Sidney Tustin

Potter with a crisp, clean style


Sidney Tustin, potter: born Winchcombe, Gloucestershire 8 September 1913; married 1935 Marie Smith (one son, two daughters); died Winchcombe 9 November 2005.

Sidney Tustin made pots for over 50 years, becoming something of a legend in his lifetime. This was not only for his ability to produce pots in quantity and in quality but also because he worked with two of the leading potters of the 20th century.

Unlike many studio potters, Tustin entered the profession as a young lad of 14, starting work with Michael Cardew in 1926 at Winchcombe Pottery in Gloucestershire. Someone strong and able was required primarily to turn the handle on the traditional wheel used by the potter Elijah Comfort; Tustin, a local boy, applied for the job - the only applicant - and started his career, remaining at the pottery until his retirement in 1978.

Cardew had spent the three years 1923-26 working with Bernard Leach at St Ives and was keen to set up on his own. Almost by chance he stumbled onto the near-derelict Greet Pottery near Winchcombe, closed for 12 years, but which had produced pots for country and agricultural use such as bread crocks, milk pans, washing pans and flowerpots for over 100 years using local clay. With capital of £300, Cardew rented the premises and restored the pottery, renaming it Winchcombe Pottery, repaired the huge kiln - which proved to be highly inefficient - and lured Comfort, then in his sixties, from farm work to take up his old profession. It was, he later confessed "a hopelessly romantic dream".

Charismatic and mercurial but highly gifted, Cardew aimed to "make, by hand, reasonably priced domestic pottery for everyday use" in slip-decorated red earthenware, drawing on the more austere traditional work of the north Devon potters rather than the decorative designs of Midland pottery. Most were thrown on the wheel, domestic pieces intended for the home, decorated simply with trailed or dipped slip.

Slowly, overcoming all the technical difficulties such as bloating or spitting clay bodies, Cardew evolved a style that was distinctively his own, producing some of the strongest and most sensitive slipware of the 20th century. Ideally his aim - to produce modest priced pots that could be used rather than collected - meant penury and he lived simply and frugally in a shed, often paying the workers before himself.

Although the team was small it was efficient, producing sufficient pots - around 3,000 - to fill the vast kiln six or seven times a year. In 1928 Cardew bought a power-driven wheel, so freeing Tustin from one of his chief tasks, and two years later Tustin started a four-year apprenticeship, becoming a skilled thrower making, among other items, small jugs, porridge bowls, egg-bakers, soup pots, eggcups, butter coolers and jam pots. He also became expert at helping to fire the kiln. In 1935 Tustin married Marie Smith, who was "in service" in Winchcombe, and they had three children.

His brother Charlie joined the pottery, taking an apprenticeship in 1935 and remaining until he was called up for war service. In 1936 the team was joined by Ray Finch, an enthusiastic would-be potter who had studied for a year at the Central School of Art in London. Among other tasks, he and Tustin were sent to the nearby wood to collect bundles of faggots for the kiln, taking the opportunity to carry out a bit of poaching on the side. By the late 1930s Cardew decided he wanted to move to Cornwall and bought an old inn at Wenford Bridge. A partnership was formed with Finch, by then a highly competent potter, and he was left to run Winchcombe Pottery.

When the two Tustin brothers were called up for war service on the outbreak of the Second World War the team was decimated but Comfort continued to produce pots until his death in 1945. Sidney Tustin enlisted with the 5th Dorset's until sustaining serious injuries to his back, from which he made a good recovery though he continued to suffer back pain throughout his life. Following his recovery he served with the military police in North Wales where he was first promoted and then demoted, finishing up as a corporal. Finch joined the National Fire Service in 1943.

After the war Finch bought the pottery from Cardew but continued to rent the premises until he acquired it some years later. The pottery continued to make well-designed, well-crafted red earthenware, Tustin by then not only a highly skilled potter but also a crucial member of the team; reliable, able and sensitive, he was appointed foreman. Specialising in smaller items of tableware, Tustin often complained that he did not get the opportunity to make larger pieces, but his own work evolved into an individual style that was crisp and clean.

In the late 1950s Finch started to experiment with high temperature reduction-fired stoneware, abandoning earthenware for the more hard-wearing stoneware in the early 1960s. Tustin, liking the softer quality of earthenware, continued to make it until 1964. The stoneware forms with rich browns, reds and satin white glazes lost none of their strength and freshness in the transition.

Working with or alongside such high profile potters as Cardew and Finch, Tustin never perhaps gained the full recognition for his contribution, except from the potters he worked with and the trainees who studied at the pottery. Patiently, he taught them his skills, entertained them with amusing stories and impressed them with his vast understanding of the craft.

Sidney Tustin was a "potter's potter," someone who had the ability to carry his skills lightly and make it look deceptively easy.

Emmanuel Cooper

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