Teapots adorned with flo­ral de­signs

An Ox­ford­shire work­shop pro­duces teapots adorned with flo­ral de­signs re­flect­ing its vi­brant gar­den

Landscape (UK) - - Contents - Words: Caro­line Rees Pho­tog­ra­phy: Ni­cola Stocken

in A clus­ter of old stone barns in the Ox­ford­shire coun­try­side, a film of fine grey clay dust coats ev­ery sur­face. Here, in the vil­lage of As­ton, skirted to the south by the River Thames, a range of na­ture-in­spired pot­tery is tak­ing shape, fash­ioned by a small team of work­ers. Down­stairs, moulds are be­ing filled with liq­uid clay, while up­stairs, sten­cilled de­signs de­pict­ing flow­ers and birds are ap­plied with care­ful touches of a brush. Ad­ja­cent to the 19th cen­tury barns is a pur­pose-built shop and café, where cus­tomers browse and tuck into lunch. The site is sur­rounded by five flo­ral bor­ders brim­ming with colour un­der a vivid blue sky. This is As­ton Pot­tery, a busi­ness started 35 years ago by Stephen and Jane Baughan. What be­gan as a part-time en­ter­prise has de­vel­oped into a flour­ish­ing con­cern. The gar­dens, which have in­spired many of the dec­o­ra­tive pots, have be­come a pop­u­lar sum­mer at­trac­tion in their own right.

A learn­ing process

Much of the pot­tery’s suc­cess comes thanks to Stephen’s en­ergy and de­ter­mi­na­tion. Nei­ther he nor Jane have any for­mal train­ing. “It has all been trial and er­ror,” he says.

“My in­tro­duc­tion to ce­ram­ics was do­ing art A-level, and my in­ter­est came from hav­ing a re­ally good teacher.” In 1982, Stephen, who grew up lo­cally, was work­ing as a builder and al­ready mar­ried to Jane when he de­cided to rekin­dle his in­ter­est in pot­tery by mak­ing dec­o­rated mugs, jugs and teapots to sell to shops. He rented a cou­ple of suit­able old barns with char­ac­ter nearby, bought mould-mak­ing equip­ment, the nec­es­sary ma­chin­ery for mak­ing bowls and clay slip, and set to work in his spare time. Jane helped out, es­pe­cially with the draw­ing. “I wanted to make some­thing that peo­ple would use,” he ex­plains. “We did it part-time for ap­prox­i­mately six years, go­ing to trade shows, and it took off within 18 months. Even­tu­ally, we bor­rowed a lump sum and went full-time.” They bought the barns and de­vel­oped the site into what it is to­day. “In 2008, we built the new shop and café, to make it more worth­while for peo­ple to visit us, and we started cul­ti­vat­ing the bor­ders so that they would still come on hot sum­mer days.”

Mak­ing the moulds

At the be­gin­ning, Stephen and Jane spent their evenings draw­ing out pos­si­ble de­signs and de­vel­op­ing moulds for their nascent pot­tery. Mould-mak­ing in­volves first sculpt­ing the re­quired shape in solid plas­ter on a lathe. A plas­ter mould is made us­ing the model to cre­ate a neg­a­tive ver­sion of the shape in two or more sec­tions: four plus a lid for a teapot. This is called the block mould. From that, a case mould is made from plas­ter, which is a pos­i­tive ver­sion, in sec­tions. That is then used to make a num­ber of plas­ter pro­duc­tion moulds for ev­ery­day use. “It takes time and pa­tience,” says Stephen. “We de­signed our shapes to have an el­e­gance, to spring from the base with a bit of life.” The pot­tery has 60-200 pro­duc­tion moulds per shape, and each one lasts for ap­prox­i­mately 50 cast­ings. “My crown­ing glory is still the han­dle on our mugs. The er­gonomics of it are amaz­ing,” he adds with pride. “You can put two fin­gers through it with ease, un­like some of the loop han­dles you see.” As­ton Pot­tery sources its clay from Stafford­shire. “We use a cream earth­en­ware clay that has a warm look to it,” he says. “Tra­di­tion­ally, earth­en­ware was used to make pots for the masses, so they didn’t fire it very high, only at 1,060°C, be­cause fir­ing is one of the big­gest ex­penses in the ce­ram­ics in­dus­try. We de­cided to vit­rify, or fire the clay un­til it melted, and that makes it very tough.”

Tra­di­tional teapots

A staff of six work in the pot­tery, in­clud­ing Stephen and Jane part-time. “Every­body is trained here,” says Jane. “They just need an ap­ti­tude for hand­work and an un­der­stand­ing of ma­te­ri­als.” The staff pro­duce ap­prox­i­mately 40 shapes, rang­ing from egg cups to 2 gal­lon cater­ing teapots. Moulded ves­sels, such as mugs, jugs and teapots, are made from liq­uid clay, known as slip. Solid clay is used for plates and bowls, how­ever, as they are made in one piece. To make the slip, the clay is mixed in a tank, called a blunger, with wa­ter, sodium sil­i­cate and soda ash. To form a teapot, the slip is poured into the mould from a bucket, as op­posed to the tap method used for other ves­sels. This en­sures an even pour, es­sen­tial to pre­vent air bub­bles form­ing round the gallery where the lid sits. “You leave it for 45 min­utes, and the wa­ter in the clay is ab­sorbed into the plas­ter mould,” says Stephen. “The clay which lies against the plas­ter turns solid, and that

The teapot is then put in an elec­tric kiln for its first, or bis­cuit, fir­ing. The kiln holds ap­prox­i­mately 300 items and is heated to 900°C for six hours. When the pot has cooled down, it goes up­stairs, where the base is rub­ber-stamped with the pot­tery’s own mark, us­ing heat-re­sis­tant ink. It is now ready for dec­o­ra­tion.

