Don Potter

Pupil of Eric Gill whose own pupils included Terence Conran

During an exceptionally long working life the sculptor, ceramicist and teacher Don Potter inspired all around him. Many of his pupils became distinguished voices in a variety of creative fields.

Donald Potter, sculptor, potter and teacher: born Newington, Kent 21 April 1902; Art Master, Bryanston School 1941-82; married 1945 Mary Broomfield (one son, one daughter); died Blandford Forum, Dorset 7 June 2004.

During an exceptionally long working life the sculptor, ceramicist and teacher Don Potter inspired all around him. Many of his pupils at Bryanston School, near Blandford in Dorset - where he taught between 1941 and 1982 - became distinguished voices in a variety of creative fields.

His skill with young people stemmed from early days as a scout trainer at the International Training Centre for Scoutmasters at Gilwell Park, Essex, where he encountered Robert Baden-Powell. Baden-Powell utilised Potter's wood-carving skills, commissioning him to carve totem poles representing the five British Dominions of Australia, Canada, India, Africa and New Zealand for the World Scout Jamboree in 1929.

Among Potter's best-known works are the Brownsea Island Commemorative Stone (marking the spot where Baden-Powell held the first scout camp in 1907) and portraits of Baden-Powell carved in the unyielding and difficult material of granite, one of which adorns the exterior of Baden-Powell House at Queen's Gate in Kensington, London.

Don Potter was born in 1902, the eldest of three children, and together with his two sisters enjoyed a congenial upbringing in a rural idyll near Sittingbourne in Kent. After a downturn in the family business, however, the family moved to Gillingham. Potter's imagination and creative inclinations were fired by an early love of music (he later played the cello) and by an interest in the folk crafts of gypsies, which he encountered for the first time at fairgrounds pitched behind the Potter household in Gillingham.

After school, he worked in post-First World War munitions factories in north London, an occupation he hated. He did, however, acquire crucial metalwork skills there that were relevant to future sculpture-making. The big break came when he met the sculptor and engraver Eric Gill on scaffolding outside BBC Broadcasting House in Langham Place, where Gill was installing the stone relief Prospero and Ariel (1932).

Originally taken on as an assistant by Gill for six months, Potter stayed on at Piggotts, near High Wycombe, for six years. Potter's later memoir My Time with Eric Gill (1980) described the value of being in the shadow of a great craftsman and religious visionary (Potter's own spiritual instincts looked eastwards and he later practised transcendental meditation).

As well as executing carved work for Gill in assorted religious, educational or temporal locations (such as wood panels for the Radcliffe Science Library in Oxford), Potter came into contact with neighbours like the painter Cecil Collins and with distinguished visiting artists like Eric Ravilious, Bernard Leach, David Jones (who painted a portrait of Potter playing cello) and the critic Herbert Read, who lived at nearby Seer Green. Potter's education at Piggotts, from both a practical and an intellectual point of view, could scarcely have been more propitious.

The tiny, ironically named cottage "Slab Castle" at Speen, in which Potter lived during the Gill years, was symptomatic of financial strictures. A teaching career beckoned; with letters of reference from Baden-Powell and Gill, Potter took up his first teaching post at a Quaker prep school in Swanage, Dorset. From there Potter was recommended to T.F. Coade, head of Bryanston, the liberal and artistic public school at Blandford Forum. Following the painter Roger Hilton and sculptor Willi Soukop, in 1941 Potter became art master.

He married Mary Broomfield, a nurse, in 1945. Based in a small flat in school grounds, Potter started a family, a daughter, Anne, born in 1947, followed by a son, Julian, in 1952. Later they moved into a leased property in a nearby village.

Social and professional connections gained through the Bryanston milieu mitigated the cloistered effect of being in full-time education away from the art world. One of Potter's prize pupils, Terence Conran, later founder of Habitat and initiator of a revolution in popular interior design, spoke of how Potter "imbued us all with the pleasure of making things". Ecclesiastic commissions for stone carvings came through the sculptor Anthony Twentyman, an old friend whose architect brother Richard found outlets for Potter in the Midlands.

Potter's commissioned sculpture invariably followed religious themes and were sited in churches. Even commissions from the secular source of Twentyman resulted in sculptures like a three-ton figure of St Martin Holding the Cross for a church in Wolverhampton as well as a Portland stone Lamb of God and the main entrance frieze for All Saints' Church at Darlaston in Staffordshire, rebuilt in 1952 after being destroyed in a wartime raid.

Other commissions, such as three carvings for Wolverhampton Crematorium in 1954, a walnut Epstein-like Risen Christ for St Peter's School chapel, Wolverhampton, in 1965 and a similar walnut crucifix for St George's Chapel, Windsor, continued an old vein in Potter's work stemming back to earlier religious pieces like Seated Figure or Head of Judas. These works led to the impressive full-length sycamore Adam and Eve in 1992.

For the Pope's visit to Coventry in 1982 a slate relief was commissioned for the international airport, in which Potter displayed the lettering and shallow-relief skills perfected under Gill before the Second World War. In 1977, for a Dartmoor location, he was commissioned to carve in local granite a Silver Jubilee stone.

Whether pursuing religious, mythic or secular figurative themes, Potter's sculptures were carved in a wide variety of soft and hard materials. The recurring subjects of animals, birds and upright human figures frequently display a virtuoso, but never slick or meretricious, stylisation, leading to the abstraction of the 22ft The Tree of Life (1988) now installed in the grounds of Bryanston.

Potter takes his place among a small but distinctive group of Dorset sculptors whose carved works reflect the proximity of the quarries at Portland and the Isle of Purbeck. This ongoing tradition was established by Mary Spencer-Watson and the Canadian Elizabeth Muntz and was later exemplified by Sven Berlin and Michael Bizley.

The significance of Potter's ceramic career, which had started under the Corfe-based potter Amy Krauss, was based less on his role as a maker than on his pioneering teaching at Bryanston. Several successful potters, including Mike Dodd, Richard Batterham, Michael Gill and Kit Opie, began their careers under Potter's guidance. Another of Potter's pupils, Opie's uncle David Canter, was founder of Cranks vegetarian restaurants and of the Craft Potters Association. Dodd recalled that Potter's was "an infusive teaching because he was grounded in good method". Using the ample timber supplies from Bryanston's large acreage of woodlands he encouraged ash-glaze experimentation and, through his friendship with Michael Cardew, invited the celebrated Nigerian potter Ladi Kali to demonstrate hand-building techniques to his pupils in 1962.

Working well past his 100th birthday, Potter lived to see his enormous contribution at Bryanston and beyond immortalised through the inauguration in 1997 of the Don Potter Art School at Bryanston.

Peter Davies

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