Warwickshire clays and chun glaze…

As part of the Making Histories project / exhibition at Leamington Spa Art Gallery and Museum, I have collected clays from various parts of Warwickshire, both for use clay bodies for throwing (forms inspired by Roman Mortaria), and for glaze making. By good fortune – the Mercian Mudstone clays I was given permission to dig up near Mancetter in North Warwickshire created a beautiful blue / grey creamy chun glaze at earthenware temperatures – when combined with calcium borate frit (following a classic Emmanuel Cooper glaze recipe – 35% clay with 65% CBF… I did try other percentages – but this one works best!).

Mortarium inspired bowl (30 cm diameter) of Newbould Comyn clay with Mancetter chun glaze
Small 12 cm bowl of Newbould Comyn Clay with Mancetter chun glaze

Leamington Spa lamps project

As part of the Making Histories project I was invited to take part in through Leamington Spa Art Gallery and Museum, I was asked to see if I could approach one of the local schools – with the particular challenge being to investigate the potential of local materials for making ceramics. Following the key idea behind the project, I hunted through the museum store, looking for something that might be a starting point for a project with the local children, something that would have a purpose and be simple / logistically practicable to make with whole classes of children across a year group. I quickly encountered a Roman lamp, made in Egypt in the first century AD which took me back to one of my favourite ever moments during my years in archaeology, where stumbling about on a Sicilian mountain top, the site of a ruined Greek city, I found a tiny oil lamp (see below) – that has stayed with our family ever since…..

Clay was dug, working with the Year 5s from a Leamington Spa primary school, that lay only a few hundred metres from the likely site of one of the many clay pits that radiated from the nineteenth century Leamington and Lillington Brick Works in the town. The clay pit lies on the edge of Newbold Comyn, a beautiful stretch of public park extending to rolling hills and woodland, with old kiln sites and other historic monuments within its bounds. Digging was carried out with permission from the local council – who were incredibly supportive and helpful.

The children not only helped dig the clay, they helped hand process it, hammering the dried clay to granules, slaking, blunging and sieving it, drying it on plaster slabs. They then experimented with making thumb pots and finally in making small palm held oil lamps – similar to the Sicilian lamp I referred to above. The lamps were fired in a sawdust / dustbin kiln during arts week, and were lit as part of a small celebration of light at an open evening for parents at the end of the weeks activities.

Experimenting with form….

So much of my work is currently focused on a geological and geographical exploration of  place, hunting for possible clay sources or the materials I could use in glazing, and the subsequent testing of all of these materials that seems to go on for ever (indeed – it may well go on indefinitely – as each batch of gathered natural or wild clay or rock dust will vary)…..  But alongside this aspect of my work, and the photographic recording of the places I visit, that I see as vital, there is the absolute necessity to concentrate on my practice as a ceramicist, and particularly the throwing that is so central in the creation of functional work that I prioritise….

In order to keep improving both what I produce, but also the narrative behind this, I need to keep practicing with form and technique. Over this past year and over the past weeks in lockdown, I have spent some time experimenting with throwing various key shapes and forms, and throwing off the hump as well as directly onto the wheel or onto a batt. Tea bowls, breakfast bowls, mortaria, pancheons, whisky tumblers, beer beakers – have tended to receive most attention…..

Cuachan / whisky tumblers, go ‘live’ on Bruichladdich’s website and Instagram…

I’m so delighted that the project linking my investigations into local clay sources, place and local function to Bruichladdich’s commitment to the concept of terroir, has finally gone live – through their posts about the project on Instagram and Twitter, and on their web-site. I want to thank Jane, Ailsa and Kate for their incredible support and encouragement. It is always a strange process – coming up with a new idea, that might appear ‘bonkers’ to some (I think that’s what one person called it), and then pushing through that scepticism and continuing to share it with other people…. When someone actually gets what you are on about, and gives you encouragement – that is such a vital thing for any maker. It’s not so much permission, more keeping the flame lit inside your imagination, pushing you further, to ask more questions, to respond to your curiosity….

When I had to find another clay source, all my initial glaze making experiments with the Foreland Estate clay were redundant. I had to start again. The new clays from Octomore Farm all warp and pinhole at my usual stoneware firing temperatures (1260 degrees C), and so I had to experiment with earthenware firings and glazes, and lower temperature stoneware firings (at 1200 degrees C). And of course these required a completely new approach in terms of glaze making.

Originally, when I found that the Octomore Farm clays would not fire high enough for using the usual three key ingredients – a rock dust, ash (as a flux) and some clay, I thought I was flummoxed. However, after much research in many glaze books, I found that if I gave myself permission to use a small percentage of frit (a compound used by potters to lower the temperature for the fluxing of glazes), added to the three key ingredients above, then this unlocked new doors for me, and the experimentation could continue……

Thanks to Kate Hannett for use of her pictures here….


New Islay clay for cuachan…

In previous posts, I described the hunt for clay on Islay. I found clay on Foreland Estate, after finding information about the nineteenth century brick and tile works there, on the  excellent Scottish Brick History website. However, sadly the Estate declined my request to dig anything more than the first sample there, and I was left with a challenge – to find more clay, or give up!

Here I have several key people to thank. Firstly, the wonderful Danny Mather, quarryman at Ballygrant Quarry and digger man extraordinaire. Danny had been incredibly helpful when I first went over to Islay, helping me source limestone dust, peat and wood (for ash in glaze making)… but had also said he might be able to help me find more clay. Second, Ailsa Hayes at Bruichladdich Distillery. Without her infectious enthusiasm for this project and all of her work, I would not have had the sense that this project was worth pursuing – worth going out on limb for….  and worth a second trip to find more clay. Both Danny and Ailsa led me to the final person I want to thank, the incredibly generous and inspiring James Brown, farmer at Octomore Farm, provider of well-water and barley for Bruichladdich and now, giving me permission to dig some clay from various locations on his land. Huge thanks to all of them!

The clay I am now using for the cuachan comes from three locations on James’s farm. Two sites on the hill, up above Port Charlotte, and one near the Well of the True Water….. At present, the digging sites are very small, with shavings of clay taken from ditch edges, foundations and one small test pit. If more clay is to be dug in any quantity, we are thinking we might create a small wildlife pond from this small excavation. The local landscape and wildlife are of paramount importance to all of us……