None of that fancy stuff

Honest, unpretentious English country pottery has finally made it to the saleroom. By John Windsor
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Isaac Button was the last true English country potter. In a day, he could turn a ton of clay into pots. I timed him as he threw a lump of clay on to the wheel, pulled it high, then cut it off with wire: 22 seconds. In an hour, he could turn out 120 pots. In a day, 1,200.

Button's kiln, at Soil Hill, near Halifax, now lies cold and desolate. He died in 1969. But the 41-minute video that records his dexterity had me on the edge of my seat. In his day, speed was essential. Even before the packaging revolution, household pots and jugs made from clay were treated as disposables. They cost only a few pence. Craftsmen potters had to be quick to earn a living from poorly-paid villagers.

Unlike other mass-produced art, hand-thrown pots seem to look better the faster they are turned out. The potter's skill improves with practice - yet there is no time for pretentiousness. Hence the charm of English country pottery made for cooking, baking, brewing, storing, growing seedlings or feeding chickens.

The founders of British 20th century studio pottery - Bernard Leach, Michael Cardew and the Japanese Shoji Hamada - sought out the few remaining English country potters and copied their techniques. But their debt to them is often overlooked and English country pottery remains largely undiscovered. There are fewer than a dozen collectors, few textbooks and no national collection. By contrast, the Japanese prize our country pottery, as do American folk art enthusiasts.

On 29 November, the first private collection of English country pottery to come to auction is at Bonhams - 85 lots discovered over 20 years by the artist-designers Peter Highley and Ruth Scott-Walton in markets and shops, in particular where the last country potteries clung on: Cornwall, north Devon, Dorset and Yorkshire.

Mr Highley defined its appeal: "The old country potters did not think of themselves as artists. But there is a purity and an honesty in their work that is sometimes missing from more refined contemporary studio ceramics."

By 1900 England had only 100 country potteries and by the end of the depression a mere dozen. There has been a pottery at Soil Hill since the 17th century. Before the war it employed 13 men. After that, Button could find no more apprentices and worked it alone for 18 years.

Most of the pots in the sale are "slipware", slip being creamy white diluted clay. Red earthenware was either dipped in it or decorated with it. The country glaze was galena, toxic lead sulphide, now illegal, that gave potters "bellyache" if they pulverised it when dry.

There are some Victorian remnants from Soil Hill in the sale: three bulbous jugs with cream slip interiors are estimated pounds 80-pounds 140 the lot. At the turn of the century, few earthenware cooking utensils cost more than 7d - pounds 1.60 today. In 1964, Button's 28lb cider jars cost 28s - pounds 14 today.

Button's strength and endurance were Herculean. The ton of clay he could pot in a day he dug himself from the hillside. Each firing of his 500 cubic foot kiln had to be stoked with two and half tons of coal at six firemouths. That kept him up for 48 hours or more at a time, during which he would climb on to the hot kiln roof, even in gales, to pull out test firings.

Once he had emptied the kiln he would begin barrowing to the wheel blocks of clay that he had processed: first blunged (mixed with water), sieved, dried on a stone floor heated by the kiln and twice pugged (compressed); all the time he smoked his pipe.

Button did, somehow, find leisure time, maintaining that he never left a pub on the same day that he entered it.

Bernard Leach, the father of British studio pottery, sought him out, wanting to know how much grog (gritty bits) he added to the clay of his "bigware". The dry Yorkshireman told him: "I have enough trouble gettin' t' bloody stuff out wi'out puttin' it in."

Mr Highley's favourite country potteries are in north Devon, particularly Fremington, where, aged eight, Michael Cardew used to watch the white- bearded Edwin Beer Fishley bent over his wheel. Cardew was later taught to throw by Fishley's grandson, William Fishley Holland. But when he went up to Oxford his tutor told him he must choose between pots and Greats - an indication of the social chasm that existed in the Twenties between craftsmen and gentlemen artists.

Like Button, the Fishleys were 1,000-pots-a-day men. Leach was spellbound watching William put handles on 200 mugs in just over an hour. Among five lots by grandfather Fishley is a scraffito jug with scroll handle and rhyme: est pounds 180-pounds 240. Three lots by grandson Fishley include a jug with serif design: pounds 60-pounds 90 the lot.

There is an oval dish decorated with a bird in the sale, whose three impressed seals - MC, EC and Winchcombe - spell out the story of how studio potters tried to revive the country tradition. MC is Michael Cardew, who slip-trailed the image of the bird and EC is Elijah Comfort, the country potter who threw the dish. Comfort had spent 12 years as a farm labourer when Cardew persuaded him to return to the wheel at his old pottery at Winchcombe, Gloucestershire - restored from dereliction by Cardew in1926.

Cardew paid Comfort pounds 2 a week - about pounds 58 today. The bird dish is estimated pounds 1,500-pounds 2,000 in the sale. There are two charming lidded honey pots of the Forties by Sidney Tustin, taken on as a boy to turn old Comfort's wheel: pounds 50-pounds 70 the pair. A magnificent Thirties flagon by Cardew with fish and plant design is pounds 900-pounds 1,400.

Many of the pieces are elaborately decorated wares celebrating significant events of country life - harvests, weddings, christenings - part of a centuries-old folk-art tradition. Birds, hearts, flowers and butterflies were familiar symbols. A big Bideford harvest jug with scraffito sailing ship has the sale's top estimate: pounds 2,000-pounds 3,000.

Although English country pottery looks forward to a revival, prospects of re-firing Isaac Button's Soil Hill kiln look bleak. Protected by a security fence, the pottery is sited on valuable quarry stone. Old Isaac regarded as an enemy the local businessman who wanted to buy it, only to discover, having sold it upon retirement, that the purchaser was the same man. The Friends of Soil Hill have insisted upon enforcement of the preservation order on it.

As the rhyme on grandfather Fishley's scraffito jug says: "Long may you live, Happy may you be, Blest with content, And from misfortune free."

Bonham's: 0171-584 9161.Copies of 'Isaac Button - Country Potter'and other videos about potters: John Anderson, East View, The Green, Long Melford, Sudbury, Suffolk CO10 9DU

The good pot guide

Hand-throwing often leaves rings round the circumference and a rough bottom. Modern pots have smooth surfaces and often raised seams left by the mould.

Lead-sulphide galena glaze gave old pots a jewel-like finish, unlike the glassy surface of modern glazes. Regulations limited the use of soluble lead in glazes in 1947. (For safety's sake, avoid drinking liquids that have been allowed to stand in lead-glazed vessels).

Pots made by educated folk are more likely to bear a seal. Those 1,000-a-day men seldom bothered to decorate or sign. But the surest way to identify a pot is to discover its provenance.

Regional design variations can be learned. And the unglazed bottoms of pots are a give-away: Yorkshire clay is red and hard. North Devon clay is peachy-coloured and buttery and more likely to have fingerprints.

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