West Street Potters – A history of how we came to be today.

Ahead of our 20 year celebrations this Sunday, Julia has written a history of West Street Potters as she recalls it.

If you have any personal memories or accounts that you would like share, please do send them. I am sure there will plenty of stories to relate on Sunday….see you there.

Who are West Street Potters?

As far back as 1890 a vital educational link was forged between ‘artist and artisan’ when Arts students spent time at the Farnham Pottery learning the ‘impersonal discipline of the craft’ and pottery workers attended drawing classes at the Arts School. By an extraordinary quirk of fate the connections between Arts Institution and pottery were rekindled when the purchase by the Farnham Building Preservation Trust offered West Street Potters [W.S.P.] the opportunity to rent a hastily restored area of the building. W.S.P has an interesting history. They can look back to a time before they were W.S.P. before clay came plastic wrapped, preparation meant a pile of slurry and lumps to hand wedge and all colouring materials were mostly ‘Fifty Shades of Grey ‘. Lack of eyebrows was seen as a badge of honour from encounters with a proto-type Gas kiln and in winter the clay, kept under damp, mouldy sacks, froze.

The Part Time Pottery Classes

In these less than ideal circumstances part time Pottery Classes were started by Paul Barron and Henry Hammond at Farnham School of Art in the 1950’s to provide financial support for full time courses before ratification of the Arts and Crafts as subjects worthy of degree status. Gifted amateur or academic intent, students benefited from the same privileges. A rigorous teaching ethos based on an Eastern aesthetic (those running the craft departments were mischievously referred to as the ‘Raffia Mafia’) informed the course and although out of step with the post-modern era its reputation for excellence attracted students and tutors from across the world.  The Part Time Classes’ association with the Art School and the quality of the teaching attracted students who aspired. Some enjoyed working to achieve their own goals, some moved into academia or became professional makers – Mary Wondrausch – slipware maker extraordinaire, is just one of many. Students flourished under the tutelage of Siddig El nigoumi, who potted glowing burnished ware redolent of his African heritage; or the cerebral, Rupert Spira, his delicate bowls inscribed with poetry. Duncan Ross who tutored for some years has achieved international fame with his precisely made Apricot blushed burnished vessels. Many other Ceramic Alumni have, and continue to, enrich teaching experience. Ceramic artists visited and annual exhibitions were implemented.

Over the next two decades rapid change in academic policies put the pottery classes at risk. The threat brought greater autonomy, at this point the classes adopted the name West Street Potters after their original location. A strong fidelity amongst the members determined that when the classes closed a new venue should be found. In 1998 the Axe finally fell and a frantic search ended when the Farnham Pottery site was secured. Surrey Institute of Art and Design (as it then was) donated Kilns and all the workshop equipment. Cynics could say that none of it complied with current Health and Safety guidelines. They’re probably right, but it gave an opportunity for W.S.P. to Phoenix in a new setting without this expense. Farnham Town Council provided £1,000 to connect the kilns, dedicated members – some still attend classes, volunteered to move furniture, painted walls and a new group of Directors grappled with bureaucracy to set up West Street Potters, Private Ltd Company. Sadly the first Chairman, Ian Titchener did not live to enjoy this year’s celebration. Fortunes roller coasted through the next decade from risk of insolvency to almost equilibrium, but the reputation of WSP classes and the range of Ceramic activities gradually increased numbers.

Ground Hog Day, or Farnham Building Preservation Trust offer the Pottery site for sale 2010

As soon as it became official that the pottery was to be sold pressure groups emerged to raise awareness. Anxiety by architects, artists and locals who had always felt ‘ownership’ of the site and all it represented, historians and potters who trained there, saw the tragedy to come if the Victorian Pottery were to be lost to development. Ceramicists of national and international importance sent messages of support. Professor Magdalena Odundo arm locked the Southern Arts officer and raged at his unhelpful policies. WSP who celebrate 20 years on site this year, were devastated at the possibility of a further move and waded in to do all they could. The persistent campaigning on behalf of Farnham Pottery Trust (FPT), who hoped to purchase the site, beat on closed doors. Vision without ridiculous amounts of money is not enough. The Hains family’s last minute ‘Full and final Offer’ secured the building. The collective sigh of relief could be heard throughout the ceramic world.

When Guy Hains was asked at a meeting why he bought the pottery his dry humour side stepped the moment, “It was either build a studio for Elaine [his wife] or buy the pottery”.  It might seem that campaigning was wasted time and energy, but on the contrary it raised the profile of this important industrial building, provided a data base of future supporters and knowledge of overwhelming community goodwill.

That was then and this is now…

Farnham pottery is a creative Trimaran, the outer hulls both thriving ceramic organisations, WSP on one side and 318 Ceramics (the trading arm of F.P.T.) on the other, with Guy’s hand on the tiller of Farnham Pottery Creates. A flotilla surrounds, the Café wets appetites for food and for the mind when exhibitions are scheduled. Farnham Sculptors and other businesses in the outbuildings help keep the site afloat. Sometimes the line is blurred between the two ceramic groups and at other times distinct. The rich spectrum of professionals and enthusiasts who find their way to the pottery is wide and varied. Their support network extends far beyond the pottery walls. Classes for people of all abilities are shared in common, likewise, the commitment to offer young people, ‘exploration of their creative potential by learning through varied and sustained interaction with clay’. The importance of places like the Farnham Pottery to maintain tangible experience in the light of the destructive EBacc scheme should be ringing alarm bells now that the transition to a digitally dominated future is racing towards us.

Collaboration brings benefit

Collective intelligence and more than a touch of self-interest ensures that members of WSP and 318 Ceramics work alongside each other as collaborative organisations to bring mutual benefit. A fruitful relationship between the University for The Creative Arts (UCA) and WSP continues. Students mentored for teaching practice, Gwen Heaney given outside space to carve a stack of Ibstock bricks during an International Ceramic Symposium and invitations to Seminars and Ceramic based talks at UCA Farnham are open to members. A not insignificant amount of money has been gained through funding, enabling ‘making as the universal infrastructure of production’, to be at the heart of WSP vision [and fulfil their statement of purpose] to welcome all in the community.  Members exhibit their own work locally and nationally, people still place their hands in the tile prints outside Farnham Library made as a Millennial project. WSP influence has filtered into the wider community.

Two ambassadors for WSP did not disgrace themselves when chosen as contestants on Pottery Throwdown and all benefited from a Tsunami of new students inspired by the programmes.  Members have completed degree courses at UCA Farnham and returned to share space, concepts and skills. All classes, workshops by visiting ceramicists and master classes organised by by 318 Ceramics – are always fully booked – the most recent being Wally Keeler.

Art form or empowerment, a time to gain knowledge and specialist skills, regain self worth or the chance to visit, “The world beyond our heads”, quoted by Sir Christopher Frayling at an Emmanuel Cooper Memorial lecture, (a wonderful legacy enabled by FPT contacts) the creative pot never empties however many spoons are dipped in.

Julia Quigley (July 2019)

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