Below are the autobiographical notes supplied by Alan Wallwork for the Harlequin Gallery exhibition in March 2009, shown here in full.
With an early interest in film design, I was put on the waiting list for a training scheme launched by J. Arthur Rank studios. Two years of National Service intervened and now with other ambitions I began the NDD course at Watford School of Art. A severe illness and hospitalization cut this short. As a form of recuperation, it was suggested I took a two-year residential course at Newlands Park Teachers Training College, Buckinghamshire. Here I had unlimited access to well-equipped pottery and painting studios. A lengthy delay in the appointment of a lecturer left me to find my own way in pottery techniques, guided only by Bernard Leach’s A Potter’s Book. High grades on graduation won me eligibility for a special one-year course at Goldsmiths’ College, South London, with access to any Art School classes of choice. I chose pottery, painting, etching and fabric printing. Kenneth Clark and Gordon Baldwin ran the pottery classes. Their broad approach to pottery techniques and an open-minded view of original uses for craft pottery made a strong and lasting impression on me.
On leaving Goldsmiths’ in 1956 I took a series of posts at local secondary schools, reducing teaching time as in 1957 I converted shop premises in Forest Hill, South London, for use as a gallery with the upper floors as studios and accommodation for myself and a partnership of other ex-Goldsmiths’ students. Opening in 1958 and named the Alan Gallery, paintings by the partners were to be shown with bought in ceramics by London potters: Lucie Rie, Kenneth Clark, Ann Wynn Reeves and David Eeles among them. It was soon clear that pottery sold better than paintings and I fitted out rooms at the back of the gallery and began making my own pots. At first thrown domestic ware, moulded brush decorated dishes and hand built pieces, including lamp bases and “pinched” bowls. All were fired at earthenware temperature. Domestic ware was tin glazed and brush or sgraffito decorated. Later matt glazes in black, brown or yellow-green were introduced. Much use was made of rubbed on oxides to give a warm, “toasted” look to unglazed areas of hand built work. Incised textures often inlaid with white slip and impressed decoration using clay stamps and “roulettes” were favoured. While experimenting with dripped and trailed glaze pools, I hit on effects, which I developed into a range of tiles that rapidly found an avid market. This success paved the way to phasing out domestic earthenware and the purchase of a better kiln for high temperature stoneware, in alternation with the flourishing earthenware tiles. The weight of pottery sales against paintings led to the amicable withdrawal of my original partners and the dropping of bought in work as my own took over the gallery space. Advertising my possible need for an assistant led to the appearance of Bernard Rooke, also ex-Goldsmiths’, whose kindred views on techniques and aspirations prompted an offer to him of a share of the workshop and living space. We both soon found rapidly growing demand for our work but I became aware that I was blatantly infringing the approved use of the gallery for retail only.
I found much larger premises in Greenwich comprising of a large shop with three floors above and a basement below, all with existing use for light industry having formed part of a hacksaw blade factory, now divided off. Bernard Rooke agreed to rent the basement; Robert and Sheila Fournier took a large upper room, as did the painter Cyril Reason. The shop area was fitted out as a showroom, with me working in the rear and other rooms above. The aim was to offer show space for all the occupants, hopefully attracting the custom of architects, interior designers and craft retailers.
Sales rose rapidly, especially for Bernard Rooke and me. I had designs accepted by the Design Centre and my work was included in their touring exhibitions abroad. My tiles were also on the Design Index. I formed a rewarding and friendly relationship with Heals of Tottenham Court Road through their amicable buyer, Mark Ransome. Heals and the flourishing Craftsmen Potters Association, of which I was elected a Council Member, became major outlets, then easily accessible from Greenwich before the days of traffic congestion. Demand developed so rapidly that I began taking on assistants. These were employed partly to help decorate the tile ranges and partly to help with a growing repertoire of small and medium hand built pieces, made in quantity, with me completing the final shaping and decorating. These more modest pieces were marked either with an impressed or incised W. Large pieces were coiled or thrown or a combination of both. Some assistants with exceptional aptitude in hand building alternated with me in the building up of large pieces so that several forms could be under construction at the same time under my supervision. A large electric kiln was installed. The clay body now used incorporated a coarse fireclay with many impurities. At stoneware temperature the burning off of the impurities created a reduced atmosphere in the kiln chamber giving the work the “toasted” look normally achieved in a flame kiln and added subtleties to glaze colour and surface. The kiln elements suffered as a result of the reduction but the results were judged worth the cost.
