Conference Papers
  Action – Reflection: Tracing Personal Developments
Neil Brownsword


In this paper I want to contextualise my work, and describe the major factors in my life which have influenced my artistic development.

One of the questions I am frequently asked is why I continue to express ideas through clay as opposed to other media, and this stems back to many personal associations with the material. Being born in Stoke-on-Trent and raised in neighbouring Newcastle-under-Lyme I was surrounded by a landscape which bore the scars of hundreds of years of industrial activity. Great mounds of spoil from the collieries which once supplied fuel to the potteries, shard tips, and marl holes – where clay was extracted, litter the woodland where I grew up. There is also a rich seem of Etruria marl which stretches the expanse of this woodland – a raw material exploited by the Elers brothers, two Dutch silversmiths who established a pottery in Bradwell during the 1690s. Their site is literally within ten minutes walking distance from my parents’ house, and is not as yet fully excavated. Nineteenth century factories still stand, and in some cases remain key employers. Family and friends work or have worked at some point in the pottery industry, and it was perhaps inevitable that I would follow a similar route.

Apprenticed on a Youth Training Scheme at Wedgwood in 1987, I was primarily trained as a tableware modeller. There was no formal instructor as such; you learned very much by your mistakes and by observing the incredible craft skills of colleagues, some of whom had been in the business for nearly thirty years. Further experience was also gained in relief modelling, and at the end of my training the offer of a full-time position in the department arose. I declined the offer in favour of a transfer placement to Wedgwood’s design department. Here I spent a further year obtaining a new set of skills, designing packaging, commemorative souvenirs and Jasper ware. At that time computers had not been introduced into the department and everything had to be illustrated and typeset by hand. A ‘day release’ on the training scheme also provided an opportunity to exploit the different skills I had acquired through my apprenticeship. I designed a vessel, developed a plaster prototype, made production moulds, and had the final object cast in the factory. I have a total dislike for these objects now, but their value and relevance lies in the experience of seeing an idea through from drawing to end product, and gaining a broad knowledge of each stage of production. The Wedgwood training was invaluable in terms of the diversity of skills I had acquired, but there was no scope for personal creativity. Fellow workers encouraged me to move on and go to college, rather than mirror their experiences – many of them had began their career in the factory through similar apprenticeships.

I began a foundation course in 1989, and found it incredibly difficult to explore more creative possibilities. I felt constrained both by the level of technical skill I had acquired, and by the rigid ways of working I had been so accustomed to at the factory. It wasn’t until my degree at Cardiff that things started to change. My tutor, Alan Barrett Danes, encouraged me to create work which was less dominated by technique and explore the materiality of clay. A set project also introduced me to the figure, which has been used to explore various narratives up until 1999. Work started to be informed conceptually by research into a final year dissertation concerning taboos in representation, mainly examining western attitudes towards sexually explicit works of art. The hypocrisy which exists in our society interested me greatly and started to inspire the themes within my work – for example, the difficulty of public acceptance of sexually explicit representations compared with the relative ease with which images of violence are accepted in TV and the media. ‘Fit for the Table?’ presented a direct image of copulation, created within the context of a teapot – the idea being that familiarity from everyday use of the object would start to break down the hang-ups people have with open displays of human sexuality. Imagery also started to be lifted from Renaissance painting and sculpture, where the idea of exploring sexuality through mythology was considered acceptable by the church. Further research led to the discovery of a quote by Picasso which really struck a chord, the idea of his sketch books being a ‘visual diary’. From this point onward the work started to be heavily autobiographical and very much served as a means of catharsis. I felt compelled to express very raw emotions through these objects, which concerned many issues surrounding the politics of relationships, and personal mental health. Frequently the work was misinterpreted and tagged misogynistic due to the use of very graphic imagery, which at that time seemed the most honest and appropriate means to communicate these ideas. In an exhibition at the Gladstone Pottery Museum in 1995 numerous complaints were received from museum employees that this work was unsuitable for children, whereas these comments were just a feeble excuse for the staff’s own inability to deal with the overt subject matter. These provincial attitudes, bizarre as they seemed, eventually swayed the powers-that-be who later decided to section off the display from the rest of the museum, with a notice warning visitors that they might be offended by what they saw behind the screen. The experience reintroduced to me that small-mindedness which I’d grown up with and escaped temporarily whilst being a student, but I could appreciate that the work was just too alien, in contrast perhaps to the ‘crinoline lady’ figurines that adorned their mantelpieces.