Love of flow­ers

The Baugh­ans have cre­ated ap­prox­i­mately 170 de­signs over the past 35 years. “I did them in the be­gin­ning with Stephen, but now it’s a joint ef­fort with the two other women who do the paint­ing,” says Jane. She takes much of her in­spi­ra­tion from the coun­try­side. “We took pho­tos, made sketches, then tested colours. We did a range of farm an­i­mals, which is still pop­u­lar, then flow­ers. The gera­nium, aga­pan­thus, aster and dahlia de­signs are from the gar­dens.” Stephen cites Jane’s wild blue clema­tis de­sign as their break­through suc­cess. “It grew by our gate, and it’s still in the top four sold in the shop.” The draw­ings are trans­ferred onto ac­etate to make sten­cils. To do this, each draw­ing is di­vided into sec­tions ac­cord­ing to colour. The ac­etate is then stuck over the draw­ing and the rel­e­vant parts cut out with a sharp knife. On the long work­bench up­stairs, dec­o­ra­tor Emily Bon, who has worked at As­ton for four years, is rhyth­mi­cally dab­bing paint onto a teapot. She has a group of saucers in front of her, con­tain­ing var­i­ous ce­ramic un­der­glaz­ing pig­ments mixed with wa­ter, plus a pot of cir­cu­lar, flat-topped brushes made of pig bris­tles. As a guide, she has a di­a­gram out­lin­ing de­tails of how to ap­ply each de­sign. The dahlia she is paint­ing to­day com­prises four sten­cils. “The work was new to me, but it’s very ther­a­peu­tic, and ev­ery day you’re do­ing some­thing dif­fer­ent,” she says. “I’ve got a sam­ple to fol­low, and we start with the lighter colours, us­ing a stip­pling mo­tion to en­sure the colour is even. Then we dab the edges to take off any ex­cess.” As she paints, she holds the sten­cil in place with her free hand, care­fully bal­anc­ing the edge of the teapot on the ta­ble. The colour must be bold, but if it is too thick, the glaze will not cover it. “The sten­cilling has de­vel­oped be­yond any­thing I could have imag­ined,” says Stephen.

“The fin­ish the girls cre­ate is fan­tas­tic.” Ap­prox­i­mately 20 teapots can be dec­o­rated per day, de­pend­ing on the com­plex­ity of the de­sign. The paint dries al­most im­me­di­ately on the still-por­ous clay. Once the dec­o­ra­tion is com­plete, the teapot is dipped into a vat of clear table­ware glaze and re­moved, with a glug­ging sound, in one swift move­ment. The glaze con­tains a mix­ture of sand, flint, potash and feldspar, and is bought in ready-made. The teapot is then rubbed on the mat of a foot-wip­ing ma­chine, which re­moves the glaze from the bot­tom to pre­vent it from stick­ing to the shelf in the kiln. The dec­o­ra­tion has be­come ob­scured un­der the opaque glaze, but will reap­pear af­ter fir­ing. The fi­nal fir­ing takes 12 hours and reaches a tem­per­a­ture of ap­prox­i­mately 1,170°C. Once it comes out, shiny and vi­brant, all that re­mains is a qual­ity check by Jane, who smooths the base with a clean­ing stone be­fore it is sent over to the shop. A teapot started on Mon­day can be fin­ished by Fri­day.

Grow­ing ap­peal

As the busi­ness has evolved, Stephen and Jane have recog­nised the need to pur­sue new av­enues. The café pro­vides a hub for peo­ple to meet, and the gar­dens reach out to those who may not have con­sid­ered vis­it­ing the pot­tery. Each com­po­nent com­ple­ments the others. “You can sit out­side and ad­mire the flow­ers or come into the shop and have tea,” says Jane. In the café, the pot­tery’s own cheer­ful green and pur­ple dot mo­tif pre­vails on the crock­ery, and the home­made cakes sit on spe­cially de­signed stands. “We like the fact that we’re mak­ing a use­ful prod­uct which peo­ple will in­ter­act with each day,” says Stephen. “But what is sur­real is walk­ing along the street and see­ing one of your jugs in some­one’s win­dow. You re­alise then that there’s some longevity to what you’ve done.”

The newly cast teapot is re­moved from the mould. Care is taken, as the clay is still soft.

The two halves of the re­us­able plas­ter mould for mak­ing a teapot.

With the mould halves bound to­gether, Stephen pours the slip into the spout.

Dec­o­ra­tor Emily Bon uses mul­ti­ple sten­cils and lay­ers of colour to build up the petals, leaves and sta­mens in the dahlia de­signs.

Left to right: Open­ing the spout with a sharp knife; rough­en­ing the teapot’s sur­face with a sponge to bet­ter ap­ply the paint; stamp­ing the pot­tery logo onto the base of the pot.

Pour­ing a cup of tea from the fin­ished prod­uct, em­bla­zoned with the com­pleted dahlia mo­tif.

Fol­low­ing the bis­cuit fir­ing, a teapot is dipped into a bar­rel of glaze to en­sure it is fully coated.

Glazed pot­tery cool­ing in the kiln, af­ter fir­ing at a tem­per­a­ture of more than 1,000°C.

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