Me And My Home: Underneath the arches

Potter and light sculptor Margaret O'Rorke talks to Patricia Wynn Davies
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Margaret O'Rorke lives in an Oxfordshire medieval hall house. Its wealth of aged natural materials combine comfortably with the forms of her translucent porcelain light sculptures

This was the first house in which I felt settled enough to build my long-awaited gas kiln - but then the building revealed itself, quite unexpectedly, as something really stunning. It came about because my sister generously set up a family trust to enable me to buy a substantial house. She loves old buildings and we looked for two and a half years to find something that she would agree that I could buy. It certainly seemed handsome enough - a long, two-storey building made of Oxfordshire stone. But what I was really interested in was a home for the kiln - the kind of space I'd never had - and a bigger studio to work in.

"It was only after we'd bought the house, in 1990, that I clambered up through a tiny hole in the ceiling of the first floor into the loft, where we discovered that beyond the plasterboard was this magnificent, arch-framed oak roof. Once it was fully uncovered, I found myself the fortunate owner of a building of extraordinary beauty and presence. It's strong and purposeful, yet graceful and natural; it's the focal point of the building and influences my life in it.

"Apart from obliterating this remarkable structure, the previous owners had lined all the walls inside with breeze block and covered up old fireplaces, alcoves, even a medieval window. An architect friend and I - and a wonderfully sympathetic builder - ended up completely gutting the house. We were left with the original stone walls and this fantastic roof structure. Oxford Archaeological Unit dendro-dated the oak beams and established that the house was built in 1423.

"The construction, as well as the black sooted beams, shows that this was an original 'hall' house, ie one of the more important houses in the locality, because the timbers were sawn - you had to have quite a lot of money to employ builders who would saw timber rather than split it in those days. It would have been an exacting task, and one involving impressive craftsmanship. The oak would have been green when the house was built; now it's so steely hard it's impossible to drill.

"After the revelation of the roof structure, we exposed the beams and insulated the roof from above and re-tiled with recovered clay tiles. I bought old oak from nearby demolition yards to replace missing joists and post and make the outside doors, which were made up by a master carpenter. We found a blacksmith to make iron window catches and door-knobs. Also through a local demolition yard, I heard that Wakefield Prison Yorkshire was getting rid of its three-inch-thick York flagstones. I took a gamble in the hope that I could restore the stones to their former glory and bought them as a job lot. They have taken their place on the ground floor, along with the Aga, which I love for cooking and which also doubles up for drying my pots before firing.

"Later, my 90-year-old mother came to live here as well, so we added a wood-cladded extension to the original house with an additional bedroom above, designed by John Stevenson, for which we won a preservation award in 1994. At that time, my studio was in the double-width garage we had built to house the kiln. But now I live here on my own and the whole house is a working space.

"The height of the open roof space on the first floor has enabled me to experiment and build large-scale installations; porcelain chandeliers can be suspended from the beams and a piece called Big Wheel, which is a metre wide, hangs above the balcony on the first floor, awaiting a permanent home.

"Not everything has involved the restorer's skill. The front garden is effectively a meadow of rough grass adorned with swathes of snowdrops, daffodils, bluebells, primroses and daisies as the year unfolds.

"Inside, amid dozens of variations on the shade of brown, I feel as if I know something of the craftsmen who built the house. It's a constant inspiration. It's because of my love of clay and the wheel that my work has grown in the way that it has. The work is about a feeling and it goes beautifully with this house. The craftsmen who built it had a deep love and understanding of the material they were using and it is a historical tribute to man's ingenuity.

"I'm 66 now and I'm very, very fortunate to be here. When I get up in the morning thinking about work and life, I look out through this fabulous original window frame from 1423, which a previous owner had bricked and plastered over.

"I'm very lucky because I'm living in a house that was built with so much skill and understanding. It's the most amazing space for me as an artist and as a person."

For information about Margaret O'Rorke's work, call Dycella Cummings-Palmer on 07973 196675 or visit