Read the article and collection of photography by Angus D. Birditt captured when he visited the family-run Whichford Pottery in Warwickshire.
Whichford Pottery has been a family business since 1976. Founded by Dominique and Master Potter Jim Keeling, the pottery is now one of the largest hand making potteries in Europe. Jim, alongside his eldest son, Adam, now spearheads over twenty-five potters and makers to continue both the legacy of Whichford Pottery but also the ancient process of pottery making itself.
The pottery itself is large and spread over three floors. Each floor is made up of a series of irregular-sized rooms jutting off here and there like a life-sized maze, not of yew hedges and box but of wooden walls covered with a fine layer of clay. When I arrived in the early afternoon, every room we went in, and passed through, was flooded by natural light and smelt strongly of clay, either wet or fired – all part and parcel to being in the heart of a working pottery.
As I meandered through the rooms, I met all sorts of makers from Whichford Pottery, from decorators working on minute pots and spinning small plates, to throwers creating huge six-foot vases, which were appropriately named ‘Giant Jars’. The latter was when I first met Adam Keeling, Jim’s eldest son. By the look of Adam, you would immediately think he went to the gym every day for several hours, portraying what my late grandmother would describe as a ‘strapping young man’, or in my case, a big burly bloke. However, the real reason behind Adam's picture of athleticism is throwing a ton of clay each week, a physique that would have been a more familiar sight in the late 18th Century when the potteries were nationwide, and thousands of potters would be throwing clay everyday for decades.
Adam takes me through the whole process in the pottery, from starting with the right clay to refining the finished product. First and foremost, he tells me, you need the right clay to throw. The clay that Whichford Pottery uses is a mix of three different types of British clay from Blockley, Ironbridge and Suffolk. He notes that the mixture they have created is perfect for hardiness, durability and finish, turning a deep terracotta colour when fired in the kiln. This mixture is formed in the Clay Room, where over six tons of it passes through each week.
To create the mixture, they blend the three clays with water in a blunger. A blunger is a deep pit with a metal mixing arm, which combines the clays and water to make thick slurry. The clay-water mixture is then taken through an incredibly fine filtering machine, refining the clay by removing any grit or sediment and any surplus water. The clay is then ‘pugged’, a process similar to kneading in baking, in which the clay is prepared into a fine texture. This makes the clay easier to work with later on when it is passed to the potters. It is not only pugged once, but three times – twice after the filtering is done, and a third time after the clay has been aged for four months.
After the clay is ready to be thrown, it is passed up to the potters and onto their wheels to create the huge range of products that comes out of Whichford Pottery. At this point, with a fresh ball of clay on his wheel, Adam effortlessly demonstrates to me the ‘three-pull’ method, when the clay is pulled, raised and shaped – a technique that goes back several thousands years. Once they have been shaped and decorated, the clay pots and works are dried on racks. Just before the pots are completely dry, they are stamped with the ‘Whichford’ logo and placed neatly into a kiln. The pottery has seventeen kilns on site. Each kiln is like a puzzle, when it’s time for the team to try and fit in as many pots and clay works in the space as possible. Once the pots have been fired in the kiln, they come out gleaming in their famous rich terracotta or shining in their particular coloured glaze. The six tons of clay they use each week amounts to over 600 flowerpots. You can visit the family-run Whichford Pottery in Whichford, Warwickshire.