John Solly

Traditional potter with a modern sensibility

William John Solly, potter: born Maidstone, Kent 29 March 1928; married 1953 Jackie Solman (two sons, one daughter); died Rye, East Sussex 14 July 2004.

The potter and teacher John Solly began making pots in the early 1950s as part of the burgeoning craft movement in the post-war period. He saw his work as a potter as an alternative and fulfilling vocation, offering the opportunity to be creative while producing useful pots that would bear some of the character of their maker.

Working with hard-fired red earthenware, Solly produced a range of slip-decorated ware that was supremely functional and distinctive. Reflecting the influences of 17th- and 18th- century English slipwares, Solly brought to his work a modern sensibility that was concerned to interpret and transform rather than reproduce.

John Solly was born in Maidstone, Kent, in 1928. Like many potters, he discovered ceramics as a 16-year-old student at his local art school when preparing to study what was then known as commercial art. His father, who ran a drapers and hardware shop in the town, encouraged him, perhaps alerted by a group of pots Solly modelled and decorated in poster paint when the family were on holiday in Devon in 1940. At college, realising his interest lay in more three-dimensional art forms, Solly studied modelling, sculpture and pottery under the sculptor Percy Brown and the potter Gwilym Thomas.

After National Service, when he worked as a Radar operator, Solly returned to art school, studying pottery under Dora Billington and her assistant Gilbert Harding Green for three days a week at the Central School of Arts and Crafts in London, and letter-cutting at Camberwell School of Art for the other two. At Camberwell he met Jackie Solman, his future wife, a fellow student who was working with textiles.

During the summer holidays useful practical experience was gained assisting at Rye Pottery in Sussex under Walter Cole, and at Winchcombe Pottery, Gloucestershire, with Ray Finch and his team. At the time Winchcombe was producing a range of well-designed slipwares fired in a wood and coal-burning kiln, and Finch's work became an inspiration for Solly, who realised that he wanted to set up his own workshop.

Again with the help of his parents, in 1951 Solly converted the family garage into a pottery, buying a Leach kick wheel and electric kilns, which he continued to use throughout his life. Despite making what he described as "some pretty dreadful pots", they sold and his career was secure. When he married Jackie two years later they set up home and workshop in handsome premises that were originally built as a basket-making factory in 1820.

Here he established a reputation for a soundly made, well-conceived range of domestic repetition slipware, enjoying the discipline of producing pots in quantity that were sold at moderate prices. Pieces included tea and coffee sets, and casseroles, as well as distinctive cider jars and goblets. Alongside the thrown pots, Solly also made press-moulded dishes and platters covered with traditional slip patterning such as feathering, a skill to which he brought a light and delicate touch.

In 1960, seeking other forms of income, the Sollys set up the first of their summer schools, offering professional tuition in a working pottery, courses that then barely existed. Helped by delicious food prepared by Jackie, the courses were a great success. They attracted professional potters wanting to hone their skills as well as enthusiasts who wanted to enjoy the pleasure of working with clay under expert guidance. Students came from different parts of the world, and many, appreciative of the techniques they acquired, invited Solly to teach abroad, and he travelled to, among other places, Australia, America and Holland. Solly ran the courses until two or three years ago when increasing ill health brought them to a close.

With a reputation for well-made pots and for his comprehensive courses, Solly was invited to teach repetition throwing on the pioneering Harrow Studio Pottery Course, adding to the professional approach of the programme. His patience and thoroughness as a teacher were widely recognised and Solly also taught at other art schools, including Maidstone, Folkestone and Medway.

A keen supporter of the expanding interest in studio pottery, Solly became a founder member of the Craftsmen Potters Association (now Craft Potters Association) in the late Fifties, helping to set up its shop and gallery in the heart of Soho. His pots were regularly on show there as well as in other galleries round the country. Solly was a Fellow of the Society of Designer-Craftsmen, and was founder chairman of the Kent Potters Association, later being elected President, where his affability, his sound advice and extensive knowledge were much appreciated.

In 1986, with the family grown up, the Sollys moved from Maidstone to a smaller property at Peasmarsh, near Rye in East Sussex, where he continued to make pots but more or less abandoned the repetition wares in favour of more individual and one-off pieces. This freedom enabled him to be more experimental in trying out different slip variations and patterns, often using the forms of flowers and plants as his starting point.

Widely respected as a potter and teacher, John Solly brought to the craft a thorough understanding of the skills required. Seeing pots as objects to be used and enjoyed around the home, their design reflecting an Englishness that was totally fresh and modern in feel, his well-made pots are friendly and bright, conveying the solidity and sensitivity of the potter who made them.

Emmanuel Cooper

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