Individual pieces were marked with an incised, linked A W. Heals were instrumental in my work being included in a major exhibition at Illums Bolighus, Copenhagen at a time when several important department stores were co-operating internationally. Another major development was a substantial order for tiles from an advertising agency, J. Walter Thompson for a promotional campaign. The scale of this order prompted the purchase of a large ex-chapel in Marnhull, Dorset to provide more workshop space and the installation of more kilns and the taking on of more assistants.
Commuting between the two workshops became irksome and I wound down the Greenwich studios, subletting to other potters, Sally Vinson and Henna Thomas amongst others. In the mid-1960s I moved down to live and work full time in Dorset. In addition to the electric kilns for tile firing, a large propane kiln was installed for reduction fired stoneware and local women taken on, mainly as tile decorators, the most skilled also assisting with pottery processes. A high volume of work was produced for a number of years, the tiles finding an eager market in the USA, Australia and Europe, as well as the UK. Pottery sales were channelled through Heals, Briglin Pottery and the Craftsmen Potters Shop. I contributed less and less to formal exhibitions because of the forward commitment and transportation.
By the mid-1970s however I became increasingly concerned with the environment and my own profligate use of energy and felt an urge to downsize. I cut down more and more on my contacts with London as the traffic problem grew. I built and fired a wood-burning kiln but was unconvinced that this was enough of a solution. Events decided matters for me when inflation and national instability took precedence in 1979. With time my team of assistants had shrunk in number without being replaced and I began to sell off equipment preparatory to looking for more modest premises. One last venture was with a range of broken textured plain coloured tiles commissioned by a kitchen furniture firm. These proved alarmingly popular but tedious to produce and when I was asked to increase production twenty-fold I called a halt to it all and put the Marnhull studios up for sale and began to look for new premises on the Dorset coast. A house and workshop were found in woodland high above Lyme Regis in a spectacular but somewhat impractical setting. I produced a volume of organically inspired hand built forms with an emphasis on dramatic surface textures, cracked and pitted. Illness and hospitalization interrupted and an opportunity arose to buy in a more accessible and sunnier position on an opposite hilltop across the valley. A substantial workshop was built next to the house, the big gas kiln lifted in by crane and after a difficult year work began again at Whitty Down Farm, Higher Rocombe. “Pebble” forms, “seedpod” forms – made from a basic sphere – two “pinch” bowls joined rim to rim then grooved, segmented, altered in various ways. Experiments were made with contrasting clay bodies: porcelain blending into stoneware, porcelain forms encrusted in craggy stoneware. “Crescent” forms with intricate piercing, the piercing inlaid with colour and translucent glazes. “Cleft spheres” – rounded forms deeply cut into allowing a glimpse of translucent glaze deep in the core, the crust heavily textured and pierced. Thrown and coiled oval forms half split open, the split edges fretted and pierced in manifold ways. Tall “female” forms, torso like, waisted and modelled with simple matt glazes and deep “navel” piercing.
A slight stroke in the late 1990s impaired for a time the use of my right arm and prevented throwing for some time but I was still able to make my small “pinched” forms with my one good hand and the activity probably aided the restoration of almost full use of both once more. The experience seemed a signal that the time was nigh for a change of pace. Whitty Down Farm was sold, the kiln demolished and I set off to fulfil a long-held desire to spend time in France.
An old stone building with workshop space was bought in Missegre, a delightful, fairly high and remote village in the foothills of the Pyrenees, near Limoux in the Aude. There I built a top loader propane fired kiln and began once more to make pottery. My original intention was to make leisurely trips back to England, exploring new routes each time with a vanload of finished work for sale through favourite outlets back home. Two of these trips were enough to show me that long distance driving in a large vehicle was no longer a pleasure for me and my partner and longtime friend, Barbara Huxley. Reg Moon, also a long-time friend, drove down to Missegre and took back the first batch of work for exhibition in his gallery in Henley in Arden.
Since then several consignments have gone back by carrier to John Rastall at the Harlequin Gallery, some to the Devon Guild and for a major exhibition at Walford Mill Craft Centre in conjunction with my daughter, Amanda Wallwork‘s paintings and my grandson, Rowan Stickland’s sculptures. With declining health and physical capabilities, the Walford Mill show was my last attempt to make large forms. I have settled for small and medium pieces, variations on my favourite “crescent” forms made partly by slab, part by coil building take precedence being less physically demanding. The simple, sweeping outer curvatures, contrasting with the plane surfaces, allowing scope for tactile permutations – an outer “crust” protecting a complex inner core, pierced and glaze inlaid – continue to stimulate my interest.
Copyright: Alan Wallwork – not to be reproduced as a whole or in part without permission.
Saturday 2nd November 2019
It is with sadness that I have to report that Alan died in hospital this morning, after a long illness. Not only was he a fine potter but also a good friend and the ceramics world will be poorer for his loss.