ANGUS SUTTIE, renowned for his handbuilt ceramics, combined an imaginative, intuitive approach with a sound understanding of the craft, gaining widespread recognition in the early 1980s as an inventive and imaginative artist.
Though aware of and responsive to the diverse history of ceramics, Suttie broke away from established conventions of studio pottery to produce witty, amusing and light-hearted 'everyday' objects which still retained their function. As with many of his contemporaries, throwing on the potter's wheel was abandoned in favour of hand-building, a process which allowed time for thought and a particular sort of personal expression. His teapot forms, for which he is probably best known, were joyful and exuberant, containing references to the function of the pot as a domestic vessel, but more engagingly taking up references to the human body with a wry and subtle sense of humour.
Suttie was born into a rural family in Tealing, near Dundee. He left school at 15 and after a series of casual jobs spent two years studying drama before 'being thrown out for being no good', coming to London in the late 1960s. With no specific plan, different routine jobs followed before Suttie became involved in the early days of the Gay Liberation Front in the 1970s and for a time became actively and creatively engaged in sexual politics. With new-found confidence Suttie acquired basic academic qualifications at evening classes and while modelling clay heads discovered the pleasures of working with clay and thought he would like to become a potter.
In 1975 he entered Camberwell School of Art and Craft, at that time in one of its most creative periods. Under the critical but supportive eye of Ian Auld, head of ceramics and himself a distinguished hand-builder, Suttie developed his own ideas. It was a fruitful period when contemporary students included Sara Radstone and Henry Pim, both of whom went on to establish their own notable careers as hand-builders. Eventually Suttie established his studio in Clerkenwell an area which has housed small skilled makers for hundreds of years.
From the start Suttie used the familiar objects of everyday life such as jugs, toast-racks, eggcups, and cups and saucers, as his starting point. Ladles were stretched and elongated into exotic ritual-like objects which while they could still be described as functional, were visually alive and inventive, objects which illuminated the meaning of 'the ordinary', turning them into something amusing, fantastic and delightful. For an exhibition of jewellery he produced a series of finger rings which were delightfully elaborated and modelled and painted in rich, bright colours. Their bold freshness and use of red earthenware clay was more in the continental tradition of Picasso, Miro and Gaudi rather than that of Bernard Leach. The ring I have from this show has a modelled scroll on it and what could be a crown, giving it an exotic and playful exuberance which could only be created in clay.
Suttie's forte, however, was his teapots. These ranged in size from small and intense objects to large-scale sculptural pieces which had the splendour and challenge of architectural forms. Though Suttie moved from working with earthenware to stoneware to give the pieces more physical strength, and as a result had to abandon the intensity of colour which had been one of his hallmarks, his work still retained a brightness and depth; surface sparkle was replaced by greater depth.
Handles and spouts were related to the human body, and Suttie used these forms to comment on his own feelings and the way he perceived the world. In early pieces, phrases were written on the pots, many of which conveyed affectionate sentiments. In his last major show at Contemporary Applied Arts, London (which he shared with Sara Radstone), in 1990, his pots were informed by a more pervasive sense of maturity conveyed in the muted colour and more organised structure. The pieces, many of which were over 2ft tall, continued the human references, but these were now built in to rock-like forms, giving them a powerful architectural strength, vessels which demanded and received attention.
Suttie was internationally respected; his ceramics were toured by the British Council and he was often invited to speak and give workshops overseas. As an occasional reviewer Suttie wrote perceptively and with great insight into the work of other potters, exploring the meaning behind the work with sensitivity and thought - an aspect of his creative output which I would like to have seen more of. Throughout his work, Suttie sought to combine the worlds of art and craft, and like William Morris wanted the object to convey the enjoyment experienced by the maker to the user. Sadly, Suttie started to develop Aids-related conditions, and for the last 12 months has endured a series of illnesses which left him weak but undaunted. To the end he retained his courage and humour, supported and cared for by devoted friends.
Angus Suttie's particular vision of and contribution to the development of ceramics as a medium of humanist concerns, will not alas be developed, but we are left with a rich and enduring legacy of thoughtful, provocative and delightful work.
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