A ceramist inspired by folklore and the British countryside

FIRST-TIME VISITORS To the home of ceramist Prue Piper are usually late and easily forgiven, as the place, a charming and dilapidated 19th century former laundry in Somerset, England, nestled amid 11 acres of garden , orchard and woodland, is almost impossible to find. On the one hand, it is in a village, Marston Bigot, which hardly exists in name (its growth was partly hampered by the bubonic plague of the 14th century). And then there’s the alley, the entrance to which is marked only by a rusty iron sculpture, made by Piper’s adult son, Henry, who hides in waist-high vegetation. The property’s integration into the surrounding patchwork of rolling fields and wild hedges is exactly what prompted Piper, 83, and her husband, artist Edward Piper, to move here in 1967.

The couple met in London in the late 1950s when they were both enrolled at University College London – he was studying fine arts; she was majoring in biochemistry but, she says, “does a lot of jazz dancing and goes to parties.” After living in Northumberland, they decided to move back closer to the city when they learned they were expecting their first child (their two sons, Luke and Henry, are now in their 50s and are also both artists). They bought the house at auction for 4,050 pounds and, while even the auctioneer admitted it was so abandoned it should have gone cheaper, the couple saw it as a place to raise a family, work and support themselves. Piper revived the square, field-lined garden at the south end of the property, which quickly produced plentiful vegetables, while her husband set up a painting studio in the west arm of the low limestone-shaped house. horseshoe, overlooking its central brick courtyard. . Edward died in 1990, but Henry now lives in his father’s former workspace with his own family – his wife, Janine, and their three children – and Piper herself never left, acquiring in the process of route a brood of chickens, for eggs, and a flock of Wiltshire Horn sheep, for meat. Organized by practical ideas of multigenerational and self-sustaining living and largely unmarked by modern interventions, this is a suitable home and studio for an artist describing her work – which includes vividly decorated vessels inspired by wildlife, folklore and ancient civilizations – as “a celebration of pre-industrial cultures.

Piper began practicing ceramics in the 1970s and was encouraged by Edward’s father, the famous British landscape painter John Piper. The older artist himself worked in clay in a pottery near the farm of Fawley Bottom, the famous bustling Oxfordshire home where he and his wife, the critic and librettist Myfanwy Piper, received friends such as poet John Betjeman and artist Alexander Calder in the 1930s. Piper went on to take classes – although she is still largely self-taught and prefers to roll up rather than throw pots, after which she carves or beautifies their surfaces – and in the 80s she set up her own studio in the game. the easternmost of it. house, which previously housed the children’s rooms. Over the decades, she has exhibited her ceramics in a few London galleries, becoming acclaimed for her whimsical forms inspired by Antiquity, her expressive, almost false naive reliefs, and her intricate scenes of mythical creatures and woodland animals. These pieces have recently found a devoted following among a younger ensemble, in part thanks to a growing interest in British craftsmanship and the rise of a certain colorful and eclectic approach to decor embodied by the gallery and shop of antiques 8 Holland Street, which sells Piper’s jewelry. pieces at its three outposts; an exhibition of her work will open in the boutique’s new Bath location next month.

TODAY, THE ARTIST’S small rectangular studio – barely larger than a cloakroom, with crudely plastered white walls and wide planks – is lined with simple wooden worktables topped with pots of tools and brushes, glaze samples and reference books, which range from a catalog of ancient Costa Rican works of art to a “Shell Guide”, an excerpt from his collection of lyrical travel stories from the 20th century. century over the British counties. A slip-splashed wheel sits to the right of a cast-iron wood-burning stove, the pipe of which rises into the cobweb hollow in the ceiling above. Along the walls, rows of roughly hewn shelves support dense arrangements of Piper’s work: a series of stocky cylindrical vases with green-haired mermaid torsos jutting out in high relief, their scaly tails wrapped around them. bases; a small lidded pot in the shape of a tawny owl with clawed feet; and endless iterations of thick plates and squat jugs on which wide-eyed faces stand out against the delicately carved oak leaves. These last pieces, which represent the Green man – a legendary figure, often associated with vegetation and fertility, whose origins can be traced back to the sculptural heads decorating 11th century European churches – are among Piper’s most recognizable and express her lifelong interest in the local landscape and her past . Ever since she was a girl in London picking newts in the ponds of Richmond Park, she has felt a deep affinity for the natural world and a constant regret for the mistreatment of mankind. While she agrees with a friend’s recent observation that her work has become “more and more loose” over the years (although she is joking, it’s just because her eyesight is shattered). ‘has deteriorated), it has always celebrated flora and fauna – fish, for example, have been a recurring motif – and the cultures that honor them. Industrialization, she adds, “has been hard on nature” and on humans as well.

His gardening and his pottery are therefore his way of repairing this damage. Nowadays, it is often the old activity that takes precedence. In the spring and summer, Piper is too busy sowing seeds and nurturing her rows of cucumbers and beans, lettuce and radishes to think about clay. And in the fall, she picks apples from the estate’s orchard that Henry squeezes to make cider, or bottles preserves – jars of plum jam and green tomato chutney fill the kitchen shelves that adjoins his workspace. It is only during the winter months, when the demands of the garden are less, that she has time to return to the workshop (she produces about ten pieces a year), working late at night, warmed by the heat of the oven. . Still, on a sunny June day, there’s a half-finished pot on the wheel that she kept moist and slowly ripened between shelling the strawberries and watering the bee-laden purple anemone. While the two activities have their season, they are always linked: walking up the aisle, a visitor can look down and notice shards of pottery mixed with the gravel. When one of Piper’s plates has become too chipped to be used, she will crush it into shards and scatter them along the way. There, finally, the clay will return to its original form, reconstituting the earth from which it was borrowed.

About Walter Bartholomew

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