Obituary: Ian Godfrey

Emmanuel Cooper
Thursday 27 August 1992 23:02 BST

Ian Godfrey, potter, born Ely 1942, died London 13 August 1992.

FROM THE beginning of his career as a potter Ian Godfrey showed rare distinction in creating strong and identifiable work, pursuing his own ideas and establishing his own voice when the mood of the times was toward more functional wares.

Godfrey started making pots in the early 1960s, choosing to set up his pottery in the centre of London rather than some rural setting. It was a time when being a potter fitted easily into the counter culture, with its emphasis on alternative ways of working and living. Many potters responded by making pots which proclaimed their ethnicity through a rough functionalism which celebrated the handmade and rustic. Such pots had no interest for Godfrey who, though attracted by the qualities of clay and by the freedom of the potter's way of life, wanted to make his own highly individual decorative pots rather than practical wares.

Even to describe Godfrey's work as pots is something of a misnomer; although always based on forms such as bowls, ladles and cups, and therefore within the traditions of the craft, his pots are sophisticated responses to long-established cultural shapes rather than vessels to be used as domestic containers. All have enormous strength and character. The distant past was Godfrey's starting point for creating a highly personal world which successfully blends fantasy, mythology and figures and objects from nature.

In his involvement with clay, Godfrey was an individual, unwilling to be placed in any school and resistant to any convenient label. Although never a conventional studio potter, he learnt such skills as throwing on the potter's wheel, preferring for example to work on shapes with carving and modelling which he had thrown rather than built by hand. Inspiration came from the predynastic clay and bronze forms of the Mediterranean and from China, cultures where ritualistic and votive objects were accepted and understood.

At Camberwell School of Art, in London, in the late 1950s he had originally studied painting but later moved to the ceramics department. Here he caught the attention of Lucie Rie who was at that time a part-time lecturer. Godfrey was impressed by her quiet manner, her personal conviction and her insistence on students finding their own voice. He remained in close contact with her when working at the Royal College of Art, in London, some years later, often walking across Hyde Park to visit her studio in Paddington. It was at the college that Godfrey came into contact with Hans Coper - an equally powerful and austere potter who further encouraged him.

At his studio in Islington, north London, Godfrey spent many hours working on individual pieces, using a penknife to carve the clay when almost dry to achieve the fine detail he wanted - a dangerous technique in that it involved breathing in quantities of clay dust. One of his favourite forms was a straight-sided lidded box some 6in to 8in high. Drawers incorporated in the structure could be opened, large flowers serving as giant handles. The top was often covered with animals, tiny houses, and suchlike, creating an intriguing private world which had an element of story telling. One barrel-shaped piece had small clay balls inside which rattled when the pot was handled. Matt, rough glazes, either in black or in muted creams or greys brought out the form and the detail of the work. Equally popular as a shape were thinly thrown bowls with cut and pierced designs round the edge, giving them a delightful mystical quality; some were given such emotive titles as 'Anxiety Bowl'.

Godfrey had major exhibitions at the British Crafts Centre, London, in the Seventies, showing work notable for the amount of finely carved detail. Most sold out on the opening night. Other shows followed and this was Godfrey's most productive period. With a grant from the Crafts Advisory Committee (now the Crafts Council) he set out to investigate making small bronze pieces - a perfectly logical move for his ideas. Godfrey's work is well represented in the Victoria and Albert Museum and other important national and international collections.

A change of direction came in the mid-Seventies when Godfrey moved to Copenhagen, setting up a workshop for the potter Hans Jorgen Grum which mostly made domestic pottery. In 1980 he returned to London, opening a studio in Highgate, taking up and developing familiar shapes with his usual flair and verve.

Some observers see Godfrey's work as rooted firmly in the alternative culture of the Sixties and Seventies in which cynicism and disillusionment had no part. Yet in his last major exhibition at Galerie Besson in London in 1989, recent pieces stood alongside earlier pots, suggesting movement and change. For me, Godfrey's work, intense and personal, has an ability to offer a way into the past which is neither imitative nor derivative, but a deeply felt response to mysteries we may never understand. Fortunately he was able to continue to work until Aids-related illness brought impossible complications.

He had the rare privilege of being honoured by Lucie Rie - a potter as reluctant as Godfrey to make any public pronouncements - with a statement in the 1989 exhibition catalogue in which Rie describes Godfrey's pots as 'unique and beautiful'. It is a suitable and fitting tribute to an artist who was ever searching for new directions.

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