When pottery gets political…

Rich Miller and some of his work, which can be seen at The Stratford Gallery on Sheep Street

CERAMICIST Richard Miller makes the most amazing pots — each with a story to tell. You might recognise him from BBC Two’s The Great Pottery Throw Down where he is known as ‘Kiln Man Rich’. A selection of his latest ceramics are currently on show at The Stratford Gallery on Sheep Street. Here Rich tells Gill Sutherland about his work.

What was your route into pottery?

“Like a lot of people it was an inspirational teacher. When I did art at GCSE my teacher was a potter and I fell in love with the material really. I went on to study ceramics at Farnham Art College.

“I was always creative: my mum came from a poor background and was very much ‘make do and mend’. She was a bookkeeper but had a creative streak, she did all sorts of crafting and made her own clothes, so I guess I got the bug from her.

“I liked the idea that you could make something so permanent that could be part of daily life — I made a bowl early on and we used it, and I loved that.”

You bring a lot of family history into your work, tell us more about your background.

“My dad was in the Royal Marines and I was brought up near the military base at Emsworth on the south coast. He is actually from British Guiana in South America, and my mum is Welsh — she was in the army, by chance they met and had me!”

As well as your own work, you also run the artisan company Froyle Tiles, how did that come about?

“A friend of mine had told me it was closing down, so I went along to see if there was any equipment or materials going, but when I looked round the place I just fell in love with the product. I felt it would be a huge shame if all those skills and products just disappeared. I decided to take it on as it seemed to tick all the boxes: the products were very functional, could be used in a domestic environment, and I felt they had a very beautiful range of glazes.

“I also loved the fact that they were so different to anything else you see on the tile market, as they are high-fired, reduced stoneware tiles, which are rarely produced industrially.

“We’ve been going for 11 years now from our base near Guildford. Recent commissions include swimming pool tiles for an Earl, and tiles for the new pavilion of the Tate gallery in St Ives.”

How compatible is your day job at the tile company with your own work?

“I squeeze it in during evenings and weekends! But actually a lot of the research I carry out on tiles informs my own work.

“My recent pots started with a commission from the Watts Gallery in Surrey — they had an early Delft fireplace which we were asked to restore.

“Delft is the blue and white pottery made in the Netherlands from the 14th century, and here it is in England and possibly made in a French workshop.

“It got me to thinking about how decorative styles travel across continents and borders, especially as jobbing potters were travelling around, and that’s informed my whole current body of work which is on display in Stratford.

“With a very mixed background, I’ve always been interested in where I sit culturally in the UK — and it’s a very prominent subject at the moment.”

Looking at your Delft-inspired pots, the designs feature small, curious drawings — what are they about?

“Although the pots seem quintessentially Delft — the familiar blue and white patterns — they are actually subtle subversions. It might look Dutch but there are French and English associations in the patterns, like an oak leaf and the Fleur de Lys. It’s just that thing of looking at something and thinking it’s of a certain origin, but actually it’s different to what you might think it is.

“Delft ceramics feature drawings that told a narrative, usually something to do with Biblical stories, or the family background of those that had commissioned the work — usually a wealthy family. So mine feature narratives to do with my own family history or the UK as a colonial power. Things like the ship that my family came over on from Guiana — a German ship that was bought by an Italian company.

“My granddad came over in the late 1950s to work on the corporation buses in Darlington — he was searching for a better life, so I’ve included a corporation bus on one of the pots.”

What a boring world it would be if we all stayed put in our own countries!

“Yes, absolutely. And we are surrounded by objects that tell stories, but we are often completely unaware of it. For example, the plaque on Nelson’s Column shows that a fifth of his crew were black. The Victorians may have been racists but they were factually very precise! I was unaware of that… as a mixed-race child growing up in a little village in Sussex with very little cultural references around me I would have liked to have known about that. We need to dig a little deeper to understand these social monuments that surround us.”

The Great Pottery Throw Down is good fun to watch and does for potting what The Great British Bake Off does for cake making. How did you get involved in the programme?

“Initially they were looking for a tile judge and people pointed them in my direction — that was my route in. Then they discovered that they needed someone to do all the behind-the-scenes donkey work!

“I got known as ‘Kiln Man Rich’ but my official title is on-screen technician: I look after the contestants’ work and do all the firing in the kilns. It is absolutely terrifying, you feel this huge duty of care!

“The contestant’s position in the competition is down to whether I drop something or not. The kilns are 500 metres away from the studios over the worst road surface — cobbled streets. Crossing it with these trays full of work is like being in a Laurel and Hardy sketch. It’s great fun, there are certainly thrills and spills!”

WHEN AND WHERE: Richard Miller’s work can be seen and bought at The Stratford Gallery, 32 Sheep Street, Stratford. For more about his tile company visit www.froyletiles.co.uk. The Great Pottery Throw Down is on BBC Two on Thursdays at 8pm.