Derek Emms

Maker of understated, functional pots in the tradition of Bernard Leach
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The Independent Online

Derek Emms was one of those rare potters who enjoyed making functional pots for use in and around the home, combining skilled making with an individual but quiet style.

Derek Emms, potter: born Accrington, Cheshire 30 October 1929; married first Celia Tregorran (marriage dissolved), second 1976 Irene Herbert; died Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire 17 October 2004.

Derek Emms was one of those rare potters who enjoyed making functional pots for use in and around the home, combining skilled making with an individual but quiet style.

Softly spoken, with a pronounced Lancashire burr, he was modest and unassuming about his own pots, unstinting in giving sound advice to potters encountering technical problems and generous in his support of the work of others. His pots, cool and understated, reflected his interest in the tradition of Bernard Leach, aiming for sound, well-designed shapes with smooth, practical, restrained glazes. His was a distinguished career as potter and educationist.

Born in Accrington, Lancashire, one of eight children, he was the only one the family could afford to support in full-time further education. After attending the local primary school, he went on to Accrington Grammar School, where on the advice of the art teacher he applied for and was awarded a scholarship to study at Accrington Art School.

Although the Second World War was drawing to an end, the school still had a minimal staff, and, given that this was the heart of the cotton industry, it is not surprising that both specialised in fabric design. Here Emms worked with textiles, becoming proficient in watercolour and brushwork, a skill that was to hold him in good stead for his later work in ceramics.

Although the school had a potter's wheel, which excited his interest, along with that of his fellow student Frank Hamer, whom he had met at primary school and who was also to become a well-known potter and educationist, there was no one to show them how to use it. Eagerly they scrutinised Walter de Sager's Making Pottery (1934) in the "How to Do It" series, and admired the Far Eastern stoneware pots in the local museum, but it was not until they attended lectures at Burnley School of Art that they discovered the school not only taught pottery to NDD (National Diploma in Design), but that the head of the department would show them how to throw.

With a growing fascination for the craft, Emms and Hamer duly transferred. At Burnley the philosophies of William Morris, that art had a social as well as an aesthetic purpose, and the Bauhaus ideals of Walter Gropius, that "form follows function", were drummed into their heads. Fearing that pottery might not be a suitable career path, Derek Emms subsequently went to Leeds to qualify for teacher training.

A happy and fulfilling, if intensive, year was spent at the Leach Pottery, St Ives, following National Service in the RAF. At the Leach Pottery Emms honed his throwing skills, learning to make the standard ware and to pack and help fire the large three-chamber kiln, though the modest wage of £3 a week barely covered his rent.

Imbibing Leach's philosophy, he believed that making pots involved the head, heart and hand, an approach he not only practised in his own work but also passed on to students. After leaving the Leach Pottery, he would return during the long summer holidays, eager to stay a part of the team. At St Ives, Emms met and married a local woman, Celia Tregorran, although this marriage was to end in divorce.

In 1955 he accepted the post of full-time pottery lecturer at Longton School of Art, which was later to become part of North Staffordshire Polytechnic, then based in a series of old army huts. Determined to establish a sound course, he installed cone driven power wheels and a large filter press to prepare the clay body as well as a splendid gas-fired muffle kiln.

Students were encouraged to produce reduction-fired stoneware and to follow the ideas of Bernard Leach, which was in great contrast to the design-orientated and industrial processes favoured by pottery manufacturers. Emms established a course that offered a serious and thoughtful programme of studio pottery. Notable students included Geoffrey Swindell, David and Margaret Frith and Paul Astbury, all of whom went on to develop highly distinctive ceramics. At Longton, Emms met and in 1976 married Irene Herbert, the secretary in the department.

Together with the Principal, Reginald Marlowe, who had studied under the potter William Staite Murray at the Royal College of Art, he attended an early meeting of the Craftsmen Potters Association (now Craft Potters Association), becoming a member and showing regularly in the gallery and shop in Soho. In 1985, retirement allowed him to become a full-time potter. He specialised in finely thrown porcelain forms, making teapots, beakers, cups and saucers, bowls and many other usable, beautifully crafted pieces. A delicate pale blue celadon glaze over lightly incised patterns became characteristic of his work. Other pieces were decorated with lively, flowing brushwork.

Never seeing the need to make pots that shocked or startled, Derek Emms attracted a devoted band of admirers for his finely crafted pots, who appreciated work that was a pleasure to use and to look at.

Emmanuel Cooper