Following my degree a successful application to the RCA emphasised the need to explore ideas through two dimensions, but as I commenced the course insecurity crept in, and I ended up regurgitating many ideas which extended from Cardiff. A period of reassessment resulted in the participation of various projects. One competition entailed designing decorative plates for an Italian fashion company. I wasn’t shortlisted for this project but it provided the opportunity to be more spontaneous within image making, which in turn led to an Artist’s Residency at the Charleston Farmhouse (the former dwelling of the artists Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell). Sponsored by Designers Guild, I worked with a fellow student Edla Griffiths, producing a range of tableware inspired by the eclectic interiors and furnishings of the house itself. Quentin Bell’s self-taught approach to ceramics inspired the making quality of our objects. The experience later filtered into the creation of decorative plates in which I used clay as a canvas to explore surface qualities and juxtaposing imagery. It was so refreshing to explore new territory and consider a more commercial aspect of my practice.

On returning to the RCA the residency had stimulated a very different working methodology. Again, a final year dissertation started to inform the subject matter of work. Reflection on a series of drawings created with a couple of non-artist friends who worked at Wedgwood and other factories, encouraged a more random approach to my creativity. These drawings were executed under the influence of various hallucinogens, mainly LSD, and are probably meaningless to anyone else. My own involvement with this substance evolved initially from peer pressure by a friend who worked in the factory as a gloss selector. His job entailed sitting before a conveyor-belt full of plates from which he had to quality-check the glaze and mark up the defects in the pieces. He did this de-humanising job for five years, seeking escapism through drug use from the monotony of his home and working life. We would often take acid together at his house, sitting up all night drawing very personal expressions without limit or constraint. LSD strips away many inhibitions, and unleashed this raw creativity in people who worked at dead-end factory jobs, didn’t see themselves as artistic and had not done anything remotely connected with art since childhood. It revealed that creativity is inherent in everyone but that social conditioning through family and education represses this instinct.

These drawings led to an interest in Art Brut and Outsider Art – objects and images carried out by people with no intention of exhibition or commercial viability, who just create to fulfil their own inner gratification. Looking at this work there is often an immediate repulsion by their visual excess, but this intrigued me into how decisions are made on assessing the quality of creativity. I wanted to capture a similar aesthetic in my work, and turned my making processes on their heads. Works prior to this were often conceived on paper before approaching clay, but I began to sketch and experiment with the material itself, making hundreds of fragments which were later fired and assembled into a figurative narrative. Other materials and found objects would frequently be incorporated into these structures, opening up a wide variety of possibilities and visual qualities.

Whilst still a student I was fortunate to be offered a solo show and artists residency at the City Museum and Art Gallery in Stoke-on-Trent. An idea for this residency reintroduced contact with local factories, who were asked to donate scrap moulds for me to use. The majority agreed to provide these ‘ready-mades’, which were cast, deconstructed and reassembled to reinforce very personal narratives which I felt many people could empathise with. ‘Four Months’ recalled an ultimatum that occurred in my personal life at the time. Coming to the end of my period at the RCA, I didn’t know which direction my life was to take, but faced pressure from my long-term partner to conform to the norm, ‘settle down’ and find a ‘proper job’. Objects were consciously selected and assembled into structure of this figure – the Gladstone Pottery ‘Country Cottage’, and the Staffordshire dog figurine referenced obvious symbols of security and all the accoutrements which go with this choice of lifestyle.

Work for the solo show started to become less introspective and based more on observations of the people I once worked with or hung around with, who had ended up conforming in every way. One friend I mentioned earlier followed all the accepted conventions: had a child, a house, got married, but both he and his partner lived an unhappy lie. The situation escalated to the point where any opportunity there was to sleep around he would take. ‘Don’t Let the Little Head Rule the Big Head’ was a direct commentary on his infidelity – such a poignant title, taken from a conversation with his father, it seemed to sum up everything. Titles inspired by a stream of one-liners and clichés have always been a very important means of access into the subject matter of work, opening it up to the layman as well as the gallery-goer.

During the residency at the museum, I really wanted to move away from the figure and explore a new direction which utilised space and increased the scale of my work. I tried to show outcomes of this new direction in Objects of our Time at the Crafts Council in 1996. Its exclusion from the exhibition in favour of an earlier figurative piece knocked my confidence in pursuing any further development, so as demand for it from other galleries increased, I returned to the figure. These objects continued to be fuelled by people trapped by their dismal circumstances, their only release being the endless routine of weekend hedonism – getting wrecked and trying to score. ‘People watching’ in local bars and clubs became a perverse fascination, directly inspiring pieces such as ‘She Wants Your Own Junk’ and ‘Free Love Messes Up My Mind’, which serve very much as a means of social documentary of that working class culture. I think by this point I felt I’d exhausted what I wanted to say and the work had become repetitious.

