Potter of imaginative hybrid style
many ways, the potter Edward Hughes is one of Britain's unsung treasures
- his pots were better known in Japan than in his own country. Inspired
like Bernard Leach before him by the pots and philosophy of the
East, in particular Japan and China, Hughes brought together the
contemplative, quiet qualities of Oriental work with the vigour
and energy of slip-decorated earthenware in pots that were fired
in a reduction kiln to high temperature.
His sensitive shapes and deep, rich, earthy colours are a harmonious
and pleasing blend of influences from contrasting cultures. Hughes
was at the peak of his powers when he died - aged 52, in a mountaineering
accident in the Lake District.
From an early age he was attracted to work with clay. At school
in Lancaster, a charismatic teacher, Barry Gregson, introduced him
to potting, and he was immediately enthralled by its qualities.
Resisting more academic pressures, Hughes insisted on studying pottery
at A level, much against his head teacher's advice. He went on to
what was then Cardiff School of Art before studying for a degree
in the more romantic atmosphere of Bath Academy at Corsham Court.
This was followed by a period with Ray Finch at Winchcombe Pottery,
a workshop securely grounded in the ethic of making high-quality
pots for use on the table or around the home.
Attracted by the idea of studying in Japan and to the possibility
of encountering Japanese pots and making techniques and processes
first-hand, while waiting for news of a Japanese government scholarship
Hughes took work at a pottery in Somerset. There he was expected
to throw a hundred mugs in a day; for the first time doubts arose
about the repetitive, machine-like quality of the process and he
knew that this path was not for him. By contrast, his time in Japan
was an endless source of discovery, and he spent 18 happy months
at art school in Kyoto, leading to his first one-person show in
On the success of the exhibition he was able to set up his own studio
with his wife, Shizuko, settling in an old country property north
of Kyoto by Lake Biwa. Here he combined Eastern techniques such
as high-temperature reduction firing in an oil kiln with an awareness
of the liveliness of slip-decorated earthenware, resulting in an
imaginative hybrid style that appealed to the Japanese for its English
For five years he successfully showed at one-person exhibitions
in Kyoto, Osaka and Tokyo, but a visit to see the slipwares collected
by Shoji Hamada and Soetsu Yanagi during their trips to Britain
reminded him of his roots and he felt the need to return to England
to find out more about this traditional work. Although he did not
want to make earthenware, he responded to the sheer power of the
unsophisticated forms and direct decoration - qualities he sought
in his own pots. He returned to England in 1984, settling in the
Lake District, living and working near Penrith.
Fifteen years ago he moved to larger premises at Isel Hall near
Cockermouth, converting the old stables into a workshop. Here he
built a large gas kiln that he fired to 1,300C about four times
a year, establishing a three-monthly rhythm that suited his way
of potting. Working with established items such as jugs, mugs, bowls,
dishes and platters, Hughes had a sensitive understanding of form
- his shapes were characterised by soft, gentle curves and, on the
bowls, wide, steady feet.
Inspired by slipware techniques, he excelled as a decorator, whether
trailing different coloured glazes together, simplifying a flower-like
design, or adding diagonal lines of resist. Glazes were often based
on locally sourced wood ash. Among his most acclaimed pieces were
his flat chargers, some over 50cm in diameter. One memorable piece
is decorated with a repeating grass-like pattern in ambers and browns,
the satisfying rhythm of the design giving the piece an almost relief-like
While nearly 90 per cent of his work went to Japan, where he was
delighted to discover that most of his pieces were acquired by housewives
for use in the home - and where he was able to command high prices
- establishing a sound reputation at home proved slower. The more
conservative English market looked to more modest costs. Nevertheless,
a noteworthy one-person exhibition was held at the Oakwood Gallery
in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire, which was a success, while others
shows were held at the Daiwa Foundation, Joanna Bird in London and
at the Castlegate House Gallery, Cockermouth. His pots were acquired
by several national collections, including the V&A.
Like his work, Edward Hughes was quiet and thoughtful. Assured and
confident of his own pots and of their significance, he rejected
the idea of the individual piece as special, seeing all pots as
important and just as demanding on the maker, whether a teacup and
saucer or a large dish. True to his direct, unpretentious approach,
he preferred to be known as a potter rather than as a ceramist or
artist, a commitment that reflected his deep involvement in his
work and his belief that pots were made to be used and enjoyed.
Thomas Edward Hughes, potter: born Wallasey, Cheshire
16 October 1953; married; died Pillar, Cumbria 31 March 2006.
Reproduced from The Independent published
on 21st April 2006