Richard Batterham obituary | Ceramics

Richard Batterham was one of the finest exponents of thrown stoneware pottery in what has come to be called the “Leach tradition”. His death at the age of 85 closes a chapter of a movement led by an elite interwar group including Norah Braden, Michael Cardew, Bernard Leach, Katharine Pleydell-Bouverie and William Staite Murray, who looked to the far east and to British medieval and vernacular pottery for inspiration.

By the early 1960s, when Batterham’s career began after a two-year apprenticeship at the Leach Pottery in St Ives, stoneware pottery had been to an extent democratised by the diploma in studio pottery set up in 1963 at Harrow School of Art, and had become part of the counterculture, promising alternative ways of living outside what was perceived as an overly technocratic society. Batterham, however, worked alone, resisting any inclusion in groups. If the way in which he lived might be seen as “alternative”, it was also resolutely industrious and disciplined. He made no distinction between his functional wares for everyday use and objects such as his majestic tall bottles: “They are all pots and some sing.” In a world freed of categories, Batterham would be recognised as one of the great artists of modern times.

Richard Batterham’s pots are not decorated in the usual sense. Subtly positioned chatter marks and incised or raised lines harmoniously bring out the shape of the vessel. Photograph: Jon Stokes

All his forms are evolved from things that people have needed – from jugs, to plates and platters to handsome covered jars, designated beer or wine. His caddies had their origins in pure practicality, but by 1996 they first appeared on a majestic scale, thrown in two parts, sometimes fluted, adorned with flowing ash and iron glazes, uniting sculptural grandeur and painterly effects, lid and pot as one. Tall bottles thrown in several parts are among the most dramatically beautiful of Batterham’s creations. Sometimes their sides are slightly flattened by beating, the effect softened by subsequently blowing into the bottle.

His series of tazza emerged around 1972, chalice-like, but practical. Cut-sided bowls were among Batterham’s most powerful and mysterious creations. The pot was thrown more heavily than usual with a paint scraper used to cut facets round the piece, a kind of radical turning.

One of his favourite possessions was a small, lidded box by the Japanese potter Shōji Hamada that he regarded as a perfect exercise in the kindly handling of clay. His own small boxes, lidded jars and mustard pots are part of a family of forms, exquisitely adorned with his full repertoire of cutting, incising and altering techniques, and his entire range of glazes and slips, multum in parvo (much in little).

His pots are not decorated in the usual sense and, although his work has been regarded as “neo-Oriental”, there is no oriental brushwork. Subtly positioned chatter marks and incised or raised lines harmoniously bring out the shape of the pot, which may also be beaten or otherwise subtly altered. Great variety is achieved by apparently simple means, using the simplest of tools.

In 1981 he provided a rare statement: “The main work is not to make pots, but to allow them to come, to allow them to grow, to allow them to be alive, and to communicate warmth and life in that uncannily direct and undemanding way that true and naked work can, vulnerable as it is. To make this possible, I feel that it is necessary to use our skills and materials with humility and respect. This requires a certain quietness of living.”

Quietness of living was played out from 1959 onwards at Durweston, in a corner of Dorset not far from Bryanston, the school where he first began making pots at the age of 13. He never, however, saw himself as a “local” or “traditional” potter.

His workshop, built in 1966 on a generous scale, with a large climbing kiln, had his potter’s wheel at the centre of the building. Outside sat a long stack of wrapped clay and behind the building a vegetable garden – his work fell into a rhythm linked to the gardening year – and more clay maturing in a sequence of drying beds. Family life and making went hand in hand.

In 1972 he showed some 260 objects at the British Crafts Centre, now Contemporary Applied Arts, to great acclaim. For this show he took the unusual step of demanding less publicity from the press department, saying: “Crafts are like wild animals; if you crowd round the water hole they creep further into the bush.”

When making his pots, Richard Batterham accepted the kiln’s ‘various hazards together with the many good things it offers and contributes’.
When making his pots, Richard Batterham accepted the kiln’s ‘various hazards together with the many good things it offers and contributes’. Photograph: Jon Stokes

His pots remain a testament to an extraordinarily dedicated way of life. They offer replication and profusion, seriality and singularity. Indeed his work is best seen as a magnificent continuum, one large multiple, endlessly and subtly developing over more than half a century. Musicians in particular admired his pots, such as the composer Hugh Wood and his pianist wife, Susan McGaw, the conductor Neville Marriner and the violinist Elizabeth Wilcock.

Born in Woking, Surrey, Richard was the middle child of Alice (nee Neville), a nurse, and Arthur Batterham, a schoolteacher at Dane Court preparatory school. Dane Court moved to Dorset during the war, and subsequently Batterham attended Bryanston. There he was taught by the sculptor Donald “Don” Potter, spending long hours in the school pottery.

Art school did not come into his plans. During national service, he spent a week’s leave at Wrecclesham, a surviving country pottery in Surrey, an experience he was never to forget. In January 1957 he began his apprenticeship at the Leach Pottery. Two friends became important. One was Dinah Dunn, whom he married in 1959. The other was Atsuya Hamada, the son of Shōji, Leach’s original partner at St Ives.

The three friends would discuss ceramics and plants, Dinah and Atsuya both being good botanists. On a practical level the Japanese type of wheel Batterham was to use in his own pottery was modelled on the kick wheel brought by Atsuya to St Ives. In his second year there Batterham fell ill with two bouts of jaundice. He had 22 weeks in bed, but was nursed back to health by Dinah.

A fine potter in her own right, Dinah gave up the craft as their family grew, but possibly she understood Richard’s work the best. She liked to point out “it’s all in an egg baker”, using this humble example of Batterham’s repertoire to deflate overly precious reactions to his larger pots. Batterham himself was determined to avoid appearing in any way esoteric or remote.

In a review of his 60th birthday show at the Oxford Gallery in 1996, the critic David Sexton was struck by Batterham’s inclusion of examples of pots that had not fired well, to make the point that he accepted the kiln’s “various hazards together with the many good things it offers and contributes”.

This generosity and modesty of spirit was underlined by his choosing to send work from 1973 until relatively recently to the David Mellor kitchen shop in quantity, and by often preferring to exhibit within Dorset. He lent support to local activities such as bell-ringing, bee-keeping, and folk dance. He had little time for committees and public life but was a trustee of the Crafts Study Centre from 1972 to 1976.

In 2016 his 80th birthday was marked by exhibitions in Dorset, Norfolk and London. From late November the Victoria and Albert Museum will stage a retrospective of his work, running until September 2022.

Dinah died in 2007. Richard is survived by their five children, Annabel, Imogen, George, Jessamine, and Reuben, by 15 grandchildren, one great-grandchild and by his brother, David.

Richard Hugh Neville Batterham, potter, born 27 March 1936; died 7 September 2021

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