'Blinding yellow-white, the nearest of the pots are within arm's reach, yet they are in another world'

'Blinding yellow-white, the nearest of the pots are within arm's reach, yet they are in another world'

I have always thought of potters as true country people. The clay they mould is the stuff from which we spring, and to which we must return, and contact with it puts them close to the roots of creation.

So it is with Alan Caiger-Smith, who not only has a show on in London, but also has just published an account of his own career and craft. The book describes how he founded a pottery in Aldermaston, Berkshire, in 1955, and how for nearly 40 years he struggled not only to keep afloat commercially, but also to master new techniques with which he became obsessed.

Appropriately enough, the pottery was housed in an 18th-century building made of soft red brick, itself baked clay. The working area was permanently coated in pale clay dust, and a rickety wooden staircase led up to the showroom - a treasure-chamber full of brilliantly coloured pots, bowls, mugs and jugs ranged on shelves that disappeared far into the shadows.

A small, wiry man, Mr Caiger-Smith lives in an ancient farmhouse close to the River Kennet, and his book reveals the joy he finds in working with his hands, whether throwing a pot, painting a bowl or merely splitting willow logs, which long experience has shown him are best for firing the kiln.

Along the banks of the Kennet, willows are grown commercially for cricket bats, but only the best sections can be used, and the potters were allowed to cut up and carry off reject pieces. In Mr Caiger-Smith's view, willow makes exceptionally good fuel for firing earthenware, since it releases its heat quickly and burns with a long, soft flame, making a kiln atmosphere that gives a pearly whiteness to the glazes and luminous depth to most of the colours.'

His description of firings reads like a chapter from a thriller. The process begins at 4am, and the heat in the kiln builds steadily over the next 15 hours or so as logs are fed into it faster and faster by a team of stokers. "However often you have fired the kiln before," he writes, "you can't help being amazed that logs of wood could generate such a dense mass of heat, held in by tons of glowing bricks, with the pots standing out blinding yellow-white in the midst of it. The nearest of them are in arm's reach, yet they are in another world."

In a lifelong quest for ideas about techniques, Mr Caiger-Smith travelled to Egypt, Spain, Morocco, and far into the past in pursuit of authors such as Cavaliere Cipriano Picolpasso, who wrote authoritative treatises on the potter's art 400 years ago. Only in the matter of his own teaching does he not come clean. He will say that over the years he learnt from his ever-changing team of half-a-dozen assistants; they, that he was their inspiration.

He is at his best when considering the creative process. He describes potters not as creators but as "makers", who know that "their ideas are not absolutely their own, but are brought about by some interchange between their minds and a source beyond their control". To him, every act of making is "a reverberation of the great wind" which has moved through the universe since the beginning of time.

How agreeable, how rewarding, to spend time in the company of someone so practical, so good with his hands, and yet so articulate about the mysterious forces that have made him a master of his craft.

'Pottery, People and Time', pounds 28 from Richard Dennis Publications, Shepton Beauchamp, Somerset TA19 0LE. The show is at the Richard Dennis Gallery, 144 Kensington Church Street, London W8 4BN (0171-727 2061), until 14 October.

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