An opportunity to reassess and change direction arose when an application for a residency at the European Ceramic Work Centre in Holland was accepted. The philosophy of the Centre appealed to me, as it was about open-ended exploration rather than formulating an end product. The facilities, equipment and technical expertise available were second to none, and the amount of space in which to work greatly influenced the change which took place. The confines of a spare bedroom back home obviously determined the scale and format of previous objects so to suddenly have a studio six times the size of that space was a liberation. It was equally inspiring to work alongside a changing program of international artists from many different disciplines whose experience with the material was initially limited but very ambitious. The exchange of ideas and criticism was incredible valuable and made me question many of the preconceptions I’d arrived with.

I wanted to remove myself from the use of the narrative, which I felt had dominated previous objects to the point where it restricted further innovation. The materiality of clay once again started to inspire me, exploring it in all its states, using unconventional tools and techniques. Getting lost in the work and not knowing where I was going didn’t seem to matter; there was no looming deadline of an exhibition. Following my intuition, allowing the properties and distinctive qualities of the material to dictate the final identity of each object became increasingly significant in the invention and origination of new ideas. Another key factor strongly influenced the conceptual development of the work. During a return back to Stoke after a month in the residency I visited a friend, who had left Wedgwood and was then working in the demolition business. He was in the process of flattening a nineteenth century pottery factory, despite the fact that it was probably a listed building. Alarmed by this and the increased sight of the decay of the Staffordshire ceramic industry, I set about documenting photographically many factories in the area which had been closed, been left to rot or were reduced to rubble. There seemed little or no attempt to preserve this architecture which is as relevant to the place’s history as the objects that were made there. I was aware of the mass redundancies, which had occurred in recent years, but physically witnessing the destruction of an industry, that had formed the livelihood of local people for generations, fuelled me to raise these issues in the work.

On my return to Holland I started working intuitively around this experience. Photographic references of redundant factory equipment, and other historic manufacturing paraphernalia, provided another direct stimulus. Observation drawings from this information formed loose starting points for objects, but the making processes gradually took over and extended these ideas. I began constructing objects from my own piles of detritus, which had accumulated after periods of making. Cast, hand-formed and thrown components were allowed to dry and sometimes submerged into water, causing them to lose their initial appearance and function. After firing and glazing, the spatial presentation of these objects, derived mainly from form/colour relationships, was intended to mimic archaeological displays of fragments. I was inspired by how these collections of very disparate objects could achieve a unity in one space. The process of disintegration during making, shards/remnants of objects, and impermanence of my structures (their constant ability to change within their spatial relationship) were used to reflect the current state of disregard and lack of preservation for the Potteries heritage. ‘Transition’ made reference to the changing state and disappearance of Stoke’s industrial landscape. Likewise the piece ‘Shraff’ referred to an old Potteries term for waste ceramic wares, which were often used as landfill and form the hardcore foundation upon which most of Stoke is built.

The exhibition Close at the Crafts Council provided a unique opportunity to show this body of work. New objects commissioned for the show were an assemblage of made and found fragments – mainly nineteenth century wares, saggars, kiln props and deformations unearthed from my own back yard. In ‘Salvage Series 1 & 2’ these objects were placed back into the kiln, to give them a new identity and lease of life. The beauty of the discarded fragment fascinated me, and raised the issues on how we decide the value of certain objects. I tried to explore this by emulating the quality of eighteenth century ‘wasters’ where the saggars contents had over-fired and melted due to the intense heat of the kiln. ‘Remnant’ also mirrored this concern and stemmed from a source of contemporary archaeology. A friend retrieved a set of kiln shelves from a skip, on which two bone china plates had melted. There is such beauty in the accidental – again the obvious thing to do was to disregard and consider them worthless. The sense of curiosity the work provokes, where you just get a hint or suggestion of what the original objects may have looked like, or what their function may have been really interests me, and has encouraged people to formulate their own narratives within the work.

What direction now? The work I produce in the future will pick up very much from where I left off. Discovery through the creative process will continue to drive what I produce. The insecurity of not knowing where I am going is a constant driving force for my work. The figure may be re-introduced as a concern, but I am sure I will explore it in a very different way. See what happens!

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Camberwell College of Arts, London, UK

15 January 2001

Overthrowing Tradition
Alison Britton


Action - Reflection: Tracing Personal Developments
Neil Brownsword


Ends and Beginnings
Emmanuel Cooper


Radical Pots
Edmund de Waal


Studio Ceramics: The End of the Story?
Jeffrey Jones

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Remnant (2000)
Back to article


Trace (2000)


What the eye doesn't see... the heart won't grieve (1999)


Action – Reflection Issue 2