'Legacy' - Isaac Button - Country Potter

by John Foley

Imagine Gallery, Hall Street, Long Melford, Suffolk CO10 9JQ
30 June - 11 August 2013

"I would be honoured. If it wasn't for that man, and that film, I wouldn't be making the pots I make today," said John Leach when I asked him if he would consider being involved with an exhibition I was planning.

Let me explain. Of course, there is no reason why such a renowned potter as John Leach should ever feel honoured to exhibit his ceramics anywhere, indeed the honour and pride is usually felt by the gallery that will be showing his craft, but this is to be no ordinary exhibition.

The exhibition, titled LEGACY, will be celebrating the lives of two very different craftsmen, Isaac Button the potter and John Anderson the filmmaker, a tribute to them both for the enormous contribution they made to the world of ceramics. And I do mean 'the world' !

Together, in 1964, they made a film, a simple little film. Shot in black & white with no sound, it is almost impossible to understand how such a production could have made such an impact then, and ever since, on a succession of future potters.

The title, 'Isaac Button - Country Potter' basically tells everything. It was a film which featured one man, Isaac, a potter who was nearing the end of his career, the film being made to record his last working days. There is nothing special or precious about what was filmed, just one man pursuing his daily life. What is special is that it records a different life, one that now seems almost lost forever. His ability as a craftsman astounds the potters of today. Hundreds of pots were thrown at a session, both small and large. All with the ease of someone who has spent a lifetime working at one craft, each piece intended for daily use, which of course is something expected from a country potter. He produced magnificent, yet plain and simple pots which were sold to ordinary folk. Jugs, jars, mixing bowls, butter dishes, casseroles, bread crocks, cider jars and even flower pots were his daily output.

So why has this film achieved such celebrity, after all it just shows an old man wearing a shirt and tie, smoking a pipe and making pots. Why? Because it shows a man producing such quantities of pots and working in a manner that is now rarely seen and which few are capable of. It has been an influence to so many potters working today and is indeed the reason why some actually decided to practise this craft.

Andrew McGarva the potter and author, had this to say about his first viewing of the film. "To see 'Isaac Button, Country Potter' at that time was a revelation, or like suddenly falling in love. That was the potter I wanted to be! Unfortunately that world had already disappeared, so I had to moderate my ideas, but I had a direction.

"Well, all these years later I still throw most of my work on the same kind of wheel as Mr Button, and dig my own earthenware as he did, which is later glazed in a similar manner. I owe the film makers John Anderson and Robert Fournier much gratitude for their inspiring film. I think all ceramic students in Britain should see this film!"

Other potters that I approached had similar comments to make.

"Seeing Isaac throw with such skill, competence and confidence in controlling the clay, couldn't help but inspire any thrower to want to handle clay with such deftness. Making pots that are to be handled and used by people to enhance their daily lives is a privilege and a pleasure. Seeing the smile on Button's face clutching his pipe between his teeth as he takes a huge bottle off of his wheel and admires it, shows how it feels to enjoy doing something well and know that someone will be enjoying the product of the labour." Those were the words from Ruthanne Tudball, when I approached her to participate in the exhibition.

So, mentioning the word "exhibition", perhaps I should explain why we are holding it and what you can expect to see on show. I own a gallery in a village set in rural Suffolk, where we show ceramics in all its forms, from large sculptures to small thrown porcelain pieces. Like any location that specialises in a certain art form, we receive many repeat visitors and enthusiasts who call in to have their regular "fix". Many we come to know and some have even become good friends. We are linked by our shared interest, pottery.

One such person, a local man, used to pass the gallery each morning, often pausing to look at the ceramics on display. If he found them interesting, he would come inside and ask about the potter or discuss the quality of the pot. It was obvious to me that here was a person who understood ceramics, the making of them and their true value. Sometimes he would make a purchase, each time the pot would be exceptional and usually one I
wished to own myself.

On one such occasion he purchased two very large sculptural pieces and, as they were large, he asked if I would deliver them to his home. Later that same day, for the first time, I entered the home of John Anderson. It was like entering an Aladdin's Cave of ceramics, on every surface (including the floor) was displayed the most amazing collection of ceramics.

Once my fascination was appreciated, John and his partner Kay invited me to "tea". I will never forget that cup of tea, as it was served in the most beautiful (and very valuable), David Leach porcelain cup and saucer, I was frightened to drink in case I broke them!

John  and Kay showed me their collection of pottery, which included every famous name that I had heard of (plus many I hadn't). In the corner of one room there was a large bowl that drew me like a magnet.

"This is beautiful," I said.
"It was made by Isaac Button," I was told.
"You are just so lucky, he is really famous," I replied.

"Well, John did make the film about him," Kay told me.

So for the first time I came to learn who my customer was and why he had such an understanding of ceramics. John Anderson, along with his friend Robert Fournier, had made what has become the most famous film about a potter, ever.

Sadly, since that day John has died, but Kay his partner is still a regular visitor to the gallery. Indeed she still makes purchases to add to their collection, a collection that is now on loan to many museums and which will eventually be passed on to the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge.

Kay Anderson has now become a good friend, and in conversation on a recent visit, my wife suggested to her, "wouldn't it be lovely to exhibit your collection, here in the gallery?"

"John would have loved that. Oh, what a tribute to him," replied Kay.

From that short conversation I find it hard to believe that we are now just about to open the doors to our largest and most important ceramic exhibition ever. We will indeed be showing some of the collection, the pots made by Isaac Button, we will also be showing the film each day for the duration of the show, along with photographs and memorabilia.

But, most importantly, we will be exhibiting ceramics by twenty notable potters who all acknowledge the importance and the legacy left by that simple film. Potters from the UK, Europe, Canada and America, all working in different styles, but each at heart just a Country Potter. All of them in their own way making a contribution to the fulfilment of our daily lives. Many of them famous, all of them wanting to be involved so that in a small way they can repay the debt owed to a simple potter.

Our ambition here in the gallery is to bring this wonderful piece of ceramic history to a fresh audience.

John Foley
Imagine Gallery
Hall Street
Long Melford
Suffolk CO10 9JQ

Potters participating:
Richard Batterham
Clive Bowen
Tony Clennell [Canada]
Andrew Crouch
Clive Davies
Richard Dewar [France]
Mike Dodd
Jason Braham
Ron Geering [USA]
Mark Griffiths
Kenyon Hansen [USA]
John Hudson
Tim Hurn
John Jelfs
Paul Jessop
Harry Juniper
Walter Keeler
John Leach
Philip Leach
Andrew McGarva [France]
Stephen Parry
Peter Starkey
Jeremy Steward
Fergus Stewart
Mark Titchiner
Ruthanne Tudball
A&J Young

craft&design Magazine - Issue 228

Vote now in our

Judy McKenzie  

Find skilled designer makers in Britain and Ireland in our online gallery.

craft&design supports the aims of Anti Copying In Design
I believe your magazine is providing a genuine service to makers such as myself by highlighting the places to find good quality pieces of craftsmanship in this country.
The public is more discerning than they are given credit for and many people appreciate a cherished piece of work more than mass produced commodities.
© Copyright 2016 PSB Design & Print Consultants Ltd. P.O. Box 5, Driffield, East Yorkshire, YO25 8JD