speaking, I am one sixty-fourth potter. And descended out of good Sunderland pottery stock, too. Even my name was nicked from a potter. This will doubtless exercise a subtle influence on what follows.

When I was four, my grandfather (other side of the family) showed me his willow pattern plates. It was clear to me that, given the careful distance put between my grubby mitts and his prized possessions, these were items to command great respect. However, I think that they were used as well as inspected, and I have to admit to a sort of utilitarian attitude to pottery. I have lots of little pots about the house, but they have Things In Them. Even the pieces that perhaps shouldn't. Even the Laurel Keeley dish downstairs has my car insurance documents in it. So I don't seem to be able to cope with pottery which you just look at. I offer this to you with some embarrassment. It is rather as if a potter had bought a book I'd written to press flowers in.

I think of potters as loners. Is that true? Is that a stereotype descended from the famous TV bromide, The Potter's Wheel? I assume you like to be on your own, to be finicky, to have a quiet distaste for mass production, or even repetition, to have hands as supple as those of osteopaths, and as skilful. Whatever you are making, I hope it's eccentric as well as functional - I like crockery with weird, abstract patterns. Potters seem to me to be able to sell abstract art more easily than any other artists, with the possible exception of fabric designers. Mondrian and Kandinsky would have created great crockery, although I admit that I'd still have put peanuts in their bowls. Or batteries. Or paper-clips.

I hate craft fairs. They terrify me, because I can't identify with the punters. I walk round them very fast in case someone tries to sell me something. I might dash in and buy something small - I can't ever remember buying something more substantial, except for a couple of wedding presents. On the other hand, I received several pots when I got married (plant-pots). I prefer the pots to the plants, because I am anything but green-fingered. I realise that I like red and blue, and would run a mile from a yellow pot.

From a linguistic point of view, potters have a great lexicon, the kind from which I'd like to thieve: faience, delft, hidasuki, sgraffito, psykter, feldspar, maiolica...... I had always assumed, incidentally, that to potter about was the hallmark of an earthenware worker. I wonder how many others think that potters are dilatory by nature (in fact, pottering about is a recent corruption of a different Anglo Saxon word, potian, which meant to thrust repeatedly, something of course that potters aren't liable to do - see my ancestor's indenture).

It wouldn't be true to say that I'm completely ignorant of artists and artwork, although my entire school education limited me to two terms of needle-and-felt work (Term One: a stuffed rabbit, Term Two: a stuffed hare). Chance propelled me, however, into working as an English teacher in an Art department, and I've taught art students for 25 years now. So I suppose I became aware of the curious division some people make between art and craft when I was 22, whilst at the same time learning that students will experiment with any material at all when they are 17 or so. So I am susceptible to clay as a medium, and I've enjoyed the results of my students' experiments. Art A level students seem to distinguish (rather arbitrarily) between ceramics (good) and pottery (what their parents did in evening classes).

Perhaps this snobbery has also affected me, although, philosophically at least, I've always objected to art/science or art/leisure divisions. I do think that pottery is viewed in a curiously different way from any other aesthetic act of creation. And this is how. I think pottery is regarded by its owners with tremendous sentiment, that people are sentimental about pottery in a way that they aren't about paintings (investment, heavily dependent on vogue), or sculpture (public art). Fabrics are expected to fade; people don't hang on to their clothes forever, even if they wish they could. People change wallpaper (background). Music is seen as something of a statement (this music defines me). Dance is amazing, impossible, Out There. Film is transient, is often viewed nostalgically. Photography is more intimate, and perhaps also untrustworthy. And metal and precious stone, or jewellery, let's say, are associated with value as much as style. Architecture is done to you, not for you.

But pottery (and glass, by extension) is what people hang on to. Perhaps this is because it is breakable. In most cases, paintings don't pass from generation to generation. But pottery does. It seems to defy changes in style, to rise above the level of memento. It is to be handled with great care. It is even preserved when it is chipped. The china cabinets aren't filled with souvenirs, but with objects of obscure veneration. I suspect that many people do not even consider whether or not the objects are ugly or beautiful. It may be that the dishwasher has done for the crockery end of the market somewhat. But pots, of whatever size, retain their own peculiar hold on the imagination.

Well, of course, this was bound to happen. Being asked to write for a magazine called Studio Pottery has made me come over all wild, woolly and general. And contradictory, too. Plainly I don't know my Astbury from my elbow. Perhaps I should have stuck to memories of that ubiquitous blue-and-white pottery I always found when digging holes in my parents' garden. As for my genetic claims, I have rather less to crow about than Beatrix, Stephen, Paleface or even Harry Potter. (Rather curiously, Beatrix Potter was an exact contemporary of an equally famous Beatrice Potter, better known by her married name, Beatrice Webb. There you are. More useless information).

I do have one favourite piece of pottery, and it's not a pot. Some years ago I devised a project for the art students to whom I was teaching English. It involved investigating the lives of famous heroic individuals, and creating hagiographies as well as debunking them. It was an exercise in defining what we mean by "true". They were able to produce work in any media. One student, Mary Taylor, investigated Jimi Hendrix, who was as fantastical to her as (say) Cleopatra. She produced a ceramic facsimile of one of Hendrix's broken guitars. Her statement. I can't throw it away, and I won't.

The only Sunderland pottery I possess, alas, is a mug celebrating the 1973 Cup Final win over Leeds. It was my credential when I began teaching, since the Head of Music was from Sunderland, too. He looked me straight in the eye, and enquired, "Have you got your mug?" I had. I was safe.

From Studio Pottery