by Angie Boyer
His work is extraordinary, precise yet comfortably soft and flowing, each individual piece a work of art, instantly recognisable as having been created by this master of brushwork. His attitude is genuinely modest and unpretentious in a time when some potters confuse the importance of fame and recognition with that of skill and craftsmanship. He is a man with strong convictions and makes bold statements based on a wealth of knowledge and experience. Just a short conversation, an exchange of thoughts and ideas each August at Art in Clay, was enough to strike a chord with Paul and me, to acknowledge that we were all on a similar wavelength.
When we visited Laurence McGowan and his wife Jackie at their home and studio, it was an absolute joy to just listen to him talking. About his life, his work, his travels, his philosophy, why he does what he does. Not technical data or the science behind his work, but the whole essence and feeling about it all. A glimpse of what is in his mind when he creates these pieces of decorated stoneware, magnificently classical forms, almost begging to be picked up, held close and admired.
His work speaks for itself and it felt almost impertinent to ask Laurence about how he arrived at the point he's at today, but as with all special craftsmen, it is interesting to look back over the years and see how things took shape, the journeys they took and decisions they made to achieve their goals. Did he even know where he was going as he took that journey?
"I wanted to be an archeologist or go to Art College when I was young, but neither option would have been deemed 'sensible' or approved by my father, a man who was brought up in Glasgow during the depression and didn't have things very easy." The nearest Laurence came to experiencing creative pursuits was at school in Salisbury, where his art master was an inspired man who enthusiastically introduced art and craft skills to the students. This was Laurence's first encounter with clay and a potter's wheel and, as it transpired, the only formal training he was ever to have, but important in that it laid the foundations for his future life, the seeds were sown.
Laurence's parents emigrated to Australia when he was sixteen, but discovering that they really couldn't settle there, they were determined to come back. Having worked as a draughtsman and surveyor in Australia, Laurence took employment with The Ordnance Survey for a while when he returned to the UK, soon travelling further afield for better paid work, first to Iran and later Canada. Perhaps more importantly than earning him a good salary, the time in Iran sparked his interest in Islamic art and architecture, a style and tradition which continues to influence his work today. As a result of working in Iran, Laurence was offered a job in Canada, so he came home and married Jackie only days before leaving again. "We got married on the Saturday and went off to a new life in Canada on the Tuesday," he recalled. It was almost eight years later, after their daughter was born, that they returned to live in the UK.
"I decided to do what I always wanted to do, come back and go to Art College," Laurence explained. A young family brings commitments and responsibilities though, and when Laurence found that being out of the country for so long made him ineligible for a grant, he realised that art college was not affordable for him. "I got a job as a gamekeeper, which was fairly seasonal work, so when I took my holidays in February, I went to Lincolnshire, where I found other work plus a house which was less expensive than the area we were living in at the time. By chance I saw an ad in the local paper there for a 'dog's body' in a studio nearby. I applied and got the job with Pru Green at Alvingham Pottery near Louth." I asked Laurence whether he still kept in touch with Pru. "Well, we speak now and again, but she keeps and eye on me, I know she does!"
We verbally marched our way through Laurence's life, condensing years into minutes, finding the key turning points which led him in each particular direction.
"I had seen illustrations of work by Alan Craiger-Smith, whose pottery I really "admired, Laurence told us. "I knew that I wanted to work for him, and purely by chance came across an advertisement for a job with him at Aldermaston Pottery. I succeeded at the interview on the strength of my sketch book, which I took with me," he said. From his days as a gamekeeper, Laurence had found a close affinity with nature and a sensitive eye for detail which was reflected in his wildlife drawings. "That's when I discovered that I was perhaps put on this earth to decorate pots."
In his own words, "Craiger-Smith doesn't exactly teach you, as such, he surrounds you with ideas and things to inspire you." Working at Aldermaston was an influential time for Laurence, whose job there was to copy model pots, "When you're learning, doing battle with a lump of clay, you don't have room to do anything but try to manipulate it," he explained. "It's important to recognise the point when you can progress to doing your own thing, it needs confidence."
And so Laurence was gently nudged into wanting to work for himself, although as we talked with him it seemed strange that he might ever have done differently, so comfortable does he seem with life. "When I started working for myself I realised that, up until then, I had been working entirely on intuition. That's fine until things go wrong and problems need to be analysed. Then you need more than intuition, you need to be able to analyse things and come to conclusions."
His home and studio are blissfully quiet, and with views over the fields he is constantly close to the wildlife which features so frequently in his work. When they first moved to this house, in a small village south of Marlborough in the Wiltshire countryside, Laurence was potting in the evenings and supplementing his earnings by working at one time as a signwriter. He was taught calligraphy at school and hand lettering in Australia ("back in the pre-Letraset days!"), enhancing his natural awareness of balance in lettering. Much of his current work is commemorative, such as the plate that he makes each year for our Student Award at Art in Clay, and this skill and precision in hand lettering contributes to his much admired style. It's a style which has earned him many coveted commissions.
"Somebody above arranges all this, I'm sure," said Laurence, as he told us about a chance meeting and an unexpected large commission from an American buyer in 1985, which led to a considerable amount of work for the USA. " I'm very diffident, if it's meant to be, it's meant to be. I've never had to go out and sell. I've never asked anyone to sell my work or show it at an exhibition, they've always asked me, I've been very lucky. People I've met, come across out of the blue, have commissioned pieces."
Some of these 'out of the blue' people may be second generation customers receiving commemorative pieces at weddings, who may also have had a Christening piece commissioned for them as children and who may well order Christening plates for their own children in the future.
