Pottering as panacea

Oxshott village sign
Oxshott village sign

A review of a book entitled Pottering: A Cure for Modern Life by Anna McGovern appeared in the weekend Guardian:

Authored prior to the pandemic, its publication comes at a moment when many of us are finding lifetime routines interrupted and are encountering closures and postponements of the usual activities and events which punctuate the year. A rethink of daily life lived at a slower pace is timely, and the book touches on a number of themes that interest me in this blog. 

Denise, Henry and Rosemary Wren lived an alternative lifestyle, which could be viewed as pottering on a grand scale. Making pots was interspersed with teaching, both at Oxshott and at various colleges in the South East, exhibiting and selling pots, growing vegetables, weaving cloth, keeping goats and breeding parakeets. Even when potting, the Wrens considered the end product of their work to be less significant than the creative process which shaped it. Professor Moira Vincentelli sums up the books they wrote for amateur potters: ‘Words such as ‘spontaneous expression’, ‘form and colour’, ‘warmth and humanity’ suggest the kind of values that are being promoted and the potential of the clay to liberate creativity in the individual.’ (1)

The review of McGovern’s book suggests that ‘there is an element of make do and mend’ to pottering, and one of the key points that comes across in the Wrens’ publications Handcraft Pottery For Workshop and School (1928) and Pottery: The Finger Built Methods (1932) is an enthusiasm for improvisation and experimentation. They use whatever is to hand as a tool, such as ‘a piece of old ruler about 3 inches long for trimming wet bases’ (2) and reuse and recycle bits and pieces like empty biscuit tins and marmalade jars.

However, the Wrens do pursue their activities beyond the simple household tasks advocated by Anna McGovern as an opportunity to unwind. For example, they suggest employing DIY skills to throw together a kiln, made relatively easy by purchasing one of Denise Wren’s handy kiln blueprints with instructions: ‘a very efficient one can be built for shillings rather than pounds if you are prepared to be your own bricklayer and if you are open to work under the starlit sky in case of need’ (3). For less resourceful would-be crafters she recommends hiring a handyman to put it up.

I’m not too convinced by the idea that pottering is ‘a peculiarly British pastime’, as there are certainly equivalents in other languages and cultures. (And this may be qualified in the text). But McGovern’s interpretation also ‘anchors pottering to the home’ and considers that it promotes ‘Localism’, both of which are supremely relevant to the Wrens, who built their own live/work space in Surrey. Denise designed Potters’ Croft as a family home which catered for a creative lifestyle, with the studio doubling as living room and built in cupboards whose tops stored imperial sized drawings. The workshops and kiln yards of the Oxshott Pottery were just at the other end of the garden, so potting as well as pottering was carried out on site, with students encouraged to join the Wrens in their idyllic ‘country village’ making pots al fresco, especially in summertime. 

Importantly for McGovern, pottering sets ‘no benchmarks for success’ and the Wrens’ approach allowed amateurs to find a way in to pottery which did not set impossibly high standards, but integrated creativity into everyday experience. The Wren’s daughter Rosemary recalls that ‘The top end of the market -the galleries, the artistic cognoscenti and collectors – was for others. My parents worked with the grass roots….At all times they taught that art should be part of daily life, art is neither more nor less than ‘thorough work: and thorough work can be fine art whether on the walls of a gallery or a shirt for the baby’ (4)….’ So while a bit more strenuous than mere pottering, crafting was less about possessing great talents or conceiving groundbreaking ideas than simply keeping on making to the best of one’s abilities. 

Finally, the idea that pottering is ‘beneficial to wellbeing’, agrees with Henry Wren’s declaration that ‘Handcraft’s basic spirit of individual creativeness spells… a fuller life for all’ (5). Pottering: A Cure for Modern Life sounds like a book to read with a clear conscience a few pages at a time in those odd moments between more pressing but less pleasurable activities.

(1) Vincentelli, M. (2000) Women and Ceramics: Gendered Vessels Manchester: Manchester University Press, p.186
(2) Wren, H. and D. (1928) Handcraft Pottery For Workshop and School London: Sir I. Pitman & Sons, p.46
(3) Wren, D. (1925) Catalogue of an exhibition of the Knox Guild of Design and Craft with watercolours by A. Knox and drawings and etchings by F. Brangwen held at Whitechapel Art Gallery, October 17-November 14, 1925, p.6
(4) Coatts, M. (1984) The Oxshott Pottery: Denise and Henry Wren Bath: Crafts Study Centre, p.27
(5) Wren, H. (1937) Artist Craftsman Christmas Exhibition of Hand-Arts leaflet


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