Chris Patton – The “foreigner” potter

“I hope what I make is durable, in style as opposed to fashionable, timeless…
in that sense kind of immortal… until some idiot drops it.”
(Extract from an interview, January 2010)

The influence on South African studio potters by European potters and pottery teachers during the 20th Century, is deserving of thorough research, documentation and credit. Some afforded the South Africans the opportunity to visit and work in their studios, many served as lecturers at South African schools and colleges of art or taught in their own pottery schools or held appointments at production pottery studios. They served their terms and moved on… or opted to stay. Two of the foreigner potters who came on visits to South Africa, were immediately attracted to the country and committed themselves to establishing studios and would soon after, become celebrated members in their adopted potter community and country. The one was the English potter, Tim Morris (1941 – 1990). The other was the Northern Irish potter, Chris Patton.

Chris was born in Belfast in 1939. He attended public boarding schools where in his senior years he studied art without getting much encouragement for his efforts. His artistic talent and flair came to the fore during his years at the Belfast College of Art (now the University of Ulster’s School of Art and Design ) where he found specific interest in lithography and pottery. The small ceramic department at the Belfast college with some 20 students, was headed by the acclaimed Scottish potter, David Heminsley (19?? – 2007) who in turn apprenticed under the British master potter Harry Davis (1910-1986) of Crowan Pottery. Heminsley would have a pronounced influence on Chris’ approach to studio pottery.

Chris graduated in 1963 and then continued his studies at the college to gain his teaching diploma in art but on gaining that he was to teach English rather than art at schools in Monpllier, France where, thinks Chris: “…there must be a groupo of middle-aged French people speaking English with an Irish accent.” He returned to Northern Ireland in 1965 and was appointed as an art teacher in County Armagh. His duties included teaching arts and crafts at “a particularly strict school” of the Convent of the Sacred Heart.

A brief history of Irish pottery will serve to set the scene for Chris’ venture into that world.

Irish pottery evolved over a period of 6 000 years from its Neolithic round, undecorated, pit-fired pots to basic utilitarian kiln-fired coarsewear (earthenware) for crocks and bowls, to functional fineware (pottery made from stoneware, tin-glazed earthenware called delftware and porcelain) in the late 17th century and onwards to modern ceramics. The earliest potters coiled ropes of softened clay to create forms… a time-consuming exercise and not guaranteed to produce a symmetrical object. The introduction of the Anglo-Norman potter’s wheel to Ireland in about the 13th century, solved those problems. The making of fine ware was in response to the high cost of imported goods. The fine white clay needed for this type of pottery was to be found in Ireland but the obstacle was a shortage of coal to fire kilns which had to be imported. High costs and competition with imported ceramics eventually led to the failure of most of the Irish fine-ware production studios with the exception of the Belleek pottery in County Fermanagh in Northern Ireland, established in 1858. By 1865 the pottery was selling its wares in Ireland, England, the U.S.A., Canada and Australia. (Some former Belleek potters established a competitor production studio near Coalisland, County Tyrone and produced amongst others, tableware for the Armagh District Lunatic Asylum with the asylum’s logo and name prominently on the pieces. The director of the asylum apparently decided that the message on the outside of the bowl was perhaps not the best one to read at breakfast and had everything dumped.1

The introduction of electricity in the early 20th century rekindled the production pottery industry, one of the earliest which was Dublin Pottery Vodrey, known for its excellence in art pottery. Another famous production pottery was Irish Wade which made its appearance in 1946 in County Armagh and its tankards and steins with speckled blue, green and gray glazes were much sought after. Over time, Arklow Pottery, Carrigaline Pottery, Cré Irish Porcelain, Kilrush Pottery, Tilgman Keramik, Ulster Ceramics and Wade Ireland would become familiar pottery brand names.2

Few of the small country production potteries survived the first few decades of the 20th century but by mid-century there was an upsurge in the number of studio potters who were producing tableware, decorative and art pottery. Even so, “… the new craft schools based on the Bernard Leach school favoured the Anglo-Oriental style of dun-coloured pots, the ‘little brown pots’ as they were known.”3

The key figure amongst the studio potters was Peter Brennan (1916 – 1995), described as Ireland’s “pioneer studio potter” who set up his Ring Ceramics Studio in Kilkenny in 1945. With nothing but academic sculpture training at college, he established a studio and built his first wood-fired kiln, borrowing know-how and design from a nearby bakery.4 Brennan established art and pottery classes, hosted art exhibitions and was instrumental in the founding of Dublin’s National College of Art and Design’s Ceramics Department. John ffrench (1928 – 2010) of the Arklow Studio, Grattan Freyer of Terrybaun Pottery), Philip Pearce of Shanagarry Pottery and Valerie Landon of Crannóg Pottery were other significant studio potters.5

From the time of completing his studies at the Belfast college, Chris had no opportunity nor means to pursue a career as studio potter. That opportunity came when two of his fellow college students, a silversmith and a jeweller, encouraged Chris to join them in setting up studios in 1966 at Castle Ward near the village of Strangford in County Down. The 18th century Castle Ward was by then entrusted to the National Trust and the intention was to establish craft and art studios in the castle courtyard as a tourist attraction. Chris signed a five year lease for the flour mill and converted it to a pottery studio with a big gas kiln where he produced a range of functional ware in high-fired reduction stoneware and some work in porcelain.

