Eric James Mellon: Potter whose lyrical work was infused with his love of the storytelling powers of Ancient Greek ceramicists


Eric James Mellon made pots lyrically decorated with figures and vivid colour that came to occupy a special place in postwar British ceramics. Important potters of earlier decades like Sam Haile and William Newland had also used clay as a canvas for their mythological scenes, but it was Mellon who in the 1960s revived interest in this kind of narrative on pottery, on bowls and bottles that were often small in scale, intimate and poetically felt.

His work related more to the progress of modern figuration in painting than to the history of ceramics, though it had obvious antecedents in the visual storytelling of Ancient Greek potters onwards, and Mellon had a strong sense of the enduring power of myth and legend, expressed in rhythmic lines that enlivened and deepened his forms.

Born in Watford in 1923, Mellon always wanted to be an artist. His grandfather had been a cabinet maker and his father taught woodwork and technical drawing. At the age of seven he was captivated by watching an uncle draw, and at only 13 he went to study at Watford Art School, where he was spellbound by the smell of paint and turps and the sight of the antique figures, architectural details and stuffed creatures which students used in life drawing.

Already interested in clay as a medium, he was soon cycling 16 miles, often through the wartime air raids, to weekend pottery classes at Harrow School of Art. From 1944-50 he studied painting and printmaking at the Central School of Art and Crafts in London.

The embattled Central was still surrounded by extensive bomb damage, but inside Mellon was able to learn all aspects of two-dimensional art, and, in order to improve his employment chances, typography and design. This would give him some income which, along with support from his parents and a subsequent teaching post at Croydon College of Art, helped pay for more life drawing classes.

In 1951 he and six other former art students set up an enterprising artistic community in the village of Hillesden in Buckinghamshire, to paint, draw and make pottery. The potter Derek Davis and Mellon's future wife, the artist Martina Thomas, were fellow makers there. Thomas would go on to achieve her own reputation as a fine painter of Fauve-inspired landscapes and still lives.

Soon Mellon was drawing on earthenware pots, and within a few years he had developed a method of glazing on stoneware which maintained the clarity of line and rich colour he so admired in the art of Matisse, Picasso and others in the School of Paris. It was a search that involved pioneering experiments with ash glazes derived from trees and plants such as chestnut, apple, pear, blackberry and bean, so achieving the pictorial clarity he wanted.

In 1958 Mellon and his wife set up a studio in Bognor Regis, where Mellon remained for the rest of his life. As well as pots, he set to making coil-built sculptural pieces and pinched clay figures, further ways in which he could express his drawing ideas three-dimensionally. His linear decoration on the curving bodies of his pots, using such themes as Daphne and Apollo and the Judgement of Paris, gave a sense of elliptical "real space" to his subjects. Meanwhile he experimented on paper and canvas, too, and his many solo exhibitions here and abroad usually included his typically vibrant narrative prints and paintings as well.

Much of Mellon's subject matter in the 1960s expressed the social consciousness of that era and was often political, focussing on such themes as the Irish Troubles, the Vietnam war and environmental issues. By the early 1970s, at which time he became head of art at Slindon College, a West Sussex boys' school, he had returned to his earlier obsession with mythology. Pluto and Persephone, Europa and the Bull, the Moon Goddess and other subjects populated a succession of pots that delighted collectors and were purchased by galleries such as the Victoria and Albert Museum, Pallant House, Chichester, the Museum of Applied Arts in Cologne and the National Museum of Ceramics in Valencia.

To keep his work fresh Mellon continued to draw directly from life. He was a traditionalist who believed in a good academic training, and was appalled by the marginalisation of art teaching in schools and colleges, and what he saw as the increasing neglect of the creative imagination in education. His own teaching at Slindon was later supplemented by pottery tuition at Havant Sixth Form College.

Mellon remained technically adventurous, not only in his experiments with glazes, but in his use of other firing methods. An encounter with the ceramist Jill Crowley in 1983 led to a series of expressive anthropomorphic raku figures, and he continued to produce a wealth of prints, with all aspects of his output documented in books he compiled with the writer Paul Foster. His final show was at the Ariana Museum in Geneva in 2012.

Mellon became one of the most distinctive members of the British ceramics scene. He was strongly principled and engaging in personality, and physically, with his long beard, he looked like some William Blake prophet. His home and studio in Sussex, crammed with pots, pictures and books, was a kind of visual manifesto for his belief in art as a bedrock in our lives. As he wrote, "the primary concern is to create a work of decorative poetic surprise and excitement", and it was certainly this spirit that Eric James Mellon, through his work and teaching, exemplified. He is survived by his children, Martin and Tessa.

Eric James Mellon, potter, printmaker and painter: born 30 November 1925; married Martina Thomas (died 1995; one son, one daughter); died 14 January 2014.

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