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David Roberts
Raku Ceramics

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David Roberts - Pots of Striking Form                                                       

Ceramic Review 137, 1992, pp16-18

David Roberts continues to explore the subtleties of form and of raku in his latest series of pots. W A Ismay places the pots in context and admires their ‘striking forms’.

Yorkshire potter David Roberts (45 this year) specialises in decorative raku vessels of a highly developed kind. These are at a considerable remove from the products of what other potters, who normally work in other disciplines such as stoneware, may more or less casually call a raku firing, and treat as a holiday from their usual procedures. English raku pots of this kind (particularly when total amateurs, potters’ friends who have no claim to be potters, are encouraged to join in as decorators) are often technically marred, or may come happily from the kiln (or rather, from the buckets afterwards) but then prove impermanent with their glow fading. And it is raku in this sense which has been most widely experienced. It takes both expertise and concentration to produce good and permanent raku pots (and of course there are many kinds of raku). It is arguable that David, who first moved towards raku in his sense of the word, not via a diluted oriental tradition and mystique, but via America, has become unique in producing a variety of raku which is highly finished, permanent, has burnished and lustrous surfaces, has a colour range which is subtle rather than intense, has a wide range of forms and is often of impressive size as well as impressive quality.

He was at college (Bretton) in the late 1960s, emerged as a teacher in 1970, and over the two decades since has evolved into a dedicated and professional full-time potter who is distinguished by the fact (arising in part from the size of his pots) that for him a final firing is not a matter of setting a kiln with many pots, but of firing individually, concentrating on a single pot at a time, and then manipulating it more or less elaborately during out-of-kiln reduction. The pots he now makes are often not useful in the sense of being functional for what we call a practical purpose, but they stay closer to functional forms than do many decorative pots, and a good pot of his is useful in the way a good painting or a good piece of sculpture can be thought of as having human value and usefulness.

In my early memories of him he was a bowl-maker, producing large bowls of very varying depth and profile, which sometimes had slightly wavy or thumbed rims which by means of reservation strips were unglazed. His glazes, perhaps from an early date and certainly later, avoiding lead, employed "soft borax and high alkaline frits with china clay as a stiffener and tin oxide to give whites” (I quote this glaze-description from a 1990 article by Tony Birks in Ceramics Monthly, 38. 10, – later technical information is directly from the potter). A feature of the bowls would be the dramatic differences between the crackle pattern of the inside glaze and that of the outside glaze, perhaps deriving in part from varied glazes, but certainly exploiting the different tensions of an outward and inward curve. This desire to utilise and celebrate possible variations in the controlled crackle continues strongly into his later work.

Then there were bowls which began to recurve and close in before finding a rim, and I remember some with vertical sides, irregular rims and stripes of resist decoration, whilst stripes and zigzags of resist & decoration appeared inside the more open bowls.

Gobular jars with narrow top openings grew upward into globular bottles with narrow necks rising into flared rims, and sometimes there were lugs or handles or struts in support. The bottles became more elegant, and sometimes were wholly plain except for the ornament of crackle and pigmentation, or had just a raised ridge and a single lug above the shoulder to offset them.

Currently, more new shapes have appeared, and these include what he variously calls a beaker or a jug, which is a globular form with a widely-looped side handle, surmounted by a narrow neck and a flared and upward-reaching pouring-spout (the whole, rather like an exotic bird). Another is a basket form, pursy, sometimes elliptical, with a tall handle set across its narrower direction, of varied section, and having at least two different main forms, one with the uprights sloping away from each other until joined by a gentle arch at the top, and the other with the uprights curving away from each other until linked by a more pronounced arch. A third is based with variations on the formal idea of a globular lower part rising into a tall neck which is elliptical, thus presenting two very different profiles from two extreme view points, with endless variations from different angles.