The influence of Heminsley and “… through him, Harry Davis second hand…”, had not waned and Chris was intent on making “good stuff” in the Anglo-Oriental tradition. The local clay was not ideal but could be blended with material acquired from elsewhere. His stoneware glazes reduction fired to cone 9, were drawn from traditional recipes which with much testing and experimenting created personal surfaces. The influx of tourists to Castle Ward benefitted the studio and made it a sustainable venture but Chris had to produce work that would appeal to his market: “Irish people want to know what a pot is for. It has to have a function or else it is of no use.”

Chris did not not renew the Castle Ward lease after it expired in 1971. In limbo, he accepted an invitation to assist a pottery teacher friend to set up a small studio in Tonsberg outside Oslo, Norway and spent dix months there. By chance Chris came to know of a suitable property for a studio in the small village of Hillsborough, County Down. The three storied Georgian-style house, until then used as an agency bank on village market days only, had large but dilapidated workshops at the back. Chris bought the property for £3 000, set about restoring the house and workshops and moved his large kiln from Castle Ward to the new studio.

Hillsborough developed overnight into a “Little Chelsea” tourist attraction with its own brand of boutique shops and fine food eating places. Once again Chris’ studio would reap the benefit of the tourist footfall. He continued with the same style and lines of pottery as at Castle Ward, even though he was aware of the shift away from the Anglo-Oriental influences on pottery to post-modernist ceramics: “I was pigheaded and stuck to the Leach-Hamada-Cardew legacy… I held onto that philosophy and style of craft. I saw myself as a craftsman-potter rather than an artist-potter… but could have been either. It was all a bit schizophrenic.”

The gas kiln at Hillsborough did not have the safety standards that would be demanded of it in present day. One Sunday morning, Chris was reading his Observer newspaper while on the loo when he heard a loud explosion and then saw through the window over looking the workshop, a large cloud of smoke and dust rising from where the kiln stood. Chris had lit two of the six burners to warm up the kiln and suspects that one of the burners was extinguished but continued to release oxygen and propane into the chamber, causing a gas build-up that was ignited by the other burner. The arch of the kiln was blown clean off and the doors burst open. Nothing of the kiln load could be rescued. With good fortune, there was insurance on the kiln and Chris was able to replace it with a very modern cyclical gas kiln.

In the late 1960s the socio-political turmoil in Ireland escalated and though Hillsborough was relatively unaffected, the tourist trade as a steady source of income, waned significantly. For most of 1974, Chris bailed out of studio pottery to do contract work for the well-known Irish designer Desmond Kinney. Kinney’s speciality was large murals. Chris made and assembled the ceramic tiles and mosaics for Kinney’s Tàin Mosaic Mural on Setanta Wall off Nassau Street, Dublin. This “comic strip” depiction of an Irish mythological event measured 4.88 m high X 12.19 m long.

1974 was the year of his marriage to Janet. By then Chris felt a deep unease about the political environment and though never in real danger, started having thoughts about seeking a safer haven as well as a new audience for his work. The year after his marriage, Chris and Janet visited her parents who had emigrated to South Africa where they set up home in Berario, a suburb of Johannesburg. During that visit, Chris met the studio potter Tim Morris at his Ngwenya studio at Muldersdrift and Gillian Bickell at her Chartwell studio. He also visited galleries such as Studio 101 in Hyde Park where the work of South African potters was being promoted. In the same suburb at the Potters Shop of the Association of Potters of Southern Africa (APSA), he was able to see that his own work would fall well within the idiom and style of that of local studio potters. South Africa had instant appeal for Chris: “The place got under my skin!”

Back in Hillsborough, two children were born to Chris and Janet. During a second visit to South Africa in 1978, Chris again met Morris who encouraged him to emigrate and set up a studio and Chris was intent on doing just that. Hillsborough had by then been declared a heritage site by the National Heritage Trust which ruled out any future expansion of the studio such as enlarging the studio building. There was nothing to tie Chris down to Hillsborough or anywhere else in Northern Ireland: “I wanted to leave but not down the road… and not to the U.S.A. or Australia.” He applied for a work permit in South Africa in 1981 which was turned down but secured a work permit the next year with the help of a letter from Morris in which he vouched for Chris’ employment at Ngwenya which was nothing but bluff.

The Patton family arrived in Johannesburg in 1982 with all their worldly possessions in a single shipping container. Within three months, Chris purchased his smallholding in Mulderdrift just a few kilometers from Morris’ studio and set about to convert the former chicken and duck house into a studio. He recalls that for two years afterwards, heavy rains would resurrect the pungent smell of duck droppings. Until he had the studio fully operational, Chris was invited to work in Bickell’s studio to do his clay and glaze tests and produce some pots. His own studio – approval for which he gained by reluctantly bribing a corrupt municipal official with a teapot, cups and saucers and some cash - was eventually fitted with a small electric kiln, followed by an oil-fired kiln of 1.7 m3.

