We chat to master potter and TV judge, Keith Brymer Jones about all things pottery, art and The Great Pottery Throw Down. He is full of surprising hidden talents and words of wisdom for fellow creatives: watch the full interview on our YouTube channel here!
BA: Hi Keith, Very nice to meet you. How are you? How's lockdown been?
Keith: Well to be honest, I feel guilty saying it but it's been fine for me. I've been held up in my studio most of the time and it's enabled me to reengage with the clay. Basically it's enabled me to be downstairs playing about with the clay and doing samples or tests. It's been great.
BA: So have you been doing anything new in lockdown?
Keith: I'm working on a couple of new projects. I'm also doing an installation for Standen House which is a National Trust property. They asked me during lockdown to do something. It's their house for the arts and crafts movement - William Morris, Voysey and all that kind of thing. They've asked me to do something for the Dining Room so I'm installing that tomorrow! I've also been writing a book as well. Some publisher thought it might be a good idea for me to write my autobiography so I've been doing that. I've been keeping busy really - it's been great.
BA: And you filmed the last series of The Great Pottery Throw Down during lockdown didn't you?
Keith: Yeah, through the pandemic, so Covid regs were in place. It cost quite a lot more money to film because everyone had to isolate: the camera crew, the sound - everyone. We were all being tested every 3 days so it was quite a logistical feat, but we managed to do it. It was good -really good.
BA: Were there any blips - any positive tests and rescheduling?
Keith: Not really. There was one slight blip, but it was a false alarm. It just delayed us by about a week, but apart from that it all went really well. The potters were all put up in this amazing luxury hunting lodge near Stoke, and Love Productions even built them a studio so on the down days they could practise. They were having a great time!
BA: I wonder if they'll keep that in the future then!
Keith: Well yeah, I think it might be good, because I think it really helped enhance the show. The bond between the potters was closer and that transcended onto the camera.
Keith Brymer Jones in The Great Pottery Throw Down. Source: https://www.keithbrymerjones.com/
BA: So you get quite emotional during Throw Down don't you? It's what a lot of people talk about, and I think a big reason why so many people love the show and you as a judge. What do you think it is that makes you so emotional about the clay?
Keith: Yeah! Obviously clay - I'm very passionate about it. It's something I've loved for over 40 years now - I just really absolutely love it. I remember on the first day, the first 10 minutes of the first filming day of the first series, one of the potters got into trouble. I didn't know it was going to happen but I felt really emotional for them. It was all about getting stuff in the drying room, the jeopardy, and I remember one of the directors in the monitor room, I could overhear her saying, 'Oh, one of them is in trouble. Quick get some cameras on her!' You know the drama, the drama. Then she sort of paused for a moment and said, 'My god, one of the judges is crying. This is TV gold. Get some cameras on him!' And from then on I've just been really emotional and I think the reason why is, quite frankly, the potters when they come on the show, it's incredibly brave of them, for a start, because they're doing something they really love and are passionate about, but they're doing it in front of cameras, on national TV. Not only that, but they're going to get judged for it at the end of every week! So I really do feel for them and admire them for doing that.
I have a studio in China as well and when I go over there and they've done me a particularly good sample first time round, I start crying then. I just get really happy. I think the Chinese scratch their heads a bit. Some people may cry over Ballet, or Opera, or a piece of furniture. I just happen to cry over pots, so there you go.
BA: Do you often relate to the potters? Do you see yourself when you were younger, or starting out in them?
Keith: Oh god yes, so much. I would say that doing anything creative in this world is always a struggle. Without sounding too poetic or too "glamdram" about it, it's a struggle within yourself, but it's also a struggle to actually make money out of it, or to make a living. I've met loads of creative people up and down at various events that I do, and you have an almost unspoken bond with a creative already, even before you meet them. Because you all come from a place of, quite frankly, trial and error. Life is one big trial and error, and that's what creativity is all about! It's about trying things out. It's about being in the deep end and just touching your toes on the bottom, but feeling the fear and doing it anyway, and then learning from that. And that's what creativity is all about - for me anyway!
BA: How did it all start for you? When did you first get into pottery?
Keith: I went to secondary school, obviously like everyone else. At 11 years old, I'm in the art room and our art teacher, Mr Mortman - you never forget a decent art teacher, or a decent inspiring teacher, quite frankly. He all gave us a lump of clay and said 'Go on, do something with that', and half the art class started having a clay fight, and the other half started doing something with it. I was in the latter. Again without sounding too dramatic or poetic, the moment I touched the clay it was like an epiphany - it was incredible, and I started moulding the clay and did this pottery owl - god knows why!
