Potter Helen Beard's porcelain
High above the hubbub of London’s Clerkenwell, two minutes from Smithfield market, potter Helen Beard is at work. Part of the artistic community at Craft Central on St John’s Square, her third-storey studio has bird’s eye views over streets and rooftops. The whitewashed walls and pale blue rubber flooring impart a calm, light and spacious feeling.
Helen’s studio is neat as a new pin. In one corner is a round kiln; over by the window are the low-slung potter’s wheel and stool where she pulls and pushes hunks of the best ‘buttery’ Limoges clay into pieces of fine porcelain – beakers, mugs and straight-sided, cylindrical bowls. The 29-year-old artist is equally well groomed. With glossy auburn hair, freckled skin and sparkly eyes, she fizzes with enthusiasm and laughs a lot; keeping trim through her work.
‘When you’re wedging and throwing up to six kilos of clay you’re putting your whole body into it. When I don’t do it I feel tense,’ she remarks.
Today she has been at work since 8am and won’t go home until 7pm. ‘I like to come up with new ideas for every show that I do, and this project has a rural theme so I’ve been decorating with birds, flowers and cows inspired by the Derbyshire countryside where my parents live.’
It’s this passion for the new that has driven Helen’s success. Since finishing an apprenticeship with leading potter Edmund de Waal in 2004, Helen’s trajectory has been stellar. A 2005 Crafts Council development award ‘paid for the kiln’, and in 2007 she won the Evening Standard Homes & Property award for best domestic design. She has pieces in the permanent collections of the City of Edinburgh Museums & Galleries Trust and Hove Museum & Art Gallery. This year she exhibited at the premier applied arts selling show, ‘Collect’ at the V&A, with the Joanna Bird Gallery, which then took her to the top American crafts show, ‘SOFA’ in Chicago.
Helen describes her work as ‘drawings on pots’, using the medium of porcelain as a blank canvas to draw people, cityscapes, food and flower markets, harbour scenes, birds, flowers – anything which appeals to her love of British tradition and nostalgia. It’s a painstaking process. To apply the black outlines, she first creates her own version of carbon paper – a thin layer of black stain dried onto newspaper – and draws the designs onto the pots through it, painting in the colours afterwards. ‘The colours – underglaze stains – are a bit like poster paints,’ says Helen. ‘The great joy is that what you see is what you get after glazing.'
As a teenager she ‘was always drawing’, and honed her style on walking holidays in Cornwall where she sketched scenes at Mousehole, Zennor and St Ives. A great inspiration was and is the Cornish artist Alfred Wallis, who didn’t start painting until he was 70, after a life at sea. ‘As a child, I had a poster of one of his paintings and I connected with his naïve style straightaway.’
After school, Helen attended Edinburgh College of Art, gaining a first class degree in Applied Arts and Ceramics. When she arrived in London in 2001 she decided to continue with her final year project – making ceramic dresses.
‘They were two patterned pieces, laced together,’ says Helen. After nine months reality struck and she realised that while the dresses were original, they weren’t very saleable. She changed tack. A new direction Though lucky enough to be offered an apprenticeship with de Waal, she was daunted at first. ‘I had never thrown a pot in my life,’ she recalls. ‘At that time Edmund shared a studio with another leading ceramicist, Julian Stair. Their work was very minimalist and pure, in white, celadon and grey porcelain, whereas I couldn’t resist drawing on my pots and giving them a bit of humour!’ At Edmund’s studio she learnt to throw and to glaze, with Edmund spending snips of time with her whenever he could.
Since setting up on her own in 2004 Helen’s style has evolved further. Drawings of bobbing boats were one of her first motifs, and have remained her ‘bread and butter work’, sold through several Cornish galleries. In early 2005, another artist told her about the Serpentine swimmers and, intrigued, Helen went and observed their swimming rituals in London’s Hyde Park. They were subsequently among the first ‘characters’ she drew on pots, and marked a new strength of colour and line in her work.
‘They are so eccentric and meet up every Saturday, whatever the weather. They seem incredibly alive,’ she says. The characters have wrinkly swimming trunks, swimming caps and goggles and haven’t been chosen for their beauty or sartorial style. ‘They’re so human.’
Her character pots, as she calls them, are her favourites and she has immortalised well over 300 people on them. ‘When I have time to kill, I go out for walks or hop onto my bike to see who I can spot, taking my camera and sketchbook with me. I love observing ordinary people and the way they are.’ Some characters crop up more than once – a lady in a black and white stripy jumper, for example, first spotted outside a greengrocer’s in Islington.
Her next plan is to make collections of pots, placed together to tell a story, inspired by the 51-piece cityscape of Edinburgh she showed at the city’s Art Centre last year. For the Crafts Council’s ‘Origin’ show at Somerset House this month, she plans the theme to be ‘as bonkers as possible,’ she smiles. ‘I just want to have fun making my pots’.
The rise of Helen Beard
‘Helen could work in any medium,’ says fellow potter and gallery owner Joanna Bird, who has a nose for originality. ‘She encapsulates the British spirit of humour and wit. Everyone who sees her pots starts to smile and laugh. It’s rare to be collected as quickly as Helen has been by major museums – it usually takes between six and 10 years of hard work to get noticed. In my opinion she’s only just begun.’
020 8995 9960; joannabirdpottery.com