William Plumptre: New Ceramics Exhibition, 11-20th September 2015

James Rawlin

Now that our exhibition of William Plumptre's pots has closed and the dust is beginning to settle, I felt it might be interesting to look back over our first venture into a selling show of a potter's work. It all began back at the end of 2014 when we spoke with some of the people involved with the HighTide Festival to see if there might be a way to involve a visual arts element. We knew HighTide from its previous home in Halesworth, our local market town, but for 2015 they were moving to Aldeburgh, a location that offered lots in the way of venues, and a long track record of arts festivals, not least the famous and ubiquitous music festival.

We had also spoken with William about the potential for doing something with his work in East Anglia for, despite having shown regularly in London, Scotland, Kent and elsewhere, he was yet to have a one-man show in this part of the world. Thus, once we established that HighTide would be delighted for us to host an exhibition alongside their festival, it seemed a natural choice to present William's pots to a new audience.

Jess has, of course, much more experience than me of putting on selling exhibitions after her years at Browse & Darby, so once we had decided on our venue, The Cinema Gallery in Aldeburgh, we then settled down to the practicalities of preparing for the show. First stop was getting some photographs from William so we could do some marketing and print our invitations. As he was to be making all the pieces specially for the show, this meant waiting until some work had come out of the kiln, but we weren't disappointed when the first image arrived, a gorgeous square plate with mossy green and indigo decoration over a dusty white base.

The preparations for the show coincided with the launch of our website, so we were delighted to be able to use this image on our homepage. As we never wanted our site to be like a lot of gallery websites with endless pages of pieces for sale, we felt it was more appropriate to be able to use images that showed works of art in situ, hanging on real walls and placed in real spaces, so three-dimensional objects work very well. One of the reasons we've both enjoyed living with William's pots so much is that they really look great once you have them in your home. Some objects can feel quite dictatorial as to how they should be displayed, but William's works somehow seem to be incredibly adaptable whilst always making you aware they are there. These aren't things you stop seeing just because you pass them every day, rather the repeated exposure offers endless new insights as you see them from different angles and in differing light. We often move our pots and pictures around to new locations at home, and it's amazing how different they can look.

Once the early preparations for the exhibition were done, the summer was spent mostly spreading the word, talking to journalists and collectors, and thinking about how we might display the works. The gallery is a first floor space, with large windows offering really lovely light, and being quite a high room, it feels spacious too. We decided that as well as taking advantage of the deep window ledges, it was important not to just fill the room with plinths, so we started thinking about the kind of furniture that would work with the pots, and which would help add a touch of domesticity to the space and help people envisage how they might look in their own homes. We decided we could use some of our own furniture from home, and selected a few pieces we thought would work; a low Art Deco-type side-table cum bookshelf, a cane-backed tub chair which we'd recently had reupholstered in a fabric from the marvellous St.Jude's in Norwich, and a rush-seated upright chair that's pretty Gimson-esque. For the centre of the room though we needed a larger table, and as the stairs up to the room are fairly narrow and have a tight turn at the top, something that came apart was obviously going to be helpful. Studio ceramics and country furniture make great partners, and so when we found a lovely poplar plank table with a trestle base with a local antique dealer, we knew it was just spot on.

William had brought down the whole exhibition in one van load from his studio in Cumbria the week before we opened, and as they were all so well and safely packed, we weren't able to sneak a look until it came to setting up the show. Thus, once we'd heaved all the boxes, plinths and enticing bubble-wrapped packages into the gallery, we were able to set about unwrapping and seeing what was there. We're both pretty familiar with William's work, but nevertheless as the pots emerged, we were delighted with what we saw. In fact it was a bit like Christmas! There were pieces of all shapes and sizes, including some we haven't seen for a while or new variations on established themes, with a huge range of colours and glazes.

By Thursday evening we were seeing some progress, and as we began to arrange some of the pieces and try to establish not only dialogues between the individual pots but also the way in which you might see the whole as you walked into the room, it felt rather exciting to be bringing all these works, with their amazing presence and subtle yet pervasive hint of Japan, to Aldeburgh.

When we opened on Friday 11th, everything was ready and looking good, the sun was shining outside and throwing lovely light into the room, and with a couple of good sales during the afternoon, including the gorgeous small square bottle that we'd featured on the exhibition invitation card, things were looking up.

