Featured Artist: Marshall Colman

One of only a dozen potters in this country working with tin glaze, Marshall Colman produces intriguing and beautiful decorated pots in a style I have never seen before. The shape of his vessels, often with flat handles, references ancient amphoras. Yet they are completely contemporary, decorated in bright colours with bold gestural marks like abstract painting. Fiona Gaskell finds out how Marshall developed his very individual work.

“I was fascinated by potter’s wheels ever since I first came across one in my school’s art room” says Marshall. “At Keele University, I was allowed to use the pottery studio although I was studying history, and I spent nearly all my time there, working until the porters threw me out. Funnily enough, they were interested in what I was doing as they had worked in the nearby Potteries manufacturing china.”

After completing his degree, Marshall got an apprenticeship with the potter Judith Partridge near Lewes. This is where he was first introduced to tin glaze pottery, which means that the vessels are fired unglazed and come out of the kiln looking like flower pots. They are then dipped in glaze, which dries to a powdery surface. It is a very difficult technique to master, as it is like painting on blotting paper, and some colours only come out in the firing. Marshall eventually decided that he needed to earn his living, as the apprenticeship was barely paid, and he went into a career in local government and the voluntary sector.

However he never lost his fascination for this kind of pottery. He started classes at St Albans School of Art, where he was very well taught by Hugh Spendlove, who was both a potter and a calligrapher. Marshall got back into tin glaze work again, and in 2006 he retrained at the University of Westminster in Harrow, taking a B.A. in Ceramics. This was a really good place to train as he was taught by top potters. By 2009, Marshall had graduated and he was finally doing what he had wanted to do for so long.

“Tin glaze work has a long history stretching back over 1000 years” says Marshall. In the 20th century potters placed strong emphasis on form rather than decorative surface, while in former times decoration sometimes overwhelmed the surface of pots. This was taken to extremes in Italy in the 16th and 17th centuries, when large flat plates were painted with polychrome paintings. “I was in Spain last year,” says Marshall, “and I saw the influence of Islam dating back many centuries in the pottery there.” Tin glaze was brought to Britain by the Dutch in the 16th century who introduced work in the style of Delft.

“I am making a completely modern interpretation of tin glaze” says Marshall, “and whereas the work I have seen in Italy and Spain is imitative, my work is contemporary and individual. I am influenced by abstract expressionism and by the textile design of the 1950s, in fact more by textiles than pottery. In the 1950s Picasso did things no potter would have dreamed of doing, leading to a new exuberance that was linked to the demand for cheerful pottery to be used in the coffee bars that were becoming so fashionable. This is a strong contrast with the work of Bernard Leach, which I find puritanical.”

Marshall paints asymmetrical decoration on symmetrical vessels, using gestural marks and layers of colour and texture. There is a long history of blue and white pottery, but he is working on using red, which is a very difficult colour to use in pottery. He mixes colour with wax, using resist to achieve textural effects. The result has life and vitality, with surprising trickledown effects. He uses decoration that works with the shape of the pot. “The longer you do it for, the more difficult it gets” says Marshall. “It takes a long time to get a glaze that works, and I am now working on a second glaze for different colours. This means I have to draw on science as well as art, keeping meticulous records of glaze chemistry. I am always experimenting, and I find this work intellectually occupying as there is always more to find out about. It is a challenge to do something original, and my work combines the ancient and the contemporary, drawing on the shape of flat-handled amphoras dating back millennia and Renaissance jars I saw in the Wallace Collection.”

He is proudest of his oval vessels which he is working on at the moment. In December he won the St Albans Museum Trust prize at the University of Hertfordshire gallery’s Eastern Approaches exhibition for the vessel pictured above. He has got too many ideas to stop doing new things and working with new colour combinations. He is a risk-taker who likes to work with success just on the edge of failure. He works in his home studio in the garden, which he calls a shed and which he keeps very tidy as there is no space for mess. He is a full-time potter, either planning or making his work. He aims to work regular hours, but there are times when he has to watch the kiln at midnight. Sometimes people ask him how his pots can be used, and they are vessels which can be used, for example as vases, although most are not designed to be utility items. But he takes account of practicalities, always glazing the base of pots so they do not scratch surfaces. He produces some purely functional items, such as tableware.

Together with five other artists, Marshall is participating in the Open Studios exhibition in St Albans at the Courtroom in the Old Town Hall. His work can be found in galleries and shows all over the UK. The most local gallery is Palace Green at Hatfield House. The museum shop at Old Charleston in Lewes, famous as the home of the Bloomsbury Group, is exhibiting a range of his work as it relates to the ethos of Bloomsbury but it is not a pastiche. He does demonstrations at Childwickbury art fair, which is always a challenge as his pots have to be very carefully wrapped to be transported. Visitors to the fair love to see him working, and they usually want to buy pieces they have seen him working on.

Marshall can be contacted on marshall@marshallcolman.com

See more of his work at www.marshallcolman.com