The teacher was walking around the class and said 'That's really good, Keith. You seem as though you've really taken to the material'. Quite frankly it was the first time at school that anyone had complimented me on anything so I carried on with it and really loved it. I was basically in the art room in the lunch hour, after school, absolutely whenever I could. I worked all through school and did A Level Pottery - whatever that means. It was kind of my release from the rest of the stuff at school. Now in my capacity as the idiot who cries on the telly, I'm always extolling the value and virtues of creative subjects within school. It's incredibly important because it was for me. It was my way out and my way forward to see my own personal future.
BA: What happened after you left school? What was your journey to become a potter?
Keith: Back in the 80s, you go to the careers officer, I'm 17/18 at this point and doing my A-levels - god knows why - and she says to me 'What do you want to do? Do you want to be in the Gas board, the Fire department or the Police?' She obviously had deals with all these organisations. But I said 'no, I want to be a potter!', and she literally said 'well, you're on your own there'. So I enrolled to go to college, but I really didn't like the idea of going into more education - I couldn't stand school.
Fortunately I put an advert in a ceramic magazine, called Ceramic Review, looking for an apprenticeship and some dodgy geezer phoned me up and said 'come over to Harefield, near Watford, and see what you can do'. So I started as a clay boy at Harefield Pottery, shovelling clay, sweeping the floor, making the tea and being threatened to be chucked in the Canal, because the pottery was right by the canal.
In a way it was better than going to college. We basically produced about 3000-4000 pieces a week, all by hand. I remember saying to Alan, my boss, when I first started there, 'when do you think I can start throwing the orders with you guys', and he said 'I'd give it about 5 or 6 years!'. As an 18 year old you don't want to hear that, but what he was trying to tell me is that I needed to learn the craft and discipline, and that's how long it takes. It took me 3 years before I started doing production with them, but it was a fantastic learning curve. I was there about 7 or 8 years and then I started my own pottery up in Highgate in North London. Then to cut a very long story short, I started doing work for Heals, Habitat, Conran, Laura Ashley and M&S. Most of the order runs were between 6000-9000 pieces and it was all handmade so I've got a lot practise in over the years.
BA: Your own brand Word Range mugs seem to be very popular. Where did this design come from?
Keith: It's ironic really because I suffer from dyslexia - I'm trying to look for a different way of describing that. It's not a suffering - I don't see it as an affliction. It's just a different way of looking at the world quite frankly. If you're ever moving house, just get me round to pack the van because, you know Tetris, - shape, form and volume is my thing. Dyslexic people have a much better affinity with shape, form and volume, and piecing things together. In fact, most architects are dyslexic. Norman Foster who designed terminal 5 at Heathrow is dyslexic. I tend to look at words first and foremost as a shape, as a kind of individual design in itself, and then I take in the textual information they're giving me.
It just so happened I'd been working for years with Habitat, Conran etc. on various seasonal ranges for them, but I wanted to come up with a range that had a bit more longevity, something that I could create and sell under my own name. I'd always liked words, thinking of them as a design rather than information. One of my favourite words is the word 'hot'. I just like it - it's a good shape, you've got a 'h' on one end and a 't' on the other and round bit in the middle. It's very central, stable and nicely symmetrical, so I thought of bunging it on a mug. I knew this type setting place in East London that used to do all the type setting for the newspaper industry back in the day when type setting was on massive rollers, and it had to be done really quickly. Obviously it's the news - it's 24/7. I typed out the word 'hot' on an old typewriter and sent it over. Within a couple of hours they'd done it, and me being a workaholic turned up at 2am to pick up this little stamp. I went back to the workshop and stamped it into this porcelain and it really worked - it looked great.
From the Keith Brymer Jones Word Range
Keith: Things do go wrong - oh yes, they go wrong. No, but I don't show any mercy at all. If I don't like something, it goes straight in the bin. I smash it up. I probably get that from when I was training at Harefields; at the end of every day I'd have to ball up 100 balls of clay and I'd have to throw them on the wheel before I was able to leave. It would take ages at first and then it would get quicker and quicker. Alan would come along with a ruler and if it wasn't any good he would literally chop it in half and go 'no, no, no, that one's alright, no no no'. It was pretty brutal, but that's the way you learn. It's practise, practise, practise, and the more you practise the more you know the material you are working with. There's a myriad of different clay you can use, they all have a different personality and you use them all for different results. It's that thing you lose now in modern society with screens - everything is so instant. But to really learn a craft, the one major factor is time. You need time, not only to learn dexterity and the competent skills, but you need to learn the material too. The more you work with it the more bond you have with that material. It's fascinating and fantastic.
