At a recent lecture to celebrate 40 years of potting at Whichford Pottery, founder and national treasure, Jim Keeling offered a few lighthearted vignettes of his potting career the lecture was finished by his son Adam, brandishing an industrial blowtorch and mallet.
Looking back it’s fair to say that Jim Keeling was born to pot. “When I was six I had a clay pit in an old Saxon ditch,” he explains, “I hollowed it out and made a den down there. I was always playing with mud and fire. If you start something young and it often leads as a thread throughout life, and it gives you an early intuitive feel for materials.”
Educated at Uppingham boarding school where his interest was nurtured by its forward thinking Art Department, he then studied Archeology and History at Cambridge. “I always had clay in my room,” he quips, “ at 2am when everyone else was writing essays, I was making clay figures!”
After surviving university, a lucky break saw him taking an apprenticeship at Wrecclesham Pottery in Surrey at what was then in it’s fourth of flowerpot production. It perfectly combined his love of clay, fire and plants. “Flower pots were popularized due to the advent of conservatories in the 18th century, and by the 1970’s the industry was just about surviving. I spent five years on a kick wheel where I learned and saved the technique.”
Jim acquired the skills and the language of pot making from Fred Whitbread at Wrecclesham and has honed the techniques over the years and passed them down to the next generations. “It’s all about the vernacular language of the craft. I feel very strongly that if you haven’t got the grammar and vocabulary you can’t express yourself and this is where art schools are letting us down. We have the grammar or technique, here and we want to pass it on to ensure it survives. When I learned pottery I was told off if there were too many ridges on the inside of a flower pot,” he laughs, “Fred used to say there were too many louse holes.”
Today Whichford Pottery uses a combination of techniques Jim has learned over the course of the last forty years. “It’s partly Wrecclesham, partly Majorca, but we’ve developed our own as well,” he says. “Machines can’t give you the control or detail that you have in the hand making process. Fred used to say ‘anyone can make one nice pot, the skill is in making a hundred more like it.’”
Every pot is handmade to the precise specifications of the Whichford design catalogue, but the nature of its creation means each one exhibits the subtle variations between the makers themselves – they even add handcarved makers’ stamps to each pot so you can read the individual story of their products.
Today the pottery is one of a handful remaining family potteries in the UK. It employs around 25 full-time staff. The craftsmen and women at Whichford still use traditional techniques and where possible will employ a person over a machine. The pottery has four family directors, Jim and his wife Dominique and two of their five children, Theodora and Adam (who is also the Head Thrower!) .
In 2015 the team created 97,500 ceramic poppies for the Tower of London poppy installation and it now sells a large proportion of its handmade, bespoke art pots to Japan and across the world. They have often been commissioned by the likes of the National Trust, Highgrove and even made a 6 man pie dish for Heston Blumenthal!
The pottery site now boasts a fabulous straw bale café, The Straw Kitchen offering delicious seasonal delights and refreshments for visitor, built and run by Maia, Jim’s eldest daughter and her partner.
Jim’s dedication to safeguarding traditional values and craft technique whilst encouraging community and growth creates a generous and fascinating place to visit.
Join the celebrations
- Meet the Makers – A day of Celebrations for Whichford’s 40th Anniversary, Sunday 30th April. A rare chance to see the workshop in full swing, meet the throwers, decorators, clay technicians and apprentices.
- Whichford Pottery Celebrates 40 years of potting this year with its launch of The New RHS Wildflower Collection. Inspired by botanical illustrations from the Lindley Library in London the collection of seven pots feature finely modeled decorations, which celebrate and showcase the beauty of wildflowers, from cowslips and bluebells to foxgloves and daisies.