Peter Dormer Lecture: Alison Britton: Thinking on Your Feet

I knew Peter Dormer because he was the husband of Jane Smith, a great friend and deputy editor of the BMJ when I was the editor. He died in 1996 aged 47. I knew that he was a writer on craft, but I didn’t understand at the time how important and visionary he was. He published 11 books, including the influential and far-sighted The Art of the Maker. As well as being insightful on traditional crafts, always it seems the poor cousin of the arts, he championed all forms of making, including flower arranging, cooking, juggling, dentistry and DIY. I like that.

My memory of him is speaking up for what seemed to be a mistake to most when I opted for a radical design for the cover of the first Christmas issue published when I was the editor–I was trying to get as far away from robins and snowmen as I could. I was grateful for his support.

Every year for the past 20 years there has been an annual Peter Dormer Lecture held at the Royal College of Art, where Peter boldly did a PhD towards the end of his life when well recognised as a writer on craft. Lin and I have been to many of the lectures, and last night we listened to Alison Britton.

Britton is a potter and writer, and her talk was about her creative method and her evolution as a potter. She entitled her lecture Thinking on Your Feet because that’s how she goes about potting and writing. She has a “rough idea” in her head as she starts to make a pot, but she allows the pot to grow from the clay. She doesn’t approach it head on but “sidles up” to the clay. She believes in “inner speech,” a kind of sea from which an island (the pot or the piece of writing) emerges. The “story comes before the structure,” and she never gives up on a pot. She keeps layering it, as a poem is layered, until something comes. She spoke of “the wonder of unknowing.”


She recently had a retrospective at the Victoria and Albert Museum, and she once had an exhibition entitled Form and Fiction. It could have been Function and Fact, but she wanted the former because she cares most about form and the story not so much the function and the fact. Her pots are probably not used for eating or drinking, but, as she pointed out, she has always stuck with pots, which have an outside and an inside, rather than move over into sculpture. Her pots have, however, moved from the narrative to the abstract.

Novels have been important to her evolution as a potter. Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red led her to visit Istanbul twice and discover both new forms and lapis lazuli. Later pots are rich with turquoise. And Penelope Fitzgerald’s later, surreal novels made her bolder and determined “not to be kept in one place.” Her own writing, through which she discovers what she thinks, seems to have been much more constrained. Her only creative writing was “the odd poem in my 68 years.” Asked what she would do next, she said “fumble my way as usual.”

Lin related to her creative method. She too starts her painting with only a rough idea and keeps constantly changing and layering; and she doesn’t give up. She too constrains herself (in the way that Britton stays with pots) in that the men in suits “with ears” are mostly givens in her paintings.

One of my thoughts after the lecture was that I should pay more attention to ceramics. Generally I walk past the pots to get to the paintings. I don’t even pay as much attention to sculpture as I do to painting. But I’m missing out.

I thought back to try and remember a time when I’d ever paid much attention to ceramics–and I remembered seeing what I remembered as ceramics by Picasso at MOMA. But when I looked back I found that it was an exhibition of his sculpture, although it did include, I’m pretty sure, some pots and plates.





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