Behind the Wheel
Words Emma O’Kelly
Photographs Martin Crook
Richard Batterham doesn’t do brash. Instead of worrying himself over ‘offensive’ designs that might sell, this reluctant, reclusive legend of pottery prefers to do things on his own terms, in his own way, the only way he knows how. ‘I like to make something you can hold,’ he explains…
A mature fig tree shrouds the entrance to Richard Batterham’s Dorset studio. In summer, its branches droop with juicy purple fruit. ‘But they’re much too sweet,’ complains the 80-year-old potter. After a brief introduction, he wags a finger at my mobile phone. ‘Argh, those damn things! Who needs them?’ Not him. A fossilised telephone, thick with clay and dust, hangs on the wall of his studio. It’s been disconnected for years. (The interview was fixed up in person.) With a mop of wild white hair, piercing blue eyes and scruffy jeans, he’s the caricature of a curmudgeon, happy to busy himself alone in his studio – a modest brick hut surrounded by stinging nettles and mounds of clay.
Now 80, Batterham has a large following among studio potters and other creative makers who follow his Utopian ideal of working alone, to their own beat. Among them was the late silversmith David Mellor, who pitched up in 1973 and whose company has been ordering his tableware ever since. Mellor’s wife Fiona MacCarthy explains: ‘Richard’s work is all about simplicity of form; the fine detailing and glazes are consistent and very well thought through. There’s nothing show-offor superfluous. It’s the ceramic equivalent to David’s work and we have found it to be a good fit in our shop.’
Batterham has been a potter since he was 17. He didn’t do art school. ‘That’s chaos. They’ve got the wrong end of the stick.’ He discovered clay while he was at Bryanston, the famous public school that’s visible from his windows, and after National Service in the 1950s, Batterham headed to Leach Pottery in St Ives to do an apprenticeship. Since 1920, hundreds of potters have made the pilgrimage to Leach to experience the seminal East/West thinking and ideas pioneered by its founders Bernard Leach and Shoji Hamada. Batterham had the good fortune to work alongside Atsuya Hamada, Shoji’s third son, and learnt how to use a Japanese wheel. ‘You can see parallels with oriental traditions in Richard’s work,’ explains MacCarthy. ‘It is definitely usable rather than sculptural, but has special qualities in terms of form and glaze. There’s nothing pretentious about it.’
‘I think people are beginning to realise what they’ve lost. We’ll see…’
At Leach, Batterham met Dinah, his late wife. They moved to Durweston in Dorset to the house he still lives in and had five children. ‘We would get up, I would wander over to the studio to unwrap the clay and feed the chickens and she would get the children ready for school,’ he reminisces. This rural family idyll – feral children running free, berry juice smeared on their cheeks, while Mum and Dad throw pots together in the studio – is sought after by many a 21st-century nostalgic eager to live off the grid (as long as it’s fuelled by high-speed Wi-Fi).
Batterham has no time for technology. He’s exasperated by the clicks and drags of the modern world. ‘These days, young ones are more interested in marketing than making anything,’ he says. ‘It’s a real pain. Just get on and make it! There’s this idea that everything has to be in vast quantities, but that’s impossible when there’s just one of you. I think people are beginning to realise what they’ve lost. We’ll see…’
‘Richard epitomises that 1960s and 1970s idea of working alone, without any assistants, and creating very personal work,’ says MacCarthy. ‘He likes to be on his own. He was always very quiet and our visits were rather brief.’ His work is in numerous museums, including the Tate and the V&A, and he has a following among collectors. ‘I don’t make to order and very rarely do a private commission as it’s nearly always a disaster,’ he grins. ‘Dinah used to make commemorative plates for friends and wedding presents, that sort of thing, and of course we ate off my own stuff. Why would we use anything else?’
Joan Miró was famously uptight when it came to allowing the family into his Mallorcan studio. Was it the same with Batterham and his many offspring? Jugs and teapots, plates, mugs and vast vases are scattered around the ramshackle space. The oil-fi red kilns can reach 700 degrees Celsius. It’s a health and safety no-fly zone; a more child-unfriendly place would be hard to find. Yet on the subject of family, Batterham softens, his voice hits the pitch David Attenborough uses when he’s watching a jaguar give birth to cub at close range. ‘The children loved it,’ he says, pointing to a child-size wheel next to his. ‘I remember four of them in here when I moved in, in 1967. One of them was crawling round the floor.’ One of his sons, Raoul, lives in France with his own five sons and is also a potter, and a grandson helped him recently with a firing.
This year he’s busier than ever. In October there’s an exhibition at the Bircham Gallery in Holt, Norfolk, alongside artist Richard Bawden (who is also 80 this year) as well as a retrospective (his first) at Contemporary Applied Arts in London. In preparation for the CAA show, the drying room is strewn with teapots, jugs, mugs and bowls – and on a workbench is a small black vase: the first piece he ever made, aged 14. CAA director Christine Lalumia exchanged many persuasive, handwritten letters with Batterham (whose responses, in black ink, were ‘almost like calligraphy’) before he capitulated. ‘Richard’s work is his life, not his career,’ she says. ‘There is no point in trying to divide the show into decades, or to use standard exhibition tropes, such as, “One day he woke up and he went from being conceptual to figurative”.’
Instead, around 250 works will be divided into groups – tea caddies, soup bowls, jugs, vases – all of which are consistent yet different enough to create an interesting whole. Batterham is halfway through organising the selection, and although nothing is signed or dated, he knows the history of every piece.
‘There’s always an assumption there’s something behind an idea, that it must come from somewhere,’ says Batterham. ‘But you don’t have to bother about any of that,’ he says, pointing to a teapot for one and dishes that Dinah might have used for a pie, or for baked eggs. His only big idea is functionality, framed by strict dictats along the way. ‘Michael Cardew [the studio potter who died in 1983] used to say form was everything, and form is very important, but I tend to feel that it’s how the clay is handled that really makes a difference. I like to make something you can hold. If someone really hugs onto a pot, that’s lovely and just how it should be.’
‘These days, young ones are more interested in marketing. Just get on and make it!’
His palette is muted; greys, greens, browns, with earthenware glazes. ‘I don’t do brash. Or blue. I don’t like it, though it would sell well.’ Bowls and sugar bowls never come with a broken lip to accommodate a spoon. ‘Really horrid. Offensive even!’ And there’s no surface decoration. ‘I like ancient pottery, especially English Iron Age, but as for that painted Greek stuff, it’s very clever, something to do with reduction, but bloody awful.’
Despite his uncompromising stance, he’s at the mercy of his firing. A lot can go wrong. ‘You can’t just pop a pot in the kiln as if it were a stew, because temperatures vary so much inside. You have to have things in the right place or they break.’ He still packs his kiln, which takes up to three days and includes bricking it up and sealing it, on his own. ‘There’s a lot of leeway with imperfections and most things grow from happy accidents. You have to accept that anything might happen.’
Such acquiescence doesn’t stretch beyond the studio however. He has been dragged, reluctantly, into the spotlight in these, his twilight years. ‘This year has been completely thrown out of the window,’ he grumbles. ‘First you, then the retrospective. It churns the whole place up.’ He’s eager to get back to his routine; in the studio by nine, lunch at home (today it’s fresh radishes from the garden and a sausage roll), then back to work until six. So what of his legacy? He shrugs: ‘I remember someone once being asked: “As a potter, do you make a living?” They answered: “I don’t make much money but I make a very good living.” I thought that was a very good answer.’