Obituary: Patrick Sargent

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
THE SUDDEN death of Patrick Sargent at the age of 41 deprives the pottery world of one of its more provocative, iconoclastic and creative spirits.

Paradoxically, Sargent was both revolutionary in outlook and ambition yet an arch-romantic, searching for an almost unattainable wholeness in his work and life. The great potter Michael Cardew divided the work of potters into those obsessed by clay and those with flame - and there was little doubt into which group Sargent fell. Acknowledging his profound involvement with flame, he said "the long fire encompasses an element as potentially creative as the initial lump of clay".

Even as a mercurial, obsessional ceramic student at West Surrey College of Art and Design at Farnham in the late 1970s, Sargent was obsessed by fire and the effects of flame, and spoke with affection of his time spent at college "with a much used and abused hole in the ground". Under the guidance of his tutors Henry Hammond, Paul Barron and Gemma Bontempo, Sargent was encouraged to pursue his own ideas, setting the foundation for his work as a potter. He experimented with local clays to make up bodies, played about with different sorts of kiln construction and firings, and explored the use of natural materials such as wood ash in the glaze, which has the effect of combining with the surface of the clay to give softly coloured but often dramatic mottled effects.

Much of his creative inspiration came from the ancient Far Eastern technique of long slow wood-stoked firing, known as anagama, which marks the clay with the effects of flame and smoke in a unique combination of colour and texture.

Following college, where he graduated with first class Honours, Sargent established workshops in his home town of Northampton, where with his wife Olive and their young daughter Lisa he sought to establish his own voice, building kilns for himself as well as other potters. Rural Northampton did not prove conducive, and, after a visit to Germany, in 1989 he moved to Nyffel in Switzerland, the native country of his second wife, Renate Badertscher.

Here he began to find himself. On a hillside he built an enormous single- chambered climbing kiln with a firing chamber of some five cubic metres, capable of holding two and a half months work, and christened it "The Mule". For many potters it would have been a daunting task to construct, let alone fill with pots and fire over a period of several days, but for Sargent it was a welcome challenge and the realisation of a long-held dream in which he could bring together his interests in clay, flame and heat.

Typically, rather than invoke the more alienating machinery of the electric wheel, Sargent chose to throw his pots on a momentum wheel, which is pushed with the foot and moves silently round, savouring the use of soft clay and the intimate relationship between potter and pot.

For Sargent the cycle of making pots, of packing and firing the kiln, and the long wood-firing process was not only a way of life but a means of retaining the freshness and freedom of the newly thrown piece whilst capturing the possibilities offered by flame. His precedents were the Japanese traditional country potteries such as Tamba and Bizen where pots are kiln-marked, mottled and marked by the flame or enhanced by fly ash from the wood used for stoking to highlight areas of the surface.

By careful positioning in the kiln, Sargent hoped to allow the greatest creative interplay of flame, clay and wood ash. Pots were placed on their sides, others stood on seashells, while plates and dishes were arranged inside each other for maximum exposure. The resulting, often dramatic encrustations and swirling textures of hard and soft markings, loose and crisp forms imbued with a range of soft pinks, white blushes, rich dark browns and cream all serve as evidence of the pot's history.

It is this combination of the natural and the contrived, the fine line between the happy accident and great sophistication, that Sargent handled so brilliantly and with such breathtaking conviction.

Much of Sargent's success lay in his choice of forms which were intended to respond well to any possible firing effects. A variety of bottles and bowls were produced as well as handsome platters that ranged in size from a modest 12in dinner plate to vast pieces some 24in or 30in in diameter. Some shapes borrow loosely from the relaxed casualness of the Japanese tea ceremony, some from the sturdy jug forms of medieval England, but all were transposed and reinterpreted in Sargent's highly individual style.

The power of these intriguingly flamboyant pieces brought growing international acclaim, and in 1991 he was made a Fellow of the Craft Potters Association. In the same year he was one of a group of potters demonstrating at the Aberystwyth International Potters Festival, his long blond, beaded locks and his decorative pierced earrings making a lasting impression as he systematically and rhythmically wedged the clay on the floor with his feet before quietly throwing his pots.

With a combination of shyness, arrogance and sensitivity, Sargent fearlessly explored the extremes of firing, opening new possibilities, in a search for some fundamental truth about "naturalness" expressed through making, clay and fire.

Patrick Nigel Sargent, potter: born Northampton 28 September 1956; married first Olive Redhead (one daughter; marriage dissolved), second Renate Badertscher; died Heimisbach, Switzerland 4 September 1998.