Sunday, 7 December 2008

Isaac Button, Country Potter.

Isaac Button was a country potter in my part of England, near Halifax, -Soil Hill Pottery, which had been working since the early 1700s belonged to him. Robert Fournier (I think it's Robert in the film carrying the board of pots away) and John Anderson made this film in 1963-64. The full film is about forty minutes long. I don't know if it is still available.

Update:March 26th, 2009.... Almost 40 minutes worth of Isaac, which I think is the full film, now posted HERE

In the Independent, November 18th, 1995, John Windsor wrote:
"Isaac Button was a true English country potter. In a day, he could turn a ton of clay into pots. I timed him as he threw a lump of clay on to the wheel, pulled it high, then cut it off with wire: 22 seconds. In an hour, he could turn out 120 pots. In a day, 1,200.
Button's kiln, at Soil Hill, near Halifax, now lies cold and desolate. He died in 1969. But the 41-minute video that records his dexterity had me on the edge of my seat. In his day, speed was essential. Even before the packaging revolution, household pots and jugs made from clay were treated as disposables. They cost only a few pence. Craftsmen potters had to be quick to earn a living from poorly-paid villagers.
Unlike other mass-produced art, hand-thrown pots seem to look better the faster they are turned out. The potter's skill improves with practice - yet there is no time for pretentiousness. Hence the charm of English country pottery made for cooking, baking, brewing, storing, growing seedlings or feeding chickens.
The founders of British 20th century studio pottery - Bernard Leach, Michael Cardew and the Japanese Shoji Hamada - sought out the few remaining English country potters and copied their techniques. But their debt to them is often overlooked and English country pottery remains largely undiscovered. There are fewer than a dozen collectors, few textbooks and no national collection. By contrast, the Japanese prize our country pottery, as do American folk art enthusiasts.
On 29 November, the first private collection of English country pottery to come to auction is at Bonhams - 85 lots discovered over 20 years by the artist-designers Peter Highley and Ruth Scott-Walton in markets and shops, in particular where the last country potteries clung on: Cornwall, north Devon, Dorset and Yorkshire.
Mr Highley defined its appeal: "The old country potters did not think of themselves as artists. But there is a purity and an honesty in their work that is sometimes missing from more refined contemporary studio ceramics."
By 1900 England had only 100 country potteries and by the end of the depression a mere dozen. There has been a pottery at Soil Hill since the 17th century. Before the war it employed 13 men. After that, Button could find no more apprentices and worked it alone for 18 years.
Most of the pots in the sale are "slipware", slip being creamy white diluted clay. Red earthenware was either dipped in it or decorated with it. The country glaze was galena, toxic lead sulphide, now illegal, that gave potters "bellyache" if they pulverised it when dry.
There are some Victorian remnants from Soil Hill in the sale: three bulbous jugs with cream slip interiors are estimated pounds 80-pounds 140 the lot. At the turn of the century, few earthenware cooking utensils cost more than 7d - pounds 1.60 today. In 1964, Button's 28lb cider jars cost 28s - pounds 14 today.
Button's strength and endurance were Herculean. The ton of clay he could pot in a day he dug himself from the hillside. Each firing of his 500 cubic foot kiln had to be stoked with two and half tons of coal at six firemouths. That kept him up for 48 hours or more at a time, during which he would climb on to the hot kiln roof, even in gales, to pull out test firings.
Once he had emptied the kiln he would begin barrowing to the wheel blocks of clay that he had processed: first blunged (mixed with water), sieved, dried on a stone floor heated by the kiln and twice pugged (compressed); all the time he smoked his pipe.
Button did, somehow, find leisure time, maintaining that he never left a pub on the same day that he entered it.
Bernard Leach, the father of British studio pottery, sought him out, wanting to know how much grog (gritty bits) he added to the clay of his "bigware". The dry Yorkshireman told him: "I have enough trouble gettin' t' bloody stuff out wi'out puttin' it in."
Me Again: Some years ago I wandered over the land at soil hill, picking up broken shards. The buildings are dilapidated, on a bleak hillside. In the pub opposite I found two old men who had known Isaac, and talked about him, the way he would stride down the hill at the end of the day, ready for a long session of ale.

