Monday, 9 January 2012

May I introduce you to Our Great Leader?

Happy New Year! Here we all are with our noses pressed firmly against the grindstone once more.

Jim trying to decipher my handwriting
The Big Cheese
I have decided to do an occasional series introducing you to some of the people and processes at Whichford Pottery and it seems logical to start with Jim Keeling - the man with whom the buck stops. He is the founder of and, after 35 years, still the main creative force behind Whichford Pottery. This is not a comprehensive, balanced view, it is Jim as I see him!

I took the photo on the right when we were working on the planting plan for a show garden. He likes to say that he taught me everything I know about gardening - but I don't rise to that one any more, I know that he still needs me to remember the plant names, their colours and where they like to live. Best of all he just lets me get on with the gardening and doesn't interfere. Well, not much anyway.

We argue about colours, pruning, compost making... This is a part of his 'management' style - friendly argument amidst creative chaos. It usually works.
His employees find him both infuriating and entertaining and we treat him with a healthy disrespect which he seems to tolerate, even to encourage.

The Keelings' garden at Whichford
Jim and his wife Dominique have a beautiful, rambling, family garden at their house next door to the pottery. It is open once a year under the NGS scheme and occasionally for special Whichford Pottery events.

Jim enjoys gardening, he is fast and messy and has enormous flair. When I came to work for the pottery he taught me how to plant flowerbeds randomly and encouraged me to plant pots extravagantly, once telling me what I had done was "prissy". That still rankles, to be honest.

Big is Beautiful
Most of all, of course, Jim is a potter. He has written elsewhere about his early inspiration and training so I'll just tell you a little about what he does at the moment.
Over the last few years he has refined his methods of making truly enormous flowerpots, more details of which you can find here:
I am talking pots you can fit a whole family in (or, if you are being sensible, a large tree).

Huge Karatsu Pot
There are other names for it.

In the photo below he is preparing the clay for throwing one piece of a three-piece pot .

Massive pots are thrown on the wheel like the other pots but in sections which are joined together, one on top of the other. This requires a lot of strength and extremely accurate throwing skills. Then the pot has to dry (without cracking) before being moved downstairs and fired in the kiln (without cracking). I still find it completely astonishing that the Whichford team can now produce these consistently well.

Jim dabbling in slips and glazes in his studio
Jim still enjoys making smaller things; he and Dominique are well known for their sgraffito ware, which Jim throws and Dominique decorates. Jim also likes to experiment with wood-fired kilns (leave him unsupervised for five minutes and he'll build another one) and different techniques and styles, many inspired by visits to Japan.

Big in Japan
Ah yes, Japan. We sell many flowerpots in Japan and have wonderful, faithful customers there. This gives Jim the opportunity to go there regularly, which he loves. I have been twice and I love it too, but Jim really throws himself into it. He enjoys the culture, the great ceramic traditions and the love of craftsmanship.

Admiring a collection of tea bowls in a private house in Kyoto
Oishii desu ne!
He also takes full advantage of the hospitality. I thought I was doing pretty well, eating (and enjoying) unfamiliar japanese foods but my revered boss munched his way through everything and anything, jet lag or no jet lag. He even seemed to love the mamushi sake he was served in one bar, which had a snake in the bottom of the bottle. I had a sip - tasted vaguely fishy, not a taste I enjoy in an alcoholic beverage.
It wasn't designed for ladies anyway, the bar owner explained: it is supposed to increase virility.

Mr Big
Back in Britain, sculpture is another string to Our Great Leader's bow. He recently made an enormous statue of Humphry Repton for Alan Titchmarsh and has created quite a few other figures, some of whom lurk at the pottery and on murky evenings make me jump. Again, see

Is the resemblance between Jim and Humphry Repton coincidental?
The Big Idea
Jim also makes more abstract sculpture, some of which I don't understand, some I find absolutely stunning. I'll save the Golden Cypress Tree for another post because I have so many good pictures of the creation process, too many to squeeze in here. Let me just say that it was yet another occasion when we all scoffed and said,"It'll never work" and of course he managed it. Here's a scaled-down version of it in Jim's garden:

 If you are looking for him at this time of year just follow the sound of choral music to his studio, which is tucked behind the kilns. This room, littered with sketches, postcards, shards of Roman pottery, Japanese sake cups and home-made tools all covered with a fine layer of clay dust, is where he's working on the latest range of pot designs. Here's a little video to give you a small glimpse, my apologies for the lousy camerawork, it was my first go with the pottery's camera!


  1. I have often wondered how they made those huge pots. Thanks for the insight, very interesting

  2. Great post, Harriet! And I thought the video was quite good, actually! Will look forward to more in this series!

  3. Thank you both! An encouraging start to the new year. I'm going to try to do a few more 'behind the scenes' posts until there is too much gardening to do...