Bryan Haden – A potter of pots

“If you can’t use a pot, it isn’t a pot.”
(Extract from an interview, December 2010)

The strict definition of functional ware requires that the quantitative must trump the qualitative… practical values must dominate aesthetic appreciation. The opposite is that artistic introspection and aesthetic triviality permit the potter to translate function into expressive form. The middle ground is where the cultural tradition of the potter responds to the demands of time and values and where the potter returns to the traditional to seek inspiration and instruction. Function and purpose can be imbued with value and appreciation… “craft” and “art” have equal status in the lexicon of the potter.

In the 1970’s, Kimpei Nakamura urged potters to “.. know the folly of ignoring tradition…” and “… know the dangers of falling into a facile modernism.”1 The art of functional pottery must therefore resonate tradition, express contemporary culture and generously allow personal interpretation. The craft of functional pottery demands the understanding of materials, mastery of technique and a flair for design. Materials, tools, talent, skill and vision might make a good potter. Finding, understanding and then defining the allure of clay… that makes for a compleat potter and Bryan Haden is just that.

Bryan Everard Haden was born on 19 September 1930 on the farm Bonnefoi in the district of Carolina in Mpumalanga Province in South Africa. His mother was Ruth Everard Haden, one of the group of five exceptionally talented women painters in the Everard family. Bryan too excelled at painting but after his school years in Swaziland when he enrolled for a degree in art at the University of Natal, he opted to focus on ceramics. His ceramics teacher was Hilda Ditchburn (1917-1986), who built the first studio pottery stoneware kiln in South Africa and was responsible for setting up the University’s ceramic studio.

On completion of his degree, Bryan set off to England in 1953 to visit potteries and on his return teamed up with Derek Sherwood to establish a studio at Hay Paddock (a former World War II army transit camp) in Pietermaritzburg. An electric kiln was built to produce functional pieces in oxidised stoneware with limited production in porcelain. His early work was sufficiently impressive to earn him participation in a South African Craft Exhbition in Washington, U.S.A. but financial constraints compelled Bryan to close the studio in 1958.

For the next four years Bryan busied himself with other work which included a stint as a crew member on a whaling boat, felling timber and teaching art at the missionary school at Goromonzi in the Mashonaland East province of the former Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) where he met and married his wife Heather. The Hadens returned to Bonnefoi in 1963 where Bryan established his second studio but a year later, he set off to work in stoneware at Aylesford Monastery Pottery associated with a Carmelite Friary in Kent. The monastery pottery was established by Leach and Colin Pearson. Bryan’s work was to throw Elizabethan-type ware including goblets, loving cups, cherubim pots and large holders for Holy Water.

In 1965, Bryan returned to South Africa to take up a teaching post at the Greenpoint Art Centre in Cape Town and in the following year he set up house and studio on the mountain slopes of Gordon’s Bay. The studio was destroyed in a veld fire and had to be re-built and housed an oil-fired down-draught kiln as well as a wood-fired kiln, the latter which Bryan favoured for his stoneware. The kilns were fired once a month. Dave Wells (1960 - ) served an apprenticeship in 1978 under Bryan and recalls Bryan’s invention of a hydraulic log-splitter with a pick axe fastened to the arm for firewood.

Another apprentice was John Wilhelm (1947 - ) who served at the studio from 1980 to mid-1982 and then partnered with Baraga to establish The Mill Street Pottery in Cape Town until 1995. Wilhelm remembers how, when the wood pile was running low, Bryan would not hestitate to rip up sections of the Black Wattle fence around the property to keep the firing going. His apprentices also recall how, during one night’s when the wood supply was running out and Bryan was asleep, they had to resort to breaking down the wooden walls of the shed that housed the kiln. Bryan came to inspect the kiln in the morning to find a perfect firing but three of the shed’s walls missing.

Bryan identifies the Anglo-Oriental potters Bernard Leach (1887-1979) at the Leach Pottery (St. Ives, Cornwall) and Michael Cardew (1901 – 1983) at the Wenford Bridge studio (St. Breward, Cornwall), as having significantly influenced his own approach to pottery but the English potter he most admired was Harry Davis (1910-1986) of Crowan Pottery, near Praze in Cornwall with whom he worked for two months during 1953. He was asked to sign up with Davis for a five year period but declined the opportunity, a decision which Bryan later deeply regretted. The fine appearance and strength of Davis’ pots were legendary. Davis, says Bryan, could consistently throw better than Leach.