Other commissions include pieces to be presented as gifts to the curators of major exhibitions at the V&A Museum, most appropriately commemorative bowls for the Victorian, William Morris and Pugin exhibitions, craftsmen from a period of which Laurence is particularly fond. His work continues to echo and delicately combine the style of Islamic art with that of the Art and Craft Movement.
Sometimes a compromise has been achieved, such as with the order for the 21st Anniversary Plate for the Antiques Road Show. "The client actually wanted 100 plates, though, one for everyone who had worked on the show. I declined the offer, explaining that it just wasn't possible for me to do one hundred, and it ended up as a one-off to be reproduced by Poole Pottery, but not without a few unscheduled mishaps along the way!"
One of Laurence's most constant sources of commissions is a well known 'tea shop' in North Yorkshire, Bettys of Harrogate. "Bettys were quite specific about the surface decoration they wanted on a huge retirement teapot Laurence was making for them," explained Jackie. "So much so, that they sent a large parcel of reference material for him to work from. Only because we were on holiday, the parcel waited at the Post Office for two weeks before we managed to collect it. When we eventually got it home, we opened it up to find masses of Bettys cakes, along with a note saying 'some of these are samples, you may eat the rest'!"
This connection with Bettys has led to other commissions, including a 'Player of the Year' Trophy for Yorkshire Cricket Club which is presented to the winner at the last tea break of the last game of the season. Naturally, this had to be a Yorkshire Teapot suitably decorated with cricketers and logos. Laurence's most recent work for Bettys followed a confidential phone call early this year, asking him to make a large teapot for a very special visitor. Prince Charles was scheduled to be there in just two weeks' time and, as it wasn't possible to make a commemorative teapot in that time, a large inscribed plate was made instead. The Royal visitor would be planting oak trees, so Laurence decorated the plate with a wreath of oak leaves and acorns, combining the Yorkshire White Rose with daffodils for the Prince of Wales.
Jackie brought in a pot of tea and home made cake for us, as we chatted and listened further. Laurence seems entirely oblivious to the fact that his work will literally go down in history - or perhaps he's just extremely modest? When people look back at the pottery of the 20th and 21st centuries, he'll be there, not only for the technical skill and craftsmanship in his work, but for being so constant in quality. Bearing in mind that Laurence has no formal training in his craft, I wondered whether he considered that creativity could be taught, or whether one is simply born with the ability to be artistic and creative.
"My instinct is to say that most people, given the right encouragement, tuition and push, should be able to create. How do you compare creativity with flair, though? I was lucky when I was a boy, I had a friend whose Mum was a very competent watercolour artist. She impressed upon me that everyone can do something. She made me realise that artists can be ordinary people, not anyone special."
Inevitably, being 'on the same wave length', the conversation turned to the lack of creative opportunities for young people within the education system and social environment these days. "In our village, when I was young, there was a basketmaker, a blacksmith, a tannery. I could go to these places and, providing I sat out of harm's way, I could watch what was going on. I took making things for granted then, a way of life. Kid's don't have that exposure these days."
The principles behind the craftsmanship that he saw daily in the village stays with him today. "If anything you do as a maker is going to succeed in the wider world, it has to convince. Therefore it must be made with conviction. For example, if a piece is to be decorative, then the maker must know and understand the term 'decoration'." Laurence begins to explain something of the philosophy and thought within his working. "How do you begin to think about thinking about pots," he questions. "If you're making a jug, all the thought goes into creating a jug which functions well and is pleasing to handle. When you start to paint, you forget the jug, it now becomes a three dimensional pattern. The most complementary thing you can do is create a two dimensional pattern on a three dimensional object. The brush strokes are not arbitrary, there must be a reason for what you do, every brush stroke on the pot shows, so it has to be thought out and planned. You must know what you are doing before you even begin."
Just like any other work, there needs to be a balance in what Laurence does. "To keep life interesting I have to be doing new things. I can't be incredibly innovative 365 days a year though, so it's good to find myself 'up the shallow end' some days, putting my feet on the bottom and decorating familiar pieces for people to collect."
Laurence describes 'decorating' as something of an adventure, never being quite sure what he'll meet on the way or what he will find at the end. He speaks from the heart about it, "There should be a statue put up to the person who invented brushes, they're marvellous things. Brush strokes are direct reflections of who you are, how you feel that day."
So the question he's been asked on more than one occasion, whether Laurence considers himself to be a craftsman or an artist. "I'm a craftsman, not an artist. I describe a craftsman as someone who finds elegant solutions to practical problems," he explained as he showed us some examples of extremely elegant solutions (beautifully decorated plates) to some serious practical problems (uniquely difficult subjects). "If you call yourself a craftsman, finding an elegant solution is all part of the job. These seemingly insurmountable problems are all part of giving yourself challenges and the stimulation required to continue to be a craftsman."
In fact, Laurence actually describes himself as a pattern maker: "I make either a 3D pattern in clay or a 2D pattern on the surface." It sounds an extremely simple description for what seems to be seriously complex work!
Each year Laurence makes the commemorative plate for the Craftsman Magazine Student Award at Art in Clay, which is presented to the winner at the following year's show. I wondered whether, in addition to a very special plate, he might also have a few words of advice and encouragement for them. His reply seems appropriate for all makers, "Take time to look at what you have done before, your old work, notice what's happened in the meantime. When you're working on something new it is easy to be seduced and excited by novelty, be suspicious of any initial enthusiastic reactions. Take the piece inside, live with it for three months, then see what you think."