Johannesburg was the hub of the South African pottery world and Chris readily found a market for his work in galleries and craft shops. His work was featured in the Helen de Leeuw Gallery in Hyde Park and at Beuster-Skolimowski Gallery in Pretoria: “My work was well-received. I was a new face with new work in a slightly different style.” Remembering the Chinese proverb saying that if you have two loaves of bread you must sell one and buy a lily, Chris took part of the income from his very first sale and purchased rose bushes which continue to flower in his garden to this day.

He joined the Association of Potters of Southern Africa (APSA), found himself networking with the potter fraternity, served on the regional committee and hosted workshops for members but even so, “… I was viewed by some as the uitlander [foreigner] potter.” His disillusionment with that “Mad Hatter’s tea party” grew when his first entry at an APSA regional competition was rejected because his pots were “too rough”. He knew that his work was different from what most others produced and he had no common ground with those who promoted ceramic art over pottery as a craft with their dictum that “Good potters become artrists”.

Competitions held little appeal for Chris: “Pottery is not a competition. It is a profession. My pots are being judged by buyers when they are put up for sale in shops or studio.” (He would compete only once more at a regional event hosted by Ceramics Southern Africa in 2005 where his large ceramic sculpture depicting a shoal of fish was sold on the opening night.)

After his arrival, Chris forged very close ties with Morris. The two potters had much in common having come from a similar cultural background, born into middle-class families, were educated in art schools and held similar philosophies about pottery. “We connected without much effort… we thought the same way about a lot of things.” Morris invited Chris to join the ranks of the artists and crafters of the Crocodile River Arts and Crafts Ramble in the Muldersdrift area and it was a major boost for studio sales. Understandably, the suicide of Morris in 1990 was a traumatic experience for Chris as it was for many others who were under Morris’ spell.

Progressively, Chris would focus on his studio work and teaching. Teaching started as soon as his studio was functional and only came to an end in 2007 when he had to reclaim the teaching studio space for production. He tells of one of his earlier students who devotedly attended class but missed one and later in the day telephoned to apologise for her absence because “I was busy committing suicide at that time.”

The demise of the Ramble in the early 1990s and the absence of galleries and craft shops where his work could be sold was offset by a revival of week-end craft markets where Chris’ found ready interest and buyers. He adapted his range of wares to cater for the craft market but continues to produce signature pieces for discernings buyer and collectors: “Many of the earlier potters have faded away but I persevered… I remain a professional potter even if the market has diminished.”

The art of pottery is rooted in craftsmanship: “As a craftsman you gain intimate knowledge of your materials. You can hone your skills to make the materials obey your will within the parameters of what the materials will allow it to be.” The opposite of that is to torture clay to assume an imposed form from which it will squeek rather than speak the language of the potter. It is Chris’ belief that pottery by its very nature, must be quick and spontaneous: “Until you get to be good enough not to worry about how you are doing it and only worry about what you are doing, only then does it become a natural, free-flowing process. Pottery is not a conscious thing. It is also not a routine. It is like writing… you don’t concentrate on the manner of the penstroke but on what you are saying.”

The modern day studio potter has to compromise between what people want and what the potter thinks they ought to have. It does not need to be an unhappy marriage of wants and wills but is a challenge to the skills of the potter not to corrupt his craft nor subjugate his art. For Chris this means a constant vigilance to retain his focus on simplicity of form, elegance in volume and depth in the surface.

His materials, skills and imagination have allowed him to imbue his work with a sense of the classical but transcend the archetypical. Form evolves from function as much as function is dictated by form: “I make a thousand pots per year… by the time I get to the 999th pot it is beginning to get quite good.” His oeuvre includes bottle forms with sinuous lines and planes, deep bowls with generous interiors, platters and pots and jars and cups to contain rather than constrain. With decorative work done in slip, dip, wax resist, brushwork and hand-made traditional glazes, Chris can coax a nobility from simplistic design or permit a rich but dignified burst of colour. The surfaces, in equal measure to the forms, are tactile.

Each piece by Chris has an own totality and therein lies the essence of his art of his craft. His work is represented in the national Corobrik Collection as well as the PELMAMA Collection, both collections at the Pretoria Art Gallery.

Contact details:
E-mail: cpatton@wbs.co.za
Website: www.chrispattonceramics.co.za
Telephone: +27 (0)11 662 1017

REFERENCE SOURCES
Where Chris Patton is quoted in the text, the sources would be the formal interviews with the author as well as correspondence during December 2010 and January 2011.
1. Belleek Rival?, Armagh County Museum, www.nmni.com
2. Modern Larger-scale Irish Potteries in Pottery Ireland, potteryireland.com
3. John ffrench biography in Crawford Art Gallery, crawfordartgallery.com
4. Peter Brennan - Ireland’s Pioneer Studio Potter 1916-1995 in Peter Brennan the potter, peterbrennanpotter.com)
5. Modern Irish Pottery & Ceramic Art in Pottery Ireland, potteryireland.com