Apparently, despite what John Windsor said, he lived there with his brother, and they worked together, but following some argument, years ago they would not speak to each other. They'd talk volubly with others, but if asked anything that referred to the other, they'd say "Tha'll 'ave ter ask 'im, Ah dooant knaw".
The brother died first, Isaac kept on until 1965, when ill health forced him to retire, he died in 1969, last of an era.
In pubs and cottages around, you'll see his pots, often regarded as just old things of no real value, though the antiques market has in fact seen a sharp rise in values, especially of marked pots clearly attributable to Isaac. He'd have laughed and shaken his head, "Dooant be daft, They's nobbut clay".

Disclaimer... I was once a potter, maybe I still am.

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  1. You a potter? Yes. That sounds right. And you are keeping up with your part of the pub part too, I thinks. Take care my friend.

  2. ummmm......errrrrr......i'm headed out to the garage of multiplying boxes to hunt down my old 'scarlet o'hara' fan.

    i'm feeling a bit flushed and fluttery at the moment.

    there's definitely something about a pair of potter's hands ...

  3. Once a potter always a potter! Brilliant post I never tire of seeing this clip, thanks for sharing.

  4. Max, I've not been an active potter for a while, but as Matt says, below your comment, once a potter, always a potter.
    I'll expound on the subject of pottery one of these days. Oh, and follow Matt's link, He's a potter, making contemporary work, in the old-english slipware tradition. In a world of instant gratification, plastics, and soul-less machines stamping conformity on our world, there are still potters who, with a handful of mud, a few crushed stones, and some flames, will create for you a thing of beauty, to hold in your hand, yet which can last for seven thousand years.

    Red Dirt Mule! Careful with the Scarlett O'Hara stuff, do I detect a Southern rising?

    I must say that clay keeps the fingers smooth, supple, and sensitive. Was that what was flustering you? Well, Mule, sounds like you need a brisk rub down......
    Matt, I wish I could find more clips like this, I wonder if any of Mick Casson's old BBC2 series is available?

  5. I'm pretty sue that you might know of this one ... enjoy if you don't!

  6. And you really should check out this ...

    Some great audio and film clips, sorry i'll stop with the pot nerd thing now!

  7. Matt:- I've seen some Cardew clips but never that one. He made me laugh in his comments on how strength becomes replaced with cunning, I looked at him, an old man of 82, yet not an old man in his mind, still lively, and, just as he said, wielding cunning and a lifetime of skill, where another might have fought that piece of clay. I suppose it was about ten years before that when I met him.... no, just looked in his book, Pioneer Pottery, I kept the exhibition's blurb tucked in the flyleaf, it was 1976.
    I got the impression that he could be a lovely man, but also that he could be sharp and intolerant when provoked. Someone asked a question after he had given his talk and slide presentation, revealing themselves to be advocates of modernism and seeing his methods as akin to Luddism, and he gave no quarter in his reply, which, paraphrased, was "Well, why the hell did you come to a show about a craft which you think is obsolete? Go home and play with your tupperware."

    The media collection looks promising...........
    I'll sift through it later.

    P.S. re the Midland Potters Association...
    I won a bronze medal in the Midland Potter's Olympics in 1990! It was a great day of fun.

  8. well ..... i might be nickering just a bit.

    finding the old fashioned pleated fan, inherited from my great grand-mule, reminds me how she taught a young mulette that it is quite appropriate to use one's fan when one is feeling ... 'fluttery.'

    and as my barnyard experienced a rare southern snow yesterday - then i suppose you could safely ascertain flushed and fluttery are not weather related phenomenons.

    even a red dirt mule needs a bit of 'gentling,' now and again. and a pair of potter's hands appear quite capable of such a task.

    smooth, supple and sensitive ... i think you just validated my dreamy thoughts ...

