Tea, cake, handmade pottery and a convivial chat, this is how I met Jonathan Garratt a few years ago now, on a spring day sitting in his garden in Dorset by the side of his studio. We spoke of his upbringing, surrounded by pottery and textiles from far flung lands, the privilege of having parents who were well travelled and collectors of pottery and textiles. Afterward he showed me his pottery, with all the influences of over 40 years of making as a craftsman studio potter.
Fads come and go, a true craftsman hones his skill in making through a deep understanding of his material and skill gained through hours of repetition. The results are plain to see, simple forms of functional pieces executed with mastery, made to look effortless.
The connection to the material is what sets Jonathan apart from many contemporary studio potters. Like Richard Batterham (1936-2021), a much revered fellow Dorset studio potter, Jonathan makes his own clay, he built his wood fired kiln and works relentlessly with a material he has a deep connection to. His first introduction to pottery was under the tutelage of Gordon Baldwin at Eton College. He then studied Archeology at Cambridge but opted to become a craftsman. Now in his 4th decade of making, the West African textiles are a constant influence as are the Chinese Ming porcelain of his childhood.
Here is a short documentary video of Jonathan in his pottery;
Anna Pavord, the best selling author of 'The Tulip' (incredible book about how the a wildflower from the Asian steppes, came from Turkey and took the Western world by storm), visited and interviewed Jonathan Garratt in 1993 for an article for The Independent. Here is the extract of the interview;
Jonathan Garratt has been making pots for the past 12 years. 'They divide,' he says, 'into two kinds. One lot is about function. The other is about sex and romance.' He makes both in a pottery near Cranborne in Dorset that would look entirely familiar to the early 19th-century journeyman potters who once made cider jars and milk pitchers in the area. 'A poor area,' Mr Garratt says . 'You potted or you made hurdles or you starved.'
The courtyard of the pottery is crammed with terracotta: long toms, alpine pans, wall pots and planting pots, to suit anything from a fully grown lemon tree to the smallest violet. The sexy stuff is in the shed beyond: huge round platters, jugs, plates, bowls, glazed in strange off- beat mustard yellows and greens that flare and flame in the kiln so that the colour gathers in places to make intense pools of colour.
This drifting and smudging is the reason he fires his pots the hard way - in a wood-fired kiln he built himself. It is a miniature version of the round down-draught brick kilns that you used to see in brick-making areas such as Romsey and Peterborough. He fires it once every six weeks, taking two or three days to pack it with pots, left for a month to dry out before the firing. If they go in the kiln while still damp, they explode.
He was half-way through packing when I turned up, nosing around as usual for more pots for the garden. Standing inside the kiln is like being in a lunatic china shop, with bowls and pots stacked all around you, but unretrievable, each dependent on the next for balance. The glazed pots go on the outside, where the kiln gets hottest.
The baking takes 17 hours. 'Unpacking is the best bit,' Mr Garratt says. 'You are never quite sure what will have happened in the kiln. It's like unwrapping a parcel.'
You could easily slide Jonathan Garratt into one of those composite portraits of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood and not blink when you saw the result. His face is curiously undateable, the hair parted rather low on one side, the clothes ageless. He sees himself as part of a long tradition of potters who are unpretentious about their work.
Line is what pleases him most about a good pot. 'A good pot has poise,' he says. 'You have to start with good materials that have some life in them. Some commercial clays are reluctant. They've not got enough spring in them. I need some momentum to make a good pot, too. A 35-hour day would suit me. Then the pots would make themselves.'
He uses clay from a pig farmer who lives half a mile away. It sits in a frozen pile in the yard, streaked buff, brown and red, full of stones and roots. The hardest part of potting, Mr Garratt says, is to turn this uncompromising heap into something he can work with.
The clay is blunged in a kind of monster Magimix where he blends it with water pumped up from a well to turn it into a kind of soup. This soup runs out through a fine mesh sieve that catches the roots and stones, while the clay settles in a long, narrow enclosure like a giant paddling pool. Here it gradually dries out.
Before it is properly set, Mr Garratt divides the clay into squares, just as you do when you take chocolate brownies out of the oven. These square cakes are the beginnings of the pots, though the clay has to be pugged, punched about in another kind of mixing machine, before it can be thrown. He has pictures of old potters in this area pugging clay with bare feet, but respect for tradition has limits. This is one of them.
Eton (where he went to school) and Cambridge (where he read archaeology) don't often lead to clay- pugging in remote rural potteries. But making pots, Mr Garratt says, was 'a very necessary escape from the horrors of public school life'.
He was saved by a particularly good art master, himself a potter, called Gordon Baldwin. 'Most of Eton worked on the principle of the big stick. He offered a carrot.'
Prehistoric pots in the British Museum are his inspiration. 'Perfect. Simple lines. Straightforward material.' That is why he sticks with terracotta. It keeps him in touch with where his craft began. There is a practical reason, too. Because of the clay he uses and the way he fires it, he can guarantee all his pots against frost. The Siberian spell at the end of November is a reminder of the importance of this.
Excessive damp is as much of a problem as cold during the winter. Pots drain better if you chock them up off the ground a little way. Mr Garratt sells small terracotta feet for just this purpose. Using a loose, open mix at the bottom of the pot also improves drainage. You crock the pot - that is, cover the bottom with broken shards of pottery, also available at the pottery - and put in a layer of coarse, semi-rotted material from the compost heap before finishing off with proper compost. The coarse compost will gradually break down, lowering the level of soil in the pot, but it is an easy matter to top up with fresh compost as necessary.
A severe freeze is particularly tough on evergreens in pots, as they need to eat and drink whatever the weather. If the compost freezes, the roots cannot get moisture up to the leaves and the plant can die, exactly as it would in a drought.
The smaller the pot, the more quickly it freezes. You can push pots together so they keep each other warm, or you can temporarily swathe them in a fleece such as Agralan, which, though it looks insubstantial, provides excellent insulation.
Another useful extra you can buy at Mr Garratt's pottery is a selection of terracotta hoops in various sizes to stick round the edge of biggish terracotta pots. These prevent flowers such as argyranthemums flopping too much. You see the same sort of hoops in pictures of Regency gardens, though theirs look as though they were made from bent wands of hazel. The terracotta ones are a better match.
Anna Pavord, The Independent December 1993