Gardening: Top of the pots

Jim Keeling is a craftsman with a mission. By Caroline Donald
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The Independent Online
Next Sunday, as part of the National Garden Scheme, the villagers of Whichford in Warwickshire will be opening their gardens to the public. Among those on show will be Jim Keeling's "paradise garden".

The cows had got in the night before I paid a visit, but luckily little damage was done. The effects of the freezing rain earlier in the year were more marked: "I hate being able to see the ground," said Mr Keeling, as he showed me round a delightful courtyard. Still, we concurred, the solution would be to fill the spaces with strategically placed pots.

This shouldn't be difficult; through the wall, is Jim Keeling's very own "country pottery", which he claims is the largest in Europe. All the terracotta pots are hand-thrown or moulded: from simple traditional horticultural ware such as long toms, seed pans and plain flower pots, to exuberant urns, Ali Baba jars and a pot so large that you could set up house in it (it costs not much less than a house).

Jim Keeling is not just a man who throws pots, he thinks and cares deeply about them. "Being a craftsman is about the clay first and foremost," he says. "But then it leads you on to all these other things such as the relationship between the external and the internal. Aesthetics is obviously about that as well."

Mr Keeling sees himself as part of a great tradition, that of the English country potters who each produced millions of flower pots before their trade was all but wiped out in he 1950s by the advent of machine pottery. He served his apprenticeship at one of the last surviving such potteries, A Harris & Sons at Wrecclesham, where throwing 1,200 small pots was considered a normal day's work.

"There's a particular way of working in a traditional country pottery," he says. "You work very fast, are not too fussy, and you work as a team."

Each of the pots turned out by Whichford is stamped with the date that it was made and the name of the thrower, of which there are about 10. "I've been in charge of design up to now," says Mr Keeling cheerily. "But it's not quite as straightforward as that because the more skillful the team gets, the more input they have. A pot design may have started out looking one shape but a year later I can't help noticing that it has changed." He chuckles. "That is the way it should be."

Such a fluid outlook underlies Whichford's success - the stand is always humming at the Chelsea Flower Show and the pots are exported all over the world.

"As long as I have a skilled workforce," says Mr Keeling, "we can turn out a variety which will put us completely out of reach of mass production. This is the way forward in the crafts but it requires real dedication to training skills and a refusal to compete with machine-made stuff".

He also refuses to make compromises in his designs. There may be Greek, Roman and Renaissance motifs among Whichford pots, but these are, he says, integral to English culture. "You must never desert your home market. If you work in the export market, the designs given to you are outside your culture, and you are taking the heart out of craftsmanship."

And he is passionate about craftsmanship, past and present: "For every country potter since about 1670, flowerpots were how they earnt their bread and butter. Yet there is not a single entry in the Victoria & Albert Museum catalogue, out of so many hundreds of millions that were made. They've all been smashed up." Perhaps now that the experience and craftsmanship that goes into producing a hand-thrown or pressed terracotta pot is such a rare commodity, it is time for the V&A to make a purchase from Whichford for its collection, as a skill saved for the nation.

Whichford & Ascot Gardens, near Shipton-on-Stour will be open for the NGS on Sunday 16 June from 2-6pm. For a Whichford Pottery catalogue, call 01608-684416