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Left: Core, 2015. Below: Double Green Pot, 1995

‘I’m very attached to the idea of containment; for me, it’s both psychological and the visual thing of that dark hollow,’ says Alison Britton, whose career as a ceramist and critic spans 40 years of making and writing. ‘Having an inside and an outside is very compelling. I explore that difference. Of course, there are all sorts of metaphors about the self.’

Britton’s love of clay started aged nine, at school: ‘I held a lump and it had so many possibilities in it at all stages.’ After a foundation at Leeds and a BA at the Central School of Art, in the early 1970s she completed an MA at the RCA, where she was a leading member of a group of radical ceramists challenging conventional notions of the material. That urge to confront and question is fundamental to her work, always combined with acute intellectual rigour. She constructs her pots from slabs rolled in shallow arcs, painting the surface and, more recently, pulling her fingers across the wet clay to create ridges. She coils the tops before firing, then pours the glaze from a jug. ‘I don’t really plan. I just let it happen to be somewhat unpredictable,’ a spontaneity underpinned by a lifetime of making: ‘It is all about layering, a gradual process.’

Her early pots somehow made the 3D seem 2D: all had a strong graphic presence. Her newest work is much fuller and strangely anthropomorphic. For the prize she is showing Buoy, a fat, almost puffinlike jug, Core, where she has scored the surface with her fingers and Fieldwork, a rounder vessel that seems it is being pulled from a mass of clay, the surface decorated with graphic strokes. ‘I’m dealing with painting and sculpture in my work. I think about form as a sculptor (you to have to move round the pot to understand the whole pot) and surface like a painter. In ceramics you can do both.’

She has had 50 solo exhibitions internationally with a first touring retrospective in 1990 and her latest, Content and Form, at the V&A last year. ‘I gained new strength from seeing my work from four decades together; it gave a sense of the changing journey. It was exciting how they bounced off each other.’

Britton is also an eminent curator and has tutored students at the Royal College of Art since 1984. She is one the foremost writers on art, craft and design, including a seminal book, Seeing Things: Collected Writing on Art, Craft and Design. For her, words are as important a medium as clay.

However, the pot has been her main focus. ‘I have brought new ideas about form and the painted surface to its definition; thinking about function, history, capacity, containment and ornamentation as subjects to explore, and the layering of ambiguity across art and craft, the sculptural and the everyday.’ Corinne Julius


Woman’s Hour Craft Prize 17

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