In Clive and Rosie Bowen’s kitchen, a typical potters collection of pots that mean more as sentimental mementos than the pure joy of ownership. Potters included here are, among others, one time neighbors Sandy Brown and Takeshi Yasuda, Michael Cardew and Geoffrey Fuller. Photograph courtesy of Goldmark Gallery.
A small 13th- or 14th-century earthenware jar, probably used to contain a medicinal ointment or cream, 5 in. (13 cm) in height. Author’s collection.
A small lidded jar by Janet Leach, ca. 1980, 5½ in. (14 cm) in height. It is only since her death that Janet Leach has achieved the recognition that she deserved. Her work could be monumental and rugged or, as in the case of this jar, she could display sensitivity, elegance and poise. Author’s collection.
Pillow Pot by David Shaner, ca. 1980s, high fire reduction/stoneware. Collection of Jayson Lawfer.
A thrown and squared vase by Shoji Hamada, ca. 1965, 9 in. (23 cm) in height, Kaki glaze with wax resist brush pattern. Hamada was a genius and this pot encapsulates in one form his style and the unfettered freedom with which he married form and decoration. Author’s collection.
A press molded bottle by Bernard Leach, ca. 1963, 7½ in. (19 cm) in height. Leach was the reason I became a potter. His book, A Potters Book, created in me, as it did for so many, the desire to work with clay. This pot represents a whole career—it lifts my spirit each time I hold it. Author’s collection.
I have always been a collector of something. As a child I decided it would be a good idea to collect an example of every penny that had been minted from 1900 to 1963. I acquired most of them until I discovered that for 1933 only eight were minted. Every single 1933 penny had been accounted for and each was worth a small fortune! Later, my attentions were diverted to postage stamps and then to Beatle ephemera. The postage stamps I still have, the Beatle ephemera, now worth a great deal more than the postage stamps could ever have been, has long since gone.
In my late teens, I became hooked on the idea that treasures could be found by excavating Victorian rubbish tips. It was true—I found countless green glass bottles dating to the latter part of the 19th century and a selection of ceramic pots, lids and bisque doll heads. My best find was a 14th century, two handled pot resembling an amphora that had been dipped on both sides in a green galena glaze apron. How this small but quite beautiful piece of medieval pottery came to be in a Victorian refuse tip on the banks of the river Taff in Cardiff is anyone’s guess.
I am a self-confessed, ardent collector of pots—I can’t escape that fact. To be an inveterate collector is something beyond ones control, something probably genetic—it’s a habit a little like alcohol or drugs—a fix only lasts a certain length of time until another acquisition is the only way to assuage an urgent and pressing desire for ceramic nirvana.
Having said all of that, compared to other passionate “collectors” I know, I am an amateur. For the humble potter to be in the same league as the most ardent and determined collector is almost a financial impossibility and thankfully, I am, in most of what constitutes my day-to-day life, the hunted rather than the hunter. With that comparison in mind, I think it is appropriate to try and discuss the difference between the true collector and the potter who, by virtue of a happy coincidence of profession, happens to have a “collection” of pots with which he or she lives.
Pots are always in evidence when one visits the home of a potter. When other potters visit me, they are—as I am when I visit them—eyes everywhere, roaming along the shelves of a dresser, seeking out pots hitherto unseen, treasures that a potter with a potter’s sense of excellence will recognize and cherish. Herein lies the difference between the pots with which a potter will choose to surround him or herself and those singled out for purchase by the admiring but usually distant collector. Often, the pots that adorn the shelves of a potter’s house carry with them the intimate connection to the colleague, master, friend or acquaintance who made it.
We potters are lucky; we trade, buy from each other at ridiculous discount, we make gifts of our pots to each other. We exchange more than just a pot—we exchange part of our reason for being. We leave behind not just a gift but a symbol that unites us and forms a bond that lasts as long as the pot, which is usually forever. A gifted pot is like a three-dimensional calling card, a tangible souvenir to be cherished for its association as much as for its beauty.
I tend to think that the potter who is also a “serious” collector is actually a very rare bird and probably rightly so. The two are not mutually exclusive, but it does seem that there are two very different mindsets in operation here. The potter is concerned with making and then selling—the collector is concerned with buying. It isn’t at all a case of never the two should meet, because we all know that potters do buy the work of their colleagues—often simply to use. However, large, more expensive purchases, especially historical pieces, tend to be the domain of the true collector.
I remember clearly sitting with the late Bill Marshall in the living room of his house in Lelant near St. Ives. We talked for hours about pots and potters and Bill took great delight in taking pot after pot from a glass fronted cabinet. He handed them to me for my appraisal. He listened intently to my words as if testing me to agree with his own taste and assessment. If I disagreed he would gently chastise me and then try to explain why he thought a particular pot was so worthy. All of the pots in the cabinet were made by people with whom Bill, with his long years as foreman to Bernard Leach, had either met or worked alongside. The pots had probably cost him very little, but they were worth so much more than mere money to Bill. Indeed, I am quite sure that monetary value was something never thought about. Bill’s “collection” represented his working life measured not by his own considerable achievements, but by comradeship and his admiration for the work of others.
