Potter of imaginative hybrid style
In many ways, the potter Edward Hughes is one of Britain's unsung treasures - his pots were better known in Japan than in his own country. Inspired like Bernard Leach before him by the pots and philosophy of the East, in particular Japan and China, Hughes brought together the contemplative, quiet qualities of Oriental work with the vigour and energy of slip-decorated earthenware in pots that were fired in a reduction kiln to high temperature.
His sensitive shapes and deep, rich, earthy colours are a harmonious and pleasing blend of influences from contrasting cultures. Hughes was at the peak of his powers when he died - aged 52, in a mountaineering accident in the Lake District.
From an early age he was attracted to work with clay. At school in Lancaster, a charismatic teacher, Barry Gregson, introduced him to potting, and he was immediately enthralled by its qualities. Resisting more academic pressures, Hughes insisted on studying pottery at A level, much against his head teacher's advice. He went on to what was then Cardiff School of Art before studying for a degree in the more romantic atmosphere of Bath Academy at Corsham Court. This was followed by a period with Ray Finch at Winchcombe Pottery, a workshop securely grounded in the ethic of making high-quality pots for use on the table or around the home.
Attracted by the idea of studying in Japan and to the possibility of encountering Japanese pots and making techniques and processes first-hand, while waiting for news of a Japanese government scholarship Hughes took work at a pottery in Somerset. There he was expected to throw a hundred mugs in a day; for the first time doubts arose about the repetitive, machine-like quality of the process and he knew that this path was not for him. By contrast, his time in Japan was an endless source of discovery, and he spent 18 happy months at art school in Kyoto, leading to his first one-person show in 1979.
On the success of the exhibition he was able to set up his own studio with his wife, Shizuko, settling in an old country property north of Kyoto by Lake Biwa. Here he combined Eastern techniques such as high-temperature reduction firing in an oil kiln with an awareness of the liveliness of slip-decorated earthenware, resulting in an imaginative hybrid style that appealed to the Japanese for its English qualities.
For five years he successfully showed at one-person exhibitions in Kyoto, Osaka and Tokyo, but a visit to see the slipwares collected by Shoji Hamada and Soetsu Yanagi during their trips to Britain reminded him of his roots and he felt the need to return to England to find out more about this traditional work. Although he did not want to make earthenware, he responded to the sheer power of the unsophisticated forms and direct decoration - qualities he sought in his own pots. He returned to England in 1984, settling in the Lake District, living and working near Penrith.
Fifteen years ago he moved to larger premises at Isel Hall near Cockermouth, converting the old stables into a workshop. Here he built a large gas kiln that he fired to 1,300C about four times a year, establishing a three-monthly rhythm that suited his way of potting. Working with established items such as jugs, mugs, bowls, dishes and platters, Hughes had a sensitive understanding of form - his shapes were characterised by soft, gentle curves and, on the bowls, wide, steady feet.
Inspired by slipware techniques, he excelled as a decorator, whether trailing different coloured glazes together, simplifying a flower-like design, or adding diagonal lines of resist. Glazes were often based on locally sourced wood ash. Among his most acclaimed pieces were his flat chargers, some over 50cm in diameter. One memorable piece is decorated with a repeating grass-like pattern in ambers and browns, the satisfying rhythm of the design giving the piece an almost relief-like quality.
While nearly 90 per cent of his work went to Japan, where he was delighted to discover that most of his pieces were acquired by housewives for use in the home - and where he was able to command high prices - establishing a sound reputation at home proved slower. The more conservative English market looked to more modest costs. Nevertheless, a noteworthy one-person exhibition was held at the Oakwood Gallery in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire, which was a success, while others shows were held at the Daiwa Foundation, Joanna Bird in London and at the Castlegate House Gallery, Cockermouth. His pots were acquired by several national collections, including the V&A.
Like his work, Edward Hughes was quiet and thoughtful. Assured and confident of his own pots and of their significance, he rejected the idea of the individual piece as special, seeing all pots as important and just as demanding on the maker, whether a teacup and saucer or a large dish. True to his direct, unpretentious approach, he preferred to be known as a potter rather than as a ceramist or artist, a commitment that reflected his deep involvement in his work and his belief that pots were made to be used and enjoyed.
Reproduced from The Independent published on 21st April 2006