Often as we have travelled it is the differences that have been the most immediately obvious- things such as the sometimes overwhelming presence of history, the often crowded public spaces and general scale of everything. So when we came across this pottery it was with some surprise that our impressions were dominated by similarities…this place had a lot in common with Morris & James!
Whichford Pottery is located in (very) rural Warwickshire, more or less in the middle of a triangle created by Shipton-on-Stour, Banbury and Chipping Norton. Just under seven miles from Shipton, it’s an easy drive on the edge of the Cotswolds, but due to our caution and the occasionally narrow lanes, it took a while to get there. The countryside is beautiful, and in this small area they seem to have more than their fair share of historic buildings and gardens. Given time we would have liked to have stayed in the district longer and explored the amazing network of public footpaths that thread across the very picturesque countryside. A unique feature of the British Isles, these rights-of-way are everywhere and there is always the temptation to ‘just see where this one goes’! The paths follow old traveller’s routes between villages, towns and cities often dating back to pre-Roman days, and they get you to places that you’d never see by car.
Whichford has a population of approximately 350 people and according to local wisdom is mentioned in the Domesday Book - so things have been going on here since at least the 9th century, and most probably well before that. Along with a variety of cottages of various ages, the village has a lovely old church, St Michaels, and of course a pub, the Norman Knight. We have become quite familiar with a good many public houses during our trip!
We either missed it or there wasn’t any obvious signage to the pottery, so expecting that parking might be difficult we parked on a lane on what we thought was the edge of the village…but given that the place is so tiny this was practically in the middle! Looking around we did eventually find a sign to the pottery (we just hadn’t gone far enough) and the large parking area in front of it!
As soon as we walked up the drive things started to feel ‘familiar’, a sensation that increased as we wandered around. In 1976 the pottery was established by Jim Keeling, assisted by two apprentices. Over the years it has grown, and at its peak employed 30 people drawn from the local community. I got the impression from chatting to some of the staff that this figure might now be around the equivalent of 14 full-time staff, which would make the workforce very similar in size to Morris & James. It is a family business, devoted to keeping alive the traditions of the craft, and Jim’s eldest son Adam is actively engaged in producing and promoting the business and pottery as a whole. Again parallels with Ant Morris and his sons.
The entry to the pottery courtyard and gallery is under a ‘woven’ arch of pots; entering the courtyard you are immediately given a warm welcome by the gallery staff and invited to browse – either through the cottage garden, the gallery or into the pottery itself. The pottery specialises in larger terracotta garden pots, but unlike Morris & James, draws strongly on what I would regard as historical precedents, in both style and presumably technique. Although their range is extensive and there are plain pots, the ones that immediately catch the eye are those featuring stamped, embossed or other types of decoration. These are definitely pots that would grace an English country home although I gather that they are also keenly sought from as far afield as Japan.
Whilst the pots on display are predominantly ‘classic’, there were pots such as the Eclipse and Ash Textured Ali Baba, with more contemporary form and surface treatments. The use of a matt gunmetal coloured glaze (oxide?) contrasting with the terracotta was particularly interesting.
Some of the items were distinctly British, and objects that I have never come across before, such as the ‘Forcers’. These terracotta mini- green houses are large bell jars designed to be placed over rhubarb crowns or seakale thongs to bring the crop on early and to keep it sweet by denying it light. Probably not something that we would make use of in NZ? Other pots were embossed with various flora or fauna designs, the ‘Salamander’ design being reminiscent of the Gecko pot that Morris & James has produced in the past.
Around the edge of the courtyard were various experimental or exhibition pieces; if you take a look at their website you’ll see that the pottery has a busy program of related workshops and along with the gallery, is busy promoting contemporary work. The workshops are housed on two floors in what appear to be old stables. Crammed with people, kilns, equipment and work in progress, visitors are surprisingly free to roam!
It is a marvelous opportunity to see the potters going about their business, although I can’t imagine how it works during the summer when numbers must bring production to a standstill.
Whichford buy in clay which they then process and blend to suit their processes and we were able to watch the raw material being fed into the pug mills at the start of the conditioning process. It rains in Northland, but this UK summer has been exceptionally damp by any standards, and handling wet, sticky clay is hard work. We are fortunate at Morris & James in that we can use clay dug from our own site which is both convenient and a source of pride that we use our own raw materials. Now that’s a little bit special!
This was a particularly enjoyable visit; a relatively large family pottery, firmly rooted in the community with a strong commitment to producing top quality ceramics using traditional methods. All of these things they have in common with our business, 12,000 miles away on the other side of the world!
- Nick C