Closer to home was the much admired Hyme Rabinowitz (1920 - 2009) who was then established in his Eagles Nest studio in nearby Constantia and with whom Bryan cemented a long-standing friendship. It was along with Rabinowitz and other artists that Bryan helped found the Artists’ Gallery in Cape Town in 1965. His contact with the other prominent South African potters of that time was limited. He did visit Esias Bosch (1923 – 2010) at his White River studio and attended a workshop by Tim Morris (1941 - 1990).

The unmistakable identity of Bryan’s pots was by then firmly established. His output in the early years of the Gordon’s Bay studio was prolific and one reference makes mention of him using seven tons of clay per year which he sourced from the region of Stellenbosch. His oeuvre was deliberately limited to “pots that are usable” in simple, traditional shapes and included platters, casseroles, jugs, bowls, dishes, samovars, teapots, teabowls and large lidded storage jars of up to one meter in height. His pots had to meet basic functional needs because, says Bryan: “… pots are primarily containers; they should… advertise their functions”.2

As a thrower on the wheel, Bryan could match any of the masters. Pots were pulled up from the inside and with the minimum thickness. He had remarkable control and technique and could, as Leach in flowery language wrote, urge and pull and coax clay through “a series of rhythmic movements, which like those of a dance are all related and interdependent.”3 Serena Cartwright wrote about a workshop at Bryan’s studio which she attended and she described his skill in detail: “Placing one [recently thrown deep pot about 60cm high] on a banding wheel, he then grasped the bat on which the other [similar pot] had been thrown, whipped it upside down as if it weighed no more than a sugar bowl, and holding only the bat, jiggled it gently until the rim fit its twin below… Bryan began to beat the two rims together with a truncheonlike weapon. Then up on the wheelhead went the whole thing… it’s a bit of a dizzy height to work at, about 2 metres, but the neck was raised and thinned another 15 cm, the top opened, flattened and finally turned right down to join the neck, making a beautiful, sturdy, smooth-ridged tip. Down he came to this enormous jar with a couple of bands with the thumbnail and five or six large featherlike patterns with his fingers.”4

But on the other hand, Bryan could easily be distracted and would wander off and leave a half-finished pot on the wheel where it would dry out and be ruined. His apprentices were entertained non-stop with Bryan’s story-telling as he wandered about the studio with a cup of tea which he drank in copious amounts. Or he would be in the studio one moment and nowhere to be found the next. He would slip away to visit with friends in the harbour, tend his apiary or tinker on a new invention such as a crusher with rolling wheels into which he fed bricks for a brickdust glaze and even a “whaletail” swimming-aid device. Nico Liebenberg served a short apprenticeship in 1987 and describes the studio as often chaotic but energised. When Liebenberg first arrived for duty, Bryan had completely forgotten that he invited the student potter to take up a residency. It was with Liebenberg that Bryan one night after he had harvested the bee hives, had a schoolboy-ish honey-flinging fight in the studio.

Two other apprentices were Verena Baraga, now resident in Switzerland and Rudi Botha who is still a practising potter in Plettenberg Bay. Baraga’s stint at the studio (1975 to 1981) was in exchange for furnace bricks which Bryan obtained from her husband. Assuming that she wouldn’t last very long as an apprentice, Bryan restricted her to wedging clay and making tea for the first nine months. Then came the day when Bryan had to throw plates and he did so quicker than Verena could wedge the clay for them. He thought it was hilarious but Baraga lost her cool and demanded that he honour his side of the arrangement and teach her to throw pots. He agreed and Verena served at the studio for six years.

Botha, who served there from 1979 to 1980, arrived for his first day of duty only to find no one at the studio. When sometime later Bryan did make his appearance it was to instruct Botha to help fix a dillapidated farm tractor, a chore that took a whole week to finish. He also distinctly recalls the regular adventure of fetching wood from the nearby Lourensford Estate in a rusty old truck that had no floorboard between the driver’s seat and the pedals.

Young potters delighted in visiting Bryan’s studio to watch him at work and listen as he pronounced on pottery and life. In the early 1980’s Rosten Chorn (1954 – 2005) who had his studio in the nearby Sir Lowry’s Pass Village, was a regular visitor. Yogi de Beer had a studio in Mowbray when he met Bryan in 1985 and remained a firm friend since.

