C elebrating the very best in the Modern and Contemporary British Art scene Sotheby’s Made In Britain/Online auction looks at the work of some of the most exciting and engaging makers working today. We caught up with leading British ceramicist Matthew Chambers, whose work features in the sale, to look at his influences, practises and position within the art scene of the past fifty years.
Our Made In Britain/Online auction looks at how ceramicists, artists and potters in Britain over the course of the past century use the medium of clay. How do you feel that clay lends itself to artists and potters as opposed to say paint or bronze?
“Clay to me seems so much more immediate than bronze, so I guess that’s the big draw. Its versatility in material nature to be manipulated by hand into almost any shape is another for me and I guess all who choose it. Of course it can be considered just the model for what can be made in bronze, but for certain forms casting is impossible and this combined with its ‘hands on’ nature gives the clay its own unique voice, not to be replicated. Ceramic artists also think naturally in three dimensions hence why we choose clay over painting, but the pot can also be used as a canvas for many. Marks made on the surface or the brushed textures of a glaze can give their own expression – unique to ceramic but in many ways an echo to that of paint on a canvas.”
"As ceramics is given more fine art acceptance, contemporary makers are having a much greater confidence to look outside the function and see clay as a true medium for artistic expression."
Why did you first start working with clay? And what were your earliest memories of working with the material?
“My ceramic journey began in 1993 with a lucky break as an apprentice potter to Philip Wood in the Somerset village where I grew up. My earliest memories of clay are from my beginning there, and of my growing confidence as I built a skill base of throwing on the potter’s wheel. At the end of my school years I had very little patience and a wandering mind so I was fairly unsuccessful in my studies, but on arrival at the pottery I had much time to learn and nothing to lose. With this alongside a very good and patient teacher in Philip helped me focus and improve swiftly and in strength.”
Where do you think ceramics fit within the broader history of British Art, both in a contemporary context, but also looking back to the likes of William Staite Murray, Bernard Leach, Hans Coper and Lucie Rie?
“When I began in ceramics it seemed to have quite a separation from the art world. It didn’t seem very widely accepted and instead held its own little niche on the fringes of the scene - mainly popular only in specialist craft or ceramics fairs and galleries. But ever more these days it seems that the boundaries are blurring and the intrinsic value of studio ceramics is being noticed ever more in the art world. The makers stated were at the forefront of the modern studio movement in the UK and still are responsible in many ways for the current strength therein. Art collectors are also broadening their minds and understanding the importance of clay, investing in both the masters of yesteryear and also in the forward thinking contemporary makers today who continue to follow in their footsteps.”
Today the ceramic scene in Britain is an incredibly exciting and engaging field, but how do you think it’s changed since you first started making?
“It’s changed a lot since I started, perhaps due to the buoyancy of the collectors market today. As ceramics is given more fine art acceptance, contemporary makers in turn are having a much greater confidence to look outside the function and see clay as a true medium for artistic expression. Sculptural ceramics have of course been around for many years, but today there seems to be more than ever in the mainstream and the work produced seems more diverse and expressive than it’s ever been before. Also traditionally trained fine artists/sculptors generally used to a different medium are ever more choosing clay as a legitimate material for a finished piece, something that seemed rarely to be the case in previous times.”
Do you think that your ceramics hold a particular resonance with the work of any British artists - e.g. Barbara Hepworth or Henry Moore – or were there any particular artists or makers that have inspired your output?
“I’ve always been influenced by Henry Moore but Barbara Hepworth’s always been the single great influence on my work, and in many ways she’s responsible for my work as it is right now. When I began at art school after apprenticeship I really had no idea of what to expect, and my aim was simply to continue in function in my own style and simply mirror what I'd learnt with Philip Wood. After a bit of a shock when I arrived at art school and some great teaching to help me free up constraints, I took a visit to Hepworth's garden in St Ives and my thinking changed forever. I was overwhelmed by the beauty in her work and the fact that the simplicity of form alone could create such a strong feeling, and I wanted to use this to inspire whatever I did next. From then on my interests in function took second place as the form took its hold in my making, and this has continued ever since as I continually try to somehow emulate the abstract beauty in form that was so readily achieved by Hepworth.”
What advice would you offer to a younger generation of potters trying to find their feet in the ceramics scene?
“It’s a strong and global market right now with an audience that’s never been as easy to reach, so you’d think they’d be in a good place to start. But it’s also a relatively small and highly competitive market so I guess it’s never easy. I would say a good bit of advice - perhaps a bit obvious but not so easy to do, is to try and be unique. Never try to be a ‘jack of all trades’ with the material, but instead work very hard on one single area of an incredibly varied subject. Gain as much good skill in this as time allows, and then try to push the traditional boundaries of the specialism through focus, experimentation, and process.”