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In Conversation with Frances Priest

How did you become a ceramicist?

I was very lucky to be tutored by renowned ceramic artist David Roberts on a foundation course in Yorkshire. A successful application to the ceramic department in the design school at Edinburgh College of Art allowed me to study for a BA and Postgraduate Diploma in ceramics, graduating in 1999. On graduating, my work was selected for Talente, a survey show of European craft and design graduates organised by the Handwerkskammer of Munich. This prompted me to quickly find a studio space and make new work for the exhibition. I secured a part -time job working in the crafts department of the Scottish Gallery for curator Amanda Game, and second part-time post as ceramic technician at Stewart’s Melville College, and my professional life was underway.

Tell us about what you will be exhibiting at Alter at Fitzrovia Chapel

I am presenting a collection of 17 small works as an installation, alongside 2 larger collage vessel pieces. It is intended that the viewer/owner can hold the 17 piece installation, they can examine and re-arrange the collection and it is inspired by the India pages of the Grammar of Ornament, a compendium of pattern gathered and produced by Victorian architect and designer Owen Jones. 
 
The installation reflects on pattern samples from the book in relation to travels in South West India. Visiting India allowed me to gain a sense of these patterns being used in their homeland along with an understanding of colours and surfaces. These experiences galvanised my intention to make work in response to the book.
 
Through the works I make, I am trying to capture the essence of the book, a sense of the potential and infinite possibilities it holds as you leaf through the pages and encounter ornamental motifs from around the world.

More widely in my work, I am fascinated by how these languages of ornament are interpreted and travel through the hands of designers and makers and the materials and processes they use, this you can see in the larger collage vessels on show at Fitzrovia Chapel.

The collage vessels have no specific reference point for the designs but rather a collage of motifs from a variety of sources, extracted from my sketchbook and collaged together into my own new designs – parquet, tiles, parasols, and swags. I use the title gathering places for all the half-sphere vessel forms because they are just that, places to gather together collections of decorative motifs.

Tell us a bit more about the Grammar of Ornament book that has inspired you so much

The Grammar of Ornament was compiled by Owen Jones as a teaching manual, offering up examples of good design at a time when the British markets were, in Jones’ view, flooded with cheaply produced and badly designed goods. By studying examples of ornament from around the world, Jones attempted to establish a set of design principles that ultimately influenced the thinking of designers such as William Morris and Christopher Dresser. Published in 1856, the book pioneered chromolithographic printing process to produce a sumptuous volume that became an immediate success. It had been re-printed no fewer than nine times by 1910 and facsimile copies continue to be printed to this day. My first encounter with the book was via such a copy, bought from a discount book shop by my Dad and given to me as a gift. I can distinctly remember spending hours as a child tracing the designs with my fingers, leafing from page to page and absorbing the visual languages on display.

Walk us through making one of your vessels… what materials and techniques do you use?

I use hand-building and press moulding techniques to make the forms, refining them back to very smooth, pristine surfaces. The patterns are then inscribed into the clay using a combination of scalpel and hand-formed aluminium stamps, along with paper stencils and graph paper used for plotting out designs. I usually work on paper first to develop the pattern designs before moving onto clay test tiles to work out how to translate these designs into clay. Later these tiles become useful for glaze testing. I like the patterns to have a life of their own so there is an element of chance in how the final designs are drawn out, almost like a controlled doodle. 
 
Depending on the scale of the work, the drawing can take up to a month to complete. The work is then left to dry slowly and evenly before a high bisque firing. Once fired, I use oxide washes to highlight the inscribed lines and a combination of hand-painted glaze and vitreous slips to add the surface colour. The combination of gloss glaze and matt slip adds another level of interest to the finished surfaces and I also like to incorporate the clay body into the finished designs. 
 
I see the works as drawings in clay and treat the surface much like a sheet of paper, with the scalpel as a pen and the glaze and slips like gouache paint. The entirety of the piece is enveloped in the surface design so the works appear to wrapped in, or constructed out of pattern. I think it is a real treat to pick up an object and find that the base has been treated with the same care as the rest of the work, it makes the form complete and also allows for the group works to be re-arranged into different compositions.

