For the past fifteen years, I have worked exclusively with stoneware
ceramics, a technique which is dependent on the temperature
at which the clay is fired - around 1260°c to 1320°c.
On my return from extensive travels throughout Asia, my first
two years here in Tuscany were spent developing ash glazes.
Glazed pottery first appeared in China around 1500 BC - probably
by chance as kilns became more advanced, and hotter, and the
white-hot wood ash carried through the kiln by flame and draught,
came to rest on the shoulders and rims of pots. The ash reacting
with the surface of the clay produced a liquid coating –
the first glaze.
I witnessed this almost magical process for the first time at
the French pottery village of La Borne - and was immediately
hooked. To understand the alchemy, and to participate, is truly
a wonderful experience, but it is a precarious procedure. There
is, however, another way of producing this type of glaze by
making a liquid containing wood ash, clay, and sometimes rock,
which is applied directly to the pots before firing in a gas
or even a wood burning kiln. The wood burning kilns I have built
and fired both in England and Italy, have been short-firing,
down-draught - which means that there is not sufficient ash
flying around the kiln chamber to cover the surface with glaze.
But as the pots reach stoneware temperature, the ash solution
already applied to the pots melts, and a glaze is produced.
With this method, ashes from any source can be used. I have
had great success with the ash of the Chianti vines, after the
farmers have pruned in January, but more often the ash is simply
taken from the workshop wood burning stove, after ensuring that
it is free from plastic and other synthetic substances. In my
opinion some of the most beautiful glazes can be produced in
In my recent
work I have made a return to vapour glazing. Back in 1988 on
Green Island, in the studio of Guy Sydenham, I discovered the
technique of salt glazing. This is a fusion of silica and sodium,
the sodium coming from the salt, or sodium carbonate, and the
silica being already present in the clay. The gas kiln is heated
to around 1260°c and a solution of sodium bicarbonate is
sprayed directly into the path of the flame. The sodium vapour
then suffuses the air space and penetrates throughout the stack
of pots, producing beautiful, poetic blushes and patterns. Small
vases can be used as shields to protect other pieces from the
full blast of soda vapour. This process of soda glazing takes
one to two hours, with the kiln reaching 1300°c, at which
time the fuel is cut, the kiln allowed to cool rapidly to 1100°c,
then kept closed for 24 hours. For this process I use a clay
from La Borne in France together with ball clay slips from England
and of course a little help from the Tuscan sunshine!
My preferred method of making pots is throwing
on the wheel, a skill I learnt as a professional production
thrower many years ago. I now work only on one-off pieces, with
sometimes a small run of mugs just to keep my eye in. Whilst
a difficult skill to master, it is immediate, sensual and rewarding.
The dynamic energy that I put into it is captured and passed
on to others in the orbital lines and finger marks left in the
clay as it spins. When vapour glazed, all the irregularities
are accentuated, further increasing the individuality of each
My craft gives me enormous satisfaction. The
work is exhausting, often literally back-breaking and sometimes,
like most creative labours, heart-breaking. But I would do nothing
else. The rewards I reap in terms of quality of life and peace
within myself are immeasurable.