SPECIALIST POTTERS USE TRADITIONAL METHODS TO PRODUCE THEIR DECORATIVE WARES IN A FARM STUDIO
Hidden in the trees at the end of a stony track in the hills of Scotland’s Southern Uplands is an isolated farmhouse. The nearest town, Castle Douglas, is over five miles away along single track roads. Opposite a disused cowshed stands an outhouse that has been converted to an artist’s studio. This is the workspace of potters Doug Fitch and Hannah McAndrew.
The couple specialise in slipware, a type of pottery where slip, a suspension of clay in water, is used to decorate an unfired pot. For centuries, it was the traditional pottery of ordinary people in both town and country. However, the mechanised processes of the industrial revolution caused its near total decline. Added to this, many of the remaining craftsmen were lost during the First World War, and their skills died with them. Today though, this husband and wife team keep the age-old tradition alive in the warmth of their studio, while the wild winter wind blows outside.
Working with nature
Doug weighs out clay while Hannah works on a mechanical potter’s kick wheel, which is powered by kicking the legs. There are pots and plates everywhere, some finished, others on racks drying. “Our work is influenced by a tradition that has changed and evolved over the centuries,” says Doug. “Medieval potters were based outside the towns and villages because of the fire risk and the amount of smoke from the kilns. They drew inspiration from the countryside around them, where they also found wood, lead ore for a basic glaze and clay. They even used to dig clay from the roads. That’s where the term ‘potholes’ comes from,” he explains.
“We work with traditional natural earth tones. In Britain we have a lot of red clay and smaller amounts of white. The white clay comes from North Devon. It is finer than red clay and requires a higher firing temperature, which many potters didn’t have the equipment to achieve. Because this made it more expensive, it was used mainly for decoration.” The basic palette of black, white, green and red slip is made by mixing different clays with naturally occurring iron, manganese and copper oxides. By placing the pots in the hottest parts of the kiln, varying tints of brown can be produced.
Doug’s interest in pottery began when he was at school in Northamptonshire. “When I was 11 my old headmaster, who was an archaeologist, used to take us out field walking around the site of the long-vanished medieval village of Lyveden to collect medieval pottery shards. We’d take them back to school and identify them using archaeological surveys of the area. Some of the bits had the potter’s thumb marks and fingerprints still in them.”
At college, he learnt kiln-building, glaze chemistry and all aspects of ceramics. “All I was interested in was slipware,” he says. “I love the feel of slip. I love the feel of clay in my hands, its coolness to the touch and its malleability. Kneading clay, which we do to eliminate air and evenly blend the material, isn’t like kneading bread, the properties are very different. And the properties differ across the many types of clay. Porcelain for example is more plastic, more flexible, but it lacks the integral strength that our clay has when it’s soft. This makes for a completely different type of pot.”
For 19 years Doug worked as a ceramics technician at Exeter College of Art and Design. In his spare time he helped other potters around Devon fire their kilns, loading the pots and ensuring the kiln stayed at the correct temperature. Then at the age of 40, he took redundancy. “I thought if the others can do it, so can I,” he says. “So I spent all my redundancy money on a pile of bricks for a kiln and on converting a derelict barn.” This was to be the first of a number of studios Doug had in the Devon area before relocating to Scotland.
He begins making what has become one of his trademark products, a large jug. “I love the form, the shape of the jugs,” he says. “They have character. They have a foot, a belly, a shoulder, a lip, a waist, a neck. They have beautiful curves.” His jugs have their own style, but are strongly influenced by examples from the past, where function dictated the form.
Doug scoops up a handful of clay. “I worked in a flowerpot factory for a year in 1985 after leaving art college. One of the few things I learnt was how to judge a three pound ball of clay accurately, though we still weigh it on scales to be certain.”
His large pots are approximately 17in (43cm) tall, 12in (30cm) wide and weigh in the region of 14lb (6.3kg). They are thrown in two sections. The base contains 14lb (6.3kg) of clay, which he splits into 7lb (3kg) blocks to make the kneading more manageable before re-joining the two. The neck uses a further 1.5lb (0.6kg). The clay, called Etruria Marl, is sourced from the big pits around Stoke-on-Trent as the local Scottish clay is too sandy. It lacks the plasticity to throw a pot with a bellied form. Grit is added to increase the clay’s strength for the bigger pots.
“Throwing a pot takes absolute concentration,” he says. “Your fingertips and the side of the knuckle are exerting pressure and lifting the material. You have to know exactly when and how much pressure to apply.”
“And your muscles remember the movements,” adds Hannah. “You feel it through your fingertips. One false move, though, and the whole thing collapses. It’s important to know your wheel and materials really well.”
Doug starts throwing the base of the pot on the electrically powered wheel. This is a 10in (25cm) diameter circular metal plate sitting on an encased electric motor which is 3ft (90cm) high. It is surrounded by a tray containing a pan of water. The water is added through the throwing process to prevent the hands sticking to the clay.
