Ray Finch: Potter and teacher at the head of his profession for 75 years
Monday 20 February 2012
The potter Ray Finch was a man of dignity with strong values who shrank from self-promotion and publicity.
During his 75 active years as a potter at Winchcombe, Finch, an outstanding figure in the 20th-century, studio-pottery movement, trained and influenced a large number of potters from Britain and overseas. He extended and adapted a detectable line from Bernard Leach, who many believe started the movement in 1920 at St Ives, through Michael Cardew, Leach's first pupil, who re-opened Winchcombe Pottery in 1926. Finch was later to buy the goodwill of the business from Cardew at the end of the Second World War and, among many other achievements, develop the longest-running training workshop in the UK.
Unlike his sons Mike and Joe, who happily followed their father into the world of ceramics, Finch himself had no such background. He was born in Streatham, London in 1914 and the family moved to Sutton, Surrey, when Ray was 10, and then to Beaconsfield. His education was, to use his own words, "a bit on the standard side", but he took the opportunity to leave in the emerging difficult economic times of 1930. Finch's father, who was a businessman in London, lost his job and then died of cancer in 1934. Cardew later referred to Finch as a "child of the recession".
After school Finch obtained a job at a paper mill near High Wycombe, working in the laboratory testing paper; although not particularly enamoured with the job, he remained there for five years. During this period he encountered and respected the work of Eric Gill, GK Chesterton and admired, from a distance, the philosophy of the distributist movement.
In 1935 there was a promotion in the offing, but he had seen some Winchcombe pottery at a friend's house and went to see Michael Cardew to ask for a job. Cardew sent him away, saying he needed to gain experience. Although Finch felt it was a polite brush-off, he went to London where he attended the Central School of Art for a year, being supervised by Dora Billington, and gaining knowledge and some experience on a wheel. A further request to be taken on in 1936 was successful.
He worked with Cardew and a small team, which included Elijah Comfort and the Tustin brothers, Sidney and Charlie; Winchcombe earthenware of the period is very striking and much sought after by collectors. In 1939 Cardew moved to Cornwall and set up a new pottery at Wenford Bridge, leaving Finch in charge at Winchcombe. This was a huge compliment to someone who had been potting for such a short time. With the outbreak of the war and the call-up of the Tustin brothers, production continued with just Finch and the elderly Comfort.
Ray and Muriel Beesley started married life in July 1940 at a time of great uncertainty. Wartime conditions forced the closure of the pottery and Finch joined the fire service, working in Stroud. It was difficult to get home and he used to call at Prinknash Abbey, where a seam of clay had been discovered in 1942, where he taught pottery to brothers Thomas, Asaph and Dom Basil Robinson.
Finch purchased the business, re-opening the pottery when the Tustin brothers returned from the Army. Post-war circumstances were challenging, but locals remained faithful to "their" pottery and planning for the future began. Finch moved totally to stoneware in 1964, having had a successful exhibition for the opening of the Craftsmen Potters Shop in 1960. Cranks vegetarian restaurant used Winchcombe-ware for 30 years from 1961.
Finch's work is held by nearly 30 museums in Britain and worldwide. He always concentrated on teamwork and the standard ware is of an exceptionally high calibre, but his special pieces are universally acclaimed. Large plates, urns, cider jars and teapots are a delight. His love of the creative process and tactility of clay kept him potting into his 97th year. When too frail to continue he would sit in the workshop, watching the activity with a masterly eye and absorbing the atmosphere.
Raymond Finch, potter: born London 27 November 1914; married 1940 Muriel Beesley (deceased; five sons, one daughter, and one son deceased); died Winchcombe, Gloucestershire 18 January 2012.
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