Keith is reaping the rewards of hard work and creative thinking
With a long and successful career in production ceramics, Keith Brymer Jones became something of a national treasure when he first hit our screens in 2015 as one of the judges on The Great Pottery Throw Down. He quickly became known for welling up when a piece of work or a contestant’s story affected him, and it turns out this isn’t just for show. Having recently spent a few hours chatting with him about his life, his work and the universe, there were several times when he became emotional about the power of clay. He is passionate about spreading the message that you don’t have to be academic to be successful, that being creative is a hugely important part of life and working with clay touches a part of our psyche in a unique and wonderful way.
Where it all began
Keith left school already knowing that he wanted to work with clay. In 1984, he started as a clay boy working for a pottery in Harefield, under Robert Hudson and Alan Pett. “What they didn’t know about pottery wasn’t worth knowing. They were really old school, really great people, and it was the perfect place to learn,” said Keith. Even from the beginning, it’s clear he wasn’t afraid of hard work.
“Every two to three weeks we would get 10 tonnes of clay and I had to shovel it. We also made our own clay body, and sold it to Harrow College, Middlesex College, and all over the place.
“I was an enthusiastic 18-year-old, and I asked Alan when I could start throwing with him and Robert. He said, ‘In five or six years’! But to reach that point I had to ball-up and throw 100 balls of clay at the end of each day, and I couldn’t leave until I’d done them all. Alan would cut some of them in half to show me where I was putting the clay, and that discipline was really drummed into me. After only about three years I was honoured enough to start throwing the simpler shapes and forms that we used to make.
“I was there for eight or nine years and by the time I left I was head of production. There was another clay boy – because I’d moved up – Robert, Alan and me, and we’d produce 4,000-5,000 pieces a week, mostly for garden centres.” This is a figure that beginner potters really have to stop and think about before it fully sinks in.
Triumph from adversity
It could have been all over when Robert and Alan decided to relocate to Scotland at the end of the 1980s. But Keith started his own studio in Highgate, north London and while we might predict a slow start for any new business, he was soon making for Heal’s, Conran, Habitat, Laura Ashley, Monsoon Home, Barney’s New York… an impressive list! But how did that apparently overnight success come about?
“I literally got on the bus outside my studio one day and went down to Tottenham Court Road with some photos of a sgraffito range that I’d made. I showed them to the buyer at Heal’s and she asked if I could make 200 – ‘by next week’. I delivered, they sold well and the next order was for 400. It became a bit of a game; she’d ask for 600, then 1,200, and it was fine because I’d had this traditional training and could deliver in volume.
“The largest order I ever made was 16,000 pieces for Habitat, which took about three months. I’d been working with them, designing various ranges, and then I developed a breakfast range called the Brooks range, and it was put up for the merchandisers to see if they wanted it. Their head of development came out of the meeting laughing, and I asked if they’d gone for it. He said, ‘Have they! Have you seen the numbers?’ I got back to the workshop and the fax machine was spitting out reams of orders for their various shops.
“I’d get on the wheel at 5.30am and throw. By the time the others came in at 9am, I’d have made 300-400 pieces, and I’d manage 800-1000 mugs a day. By then I had five or six people working for me; a couple of girls just packing boxes, a guy preparing the clay, and I used to sit at the wheel all day, turning the work out, like a machine.”
“I was there for 15-17 years, then moved down here [to Whitstable]. By this time, I was doing trade fairs and in 2006/2007 I met my business partner Dom. He said he loved my Word range and said it was very scalable. He’d just come back from China, and within two weeks I was on a plane to China, visiting factories that he’d found. I’d been looking into mass production anyway, because with the kind of volume I was producing, and in that market, the pricing was getting tricky. We formed MAKE International.
“It’s the same thing that I do, but on a bigger scale. I hand-make and design each prototype, go to China to block and case it, or get it ready for jiggers or moulding, and I work in the factory, on the floor, and we get it up to mass production. A lot of the equipment used in the mass production originated from Stoke, bought when factories there closed down. China still has the skill sets that are gradually being lost over here. They’ve never stopped using them.”
Having investigated the possibility of relocating his production to a factory in Stoke (the red tape proved insurmountable), Keith is trying to bring at least some of the production back to the city and is talking to some of the big companies about working with them.
The Great Pottery Throw Down – more potters, bigger challenges
“Back in 2014, Dom and I did some promotional videos for Make International, and the Adele ‘Rolling in the deep’ spoof went viral. At the time, we were working with the owner of a chain of stores in America. She happened to be having breakfast with the head of Love Productions and mentioned the video. He watched it back at his hotel, and phoned me up to ask if I wanted to be a judge on this new programme he was putting together,” explained Keith.