He raises the clay into the beginnings of the jug, his head moving around the pot at almost impossible angles. His elbows are high as his hands coax the clay upwards. “People tell me I do these strange movements but I’m not aware of it at the time. I’m just completely focused. It’s like meditation.”
Creating the jug
Once the base is finished, he partially dries it using a gas burner to increase its strength. This is to prevent it collapsing when he places the neck on top. He measures the top of the base with callipers so that he can throw the neck to exactly the correct diameter to make a perfect fit. Once thrown, the neck is also partially dried and then carefully lowered onto the base. The wheel is then started and the two are compressed together using the fingers and a tool called a rib, which helps create a smooth junction. The whole throwing process takes not much more
than 20 minutes.
Doug holds the top of the neck in place with the thumb and forefinger of his left hand. Then, hooking the forefinger of his right hand over the edge of the neck, he gently pulls backwards to create the lip of the jug.
The jug is then left to partially dry and strengthen until the following day when the handle is added. The handle is created using a technique called pulling. Doug takes a lump of clay and, using plenty of water, squeezes it gently while dragging downwards over and over again. This is done until the clay has become the correct diameter and length for the handle. He then scores both the end of the handle and the side of the pot. After adding some slip to help bind the two, the end of the handle is pushed onto the pot. As this is done, he supports the pot from the inside with his other hand. The handle is carefully bent downwards to create the required curve, and the process repeated to join the bottom of the handle to the pot.
Before applying slip, the pot is left until it is leatherhard, a state where the clay has partially dried to a consistency of cheese. This can take several days, the time depending on the thickness of the pot, the temperature and the moisture in the atmosphere.
Although both create designs that are strongly influenced by nature, Doug and Hannah specialise in different slipware techniques. Doug rolls out small pieces of clay and lays them on the surface of the pot, a process called appliqué. He also uses clay stamps called sprigs with patterns of daisies, blackberries or leaves that he has made, before covering the pot in slip.
Hannah brushes a background slip layer on and pipes different colours of slip on top to create her designs of birds, tulips or trees, a process called slip trailing. Depending on the size of the pot it can take days of intense concentration to decorate one piece.
The pots are left on racks in the studio to dry for up to eight weeks. Drying too fast can cause cracking so they are covered in polythene to control evaporation. This is followed by a firing in an electric kiln which turns the raw clay into hard-fired pottery. The kiln, which they keep in the barn opposite, takes 12-14 hours to get to the necessary 1000°C where it is held for
30 minutes before cooling for two days.
Glazing and firing
When cool, the pots are dipped in glaze. This is a mixture of white clay, water, iron oxide and lead frit, a safe form of lead. Before the advent of lead frit in the early 20th century there was a high incidence of lead poisoning amongst potters. This can lead to mental impairment, and is possibly the origin of the expression ‘going potty’.
Finally the pots are loaded into the wood-fired kiln. The kiln, a brick structure surrounded by a wooden shed, is situated several hundred yards down the track. During the afternoon 70 pots, the result of six weeks’ work, are carefully loaded onto shelves and at 8am the following morning the kiln is lit.
“We have a firing every six weeks or so,” says Doug. “It’s a big event. You have a trusted firing team and help each other out. Hannah was part of my team for a long time and I was part of hers.”
“It can be incredibly stressful and you need two people to keep it running,” says Hannah. “The kind of wood you use and the atmospheric conditions can really affect the burn. You have to control the temperature carefully and watch the chimney. If the smoke is black the kiln is burning in reduction, which means there’s not enough oxygen for the amount of fuel and the glazes will blister and the pots go an ugly brown.
“For our kind of work the chimney should have no smoke, or very white smoke. We use a denser wood at the beginning of the firing, a hard wood if we can get it, for a slow burn, and then we use old pallets from local farms. You don’t have to store them and they have a fast, clean burn that helps you control the temperature.”
They place pyrometric cones, a set of three ceramic cones that melt and bend over at different temperatures, in with the pots. These can be seen through a spyhole by extracting a removable brick from the door of the kiln and are used to estimate the temperature within. It takes 16 hours of tending to get the temperature to 1100°C. The kiln is kept at that temperature for 30 minutes. It is then sealed up and left to cool for two days. “We walk away and try not to think about it,” says Doug. “It’s a private moment when you open it again. You’re usually up against a show deadline and you feel sick.”
When the pots finally emerge they are in their finished state, yet there can be unexpected results. “You can get large atmospheric variations across the kiln with flames and gasses going through,” says Hannah. “Identical pots next to each other can come out completely different. But you have to resist the temptation to smash the ones you don’t like because you can grow to love them later on.”
Back in the warm, dry studio, Doug has a collection of old pottery. “I love these old jugs,” he says. “What excites me is that they were part of someone’s life.”
“If Doug had his way,” concludes Hannah, “he would make jugs and nothing else, forever and always.”
Photography: Rob Scott
The feature about Doug and Hannah's pottery originally appeared in the Jan / Feb 2016 issue of LandScape.
For back issues click here.