We'd invited some friends to stay for the opening weekend, and knowing that we would be pretty tired after the set-up, we had arranged to head out for supper to somewhere local to us at home. We live about 20 miles from Aldeburgh, and as we can head cross-country for pretty much the whole journey, our daily commute was able to become a crucial part of the day, the morning journey setting us up with glorious light and vistas across the Suffolk landscape, and the runs home finishing the day nicely, especially those at twilight being a showcase of the kind of blazing evening skies we've come to adore. Our friends were heading up from Surrey, and they started out a bit late and caught the Friday traffic, so we decided that they should meet us at our supper location, St.Peter's Hall. A wonderful and dramatic medieval moated building, it shares its site with St.Peter's brewery, purveyors of superb ales and beers, and is surely one of the hidden secrets of our part of north Suffolk. This evening was actually the first day of their beer festival, and we were thus able to sample a fair range of beers and some good home cooking, listen to folk music and, most importantly, settle down a little from the excitement of the preparations.

As HighTide had opened on the Thursday evening, the first weekend was always going to be busy and some of the people we met who were in Aldeburgh for the festival had some truly ferocious schedules arranged in order that they could see all the shows and events they could. For us, it was great to see not only collectors who had travelled from some distance to visit the exhibition, but also to meet people who weren't familiar with William's work, yet who responded to it marvellously, and in some cases, made purchases. Saturday was also the day of our private view, and come the evening, we were delighted to have many friends and clients dropping in to see the work and also to meet William. Artists aren't always the most personable or communicative individuals, but William is not only a most engaging character, he also talks extremely interestingly about his work. At one point during the evening, as William explained to one visitor about how he made one of the pieces in the show, a relatively humble teapot, we noticed that the room gradually became quieter as more and more people began to listen to what he was saying. Suddenly, everyone in the room was gathered round the table, listening to him.

The rest of the weekend carried on well, with some very interesting visitors, including a number of collectors who had made the journey specially, and we were delighted to sell our most expensive piece, a magnificent large charger, on Sunday.

By Monday, all our home visitors had left and we were able to get on with the running of the rest of the show. One element that we had not initially thought much about was the possibility of commissions being placed, but after selling one of the larger pieces to a collector, he decided that he would like some others to fit very particular places in their home. After some consultation with William and a certain amount of back and forth over the practical considerations of making the pieces in very specific sizes, this was all agreed and started William thinking about the next kiln full of work he was to begin once he was settled back in his studio.

For all that Saturday and Sunday had been almost like full summer days in Aldeburgh, the early part of the next week was somewhat less lovely! However, only on one day did the heavens open to the extent that the streets emptied, and our run of visitors evaporated. As they say though, it's an ill wind and it did give us a chance to catch up on a few bits of paperwork, sending out images and details to those unable to attend. This respite did not last long, and by the end of the first week we'd had well over two hundred visitors, had sold a large number of pieces and still had the last weekend to go! There were also some marvellously surreal moments, such as when on the Thursday evening we looked out of our window to see a huge queue of people snaking off down the street from the cinema door. We rather hoped it was going to be a run of eager Plumptre collectors, but it proved to be the queue for the sold-out audience with Vanessa Redgrave!

William returned to Aldeburgh on the Friday for an 'in conversation' which we were holding in the evening. As we'd seen many times before, his talking about his work and especially about his early years as a potter working and training in Japan was always fascinating, and so it proved. The hour of conversation shot by, and our visitors loved hearing the artist discuss what had taken him to Japan and what he found there and how much of a culture shock that had been. William also touched on the technical side of his practice, referring to the rope work decoration that he had first seen when working in the studio of Tatzuko Shimoka, and pointed out that one of the guests we had with us that evening was Des Pawson, an expert and authority on ropes, knots and sailors' rope work and who actually makes some of the ropes that William uses in his studio. Only afterwards did it occur to us that we should have taped the evening' talk!

As the final weekend was upon us, we were starting to get a sense of how our visitors had responded to William's work. Obviously in a county like Suffolk where the crafts are strong, there are any number of working potters, making a huge range of wares. Thus it was very heartening for us to find that those visitors who had experience of studio ceramics, either as practitioners or as collectors, were incredibly impressed by the combination of skill and beauty in William's pots. Several people returned to the show for a further chance to see pieces and to select their favourites, and sales continued right up until the close on Sunday.

As with all these events, they are of course only temporary and once the clock struck three it was time for us to start to pack up. By five, the van was full, the remaining pots securely packed, the furniture all roped in, and the posters down. As we turned off the lights, the gallery was just a room again.

The afternoon sun was warm and so we took the chance to have an ice cream on the beach before setting out for home, accompanied by three large live crabs which William had bought that morning from the beach front fishermen and were to be our supper!

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