This is the first bit of studio pottery I ever bought. It’s by Mike Dodd and I had lifted it down from the shelf and handled it several times before I finally spent what seemed an enormous amount of money on it. It was for sale at the old Craftsman Potter Shop on Marshall Street, where I often browsed when checking out the Soho fabric shops I visited to feed my teenage dress-making habit. I think I was eighteen and I loved being in central London.
Why have I picked this object now? It feels right for the times we find ourselves in, it has a simplicity and authenticity which appeals, and it makes me feel nostalgic and reflective, so these paragraphs are unashamedly personal and associative.
I like pots. I went to pottery classes after school from when I was four, initially for the pragmatic reason that they happened only a few hundred yards from where we lived. Mary Park, who ran them, was exotic and arty, with four almost grown up and seemingly incredibly glamorous children of her own. The pottery was in a modern single story extension to her Edwardian house in Strawberry Hill. There was a library of art books to browse, all of them dusty and smeared with clay, whereas at home books were precious, and even turning over the corner of a page to mark your place was sacrilegious. If you forgot to bring your own overall, Mary leant you one of hers, usually an old sequin embellished dress, like the books, it would be heavy with dried slip where she’d wiped her hands on it, and at least initially, was floor length on me. One time an advert was filmed in her kitchen, and whilst my parents were focussed on academic success, Mary projected a been-there-done that attitude that there was more to life than formal education. I never asked her about it, but I knew that she was related to Virginia Woolf (who I’d seen photographs of, and knew wrote novels) all of which added to the mystique. Checking back now I’ve worked out that Woolf was Mary’s mother’s cousin, but in fact her mother was an almost equally remarkable woman. Mary had (in my mother’s opinion) “rejected her mother’s values”, her mother being Dame Janet Vaughan, physiologist and expert on haematology and radiation pathology. From 1945 to 1967, she was Principal of Somerville College, Oxford, when both the future Shirley Williams and Margaret Thatcher were there, and when I was potting with her daughter she was still publishing innovative research, and serving on committees. I wish I had met her.
When I was in the Sixth-form I started doing pottery at school, which was a glorious relief from the double maths and physics that filled most of my timetable. Our teacher also took our small group out to look at pots and introduced us to the Craftsman Potter shop. I think this jug was an eighteenth birthday present to myself. I loved its billowing speckled belly and the seemingly artless marks on its surface. Mike Dodd describes as these as “texture for glaze to hang in” and collects a miscellaneous selection of proper tools, appropriated objects (the meat tenderiser from his daughter’s cooking set, for instance) and self-constructed wooden bats and rollers to make them, liking the fact that its not obvious what’s been used where.
I didn’t know anything about Mike Dodd at the time I bought the jug, but met him subsequently. The jug travelled with me to University and back every term, which in retrospect seems obsessive. I think I was channelling William Morris’ “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful”, (and I was pretty convinced that “or” should be replaced with “and”). But although I have used it occasionally for parties, I always thought it was too big have around every day. Its real appeal was that it seemed to me to be a quintessential generous jug. In a film made in 2011 Mike Dodd describes his admiration for country pottery that is “strong and made with urgency”, which has an “inherent integrity”, and recalls himself “in tears” as an undergraduate in the Fitzwilliam Museum at “the vitality and quality” of pots he admired there. I don’t think I have ever wept over my jug, but I too sought solace and inspiration in the Fitzwilliam (which is practically next door to the architecture building where I studied in Cambridge).
For a while I bought a lot of contemporary ceramics, and sought out their makers. Now my house is too full, and my acquisitive urges have diminished, but although I’m increasingly ambivalent about the role of objects in my life, the jug still makes me feel grounded.
My jug always gives me a good, warm feeling, especially now when going to art galleries is impossible, and holding it afresh it now seems a good size to actually use as a water jug.
There is a great film where Mike Dodd talks about how the pressure of modern life and the “busy-ness/business” of life “closes us down”. His observation that “if that can quieten down, you can begin to see things that relate to your own inner vitality rather than intellectual thought processes”, That seems a good message for where we are right now. He also explains how in order to avoid a “disconnect from nature” he developed glazes ground from raw materials collected from local quarries and wood ash he prepared himself. In the jug the results are literally fused to add colour and lustre. That forming of direct links to nature also feels very current, and possible even locked down in SE17.