It is here that the true collector must take a much more dispassionate view. By that I don’t mean to suggest that collectors are not passionate in their endeavour, for they are—hugely so. I mean to convey the notion that the collector buys to feed a passion, to feel part of a scene in a creative and contributing sense. I have noticed that, of the very committed collectors I have met and sometimes dealt with, it is almost always the case that the welfare of the potter and the financial benefit of a purchase to the potter are at the forefront of the mind.
It is true that in recent years, particularly in the United Kingdom, the collector has become much closer to the potter than previously. The old idea that the collector bought solely from a gallery is no longer true. There has been a move toward a greater association between potter and collector, and it is now quite common for the collector to be a friend as well as a client. While the collector can sometimes adopt a supportive, even patronistic role, it is still often the case that the collector will admire and then purchase from afar, thus finding contentment and fulfilment in ownership without the close contact. It is also true of course, that there is a serious breed of collector who will not only buy the work of contemporary potters, but also pieces by potters no longer with us and often at much higher prices.
So it is here that I believe a distinction must be made. I have known only a few potters who are collectors, but I know many, if not every single one that I have met, who have collections of pots—sometimes large, sometimes small—in their homes. To have a collection of pots does not necessarily make one a collector, not in the truest, most fervent, almost obsessive way. I’m not saying that potters do not buy pots—of course they do, and sometimes significant purchases are made. The hardened collector however is a soul with a mission—the biggest, the best, the latest, the most typical—almost always with a great sense of aesthetic judgement and the desire to compliment and nurture—it’s almost a disease, in the nicest possible sense and thank God for them.
The potter, on the other hand, assembles a collection almost by default but takes a different kind of pleasure in having pots around. Clive Bowen is one such potter. Clive was closely associated with Michael Cardew for many years. He was never an apprentice but was a neighbor and would often assist with firings at Wenford Bridge. Inevitably, Cardew’s pots figure quite strongly on the shelves in Clive’s home alongside those of another neighbor, Svend Bayer. Bayer’s robust, wood fired pots are in stark contrast to the subdued iron glazes of Cardew or the lead glazed slipware of Bowen himself—an eclectic mix indeed. However, it is, as I have alluded to, the connection is every bit as sentimental as it is acquisitive. It’s not about owning the pots; it’s about being near to them and all of the emotional ties that they represent.
In contrast, potters who most definitely have the required collecting gene are John and Jude Jelfs whose pottery is in Bourton-on-the-Water deep in the Cotswolds. As John says:
As a full-time potter, I regularly buy the work of fellow potters. We potters work in relative isolation, and usually along narrow paths. I admire, and I am stimulated by, a lot of work that comes from a very different viewpoint than my own, and I look at my collection every day. Good pots do communicate with me and expand my experience. They enrich our lives in many ways—they inform and instruct and often provide the seed and inspiration for a new idea. I am a compulsive collector, but for me the pots in my collection are a direct and tangible link to the potters who made them and, for those no longer with us, their spirit and their friendship live on in the pots that we see every day.
Jayson Lawfer is a potter and collector currently living in Rome. Recently, Lawfer has utilized his collecting knowledge to begin the Nevica Project, an arts consulting service that aims to create a bridge between the U.S. and Europe for the collector and the artist. According to Lawfer:
I have always felt that collecting pottery is a way of protecting it. I am a maker and a collector, so I am aware of the process, the history and the fragility of the material. But it is the fragility that makes me continue to seek rare works. I know if I can find and afford an historical piece of pottery, I will protect and secure it for future generations to handle, view and explore.
As for myself—yes, I collect, and I guess that pots are an obvious subject to focus my attention. I do get a great deal of satisfaction in tracking down and acquiring pots, particularly the older studio pieces, and I can’t escape the accusation that I enjoy owning or, as I prefer, caretaking more than 500 pieces, some with an historical importance. However, there is a huge and extremely important side benefit for me, as there would be for any potter, surrounded as I am with dozens of wonderful examples of pots by some of the foremost potters of the twentieth century. I have learned an enormous amount from my collection. The potters who made these works—Leach, Hamada, Cardew, Shimaoka, Pleydell-Bouverie and others—have been absentee tutors. When, in the past, I have been in need of reassurance, instruction or inspiration, I have looked at the pots around me and they have given all those things in abundance.
It is very often true that an important collection is a reflection of the wealth of its owner but by no means always. A collection can be much more than just an assemblage of valuable works. To collect with passion, discrimination and style is a creative act in itself. To create a collection that is managed, themed and with aesthetic sensitivity is a collector’s way of making a creative statement. For me, collecting pots has never been about investment. Collecting the work of other potters has, and always will be, deeply rooted in a need to feel a connection to people whom I feel have been important, not just to me, but to ceramics in the widest sense. In the same way that a writer would be surrounded by books, I derive great joy and a huge feeling of security from having these pieces near to me. They have nurtured my soul, brought me closer to people that, in the main, I was never destined to meet and nourished my hunger for understanding and technique. One day they will find their way into someone else’s life and I hope and trust they will do the same for them.
the author Phil Rogers is a member of the CM editorial advisory board. He is a potter, an author and a “collector” of pots in Rhayader, Powys, Wales. See www.philrogerspottery.com.