Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Guy Sydenham Exhibition

This week I visited the Guy Sydenham exhibition at the Dorset County Museum in Dorchester, which runs until March 10th 2007. Although a little expensive at £6, entry does include access to the rest of the museum.


And what a fascinating story the exhibition tells. If, like me, you know of Guy mainly as a name associated with the freeform, studio and Atlantis initiatives for Poole Pottery, then his wider story presented via information boards and exhibits gives a brand new insight into his life. His inspirations, his living and working environment, his family and his personal trauma are all introduced alongside some magnificent pottery from all periods.

Guy was born in London in 1916, but settled in Dorset in 1928. He studied at Poole School of Art in the 1930’s, and even then revealed a talent for creative pottery. The exhibition includes two “pot within a pot” examples that Guy made when he was 16 or 17. Moulded as one piece rather like a posy vase, the inner pots are glazed in a different colour to the cut-through outer pots. Apparently, Guy never revealed the secret of how he managed to do this!

He joined Poole Pottery in 1931 as a trainee thrower, where he was mentored by James Radley Young. By 1939 he was head thrower, but the war intervened. A few years after his return several big changes occurred in Guy’s life. In 1950 he got married, to Joan, and bought a large boat, the Oklahoma, which became home to the couple while moored in Poole Harbour. His son Russel was born on-board in 1954. Guy also began development of the freeform and contemporary shapes in conjunction with Alfred Read and Claude Smale.

The exhibition includes several hand-thrown originals of classic freeform shapes, with an example of a slip-cast version in comparison. Although a beautiful shape, side by side it is noticeable how the slip-cast version has far less texture and life than the hand-thrown original. Apparently, Guy was somewhat scornful of the slip-cast products describing them as “paperback editions”.

This is perhaps the first hint of a conflict that the exhibition reveals to have persisted throughout Guy’s life, the need to reconcile what appears to have been a natural affinity with hands-on, experimental and creative pottery with the commercial realities of an operation the size of Poole Pottery. In 1955 Guy indulged his creativity by relocating his boat to Long Island and establishing his own studio there, whilst still commuting to Poole for his day job (he must also have been extremely hard working!).


The Long Island story is fascinating, telling how Guy dug his own blue ball clay from the island’s cliffs, decorating it with coloured slips from Poole Harbour. He built a Roman style kiln and used seawater to introduce salt into the firing process. The salt reacts with oxides in the clay to produce the rich, dark salt glaze that are the hallmark of his items from this period.

I have often noticed that Guy’s island work includes a lot of very small pieces. The exhibition explains why. Salt glazing requires even spacing of the items in the kiln. Guy developed a range of small pieces to fill the gaps between the larger, thus improving results as well as increasing the range of items made. A perfect example of how he was constantly pushing the boundaries of both design and the available technology.

His inspirations at this time are revealed to be his island maritime environment. There are fish, replica Bellarmines (medieval wine vessels) based on those dredged from the harbour, seashore detrius such as an old bottle and even a drainpipe based piece. When I visited Brownsea Island some years ago I was struck by the amount of broken drainpipes at one end of the island, industrial waste from a low-grade pottery based there in the nineteenth century. Guy used this as an inspiration for his creative work!

At Poole Pottery, Guy had set up the studio which was ultimately responsible for the phenomenally successful Delphis range. The exhibition has examples of early work, mainly blue, turquoise and green in onion and mushroom shapes. There are also some unusual black clay pieces and a stunning Tony Morris paraffin wax charger. By 1966 Guy was head of design.

In 1968 Guy moved boat, family and pottery to Green Island. By now, his own studio was a real family business. Both wife Joan and son Russel produced items for the kiln, having a family contest to see who could produce the smallest cat figures (Russel had smaller fingers, he won!). We are told that the kiln could only be opened with all family members present, Guy describing it as a “magic” moment. If there was one point in the exhibition when I felt I came to understand Guy’s motivation it was in this statement, conveying the pure excitement he felt on opening the kiln to discover what the results of this unpredictable process were, shared only with his family – a sheer love of pottery.


Back at Poole, the influences of Guy’s personal work came to the fore in the seminal Atlantis range. Guy encouraged “whole piece” working by the potters, as he himself practised, and using terracotta and stoneware, and innovative carving and glazing, they created some of the most amazing pottery that Poole has ever produced. The exhibition includes many examples, such as the popular helmet lamp.

However, by 1977 the commercial pressure at Poole became too much for Guy and he suffered a nervous breakdown. He resigned and took a teaching position at Southampton College. He also formed a business partnership with his son, but mainly returned to his first love, potting. He was still pushing boundaries, particularly in developing thrown sculptures, especially mermaids that were to become his trademark for the final chapter in his life.

In 1988 the isolation of island life became too much and, with failing eyesight, Guy and Joan moved to Portland. Even there he created a new studio, known as Mermaid Studios, this time with a gas bottle kiln, where he worked until his death in 2005. The exhibition has a good selection of mermaids and other sculptures from the island and Portland periods.

From a name, Guy has now become a person to me. Although one of the most influential figures in establishing Poole Pottery’s reputation on an international stage from the 1950’s to the 1970’s, it seems to me that he was at his happiest opening his own kiln, just him and his family and their latest unpredictable but much loved pottery. As a Poole collector there is a sadness in that, but also a joy that he was able to bring his personal influence into the wider commercial world for thousands to appreciate for years to come.

1 Comments:

Blogger Roehampton Hardly said...

An interesting post - I would have liked to have seen this exhibition, unfortunately North Yorkshire is too far away!

Thanks for taking the time to write it up.

9:53 am  

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