Keith was adamant that he didn’t want to be involved with something where the contestants are set up to be broken down. Love Productions assured him it would be a proper programme, promoting crafts, so he agreed, and the rest is history.
Following the success of the first two series, this third series is longer, with 10 episodes (Series 1 had six and Series 2 was eight) and features 12 potters as opposed to 10. Some of the projects push the envelope and are a big ask, which will make great viewing. Rich Miller has a great team dealing with the technical side of things, and the production team is now much more used to how the whole things works in terms of firing schedules etc.
“What’s been interesting about the programme is to watch the thought process of each individual potter and the way they construct their design concept for the task. There’s a lot of personal, emotional stuff that comes through,” said Keith.
“In the first series they were allowed to choose whatever clay they wanted for each task, which was a minefield, so now each task uses a different clay. It works better as a programme because, if we need to, we can explain a particular clay, eg crank, raku, porcelain, and the continuity is the same for everyone and it works better logistically.
“I get inspired by the show too. I’m known for using porcelain but having seen the results that the contestants got with different clays, I’ve been loving the textures and different finishes and the reactions that you get with them. I’ve started developing in stoneware and seeing what reactions we get with different stoneware bodies. In fact, Valentine Clays has made a clay body for me, KBJ Stoneware. We initially planned to do a porcelain, but then I thought more people would want stoneware, so we came up with this body that’s really good to throw – it’s nice and plastic – and it biscuit fires to a lovely cream colour. It has a good firing range too, of 1230-1300°C.”
“I love talking about clay to people and this profile that I now have is brilliant. Everything I do reaches a different demographic, and if it goes to young people who hear that there’s an alternative to an academic career, that’s great,” Keith enthused.
“I’m a patron of NSEAD (The National Society for Education in Art and Design) and they support and give loads of information to arts teachers, and the more I can extol the virtues of creative subjects – whether it’s pottery or woodwork or whatever – that cognitive experience that kids don’t get so much any more, the better. I’m dyslexic and pottery was my way out, my inspiration to do what I do now. If it hadn’t been for that, I wouldn’t be here now. Touching clay for the first time was a eureka moment for me. There’s a really lovely experience to it when you’re using your head, your hands and this lovely malleable substance.”
Getting his hands dirty
Downstairs in his studio, Keith gave a couple of quick demos (you can watch them here.) The first was a cylinder, which he cut in half. Being a production potter, he leaves quite a thick base because he will go on to turn it later.
The second was the hardest shape he ever learned to throw; a bellied jug, and it took him ages to perfect it. Part of the difficulty, he says, is that you have to pre-empt where you need the clay to end up. Open up, collar in and then he says he was taught to leave enough clay at the rim with the first pull, compress it, then never touch it again. Subsequent pulls finish just underneath the rim. The speed of the wheel is important too, Keith varies the speed according to which stage he’s at. He often tells people not to be afraid to use tools to help shape the form, letting them become an extension of their hands. He demonstrated this with a rib on the outside of the form and – unusually – a sponge on a stick on the inside. The bit he said he could never get right when he first started was the belly – it needs to be a nice free-flowing shape, and the neck.
“I could never understand why I couldn’t get it, but you just go in and exaggerate it. You can make it really sharp if you want. Leaving clay in the rim means there’s enough to pull the spout, which is why you leave it there. Use even pressure as you pull, and then get it really nicely turned over without touching the rest of the rim. That took two and a half years to perfect, and now because I know the concept of the shape, I can throw it in any size.” As he inspects the sliced open form, he points out, “A decent, even cross-section is vital for the heatwork during firing – essential for domestic ware when you’re firing 30,000 mugs in one kiln!”
Talking to Keith, it’s clear he’s a man full of ideas and enthusiasm, revelling in the various clay-related avenues life has thrown at him. He loves the television work, and is busy with workshops, demos and personal appearances, as well as keeping on top of the production of MAKE International. But what else might the future hold?
“I’m designing some samples for Port Meirion and Steelite at the moment, and I want to start making a hand-made range again. It’ll be at a higher price point than my other things but it’s a different market, and if I do it, it’ll keep my hand in as well.
“I get a bit funny if I’m not on the wheel for longer than three or four days”, he tells us. “It’s where I think.”
The third series of The Great Pottery Throw Down is on More4 on Wednesdays at 9pm and is repeated on Channel 4 on demand.
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