Peter Beard | In Conversation with Contemporary Ceramics

Peter Beard
In this weeks post, we talk to Peter Beard about the new work in his current exhibition and delve into his history to discover the events that started his journey with clay.

Contemporary Ceramics: Why do you do what you do? 

Peter Beard: I find the creation of ceramics extremely enjoyable, therapeutic and fascinating. Clay is a material with endless possibilities so I am always searching for the next exciting discovery.
Exhibition detail - Peter Beard | New Work

CC: How did you first get involved with working with clay?

PB: It started when I was at primary school, aged 8. My teacher brought some clay into class; we had no kiln and were allowed to model only one thing. I have a strong memory of making a cartoon space rocket (Dan Dare style). I painted it with bright blue poster paint. I must have been told that if you mixed water with the dry clay it would go back to being soft again, so I took it home, put it in water, got it back to clay and used it to model other things. All this happened in Southport, Lancashire. 

My father got a job in London and we moved to southeast London where at the end of our road was a pottery making slip cast children’s nightlights. It was run by the wonderful, kind, eccentric Peggy Foy. As a very shy 9 year old I asked her if I could have some clay and in those days clay was in 50kg bags. She gave me half a bag, which I had to drag all the way home as I couldn’t lift it. I started modelling things such as our pet guinea pig and tortoise and generally played with the material.
When I was older I got a Saturday job at Peggy’s pottery and worked there during school holidays. I simply loved it. Working at the pottery was a man named Andrew Appleby who now runs a pottery in the Orkney Isles. He was very interested in archaeology and built reproduction Roman kilns in the woods nearby. I helped him when I could and learned more about clay and the firing of it.

Exhibition detail - Peter Beard | New Work
I went to a school which had a very progressive art course and I decided on a career in art, much against my parents’ wishes as they thought I needed to get a “proper job”. But I persisted. 

 It was then time to go to college and for various family reasons I needed to go to the local college, so I studied industrial design and furniture design, which in retrospect gave me a very good education about other materials. We were allowed to take a different subject one day a week and there was a small pottery department in the college. I was nearly thrown off my course as I wasn’t designing furniture and the design staff never saw me. They thought I was just being lazy until I showed them what I had been doing in the ceramics department, a place they never ventured into and where I had shelves and shelves and shelves of things I had made. So I have a degree in industrial design and majoring in furniture design.

Peter Beard | Dark Blue Vessel
I then went to the Highlands of Scotland to help a couple I knew set up a pottery making domestic stoneware. I learned a tremendous amount, the main thing being that throwing 45 mugs an hour was too much like hard work and I left after a year to go travelling. I spent six months hitch hiking around Canada and the USA, which was great fun and stimulating, and returned home to open my first studio making one-off pieces of work.

CC: How do you work?

PB: I am a morning person so I start very early each day when it is very quiet in my studio which is in my garden. If I am making vessel-based work then I will probably throw as many as ten assorted shapes and sizes of pieces and if I’m making more sculptural work then I may work on two or three pieces at a time. I tend to make until I have approximately a kiln full and then, as these are beginning to be glazed I will start another number of pieces in clay. I do not have a set routine, I just do whatever job needs to be done at the time except with the glazing process. Because this is very complicated I put aside clear time, usually two days at a time, to glaze pieces to fill a kiln. I do a lot of drawing and I always carry a sketch book wherever I go. These drawings form the basis of new work. 

Peter Beard - Grey Green Oval Form on Stone Base
CC: What images keep you company in the space where you work?

PB: There is no room for images on the walls of my studio as they are full of shelves holding all sorts of different things, but I do have sketchbooks open and sketches on bits of paper scattered around on various surfaces as they are relevant to what I’m working on.

CC: How has your practice changed over time?

PB: Over the years my work has gone through three distinct changes when I have felt that I have said all I need to say. There were times when I worked exclusively in porcelain. I have fired with gas but now use electricity. From the very beginning, my work has always been a mixture of vessel-based and sculptural work. I started off with one studio which was maybe 2m x 3m with a tiny test kiln and now I have two buildings in my garden, one is specifically for glazing and the other specifically for clay work. Over the years my workspace has not become any tidier or less cluttered. Most visitors can’t understand how I manage to work in the perceived chaos they see, but actually, I mostly know where everything is. I now have three kilns, one large, one used as a test kiln or for firing one piece of work and one which has a chamber 30cm x 30cm x 200cm long for making long thin things.

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

PB: The first objects that really fascinated me were ancient Egyptian amulets. But many, many things now visually excite me.

Peter Beard | Grinding the ceramic surface
CC: How does working with clay influence your life beyond the workshop?

PB: As I said earlier, I never go anywhere without a sketchbook. I am also always looking at things to see if there is a potential idea in colour, pattern or form. When I go on holiday to some wonderful place everyone around me is photographing the view, or themselves and I am photographing some odd bit of tree bark, a broken flagstone, weird shaped fruit or anything else that to me looks interesting. I don’t think I ever really stop thinking about work.

CC: What role does a potter/ceramicist have in the 21st century?

PB: I think the role of any creative person, whether they are making utilitarian objects or pure art, in any discipline, is to enhance people’s lives, sometimes in a big way, sometimes in a small way, sometimes in a very personal way and sometimes in a much more general way.

I also think a creative person has a responsibility to make the highest quality and most interesting thing that they can at the time they are making it.

Peter Beard | New Work
Until Saturday 12th October 2019

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