A day in the life of a potter: Charlie Collier
"I had quite a romantic vision of hiding away on my own and being a little potter out in the countryside"
“For me, pottery is about form. Michael Cardew called it ‘the majesty of form’. Once a pot is taken off the wheel, it can’t improve. A great form will remain no matter what decoration, finish or firing it’s exposed to. Pottery is also about choice - choices made during the making and firing process define our character. Pots, therefore, have this ability to communicate the maker’s character and vitality to the user. Every dish I eat off and mug I drink from, reminds me of its maker and offer me a personal connection. I love the philosophy of the best pots being ‘born and not made’ - you can’t contrive a beautiful pot. You can only make and observe, and when you see it, stop.”
Throwing pottery is a craft which has so far eluded the gaze of the UK’s increasing interest in all things handmade, artisanal and local. Perceived by many, including some in the industry itself, as a traditional art on the verge of being lost to the advancing age of its most prominent practisers, there are a handful of young guns who are continuing this millennia-old skill and breathing new life into the world of ceramics.
One of these potters is 23-year-old Charlie Collier, who honed his craft at Whichford Pottery, down the road from Hook Norton, and has since launched his own range of gorgeous stoneware. OX spoke to Charlie outside Whichford’s café to learn more about his niche skill and stunning range of products.
How does a young man develop an interest in pot throwing?
I left school not knowing what I wanted to do at all. I did a foundation art course and tried pottery, then stayed on and practised as an artist-in-residence. I knew a guy that worked at Whichford, and came and visited on the right day, and was lucky enough to be offered a job.
How do you reach a point where you can produce your own range?
It's an insane amount of practice to get good at throwing. You have to look at what other people are doing here a lot to pick up techniques. I spent my first year at Whichford practising after hours for a couple of hours a day so that I could join the production team. It took quite a lot of my own time to get it done. When the team first said "OK, your pots are good enough now", that was an incredibly proud feeling.
What were you doing before you joined the production team?
A lot of kiln-packing, glazing, servicing, wiping down the pots so that they're ready for sale. It's like being a chef - you have to learn everything first and slowly progress into what you want to do.
Take me through how you get from the clay being in the ground to the pot being in my house.
You have to get the clay from the pit - there are three local pits that we use. We blend those three together, and add a load of water so that it becomes liquid. You then sieve out all of the gravel and stone from the mixture, then send the liquid into a filter press, which squeezes all the water out so that you're left with the clay. Once you've got the clay you can add grog, which is a coarse sand, so that the clay is nice to throw with and it’s strong enough to throw big flowerpots with. Our blend is also frostproof - if you don't fire hot enough and don't use the right sort of clay, your pots will tend to crack after one winter.
Is the clay local? Does it make a difference?
A lot of other potteries would use the cheapest clay they can get their hands on, whereas we pay a premium because we pay two men full-time to make up the clay for us. That allows us to be flexible - we can make it up how we want it and we don't have to rely on other people to make it. We have our own quality control. It's all in-house. There aren't many places like this in the country that do what we do.
Talk me through some of the differences between the finishes that you use.
In my own work, I focus more on stoneware than terracotta. It's fired at a slightly higher temperature - 1280 rather than 1060. The glazes I use are things like wood ash and feldspar, and that really is a different kettle of fish to making flowerpots. Flowerpots are far more 'production'-based, which is a very good grounding for creating more ambitious products. It's a big challenge. I'll look at one of my colleagues making the most enormous pots and I don't want to make those in my own workshop, but it's a good feeling to know that I could.
What's the difference, technically, between some of the biggest pots and the more standard-sized ones?
The biggest one-piece pot we make is a 60-pounder, and when I made a couple of those I thought "that's it", but once you get larger than that you have to start making them in sections, so you'll make a base, put it to one side, then make the top section and make the two widths the same, then you flip the top section onto the base section and then join the two and carry on throwing.
So what are you aiming to do next?
Before I came here, I had quite a romantic vision of hiding away on my own and being a little potter out in the countryside - quite a solitary vision. But having worked here with a team of people, it's amazing how much more you can get done. In the future I'd quite like my own setup where I can train apprentices - I feel like the traditional skills that I've learned deserve to be passed on. It'd be quite a selfish thing to take the skills that I've been taught and just hide them away.
I know of a few potters that are in their 60s and 70s now, who are renowned to be the best in this country, and some of them think of themselves as 'dinosaurs' or as being the last of a breed, and that makes me quite sad because I want to make sure their tradition continues. I think it's really important. That's what keeps me going.
So who's the best in the country?
There is no single best. I think the throwers here at Whichford take the biscuit, to be honest. I haven't seen anyone throw a pot like Jim Keeling - they're pretty untouchable. But in terms of other sorts of pottery, there's a guy called Svend Bayer, and another called Mike Dodd, who are probably my two favourites in this country.
Could you tell a British pot from one from Spain or America?
I think I probably could. In this country, we're quite keen on the oriental style. There's a whole breed of pottery called Anglo-Oriental, where people are looking to the east for their inspiration, and that's for good reason: the pottery over in Japan is much more part of their culture. Every house has its own stack of tea bowls, if you have a guest you give the guest the best tea bowl you have. It's all very ceremonial, and it's important to them. They get it, whereas a lot of people don't look at a plate twice. It's a similar idea to knowing where your food comes from: If you're only aware of the finished product then there's no need to think about where it has come from, whereas if you're a bit more interested than you can discover the whole story behind it.
Find out more about Whichford Pottery at whichfordpottery.com.
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