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Ceramic Review is the magazine for contemporary and historical ceramics, ceramic art and pottery.

Ceramic Review Issue 328

July/August 2024

John Dawson takes us through the techniques and processes he uses to make an agate ware bottle in three pieces

I am a thrower. As a child, our neighbour had a Leach kick wheel in their garage and I was completely mesmerised, watching as they created what I thought was magic. Music probably had a lot to do with it too. I was learning the piano at the time and could see and feel the rhythm in the art of throwing on a potter’s wheel.

I come from New Zealand where, at the time, the ceramics were influenced and dominated by the Leach tradition. In other words, everything was brown. There was no formal training other than night school classes, so most people went to night school then built a shed in their back garden and had a kiln that was fired with either sump oil or wood. We all learned from many mistakes, and I can assure you, there were many.

I came to London in the 1970s to seek out my Scottish heritage but was completely taken by what was on offer in the UK compared to New Zealand and never went back. To keep my hand in and fulfill my desire to make functional objects, I went to classes in London that kept me in touch with clay.

Jumping ahead a few years, I had a menial job that paid reasonably well, which afforded me the opportunity to attend concerts, theatre, exhibitions and to pursue my other passion, music. I went to Trinity College of Music in London, to study the organ and harpsichord, specialising in Baroque music. While doing this, I still had the desire to make objects in clay. 

My menial job came to an end with redundancy. The financial package gave me enough money to study ceramics in a more formal way and I was fortunate to be accepted on what turned out to be the very last postgraduate ceramics diploma course at the Goldsmiths, University of London, where I was exposed to the most wonderful tutors, namely Magdalene Odundo and Lisa Hammond. Magdalene encouraged me look at form and Lisa helped me polish my throwing skills. It was during this year that I was given the chance to specialise and work with porcelain, which I still use today

After graduating from Goldsmiths, I took a technician job at Putney School of Art and Design. After a while I was offered a teaching post and through this I was approached by HMP Pentonville which asked if I would be interested in covering a term to teach ceramics. Then within a week, HMP Holloway contacted  me to ask if I would take over the teaching post of ceramics. I said yes as it was full time and I gave up teaching at Pentonville.

I always kept my contact with Putney School of Art and Design as I saw this as my safety valve. Dealing with inmates who have extreme mental health issues can be very stressful, so I needed some normality and Putney provided just that. I spent 18 years teaching at Holloway. Meanwhile, I was still quietly working in my studio at the end of my garden.

For this Masterclass feature, I will be demonstrating how I make an agate ware bottle made in three pieces. Music plays an important part of my making. I love the feeling of movement and rhythm and the sense of one-off pieces. In music there is always an element that every performance will be different with a little embellishment here and there. I treat my work in ceramics the same way. With agate ware there is always an element of surprise, but it still gives me that feeling of excitement and movement within a performance.

For more details visit johndawsonporcelain.com

Videography & photography: Layton Thompson