Bryan’s antics must not distract from his passion for pottery. He simply does not intellectualise about his work and says in an off-handed manner that: “All I wanted to do was to make pots.” He soft bisque-fired pots which sometimes had pinched or incised decorative features and the glazes were reduction-fired at 1400 oC. The decorative elements were always understated. About five simple glazes such as a thick celadon or chun or an ash glaze from Black Wattle were favoured. A distinctive blue was created by applying a blue-hued celadon over tenmoku. “I wanted glazes that would be thick and alive.. high-fired with lots of flame and flashing.” Other glazes included grey feldspar, dolomite, iron oxide and tenmoku which were dipped, brushed and trailed.

Decorations were done by brush or combed and scraped. The inspiration for decorative work were landscapes and especially those of the mountainous region of Bonnefoi which he would sgraffito into slip-covered pots. His works also featured simple geometric designs and simplified illustrations of veld flora including weeds found in the vlei. Some pots were glazed only on the inside.

The most significant art appreciation of Bryan’s work emphasises that “His basic work has a rugged appeal in the robust strength of the honest craftsmanship in which he believes. But in his more personal pieces this robustness and vigour is balanced by a refinement of form and decoration…”.5

Wilhelm views Bryan’s work as “down to earth, nothing pretentious, never flashy… as though the pieces blended in with their surrounds but on closer scrutiny, reveal extraordinary craftsmanship.” Liebenberg continues to emulate his teacher’s quest for functional simplicity and Wells aspires to stay true in hiw own work to Bryan’s dictum that pots must have perfect proportions.

“There is nothing effete or atrophied in the forms of Haden’s ceramic ware”, writes Wilma Cruise6 as she dismisses “the perfect pot” in favour of “elusive quality” which in itself is a concept of beauty. She has praise for Bryan’s understanding and skilled use of materials, his generosity in form and the quintessential “directness of expression” intrinsic in Anglo-Oriental pottery.

His work was sold direct to the local public and at small galleries in Cape Town and Stellenbosch and also via Helen de Leeuw at her Johannesburg gallery. There was no formal display and sales area in the Gordon’s Bay studio but pots were stacked in a small wooden shed and not always with price labels on them. It was as though, says Wells, there was no urgency to sell work. It would frequently happen that no one was in attendance at the studio and when buyers arrived, they would make their selection and leave payment in or under one of the pots or nothing more than a “thank you for the pot” note. Wilhelm recalls a customer who came back to the studio after having bought a teapot which did not pour. It transpired that Bryan had forgotten to drill the hole from the pot into the spout and his laconic reply to the buyer was “Well, you should make the tea thinner”.

Bryan would never, according to Wilhelm, “put himself out to sell work”. He encouraged his apprentices to submit works for ceramic competitions but did not aspire to compete with his own entries. In later years he served as judge at ceramic competitions.

In the early 1970’s Bryan exhibited in Cape Town along with Rabinowitz and another of the Anglo-Oriental master potters, Andrew Walford at the Stellenbosch Museum. One other significant exhibition followed at the Drostdy Tulbach when his work was featured alongside those of Bosch, Rabinowitz, Walford, Morris and Marietjie vd Merwe (1935-1992). Further recognition came when Bryan’s works were included in the collections of the Durbanville Clay Museum, Durban Art Gallery and the Pretoria Art Museum but – most likely because of his reluctance to promote himself – curators and collectors are today largely ignorant of his work and the legacy he has bestowed upon South African ceramics.

The potter-author Edmund de Waal could have had Bryan in mind when he wrote: “The truly authentic and serious potter is the one who unknowingly makes pots, whose artistic journey is unmapped, whose silence allows a critical space to open up into which the critic, the curator and collector can step, who allows what could be described as an interpretative vacuum.”7

(In 1997 Bryan suffered a stroke which resulted in a partial paralysis of his right arm. Undaunted, he taught himself to throw and decorate left-handed and within a year could produce his usual range of work. In recent times his poor health has further limited his activity in the studio and he now busies himself with small sculptural tiles.)

Where Bryan Haden is quoted in the text, the sources would be the formal interview with the author as well as correspondence with his wife Heather and his former apprentices, during 2010.
1. New Ceramics, Eileen Lewenstein & Emmanuel Cooper, Studio Vista, 1974
2. Potters of Southern Africa, Garth Clark & Lynne Wagner, Struik, 1974
3. Overthrowing tradition, Alison Britton, Interpreting Ceramics Issue 2, 2002
4. Bryan Haden, Serena Cartwright, Sgraffiti, No. 11, 1976
5. Clark and Wagner, 1974
6. Contemporary Ceramics in South Africa, Wilma Cruise, Struik Winchester, 1991
7. Speak for Yourself, Edmund de Waal, Interpreting Ceramics Issue 5, 2004