I’ve always enjoyed my visits to Red Lion Pottery, as part of my tour of our superb annual arts festival, the ABC Arts Trail. And I have to admit, it’s as much for the beautifully tended sculptural garden as Alan’s pottery. And of course, there are also the other exhibitor on the day, Helen Domleo with her sparkling silver jewellery, there is always such a lot to see.
Alan’s upward sloping garden is the perfect setting for a creative’s studio, it’s no wonder that he is very much influenced by his natural surroundings. The finished pottery pieces are earthy, rich tones with splashes of inky blue or rust. Robust and tactile, they beckon you to pick them up, feel their presence and acknowledge their earthen origins. There’s a reverence about each one that harks back to ceremonies and rituals of the past.
It won’t surprise you to know that many of Alan’s designs are influenced by oriental culture, and I caught up him in February to find out how it all came about, especially as he left school believing that he had no artistic ability at all and was destined to be a scientist. After a few false starts, he finally got accepted to study medicine – a career path he had chosen when he was about nine years old and was ridiculed for.
Born and raised in Luton in the 1950’s Alan was destined to find employment at Vauxhall Motors. He was pressured to stay in school to complete his O Levels by his mum, a decision that was supported by his Headteacher who then went on to choose his A Level subjects at the technical college – an odd mix in Alan’s opinion. However, college was a great place to meet other students and some of those who had an interest in studying medicine stoked his passion to pursue this and he switched his subjects to align with his goals.
Unfortunately, despite having the right qualifications and a genuine interest, Alan faced numerous rejections and gave up applying to medical school after three years. He undertook further scientific study though and after completing a degree in Chemistry and Zoology and a masters in Organic Chemistry he was accepted on the Graduate Entry Scheme at Shell. Two years pass and Alan was ‘bored rigid’ so took voluntary severance when the opportunity arose.
Tentatively, this being his 36th application, he applied to the new Nottingham Medical School that opened in 1970. It later became part of the QMC, the first of it’s kind in the UK at that time. Alan couldn’t believe it when he was accepted! When asked why he thought he had been rejected in the past, Alan’s honesty, claiming that it was due to his ‘lack of privilege’ led him to believe he had blown it. On the contrary, Alan was an asset to the Derby Road surgery where he eventually began working as a GP, and he loved it!
However, there was another flame slow-burning in the background. Alan remembers as a child having his imagination captured by a short ‘interlude’ film, introduced on February 16th 1953 and aired on the BBC, made to bridge the intervals in programming after the war.‘Potter’s Wheel’ showed only the hands of George Aubertin as he threw a pot and a young Alan found it mesmerising, never minding that the pot wasn’t ever completed only, remodelled over and again.
Working at a busy surgery left Alan with little time to make pots, so he started collecting them instead. I admire the impressive collections in the hallway and on shelving in other rooms as he shows me round. It wasn’t until he was in his 20s that Alan started to make his own pots. Seduced by a glimpse of a pottery workshop through a half open door, Alan joined an evening class and continued to collect pieces of pottery that inspired him.
Formal training started in 2002, following early retirement and driven by “insatiable desire to make.” Alan studied for a City & Guilds in ceramics at the Arthur Mee Centre in Stapleford and then completed a diploma at Derby University. Always eager to learn, Alan continually sought out opportunities to learn from the masters and it was a two week workshop with Japanese potter, Ken Matsuzaki at the riverside studio of David & Margaret Frith in North Wales that had the greatest influence on his work. Matsuzaki’s teaching and the Friths’ style, descended from the oriental traditions introduced in the UK by Bernard Leach, cemented Alan’s future direction in ceramics.
Leach was a British studio potter, regarded as the ‘Father of Studio Pottery’ who was born in Hong Kong and lived between there and Japan before moving to England. He promoted pottery as a combination of Western and Eastern arts and philosophies and his worked focused on traditional Korean, Japanese and Chinese Pottery, with traditional European techniques such as slipware and salt-glazing. He set up Leach Pottery in St Ives and attracted a succession of enthusiastic apprentices, from all over the world, who wanted to learn from his style and beliefs.
Alan has drawn on the style and traditions and his love of the natural world, especially rock formations and autumnal colours, to create his thrown pots and hand-built pieces. He favours stoneware but occasionally works in porcelain, and fires his pots in a self built wood-fired kiln. You will notice he often uses a red clay slip, he tells me that he dug this up from a willing neighbour’s garden. The glazes he uses are “based on traditional oriental recipes” and he often incorporates wood ashes prepared from trees in his garden, these “produce new and exciting effects with each firing.”
He shows me a large bottle shaped vase that has been made using separate pieces of clay and describes the process. This ‘vase’ is actually a stoneware version of a pilgrim bottle and is the piece Alan chose to be featured in this issue of the magazine. The ceremonial significance alone, makes this a significant piece, thinking of the pilgrimages to Santiago de Compostela and other religious journeys to places of spiritual significance. These bottle, usually made of leather, would be carried by the traveller for weeks at a time filled with a vital resource – water. They would also of course, be quite common, a widely recognised symbol of resilience and fortitude. The clay construction of one of these bottles is quite specific and somewhat ritualistic itself. The process needs to be followed carefully to be successful, it’s not a project to be rushed. But then neither is pottery in general.
Alan describes it as a wonderfully relaxing pastime, and one that can be addictive as you are learning a new technique. He loves to share his experience with others and although he doesn’t run formal workshops he is always happy to offer demonstrations and talks for small groups. He talks enthusiastically about a children’s competition to design a teapot that he ran a while back. Because it was so difficult to choose a winner, all of the entrants were invited to make s simple hand built item. He loved that one of the children was so proud of his creations that “he took them in to school to show his teacher and classmates” and then gave them as Christmas presents to his family members.
Where you can see and purchase Alan’s work
There is a small showroom at Alan’s pottery where you can visit by appointment. Please ring for an appointment 0770 9509985
Sept 2/3 ABCAT Red Lion Cottage 228 High Road Chilwell NG9 5DB
Sept 16/17 Wardlow Mires Pottery & Food Festival
Opposite the Three Stags Head PH in Wardlow Mires. TBC
Sept 23/24 OnlyClay Ceramics Fair
Kelham Island Museum, Sheffield
All these dates will be confirmed with more details on: Alan’s Website