What drives your work?  You travel a lot, do you find that a necessary seed for inspiration?

Travel is important to my work, but really it is a means by which to encounter things at first hand. The research is the most important part and where the inspiration mostly happens, whether that be visiting a museum, travelling and experiencing new places, or sitting in my studio chair exploring my bookshelf. 

I enjoy thinking out ideas through drawing and I have lots of objects and test pieces around my studio that I constantly play with and re-arrange. I try to capture the mutable nature of decorative objects in the final works I make, creating pieces out of multiple forms that can be arranged and composed.  I also make individual works in series so that I can explore different aspects of an idea, allowing the works to have conversations with one another.

Are there any artists or ceramicists that particularly inspire you?

It is a very long list but a few highlights from design through to visual art: James Hugonin, Robert Dawson, Lubna Chowdhary, Felicity Aylieff, Jacqueline Poncelet, Celia Pym, Nigel Peake, Yinka Ilori, David Adjaye, Malcolm Fraser, Jacqueline Ryan, Alice Cicolini, Wendy Ramshaw, Eric Ravilious, Jessie Tait, Owen Jones and William De Morgan.

London based artist Yinka Ilori is just one of the many artists who inspires Frances. This images features ‘The Colour Palace’ – a lively and celebratory fusion of European and African cultural traditions by Pricegore and Yinka Ilori – chosen as the second Dulwich Pavilion for summer 2019 – image source Dulwich Picture Gallery

Our photograph of you above features you sat in the Tiled Corridor, your latest commission for The Royal Edinburgh Hospital.   How did this come about and how did you approach the commission?

I was invited to interview for this commission by Edinburgh and Lothian Health Foundation. The brief was to design a vinyl art work that would decorate the corridors of the hospital. Through the interview process I managed to persuade the panel away from the near ubiquitous hospital vinyl art work toward a ceramic based commission. 

The next stage was to undertake a process of consultation and research, developing an understanding of the context and people using the space and finding a suitable idea around which to develop a piece of work. Consultation on the wards with patients and staff was facilitated through handling and making session with clay and ceramic tile samples. Discussions around colour and surface texture came to the fore and informed my thinking. The Royal Edinburgh Hospital specialises in mental health conditions and so it was essential to develop a work that would be sympathetic to this patient group. Bright, uplifting colours and interesting texture and details were key ideas that emerged through the workshops.  

My wider research led me to look at a former hospital building connected to The Royal Edinburgh, called Craig House. Renowned for its Victorian interiors, a visit to the digital archives of Historic Environments Scotland revealed a magnificent building full of decorative details. These included two beautifully tiled stairwells featuring moulded decorative tiles in glossy teal and ochre glazes, typical of the period. This research was followed up by a trip to the fabulous Jackfield Tile Museum in the Ironbridge Gorge to look through the museums archive with curator Gillian Crumpton, exploring the historical use of tiles in hospital settings. 

This visit also introduced me to the tile manufactures Craven Dunnill Jackfield and a conversation with MD Adrian Blundell prompted me to think about how I might use the factories skills and expertise to realise a large scale ceramic commission.

The Tiled Corridor recalls a golden era in decorative tile use, responding to historical research and re-working decorative motifs and colours for a contemporary audience.

The overall scheme contains upwards of 2000 tiles manufactured by Craven Dunnill Jackfield, plus 300 tiles made in my Edinburgh studio, covering an area approximately 14m x 2.5 meters. The project was managed by Becky Brazil and installation was undertaken by Peter Navratil of Recraft.

As well as showcasing Frances work at Fitzrovia Chapel, Cavaliero Finn will be presenting a series of new work at the Craft Council’s art fair, Collect 2020. 

All photography of Frances Priest’s work featured in this post is courtesy of Shannon Tofts Photography.