Six of the best from the British Ceramics Biennial in Stoke on Trent

By Richard Moss | 02 October 2015

Culture24 editor, Richard Moss, picks his six favourite things from the British ceramics Biennial 2015

a photo of ceramic installation of objects
Rhiannon Crowley, The Salient Dead at the British Ceramics Biennial 2015© the artist
There is a lot to absorb at the British Ceramics Biennial 2015 – from major artists like Bruce McLean throwing pots and creating abstract designs on large tiles to the ceramic slot machine of Lawrence Epps and the affecting memorial to the men of the North Staffordshire Regiment killed during the First World War.

It's a chance to see new work by some familiar names and to discover some unfamiliar but exciting emerging talent in an environment steeped in the history and tradition of ceramic production in Staffordshire. Here are six highlights from a ceramics biennial showcasing the sheer breadth of talent and imagination in ceramic art today.

Sam Bakewell, Imagination Dead Imagine

A photo of a ceramic built hut at the British Ceramics Biennial 2015
Sam Bakewell, Imagination Dead Imagine© Photo Richard Moss
Let’s begin with this strange presence – a kind of ceramic mud hut made with clay and coconut oil with the consistency of rough cake icing – sitting in the middle of the factory floor.

Its creator, Sam Bakewell, has spent some time in the studio of potter/author/traveller/clever-clogs Edmund de Waal and he certainly seems to have picked up some of De Waal’s skill for a studied ceramic intervention.

Venture inside and you will be rewarded with a series of exquisitely crafted objects imprisoned behind barred caves punched into the walls. With the aesthetic of the found object, seaside flotsam or the discarded toy, these strange objects manage to conjure thoughts that hover somewhere between beauty and the macabre.

a photo of a small ceramic object placed inside a wall with bars across it. Part of Sam Bakewell's Imagination Dead Imagine at the British Ceramics Biennial 2015
One of Sam Bakewell's beautifully crafted objects imprisoned inside his ceramic hut© Photo Richard Moss
a photo of a small ceramic smock dress inside a cell as part of Sam Bakewell's Imagination Dead Imagine at the British Ceramics Biennial 2015
Inside Sam Bakewell's Imagination Dead Imagine© Photo Richard Moss

Rhiannon Lewando – The Salient Dead

a photo of a group of grey ceramic objects on a low table - Rhiannon Lewondo's The Salient Dead at the British Ceramics Biennial 2015
Rhiannon Lewondo, The Salient Dead - like ancient relics at BCB 2015© Photo Richard Moss
Each year new makers and ceramic artists graduate from college courses around the country, and the FRESH strand of the Biennial offers an opportunity to show their work beyond college, often for the first time.

There are 30 fresh talents to explore here and Rhiannon Lewando’s The Salient Dead takes the much-quoted TS Eliot poem, The Hollow Men, for inspiration. According to its text panel the work “explores a landscape of man made death that unifies the humanity of the hand with the metamorphosis of man into weapon.”

On first appearance it seems like a pile of archaeological finds and much like unearthed things from the past, there is a sense of mystery in their strange earthenware shapes. They have both a textile and tactile quality that recalls the Bronze Age as much as Eliot’s fragmentary world shattered by the First World War.

a close up photo of several ceramic objects in the shape of pouches and neolithic axes
Rhiannon Cowlye, the Salient Dead© Photo Richard Moss
a photo of a series of ceramics cast objects resembling cloth pouches from the Bronze Age
Rhiannon Cowley, The Salient Dead© The artist
Neil Brownsword, Re-Apprenticed

a photo of a copper plate and ceramic serving plate with a glues substance on it at - part of Neil Brownsword's re-Apprenticed at British Ceramics Biennial 2015
Neil Brownsword's Re-apprenticed at BCB 2015© Photo Richard Moss
Claiming to be as much an archaeologist as an artist, former Wedgwood apprentice model maker Neil Brownsword is fascinated by the unique form of intelligence and artistry found in the distinctive heritage crafts of the ceramic industry - like flower making, copper making, and ceramic painting.

