In 1979 when Andrew Matheson left art school he vowed to forge a career making pots. “And that is just what I have done,” he says. Andrew works in porcelain and stoneware.
For Matheson, chairman of Midland Potters and an elected member of the Royal Birmingham Society of Artists (RBSA), his making has been a process of refinement that started off with concentrating more on the form. “In the 1980s I’d finish a piece with an overall glaze”, now, 40 years on, having mastered a huge range of skills and knowledge, Matheson is enjoying exploring the process of decoration. “Although I’m influenced by the classic oriental blue-and-white ware my designs are more abstract and freer. I’m purely interested in pattern work and have no desire to paint a scene as with willow pattern”.
Using various techniques, slip trailing, waxing and masking out areas, with sponging or brushwork, areas of pattern are built up. This is applied during various stages of production. For instance, Matheson makes a stencil using Copydex latex glue and then with a sponge dabs glaze onto the surface. “Recently” he says, I’ve taken a brush to make patterns and I build these patterns up with layers of colour and tone”. He continues, “Decoration can be a risky business but it’s only by making mistakes that you learn; you’ve got to be so careful because the pot can collapse if it gets too wet”.
The final surface effect only appears once the glaze firing is completed. His porcelain (Matheson uses either Potclay’s 1146 or now their J B Porcelain) is fired to cone 10 reduction. The work is bisque fired and finished using a Cornish stone glaze. “The large jars, ginger jars and other pieces all have a blue- and-white decoration based on cobalt oxide applied either as a blue slip under the glaze or on-glaze decoration,” Andrew explains. Various strengths create certain finishes and tones. One of his blue-and-white pieces was auctioned to raise funds for the RBSA and fetched £280. “There’s now an auction record of my work, helping to give it that all important provenance.”
When the weather’s too cold and Matheson doesn’t always fancy throwing with clay he doodles in his sketchbook and comes up with ideas “that keep my work progressing”.
First influenced by an exhibition of pottery by Japanese artist Kondo Takahiro at the Royal Scottish Museum in 1995 this blue-and-white ware was an exciting proposition for Andrew. “I mix a very light blue (quarter-of-a-per-cent) and a normal blue (two per cent). The skill is in the measuring and the mixing. I measure a pint of blue slip (two-per cent) and a pint of stoneware or porcelain slip and mix it and get one-per-cent blue or lighter blue depending upon the ratio. Mix again and it reduces the percentage of blue.” For darker shades he uses iron or manganese with the cobalt, which result in a blacker finish. Matheson is further inspired by watching other potters work. “One at Aberystwyth poured water with oxide over tiles delivering interesting results.”
Continually looking at ways of improving his decoration Matheson is exploring using silk screen and paper stencils to create his decals and has already found a supplier. It takes him one week to produce a pot, with the first three days dedicated to throwing. “I throw a cylinder of between eight and nine pounds then expand the form to create the rounded vase. Often I produce more of a certain item to allow for breakages. The other day I made eight pots and got six.” The following days are devoted to finishing pieces and then two days of decoration follow. “I decorate with slip. If putting on a very colourful design I don’t want it to break. I work on six at a time doing a bit on each.”
Matheson has made over 2,000 mugs with handles and 6,000 different forms. “I’ve probably made 30 large plates. They’re very difficult to make. I get more problems with plates than anything else. If I make a mistake I throw it away and get a new piece on the wheel. I can make 40 shapes in two hours.”
Despite Matheson’s patience and experience he can find imperfections in his work when removed from the kiln. “If I find a blemish on my stoneware or porcelain I make a powered version of the glaze mixed with honey or golden syrup and it sticks. I then re-fire. Another way is to mix Epsom salts, but I can never get it right.”
If I find a blemish on my stoneware or porcelain I make a powered version of the glaze mixed with honey or golden syrup and it sticks.
His ambition is to make “very large pots like Grayson Perry’s” but admits this is incredibly difficult to do. “I saw an exhibition featuring slab pots four to five feet high and eight inches wide. They were wonderful.” To achieve this Matheson has to “build up the courage to throw 20 pounds of porcelain at a time”. “I’m really quite pleased with the eight or nine pounds that I currently use.”
When the weather’s too cold and Matheson doesn’t always fancy throwing with clay he doodles in his sketchbook and comes up with ideas “that keep my work progressing”. Over the last few years Andrew has been developing his tree landscape pieces. “These sell well. They also realise better prices than some of my other work, at the moment I’ve got 31 tree pieces that need glazing and firing.”
Although he retired from full-time teaching in 2009, Matheson still keeps his hand in. “I like to help the next generation of potters.” Since 2013 he has been teaching one day a week at King Edward VI High School for Girls in Birmingham. “The students are delightful. I really enjoy watching their progress; they make some great pots.”
Matheson had a successful teapot exhibition at the RBSA gallery in 2017 and his work will feature in the Creative Coverage Summer Exhibition at Artizan Gallery, Torquay from August 25 to 31, 2018. He also hopes to exhibit with the Midland Potters Association in Worcester Cathedral in August 2018. Matheson is currently working on a commission to make cappuccino cups and saucers.
Tim Saunders is a journalist who writes about subjects including ceramics, art, celebrities, travel and motoring.
All images courtesy of the author.