Paul Philp - Synthesising the love of Shigaraki and Iga with St. Ives School through the restoration of old buildings

It's our great pleasure to present our current exhibition, Modern Classics by Paul Philp at Contemporary Ceramics. His unmistakable and bold forms with their subtle quality of surface texture and colour make his work both modern and classic. We took the opportunity to ask him some questions.

CC:  In Modern Classics, your current exhibition with us, there are three rectangular vessels with abstracted surface decoration. With these pieces, the surface decoration acts to disrupt the form - can you tell us more about the inspiration or thought processes for these?

PP: I think that the three rectangular pieces that you mention are experiments with abstract 'Art Deco' type design.

There are times when this process can be very exhausting and something like getting the firing temperature wrong can wreck the whole thing; and so I sometimes look for another way of working that is a different kind of challenge. If I wasn't a potter I would have probably been an abstract painter but rather lack the confidence to handle strong graphic design - these pieces are a small attempt at that. The inspiration is varied. Art Deco generally, minimal abstract art of the early twentieth century, and perhaps the camouflage designs used on warships in the first world war. These pieces are much more predictable than my usual work in that they use a more manageable technical method to produce. i.e. I am not pushing my luck and taking chances that can spoil the pieces.

CC: Across the exhibition, there are distinctly different groups of forms - such as oval vessels with lugs, or rectangular vessels with square feet.  Do you work in series or do you return to forms at different stages?

PP: The answer to this is both.

CC: I have read that you combine different clays and multiple fire pieces - is this true of all your work or do you treat different pieces with different approaches?

PP: Yes, this is true. I do use different clay mixes depending on the pieces that I am working on - for instance a large piece might need a rather rough pitted kind of surface and so I would add some coarse grog to the mix but a small fine piece would need a much more refined clay mix. I vary the way I treat the surfaces but the basic technique is a variation of layers of white slip fired on in several firings at about 1000 degrees centigrade, ending with a wash or a thicker coat of wood ash and china clay fired at about 1260 degrees centigrade.

CC: In an early conversation with Caroline Long you explain "There has been a tricky dichotomy in my work between refined form and surface quality as well – these are not always very easily compatible and not easy to achieve." Do you consider the quality of the surface as the form develops, does surface lead the form or are surface and form separate considerations?

PP: Many years ago I found myself faced with this seemingly unsolvable dichotomy i.e. a love of the more esoteric Japanese ceramic aesthetic - Shigaraki and Iga, and on the other hand very much being a child of the first half of the twentieth century and feeling part of the 'St Ives' modernist British tradition - Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth etc. For some years I abandoned ceramics and restored and rebuilt old buildings. I learned a lot about stone, traditional building methods, geology and so on. Although nothing was deliberately planned about this it actually led me to how I could approach my ideas for ceramics.

To answer your question re. surface and form - yes, the form and the surface finish must be in harmony with each other. For the last 25 years or more I have been absorbed with trying to synthesise the issue; that is how to combine a very interesting, natural seeming, surface quality and rather refined classic modernist forms.

CC: How do you work?

PP: How do I work? I don't quite know how to answer this - probably rather compulsively. I think that, like a lot of artists and ceramicists I am rarely satisfied with my results and therefore can't resist having another go at perfection!


CC: What images keep you company in the space where you work?

PP: I only have one image on my studio wall. It is a building, not a pot and is as close to aesthetic perfection that I can imagine apart from some great paintings perhaps.

It is a French abbey called Senanque in the Vaucluse region, a part of France that I particularly love.

CC: What was the first piece of art that really mattered to you?

PP: The honest answer to this question is that I can't remember - I can say that I started to be very fascinated by art by the age of fifteen and I discovered Paul Gauguin who has remained my favourite artist all these years.

CC: How does working with clay influence your life beyond the workshop?

PP: Again, I don't quite know how to answer this. An artist potter certainly does have to be able to enjoy solitude. When I was very young I met Bernard Leach and asked his advice. He said, in effect 'don't do it, you need a private income and it is a very difficult and lonely life'. I suppose he was right but as I have got older it has suited me and so I am glad that I didn't actually take his advice!

I would just add to this that when I was a very young potter it was not easy to make a living at it. Now though I can see that potters can get very good prices for their work.

On a personal note my interests are reading, and when I can I get out into the countryside.


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