The Fire Within
British potter Peter Beard brings his works - condensed with his experience, skill and inspirations of over 35 years-for the first time to India. His array of pottery, small and large, hand-built and thrown, solid and hollow, smooth and textured, truly reflects his belief that clay is probably the most versatile of materials, as it can be moulded very directly into form, can be carved when harder and also shaped when dry. All these processes, worked by Beard, yield distinct effects, and it is this very versatility of clay that has sustained his work over three decades.
Born in Southport, Lancashire in 1951, Beard was studying industrial design and furniture design at Ravensbourne College of Art, London (1970-1973), when he came in touch with clay. Its innate tactile and seductive feel steadily persuaded him to create forms. As he nurtured his interest in pottery, alongside his design studies, he helped set up a studio in Scotland, in 1973, making thrown domestic stoneware and developed an interest in one-off pots and sculptural pieces. In 1975, he opened his first studio in Kent and concentrated on making one-off pieces. In 1995 he moved to Leamington Spa, where he lives and works at his studio.
Beard draws on the past, in a myriad ways, for inspiration. Fundamental to his work, is his belief that clay is an ancient material that recurringly lends itself into being manipulated into a modern object. It is this facet that gives the process of making pottery a sense of history and timelessness. He views the transformation of raw pots, in the kiln by fire, into permanent indestructible objects as stoking an ancient relationship. Beard chooses to fire with electricity because it offers precise controllability, paramount to obtaining the quality of colour and
surfaces he desires; this cannot be achieved with gas or oil. And as he uses an electric kiln there is, once again, a sense of reliving the past with a contemporary touch.
Beard’s pots are of a clear and simple form, as he feels simple forms best encapsulate powerful and gentle elements. To create these forms, Beard has studied and drawn fossils and shells to produce shell shapes. Just as these primitive life forms are still evolving on Earth, he says, so is his work. He has studied primitive Neolithic flint tools to create elongated works; ancient Chinese jade rings to create the disc form; and sail boats to create the sail form. Through these creations, his objective has been to create beautiful objects that are modern, yet owe an allegiance to history, to achieve a quality of timelessness. The rim of some pots is uneven, as Beard feels that it is a style that best completes the form.
While the form offers a canvas for decoration, Beard ensures that the textural effects complement and enhance the form for a symbiosis and synthesis between the two, to forge a complete object, one with beauty and soul. Beard’s textural decoration stems from landscape, early life forms, history and heritage, and expressions of early man. Patterns of waves of water, boughs of trees, ripples in sand dunes, furrows in fields and roads winding into the distance, inspire the patterns on the surfaces of the pots. Most of Beard’s works bear lines - longitudinal, radiating, diagonal that are straight or curvy edged, rendered in compelling
colour combinations such as blue-grey, brown-orange, green-brown. These complex and attractive textures engage viewers, inviting them to look at them again and again, and find newer subtleties on almost every viewing.
Beard finds the painstaking craftsmanship, richness of colours and play of textures of ancient Egyptian art deeply inspirational. Having visited Egypt several times to study its heritage, he has drawn from the essence of the expression of its ancient painting, sculpture, crafts and architecture. He feels that, though ancient Egyptian art is thousands of years old, the stylized and symbolic nuances in its motifs, colours, details and overall compositions bears a timeless presence. Interestingly, much of ancient Egyptian art occurs in tombs and monuments, having references to life after death, thus infusing it with an eternal resonance.
And perhaps just as strength and balance are the keystones of ancient Egyptian art, so are they of Beard’s pottery.
For achieving the surface textures, Beard typically bisque fires the stoneware pots at 1000°C and, after cooling, covers the entire surface with the first glaze. Then patterns are painted in wax that acts as a resist (as these areas do not take on the glaze colour) and a layer of another glaze is applied on the areas that do not bear wax. The process is repeated, for up to four layers of glaze, using a combination of shiny, matt and semi-matt glazes, complimentary and contrasting colours to create quiet details within colours that will emerge after firing. The pots are then fired at 1280°C; there is an element of anticipation as the wax melts with the heat and different glazes show their colours. Finally, once the kiln door is opened, the pots are alive, each with their individual bearing, with a distinct matrix of colours, textures and patterns defining their being.
Beard’s work has been exhibited and appreciated across the world. Since 1975, he has participated in over 100 group exhibitions and 45 one-man shows in many countries. Though Beard has travelled to India before and held workshops, it is for the first time that he brings a large body of his work to the subcontinent for an exhibition. Beard believes that, perfecting one’s art is a lifelong process; while, he says, he is searching for that elusive perfection, his works on display seamlessly fuse form, technique and texture, to offer us a viewing of his creativity.
Beard is pleased and honoured to bring his work to Mumbai and looks forward to interact with viewers for the cross-fertilization of ideas between cultures. And it is our privilege that we can meet the creative potter, see and sense his creativity, and perhaps return home with one of his engaging works.
Brinda Gill, based in Pune, writes on subjects related to heritage, design and people.
His Works – By Peter Beard
The vessels are thrown on the potter’s wheel then turned to a fine thickness, dried, then have their first firing – the bisque firing – at 1000ºC. The clay is a white firing clay, developed by me, and now sold commercially through a company in England.
The handbuilt pieces are carved from solid blocks of the same clay and, if the piece is large, cut in two, hollowed out and joined back together as clay cannot be fired beyond a certain thickness. These pieces are bisque fired as above.
The work will now be ready for decoration.
Pieces are dipped in a large tank of a high-firing, matt glaze which is white when thin and pale blue when thick. I also use the same basic glaze with nickel oxide added to give pinkish browns. The surface of the glaze has to be very even so a lot of time is spent scraping the surface of the unfired glaze to remove any drips or finger marks. I then use food colour and a brush to mark out the pattern I wish to achieve to make sure that it fits correctly on to the piece. I paint over these lines with water-based wax which acts as a resist to the next layers of glaze. Once the wax has dried I brush on a range of low temperature coloured glazes which use copper, vanadium, manganese, chrome and nickel oxides as their colouring components.
There can be up to three colours on any one piece, depending on the surface colour and texture I wish to achieve. The pieces are then ready to fire in an electric kiln to 1280ºC.
The vessels are fired on their foot rings and the handmade objects are fired in individually made clay “cradles” as they will not stand on their own. After firing a stone base is cut, if needed, for the size of each piece and the piece is mounted on the stone base.