Early Spring marked the advent of travel to the far-flung post of the Silk Road, Japan. A wonderful friend, Alix Divine, invited me to join a small group from The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, specialising in Asian art. My immediate interest was, of course, the Six Old Kilns of Japan; Bizen, Tamba, Shigaraki, Seto, Echizen and Tokoname; of which we were to visit two.
Bizen ware is known as some of the oldest pottery in Japan and began with the production of earthenware vessels during the Kofun Period (300 AD). The primary characteristics of Bizen ware are that it is burnt for many days, unglazed, while the ashes of pine wood fly throughout the kiln causing ‘gomma’ or ‘sesame seed’ marks. Rice straw, wrapped around or resting on the pots, determines the colour and appearance of the body and produces a bright and attractive rust marking.
Whether you are familiar with Bizen or not, I highly recommend a visit to the Bizen Pottery Traditional and Contemporary Art Museum, prior to your kiln visit in order to fully understand the complex variations in the firing techniques.
The pots were fired in tunnel kilns that were built half submerged in the ground and many potters came together to fire communally at the great 30 to 50 metre long kilns. One cannot help thinking of the sheer scale of these firings and the massive kilns; the size of which would consume our own garden, along with the chickens and asparagus! These communal kilns produced until the end of the Edo period (1603 – 1868). The potters were protected and Bizen ware was found throughout Japan and was particularly prized for the tea ceremony.
The highlight of our visit was meeting the 17th generation of Bizen potters who were kind enough to show us their kilns, beautiful stacks of pinewood for firings and their exquisitely organised studios; a lesson in ergonomics for us all.
Whilst fashionable tastes wax and wane for these unglazed, natural pots, one phrase from the museum returns to my mind and that is: “The beauty of Bizen pottery is born from the becoming one of nature and man”. Having travelled so far, as a porcelain potter, that one phrase illuminated the point of Bizen ware. It satisfies a yearning in man to be at one with the earth and nature and one can only respect that.
Further East and near Kyoto, Shigaraki presented a wealth of dragon kilns, climbing up the hillside with numerous chambers and a full firing taking place; apparently for several weeks under constant supervision. So I left Japan in awe of their ceramics, meticulous cloud pruning, curatorship of historical material and had also experienced some culinary peaks.
Inspired on my return, I set about developing a new and subtle glaze, which would allow the texts to be appreciated without distraction. I was full of intrepidation when I opened the kiln as I had mixed the batch late at night and found I was short of quartz. I ran the firing anyway. It was still slightly warm when I opened the kiln and the light was warm and golden as the studio faces East. The glaze had worked. I was transported back to a happy afternoon in Damascus, being introduced to fine pastries stuffed with ‘Kashta’, a type of delicious clotted cream flavoured with rose or orange water. So, this glaze is for Anissa Helou, the Culinary Queen who was responsible for that happy day. If you would like the recipe and firing details, I would be more than happy to share my luck with you.
If you would like to read more about Japanese ceramics, you can visit
Anissa Helou’s website is at
With thanks also to Dr Nicole Rousmaniere, Professor of Japanese Art and Culture at the University of East Anglia.
‘Sussex Pottery’ conjures up the image of that particular type of earthenware or ‘brownware’ as it is affectionately known by some, produced in the county from the late 18th century up until the 20th. Indeed, pottery has been made in the county since medieval times, serving the rural communities with deeply functional items such as flagons, flasks, hot water bottles, butter churns and even roof tiles; humble and beautiful, in their own right, to the farming villages which they served.
I learned this type of pottery at school under the expert tuition of a devoted potter, using clay from Stoke, St Thomas’ body. Handbuilding, coiling, throwing and rolling were the order of the day; yet I had a yearning for something else. I wanted to make a different type of vessel that would combine functionality with beauty. We experimented with glazes, but none of the colours spoke of the tranquillity and serenity that I sought. I knew about porcelain, but the cost was prohibitive. What I didn’t know, until decades later, was that a white body was needed to carry the celadon hues that I imagined.
Moving on several decades, I now have a quiet studio where I work mainly in porcelain. All the bowls are hand thrown on the wheel, the glazes made up to adapted recipes and then fired at around 1200 degrees centigrade in an electric kiln. In addition to learning to throw in porcelain, I study classical Arabic so that I can read and write out the texts onto the porcelain. Historically, the writing materials would consist of colbalt brushwork under the glaze or lustres painted on the surface. I use both, in addition to a specially adapted ceramic pen to write more extensive texts, between the first and the second firing. It’s a time consuming business, but one that gives me the greatest pleasure. Due to the exchange of artistry between the East and the West, along the Silk Road, Arabic texts were found on ceremonial bowls in the Imperial Court during the Tang Dynasty and the highly prized material of porcelain made its way out of China in an Easterly direction. It is this particular exchange of ideas that fascinates me; the influence of one culture upon another. Whilst my work does not fit in the mould of what is viewed as ‘Sussex Pottery’ (I don’t allow brown glazes in the studio) I hope that the intrigue of the studio will unfold on these pages and the images will provide some of the tranquillity, in form and colour, that I sought.
On a less esoteric journey, I will unfold my first foray into using a reduction kiln where the oxygen is leached out of the kiln, causing the fine and subtle array of celadons that were developed in China, Japan and Korea. This will be the real alchemy of ceramics and I look forward to sharing it with you.