  9. ps. your potter talk has me quite intrigued, and i have enjoyed visiting your friends' sites. a pity i cannot pick up a piece, feel its weight and texture in my hooves. see how it moves ...

    in fact, all have inspired me to write my own potters piece - with gratitude for your creative abilities. i have high regard for the work of an artist's hands.

    the piece is still outside in the grain hopper. this mule stays in her stall during cold weather. as soon as the sunshine returns ... i'll send a notecard by chikkin mail ... i hear that some chikkins are quite motivated to fly fast !!

  10. I saw your writings on pottery, Mule, and loved the pictured examples.
    As for the notecard and the grain hopper, is it wise to let the chikkins roam outside when they might figure out how to get into the grain hopper?
    It would be goldrush time for chikkindom.

    I see you have posted a fine ceramic donkey piece. Could that perhappenstance be one of your forbears...
    Oh no.. of course not... There were only three bears in Goldilocks' story, and no matter how disguised, the fourth bear could not pass as a donkey..........

  11. I've watched that clips probably twenty times since I first saw it one some one's blog a couple months ago. It bowls me over every time. I would really love to find a copy of that whole film. I was curious for more info on Isaac but couldn't find any, so thanks for what you've written.

  12. As chikkins tend to look down as they peck away and not up, i have not had any problems with my grain hopper as of yet .... but thanks to you, dear soubry, you might have just let the grain out of the hopper !!!

    for that, i must rap your knuckles lightly twice with my folded fan. ouch? of course- it's supposed to OUCH ... and remind you to keep your manners whilst conversing with a Lady Mule .....

    I see you are rather Grimm'ly confused with your stories, sir soubry. perchance have you abandoned your usual 'assam' tea?

    sigh... I see I will have to post a lineage piece to 'clear the donkey air' on this one.
    haven't people figured this out yet:



  13. A ton of clay - I figure that here in Canada that is about 45 to 50 boxes of clay. i don't use that much in a year.

    Great film clip and thanks for the additional info. It makes the film clip even more meaningful.


  14. At one time I was probably at about half a ton a day, but that was with assistants to prepare, and to carry the clay to me, and finished boards of pots away. It's hard to keep up that rate though, I'd get to the point where my hands bled and the outside world disappeared.
    Luckily, at the same period, I had to do the firings too, so that would give me a day of not throwing as I concentrated on the kiln, tweaking air and fuel, and savouring the music of flame.

  15. Hey there, I just wanted to let you know that I had used one of your pictures in a blog I posted about Isaac Button. If you do not approve, I'll be glad to oblige. Thanks!

  16. Many Thanks..I ran into this video and I am a convert. Issac is my new pottery hero. I only wish he had passed on his trade to one of us. Does anyone know if you can buy a copy of this anywhere????

  17. Dear Soubriquet, thank you very much for this enthralling post. I am yet another potter who counts Button as a hero.

    I drew on your piece for this article and linked to your blog:

  18. Thanks for the local information on a pottery I have looked to for direction for years .. I had time at Wetheriggs Pottery and also worked in the Village of Ewenny Across from the Jenken's family in Glamorgamshire . I know Harald Thorburn of Wetheriggs, George Curtis of Littlethorpe and Mr Button have all given so much to the world of English country pottery / Thanks for a great site . Yours Guy Wolff Bantam Ct USA

  19. Guy; ! Welcome, friend.
    You, as I see from your website, are amongst the few who can really understand the video of Isaac.
    You and I have trodden the same path at different times. It seems you learned better than I did, and stayed on the path.
    I missed Ewenny out, though.

    I'll post a video of you throwing, if you don't mind, as you're carrying the
    tradition forward.

  20. Hello soubriquet , It only took a year for me to re find this ...I have started talking to Doug Fitch on Facebook and have seen some great pots also from Hannah McAndrew who has kept the Wetheriggs tradition going forward ..George Curtus at Littlethorpe had some nice things to say about Mr Button as well . I bet his son Rolly could give you some great stories .. All the best for this year !!! Guy


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