Later this year, Clay College Stoke – potter Lisa Hammond’s new technical college bringing essential skills back into ceramics education – will be opening for its very first intake of students. In this article, published in our Summer 2017 magazine, we took a look at vital teaching Lisa’s new project will provide.

film and images (except below of Lisa Hammond) courtesy of Clay College Stoke

‘We’re at crisis point’, says Lisa Hammond. Widely regarded as Britain’s busiest potter, she is no stranger to the pressures of public work. Over the last two decades, in addition to producing pots at the very forefront of modern studio ceramics, she has found time to run pottery courses from her Maze Hill studio in Greenwich, personally taken on twelve apprentices, and, after founding her highly successful charity programme ‘Adopt a Potter’, has overseen thirteen funded apprenticeships with working potters across the country.

Twelve months ago she was awarded an MBE for services to ceramics and the preservation of craft skills, and this September plans to launch her most ambitious enterprise yet: Clay College Stoke, set to be the UK’s leading, dedicated technical college for studio ceramics. The words ‘slow down’ have no place in Hammond’s go-getting vocabulary; but even so, the task she has set herself seems colossal.

Her latest venture, to be based at Middleport Pottery in Stoke-On-Trent, addresses the crisis in question: the near-total closure of graduate ceramics courses across Britain, and the substandard teaching and facilities at those that have managed to cling on and survive. Kate Malone – celebrated ceramic artist, BBC’s Great Pottery Throwdown judge, and fellow trustee of the college – is just one of many ceramists to lament their demise: ‘When I did my degree, back in the early eighties, there were more than fifty three-year degree courses specialising in ceramics. Now we believe there are less than ten.’

That number is surely dwindling further as cuts to university departments see technical teaching squeezed to breaking point. Kilns and wheels are deemed too expensive for colleges that don’t already possess them, and the imposition of Health and Safety on higher education art departments has left pre-university ceramics teaching virtually non-existent: there is no place for clay in our sterile school system.

‘Adopt a Potter’ apprentice Fleen Doran gains hands-on experience with a wood-fired kiln

These difficulties are compounded by a waning supply of good teachers – many of the most skilled working potters today who benefitted from a ‘golden age’ of post-war ceramics teaching are now approaching their seventies – and a major change of emphasis within courses across the board. In a move to align ceramics with the world of fine art, the focus has shifted from craft and technique to so-called ‘design’, and from functional studio pottery to sculptural work at the expense of structured practical teaching.

Master potter Phil Rogers discusses the broader issue: ‘We now see a kind of two tier segregation in ceramics. Magazines, exhibitions and conferences tend to concentrate on the conceptual while relegating other work to a small percentage of content; pots are now very much in the minority. All of this reflects the way that the potter’s wheel and the fundamentals of process have been side-lined in our colleges and the skills and techniques required to make anything in ceramics, never mind a good pot, are neglected to the point where students leave college unable to fire a kiln, or without knowing how to mix a glaze or even how glazes work.’

electric kilns and workbenches in the Clay College facilities at Middleport Pottery

Clay College’s prospective programme looks to be taking teaching back to these essential basics. Over a two-year, fulltime course starting for the first time in September later this year, fourteen students will learn the fundamentals of hand-thrown ceramics, from throwing to firing and building kilns from scratch. Supplementing this core teaching will be lectures and masterclasses from well-established visiting potters, as well as a planned artist-in-residence scheme and overseas exchanges.

Significantly, students will also be taught the basics of running a workshop, from marketing and selling their own work to the subsidiary tasks of studio management and financial organisation – something lacking not just from current ceramics courses but university art departments more generally.

Middleport Pottery, home of Burleigh pottery and set location for the BBC’s ‘The Great Pottery Throwdown’ 

When deciding where to house the college, Hammond put the question to the ceramic community and received a resounding response of ‘Stoke-on-Trent’. Home to the Wedgwood and Royal Doulton industrial potteries, the Staffordshire town is steeped in the history of British ceramics, its familiar kilns funnelling into the sky like giant milk bottles.

In Middleport Pottery, the great red brick complex where Clay College’s facilities will be held, Hammond and her fellow trustees have found a functioning space where clay and glaze supplies and the surrounding infrastructure are perfectly placed to make sourcing materials and gaining practical experience as easy as possible for future students. ‘We share the same ethos’, Hammond says. ‘There couldn’t be a better place to set this up.’

the Prince of Wales Studio, named after the pottery’s founding patron

As with any project of such scope, funding remains the greatest impediment. Of the £200,000 required to set up the college for its first year, over £154,000 has been raised so far through a number of innovative charitable events, many of them utilising the international reach of social media to seek help from ceramics enthusiasts and collectors overseas.

The number of donations and contributions flooding in from abroad reiterates that the mission Hammond has undertaken here is not just about the immediate future of ceramics teaching in the UK; it has broader implications of supporting an increasingly interconnected and intergenerational community, from enthusiastic amateurs to highly skilled professionals across the globe. ‘I want young people snapping at my heels’, says Malone excitedly, ‘doing what I do and doing more than I do. Really, it’s that mix between older generations and younger ones that is going to give to our field.’

freshly wedged clay, ready to be used

Clay College will open for its first intake this September. Application numbers were reassuringly high – a welcome sign that the appetite is there among young creative minds for real technical expertise. Here’s to their deserved success, and to an exciting new chapter in ceramics education.

Learn more about Clay College and how you can help here >