Currently learning these crafts from three former factory artisans, there is something particularly moving about the way he has peeled back the layers to reveal the inter-generational artistry and skills of people who worked in Staffordshire’s pottery factories and the incredible body of knowledge they carry with them.

Anthropology, archaeology and art come together for this atmospheric celebration via objects, films, live demonstrations and a series evolving installations celebrating the art of the factory floor.

a photo of many small ceramic petals on a board - part of Neil Brownsword's experiment into the "archaeology of place" at BCB 2015
Petals made by Rita, part of Neil Brownsword's experiment into the "archaeology of place" at BCB 2015© Photo Richard Moss
A photo of a table with lamp and copper engraving plate
The master engraver's table© Photo Richard Moss
The Old Spode factory

in the Old Spode Factory at the British Ceramics Biennial in Stoke on Trent - a corner of the factory with an old cupboard, bare walls, and windows masked with coloured paper
an atmospheric corner of the Old Spode Factory at the British Ceramics Biennial in Stoke on Trent© Photo Richard Moss
One of the great triumphs of the Ceramics Biennial is the move almost wholesale into the Old Spode Factory site in the heart of the city. The place easily accommodates 150 artists who have made what BCB Artistic Director, Barney Hare Duke, describes as “an expansion into the space”. It is the perfect place to experience the latest in ceramic art.

Natural light floods in from windows above the wave like-concrete ceiling while the new ceramic forms somehow manage to be freed and yet feed off the factory’s iron window frames and the peeling paint of the stripped brick walls.

It’s a minimal space that accommodates the many onsite commissions – some of them still developing – together with a shop and café. But it also offers a chance to explore the nooks, crannies and intriguing traces of the once booming centre of ceramics production. If you have time take a walk through the historic yards out back and visit the volunteer run visitor centre seeking to preserve its history.

a photo of a series of ceramic jars site in a large factory site
The creations of Amy Hughes in the Spode Factory site© Photo Richard Moss
A photo of a white painted shelf in the corner of bricked corner of the Spode Factory
The quiet traces of a former life are everywhere in the Spode factory© Photo Richard Moss

Caroline Tatersall, Geysers

a photo of a ceramic dish with clay bubbling from its centre
Caroline Tattersall, Geysers© Photo Richard Moss
There is something very tactile about ceramic art – even more so the clay it is fashioned from – but Caroline Tattersall’s Geysers take our connection with clay back to a primal level with a series of steaming and gurgling geysers from which the brown stuff gently bubbles.

It helps that they are fashioned from beautiful ceramic spheres, but the primordial gloop emanating from their centre reminds us where the ceramics and possibly even us, come from.

a photo of burbling and bubbling clay
Caroline Tattersall, Breaking Through© the artist
a photo of clay emanating from a geyser
Caroline Tattersall © the artist
Ian McIntyre: Icon, The Brown Betty Teapot

a photo of Brown Betty teapots on shelves in a gallery
The Brown Betty at Airspace gallery© Photo Richard Moss
When you finally pull yourself away from the magic of the old Spode Factory, this exhibition across town at Airspace Gallery, is another art-historical investigation illuminating Staffordshire’s ceramic history that is well worth seeing.

Ian McIntyre’s Icon: The Brown Betty uncovers that most British of objects, the Brown Betty teapot, made in their thousands in the kilns of Staffordshire since the 1930s and still produced locally.

McIntyre dissects this iconic object with a surprisingly forensic approach, tempered by an artist’s eye that emanates a warmth and love for often overlooked British design icon.

Tip: You can buy a Brown Betty, eight-cup teapot in the British Ceramic Biennial shop at the old Spode Factory site for a mere £14. Six, four, and two cup teapots are even cheaper.

a photo of a wall of images and jottings with maps and photos put together by Ian McIntyre at the Airspace Gallery in Stoke
Ian McIntyre's research for his Icon: the Brown bety at Airsapce Gallery© Photo Richard Moss
a photo of pieces of clay made into teapots
The stages of the tea pot laid bare bu Ian McIntyre at Airspace Gallery© Photo Richard Moss

  • The UK’s largest ceramics festival, the British Ceramics Biennial (BCB), takes place in Stoke-on-Trent until November 8 2015. See for more details.

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