There are variations too in the form of the neck, which sometimes narrows part-way up before swelling out again above (or which occasionally has striped decoration). Then there are new bowls (rather smaller than of old) which follow on from earlier ones with a more sloping rim; the current ones have a central curved well and a flat, near-horizontal wide rim, with the well and rim contrastingly crackled and pigmented.

The formal ideas for much of the new work arrive (with recombinations and no direct limitation) from a study of ancient Cypriot pots (notably as portrayed in Desmond Morris’s remarkable book The Art of Ancient Cyprus;1985), and the formal idea (but no more than that) of the third type of new pot mentioned above is shared with a potter whom David never met but greatly admires, Hans Coper, whose own sources of inspiration were Mediterranean. The other and technical modulation in the current pots is that they are no longer glazed, but surfaced with burnished slip which by a special method takes on its own version of the crackle, carbonisation and pigmentation of raku reduction.

His method of making is, as formerly, by handbuilding, beginning with a slab-formed base produced on a biscuited coil-built hump, and then proceedingby coiling (from extrusions which may then be rolled), by smoothing and by modelling – and contrary to what a first glance might suggest, a powered wheel plays no part in his work. Nor will a pot of his be found to have a foot-ring in the wheel-made sense – it will either stand on a more or less flattened base, or find a balance on what has remained a curved one. Like most handbuilders he will sometimes work on a number of pots by stages, with natural drying and strengthening of' the forms as the work proceeds. But in special circumstances, or where the character of the pot requires it, he may quickly stiffen up the clay by the use of a gas blow-torch. An example is the basket form, where the newly-made tall handle (itself stiffened with the torch during the making, whilst held flat and then turned over on a separate board has to be held in position above the pot, whilst it is built into place by adding and modeling clay with the other hand, using the torch as needed, until the construction is strong enough to stand alone. (The clay he now uses is St. Thomas white, with dry grog – 20s to dust – added, in the proportion of 1.5 Kg of grog to each 25 Kg bag of plastic clay.)

On completion and when leather-hard, the pots now being made are covered in a layer of fine, levigated slip made from ESVA ball clay (which has a low iron content and is highly plastic: small percentages of glaze stains may be added). The surfaces are then burnished repeatedly with a variety of metal and wooden tools, including small metal spoons (which wear thin with long use). After drying slowly, the pots are then Biscuit fired to Orton cone 06 in an electric kiln.

In preparation for the final (individual) firing, each of his pots in current practice is sprayed with a relatively thick layer (up to one eighth of an inch) of what he calls a resist slip (made up by volume of china clay 3, flint 2, plus 10% of copper oxide) – the thickness being tested with a pin, and judged by the sound the pin makes. After a thorough drying, it is then resprayed with a raku crackle glaze (borax frit 45%, high alkalifrit 45%, china clay 10%).

David’s kiln (propane-fired with dual burners) is a large metal drum lined with insulating fibre, and equipped with a heavy lid which lifts off on chains with a counter-balance system, so that it can be fully top-opened. The essence of' raku is that the use of a clay body strengthened to resist thermal shock enables normal rules to be disregarded, and a kiln opened whilst uncooled to permit controlled and selective oxidation and/or reduction(the latter by smothering a pot or part of it in combustible material such as sawdust or straw) of each pot removed from the kiln with tongs whilst still hot. In this case, after a firing to 850 to 910C, the kiln is opened with the temperature only beginning to drop, and after a calculated pause for the right moment, David goes into action with the tongs. His procedures with the pot are aimed at orchestrating the patterns of crackle, smoking and subtle pigmentation to the best advantage of this particular pot. As with all firings, there are possibilities of disaster, but in the firing technique particularly described, the crackle, carbon colours and other pigmentations sought (including shadings of pink and green from the copperoxide) press through from the outer layers to the burnished slip within,and after the pot has cooled, the outer double-skin should peel off (in some areas, easily and at a touch, in others sometimes with more difficulty), when a waxing and final polish of the burnished slip will fully reveal the richly-patterned surface which a pot of striking form deserves.

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