Colin Pearson: Potter with great technical understanding and a joyous vision

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Colin James Pearson, potter: born Friern Barnet, Middlesex 14 September 1923; married 1954 Leslie Thomas (two sons, one daughter); died London 3 December 2007.

As a testament to the soundness of an apprentice-based training, it would be difficult to match the work and achievement of Colin Pearson, one of the leading potters of the post-war period. Pearson, a skilled and gifted potter, with an acute knowledge of the processes and techniques of pottery, brought his understanding to bear in both a robust range of functional ware and in often-spectacular individual winged forms in stoneware and porcelain.

Colin Pearson was born in the north London suburb of Friern Barnet; his father was a civil servant and there was little in his background to suggest a career in art. His father thought Colin should become a banker. During war service, working with radar in the RAF, he gained knowledge of mathematical instruments that served as the basis for an ingenious glaze calculator that he later developed with Denis Healing.

With an aptitude for drawing, Colin Pearson used his ex-services grant to study painting at Goldsmiths' College, London University. This was followed by a teacher training course, which proved far more significant by introducing him both to his future wife Leslie Thomas also an artist and to clay.

At first it was the apparently magical transformation that took place in the kiln that delighted him, and he approached pottery as a series of surfaces to be adorned, producing slip-cast or moulded platters decorated in a bright Picassoesque style. These, Pearson later described as a "comparatively bizarre maiolica style" that were very much of their time.

Charlotte Bawden, who had worked at the Leach Pottery, advised him to learn how to make "proper pots" and recommended Ray Finch at Winchcombe Pottery, where Pearson was accepted as much for his enthusiasm as his skill. Under Finch's watchful eye, he learnt professional production throwing, which, with its economy of skill and precise movements, were to hold him in good stead.

This was followed by a period at the Royal Doulton factory where Pearson acquired mould-making skills and other semi-industrial processes. After a spell as teacher, Pearson's career as a potter was resumed when David Leach, at the suggestion of Finch, invited Pearson to join him in setting up a pottery workshop producing tablewares for the Carmelite Friars at Aylesford in Kent.

Father Malachy Linch, an imposing, God-like figure, and firm supporter of Arts and Crafts ideas, was keen to extend creative activity for the Brothers. Pearson proved adept and took over when Leach left to set up his own pottery, building a new kiln and replacing the slipware by the tougher stoneware. All was well until Linch discovered, and disapproved of, Pearson's left-wing views, and it seemed time to leave.

In 1961 Pearson set up the Quay Pottery at Aylesford, in a picturesque but cramped old stable on the banks of the Medway, later acquiring the adjacent property into which to expand. Here, with the help of Leslie and various assistants, Pearson developed his own range of nearly 100 items of well-designed, functional, unfussy tableware covered with quiet buttery creams, lightly speckled pinky-whites and rich temmoku glazes. It was work that perfectly fitted with the counter-cultural, anti-consumerist mood of the times. Shops and galleries were invited to choose work from stock rather than ordering by post and leading retailers across Britain, such as the Oxford Gallery, responded.

Around this time Pearson became involved in the Harrow Studio Pottery course, where a revolutionary syllabus was devised to teach students to become working potters. Among other skills, Pearson taught production, repetitive throwing, introducing a workshop approach that was based on real experience. It was a revelation not only for the students but also for other members of staff such as Michael Casson and Walter Keeler, who had learnt their skills at art school. Later, Pearson became an influential teacher at Camberwell and Medway Schools of Art.

Perhaps inspired by direct involvement with the creative, art-school atmosphere, Pearson began exploring more individual forms, which were based on cylinders onto which "wings" were added. In some ways, these recall the formality of early Chinese bronzes, particularly when he later used a metallic, bronze-like finish. Working with porcelain and with a black clay body, Pearson produced visually exciting forms that gave the pieces lightness and verve. The wings were made by piercing a block of clay with a stick and slicing it across with a wire, producing a random, lace-like quality. Later, he explored other shapes and types of wing decoration, but always with a view to how they would work within the whole form.

In 1971, Pearson's individual forms in black stoneware and pale blue porcelain were shown in a major exhibition at the British Craft Centre. Dubbed "Angels and Devils", the exhibition was an instant success, signalling for Pearson a breakthrough in his work as a potter. Ten years later, he and Leslie moved to Islington in London, where he set up in a much smaller studio, focusing entirely on individual pieces. Without the facilities to prepare his own clays or fire in reduction, techniques had to be reassessed using prepared clays and electric kiln firings. Again, Pearson's technical understanding came to the rescue and he devised slips saturated with fluxes such as zinc oxide and a range of softly toned glazes that were perfectly in tune with the forms. Exhibitions in Britain and abroad affirmed his standing.

As an active member of the "potters' community", Pearson, affable, friendly and approachable, worked tirelessly for the Craft Potters Association, supporting young potters, like me, with encouraging observations and serving on the council, for a time as chairman. The gradual onset of a form of Parkinson's disease limited Pearson's output, but with the help of assistants he continued to produce work that lost little of its vitality.

With roots in the studio pottery movement of Bernard Leach and Michael Cardew, Colin Pearson brought his own vision to bear, often playful and joyous, but always with a deep seriousness and respect for his chosen material.

Emmanuel Cooper