Anyone who’s ever tried throwing a pot by hand on a wheel will know how incredibly difficult it is to control that spinning lump of wet clay. Imagine then the challenge of hand-throwing fifty or a hundred pots, one after another, all to the same design.
But Master Potter Nick Rees, right-hand man at John Leach’s famous Muchelney Pottery, near Langport, Somerset has achieved that. And much more. As well as taking a major role in producing Muchelney Pottery’s renowned catalogue range of handmade kitchenware for the past forty years, Nick has been closely involved with the pottery shop and the business bookkeeping; managing the crucial and gruelling two-day firing of the pottery kiln, and explaining the workings of the pottery to visitors from all over the world.
John Leach is quick to acknowledge that the continuing success of Muchelney Pottery owes much to Nick’s deft hand, critical eye and potting skills. “He’s amazing. I feel we’re more like partners than employer and employee,” says John. “The shapes of Muchelney pots may be my designs, but Nick is fantastic at interpreting them. And, it may seem a small thing, but he is an absolute master at getting lids to fit! He could make, say, fifty garlic pots with lids – and the lids would all be interchangeable. Incredible.”
Looking back over his forty-year career Nick, a highly intelligent but unassuming man, sums it up: “I’ve been so privileged to work with John at Muchelney. I love the pot designs and my nature is such that I positively enjoy the precision and the discipline needed to achieve and maintain the level of craftsmanship hand-made pottery demands.”
The physical toll of the work is demanding, he admits. Mixing the heavy clay; carrying boards of unfired pots from workshop to kilnshed; incredibly hot, back-breaking hours feeding wood into the kiln. But the rigours have always been immensely rewarding, not only in the satisfaction of mastering the required potting skills but in the excitement of discovery at each kiln opening and in the ultimate contentment of using one’s hands to produce desirable, useful objects.
Even in his spare time, Nick continues to make pots, but to his own personal designs. Pots which, although founded on his years of experience in the Leach tradition, are noticeably different from the sturdy, classic shapes of his “day job”. Nick’s decorative pots have an elegance and a subtle refinement in outline and their surfaces are accentuated by carving and fluting and experiments with slips and glazes.
“Making my own designs has been about finding a voice and making a spiritual statement”, he explains.
Most of his designs are fired in the Muchelney kiln which gives them the unique, organic signature of wood-firing. But two years ago Nick began experimenting with an electric kiln and this has led him to new exploration into the possibilities of oxidised firing, “a process that allows no hiding places.”
Since his first one-man exhibition at a prestigious gallery in Ringwood in 1990, Nick has established a laudable reputation for his distinctive personal work in stoneware and porcelain. More exhibitions have followed and his pots are now for sale in a selection of leading galleries throughout the country. They are also in the Leach Pottery at St Ives and in the gallery at Muchelney Pottery.
It is here that an exhibition is planned for September to celebrate Nick’s achievements over 40 years, with the launch of his latest collection of individual, signed pots.
Nick’s career could have been very different. Somerset-born in 1949, he initially trained as a teacher in creative design at Loughborough College of Education and spent two years teaching woodwork in a Coventry comprehensive school before deciding to change direction and train to be a potter.
But Nick’s teaching abilities have proved very useful at Muchelney. During public kiln opening events at the pottery, he is always on hand to answer visitors’ questions about the making process. “And he has been so good at running a practised eye over the work of students and apprentices who have trained with us over the years,” adds John.
Nick remembers his own 1972 initial “trial period” at Muchelney very clearly. John Leach set him the task of making 150 coffee mugs. After inspecting the finished work, John threw out 148 of the mugs and passed just two as saleable. “I didn’t think he’d keep any of them” was Nick’s reaction.
It was this reaction which helped to convince John that Nick had the right kind of temperament to become a potter and that they would work well together. “I really admired his patience – and I still do,” says John.
John’s confidence was fulfilled. With the aid of a government grant Nick successfully completed his five-year apprenticeship. Then, at John’s suggestion, he left Muchelney temporarily to experience work in Brian and Julia Newman’s nearby Aller Pottery. Three months later he returned and the rest, as they say, is history.
In 1998 Nick was elected a Fellow of the Craft Potters Association and in 2005 was elected a Full Member of the Devon Guild of Craftsmen.
Written by Marian Edwards for John Leach Gallery, June 2012.
Celebrating 40 Years as a Potter – Nick Rees’ Solo Exhibition in the John Leach Gallery at Muchelney Pottery runs from Saturday, September 8 (also an ‘Open Day’), until Wednesday October 10. For more details, opening times, etc, visit www.nickreespotter.co.uk or www.johnleachpottery.co.uk.