The human clay: Compton

It was magical to discover that the painter I studied with at The Frink School (and recently visited in Edinburgh) Ruth Addinall, had come across artist Mary Wondrausch‘s wonderful book Brickfields and corresponded with her.

Wondrausch’s slipware has a historical resonance and is in the V&A Collection, but her broader talents have resulted in a house and garden to rival Charleston for colour and placement – her pots, her plantings, her paintings, historical kitchenalia and rustic European pottery… underpinned by her historical research on our relationship with food and writings exploring such curiosities as potted Char, salt and spice containers. We have recently planted a Quince tree as a result of the strength of one visual motif emanating from the Pottery. I dropped by recently to find a BBC film crew there – I hope that the results will encourage more people to discover her Picasso-like rumbustious diversity.

In 2009 I was searching for a source of local clay in Compton parish to work on a head of the former curator of The Watts Gallery, Richard Jefferies. This head is presently on loan to the Gallery which re-opens on 18th June 2011 after a multi-million pound restoration. Delivering the sculpture, it was clear just how important this collection is and the quality of both the restored and new spaces which house it and the light which permeates them; a remarkable blending of the old and the new. With the Watts Cemetery Chapel (below right) also thought by many to be of international importance – Compton is clearly a cultural hotspot nationally, but plenty have still not come across its riches.

Mary Watts started the Compton Pottery (which made the terracotta tiles for the chapel) using clay found at Limnerslease, the house next to her artist husband G.F. Watts‘ studio. Whilst this seam may have been exhausted, it seemed important to use local materials for this contemporary head, and I chanced upon the Brickfields Pottery after perusing OS maps and traipsing along stream banks searching for suitable material. On meeting the redoubtable Mary Wondrausch OBE, the plan became more complicated. The potter kindly mentioned a bag of clay quarried from work on the foundations of her house that I could have… but I left Compton feeling that it would be sacrilegious not to use the material for a sitting with the remarkable person I had just met.

However, the story is not complete. The small sack of Compton clay fortunately permitted both heads to emerge… and the careful hollowing of these terracottas before firing has left just enough clay for a third – suggesting the Compton diptych ought eventually to become a Triptych in the same manner as the 2008 Environment Triptych (left) featuring the scientist James Lovelock, philosopher Mary Midgley and writer Richard Mabey.

Please do contact me in confidence if you know someone with strong links to Compton who you think has been especially contributive to life and might provide a balance for the two existing heads.

The heads will be exhibited as part of a solo exhibition at Surrey University’s Lewis Elton Gallery from 14th November until Christmas 2011. There will also be a Surrey Sculpture Society evening lecture at the University given by Jon Edgar on Weds 23rd November at 7.30pm, with a late opening of the exhibition beforehand.