Natasha Daintry is an artist working in ceramics, who has enjoyed a celebrated career investigating the poetic potential of porcelain, and its relationship to colour. She was recently commissioned by Sotheby's to create individual gifts for the guests at the annual collectors' dinner, and has recently unveiled the ambitious Sowing Colour at Chatsworth House. She will appear in conversation with Felicity Aylieff at Art Out Loud on 23 September.
When did you first decide to become an artist and how did your journey began, where did it start for you?
I had no idea that this is how my life would unfold; I studied Japanese at Cambridge University so I spent time in Japan living with a family in Tokyo and my host mother would carefully choose the ceramics to hold the wonderful food she cooked. Her cupboards held multiple kinds of stacked ceramics: little bowls, small plates, some of them were industrial, pure and clean; some of them were country pottery with dark treacly Tenmoku glazes. It was the first time the visual and the sensory collided into my own world because at school, I’d been quite academic and had not considered art at all.
Back home, I started going to a few evening classes, but I had half decided to get a sensible job in the city, as the Japanese economy was very strong at the time. What was curious was finding out well after I’d started on my ceramic path, that my great grandmother had belonged to a renowned pottery family called Ridgway, which made all sorts of earthenware including for Queen Victoria and ocean liners. So to my surprise and delight, ceramics is in the blood.
There is a functional element to your work, but also there are these very beautiful sculptural objects. Are you interested in problem solving?
Yes. I liked to see where designed and utilitarian objects could be improved, and where I could add to existing traditions. There is the fine art conceptual work and then there are all the medical uses; hips and teeth and much more besides. After working on commissions for practical objects, and having to factor in company logos, I became curious about colour. Most of the things around at the time were ‘pure’ natural colours like taupe or clear glazes over white clay bodies, and I myself was fairly militant about using white and celadon glazes only. But I found myself falling into colour, wanting more. I wanted vividness; I wanted Andy Warhol crossed with early English porcelain and its riotous use of colour.
Is this where your fascination with colour began?
Yes. I see colour as a wilderness, actually. For me, colour is like water, which has been one of my other great influences, water and swimming in the ocean it’s beautiful and beguiling and swimming underwater helps me understand 3-D space. At the same time, water is unsettling and unknowable and a destructive force. Historically, particularly in the West, colour has always been seen in a pejorative way; decorative, feminine, pretty, it’s considered ‘nice’ and easy, but definitely on the intellectual back foot compared to design or drawing a single, emphatic line.
When I was at the Royal College I was influenced by a book called Chromophobia by David Batchelor. I love the unsettling and fugitive nature of colour, that for me, is very close to how life actually is. You think you’ve grasped it, and then it shifts. Colour defies language: you butt up against the limitations of language in relation to direct visual experience and is humbling, in the way it defies control.
What draws you to a particular palette when you embark on a project?
When I started thinking about colours for the pots at Chatsworth I began by examining the light spectrum. When you look at visible wave lengths of colour, you’re coming out of absolute black darkness into visible light. Then it goes back into darkness again. I thought about the journey around Chatsworth House itself, where the lighting is quite low for the conservation of fragile objects and paintings, and the site where my pieces sits is opposite a tall window. I wanted it to be almost like an internal rainbow, and a vivid, intense experience of colour, with the objects appearing differently depending on the time of day.
So, the object is always changing, even once it’s finished?
Absolutely. It is still moving and shifting, even as the final piece.
You have chosen to work in porcelain and what is it about this medium that captures your attention?
At the core of it is the fact it’s the most transformational material that humans have. It undergoes a radical chemical and physical change during the firing so that its structure alters completely, and the shrinkage is significant. You’re starting with one material and ending up with another, which I find compelling. And porcelain almost feels like human bones and even the glazing, is almost like bodily liquids, the glassiness of an eye, the velvety feel of skin.
I’ve always been interested in the link between pots or vessels and humans. In ceramics, we talk about the foot, the belly, the shoulder, the lip of a pot — it has this real anthropomorphic quality and I love that. I’m always trying to talk about what it is to be human when I’m thinking about pots. It’s about being alive and having an opportunity to explore in a subtle way both materials and philosophical ideas. It’s like the third relationship in my life, it’s beguiling and beautiful and at the same time it’s really edgy, tricky and demanding.
The word porcelain conjures up images of fragility, and delicate refined objects. As a medium that can’t be very forgiving. Is there room for happy accidents or do you have to work in absolutes?
Both, it just depends what you want. Some people’s work is all about cracking and breaking, for example. It’s certainly true that to work with porcelain, you need to know it well. It is unforgiving, but if you understand it and work intuitively and based on experience, you can really make it go far and that’s what I discovered when I did the commission for Chatsworth. At 90 centimetres high, they’re absolutely vast and the advice I received from people who knew that clay was that there was no way it was going to work that big.
Because these pots are all based on the Fibonacci sequence, I started small and got and bigger and bigger. I figured out how to work with it, how to coax and cover it, how it needs to be treated, and then, to my enormous relief, I was able to move into casting very big forms, which has been really exciting. Porcelain has an intriguing range: on the one hand, it is paper fine, and associated with the refined, tea-drinking culture attached to it and at the same time they are making hips with it, so it can support the weight of a human body, so it is fantastically robust.
How did the Chatsworth commission come about?
The Duke knew my work and had a piece called Stalking Purple and that was, as you can imagine, an obsession around the colour purple at the time. I was actually really curious to meet whoever it was who had acquired that piece because I really love it myself. It led to an invitation to visit Chatsworth and submit ideas for a possible commission. What really affected me at Chatsworth, was the relationship between culture and nature.
I was dazzled by the fact that this exquisite site of collecting, learning and refinement is in the Peak District, with all of its rugged stones and weather and sky, and that stark juxtaposition. I visited in October and I was really taken with the vegetables growing in the kitchen garden. It was pumpkin time and I don’t think I’ve ever seen any that enormous, they were like triffids and you felt that they could take you over!
Pots are made from an organic living material, clay, but after its hugely transformative moment in the kiln, porcelain becomes quite fixed. Exploring how to bring movement back into static objects fascinates me and I do it through the use of flowing glaze, colour, exploiting the plastic qualities of porcelain.
How did you arrive at the name Sowing Colour?
The two words sum up the piece. The Fibonacci sequence is key here. It’s a sequence of growth found in nature, especially plant life. The apparently random way buds, branches and stems proliferate is governed by strict geometric rules. Leonardo of Pisa brought the sequence to the attention of Europe in the thirteenth century, though Indian mathematicians knew about it hundreds of years before. The sequence goes 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13 and so on (adding the two previous numbers together). Think of a nautilus shell and that potent fast increasing spiral from its tiny beginning in the centre — that’s the Fibonacci in motion.
Sowing Colour is Fibonacci in vertical form. So at the top of my piece you have tiny pots, like seeds or the youngest part of the plant, potent with latent energy, and then as the layers of pots move down towards the ground they increase dramatically in size, creating an overall feeling of dynamic energy.
Sowing is a direct action, a conscious and controlled act of cultivation, while colour represents the wild and unknowable phenomenon of nature. Making the piece I did feel I was sowing colour, as I hardly recognised some of the colours when they increased from tiny pots onto a huge scale. I started with the pumpkin seed and it grew from there. It has a feeling of organic growth and increase, and ultimately, the feeling of it being alive.
Art Out Loud runs from 21—23 September 2018 at Chatsworth House, and is proudly sponsored by Sotheby's.