BA: Do you find throwing quite therapeutic then?
Keith: It's tremendously therapeutic. Back in the day, I'd throw about 800-900 mugs a day and you get in the zone: Radio 4, mugs of tea. Muscle memory happens and you just lose yourself in what you're doing. It can be incredibly cathartic and relaxing, but obviously throwing 100s of pieces at a time takes its toll on your body. I remember when I was throwing thousands I used to see an osteopath every other week just to keep my back in check, because it's quite physically demanding.
BA: Of course, you must be bent over a lot of the time.
Keith: Yeah, I look like a bloody gorilla. There's a funny story when I first went to China. This massive Chinese ceramic guru was meeting us at the airport - Samson his name, incredible master craftsman, really renowned throughout China. He was meeting us off the plane. There was me, my business partner and a few others, and we were walking down the steps of the plane. He just started laughing and pointing because he knew who the potter was because I was round-shouldered and looked like a bouncer, or a brick layer. You kind of mould yourself around the wheel and over years that's just what happens unfortunately.
BA: Do you have any other crafts, arts or hobbies that you're into or is it all about the pottery?
Keith: It is all about the pottery, but believe it or not I trained as a dancer between the ages of 3-18 in ballet, tap and highland. You wouldn't think it to look at me now - the brick-laying ballet dancer. When I was dancing I was really skinny, but I went for auditions at the Royal Ballet School and they can tell by the size of your feet, and your muscular definition what kind of body frame you're going to have. By this time I had massive big plates of meat as feet - size 10 or 11. It was quite evident that I was going to look like a bricklayer, and sadly that was dance career over! Fortunately for me I was doing pottery anyway which I loved. It's that same sense of discipline as dance. It's a cognitive skill - you're getting your brain to tell you limbs to do something, and it's the same with pottery.
BA: I heard you were also in a punk band when you were younger. Do you still sing now?
Keith: Weddings and Bar Mitzvahs, that's about it. I don't really sing much now. Back in the day, we had an indie band, had a few Radio 1 sessions, brought a couple of singles out. It was quite evident it wasn't going to go anyway but we did it for about 7 or 8 years. But fortunately for me I was always doing the pottery in parallel, working at Harefields whilst in the band. They were really understanding if I had to go on tour or leave early for gigs or sound checks. So when the band folded, I had something to fall back on which was my ceramics.
Keith Brymer Jones in a punk band. Source: https://www.keithbrymerjones.com/
Keith: Well, I think in the back of my mind I always knew that the rock and roll business wasn't going to be my thing. It would have been good if it had, but no really first and foremost pottery has always been my passion. But any kind of performing really gives you a confidence in yourself, and it was great for that and because I did dance too I never felt scared about going on stage. I've never shied away from a stage or speaking in front of an audience. It's purely that training I had in my formative years that's helped me with that. That's the other thing, coming back to young kids: doing anything physical at school - whether it be running, gymnastics, dance, painting, ceramics or woodwork, it does give you a tremendous sense of confidence within yourself and your body for later on in life. Whether you go on to do anything like that or not it's just really helpful for all concerned and really important.
BA: Do you have any advice for other young or emerging potters that are starting out?
Keith: For one thing youth is on your side! Not that my story is particularly unique or special, but if you don't fit in the box that someone else is telling you to be in then don't go there. You can be whatever you want to be - I know that's easier said than done. I'm a 35-year overnight success! But you just have to focus on what you really want to do and work towards it. You can do it - it is achievable to make your own path. The other thing I'd say to any budding creative is don't sell your own work. Get someone else to sell it. Someone who likes it and really invests in it. Because in the early days you'll be too heavily emotionally invested in it and you do take things to heart. That for me is one of the fundamental keys to being successful in what I do. I don't sell my own work. I can promote it and I can do demonstrations, interviews and talks on it but I don't necessarily sell my own work because someone else far better than me can do that. I would say that is really helpful. Don't sell your own bloody work!