Clive Bowen's range of functional slipware accesses the traditions of English and Japanese ceramics and creates a satisfying, solid and comfortable synthesis.
Bowen, who trained as an apprentice with Michael Leach at Yelland pottery from 1965 to 1969, is based in Shebbear near Holsworthy in north Devon where he operates a traditional wood-fired kiln capable of firing up to 1000 pots at a time. Almost all of his pots are thrown using the local iron-rich Fremington earthenware which has been used for centuries in the area. Fremington – the body and substance of Bowen's vessels – is decorated with slip made from creamy ball clay, also found locally.
Bowen's range of tableware extends from large flasks to jugs and from platters to bowls. His 'palette' is muted, earthy, warm and homely – browns, ochres and umbers; occasionally, dark resonant blues, greys and purples make their way into platters and other vessels. Occasionally he will introduce an emerald green into sets of cups and saucers.
All of the work here was made specifically for this exhibition and it shows – there is a remarkable degree of freshness in Bowen's pottery; although many of the forms and designs are tried and tested they never appear repetitive or formulaic. They are original studio works – made in the spirit of a grounded English utilitarian and rural tradition – which adopt Bernard Leach's original approach laid out in works such as 'A Potter's Life' which encouraged the reestablishment of a relationship between place, material, function, tradition and design.
Interestingly, although some Japanese aesthetics and techniques were passed down the Leach line to Bowen, he had never himself visited Japan until last year. Commenting on this Bowen has written:
The form and function of my work can be traced back to centuries-old pots such as English medieval jugs and early Tamba ware from Japan. I hope that I am re-inventing them and not merely imitating them. My first visit to Japan...was an inspiration, causing me to look again as forms I hadn't made for several years, such as flasks and bottles (I last made these in 1971) as well as exploring new shapes. There is a wealth of forms contained within what we might loosely call 'domestic ware'....
A collection of three tea caddies seems to emphasise this approach – broadly similar in form and size, they are also highly individual, decorated with a painterly but restrained hand; they would seem ideal, essential companions to both a tea ceremony and to everyday domestic use.
Bowen's initial training at Cardiff College of Art in the mid-1960's - where he studied painting and etching - has had an undeniable influence of the way he uses slip as a decorative visual medium. His 'Large Platter' (earthenware, 58 cm diameter), for example, is both a functional vessel and a painterly statement, resembling a form of abstract expressionism – not dissimilar to some of the work of Howard Hodgkin but with a radically different palette. The idea of the clay as canvas is not knew but Bowen's approach – bold, gestural sweeps and splashes, sometimes combined with sgraffito – is both controlled but intuitive and adds significantly to the tradition. It takes some of Bowen's pottery marking away from decoration towards meaning.
Surveying this elegant, well proportioned and thoughtfully set out show in its entirety leads one to the inevitable conclusion that Bowen has honed his craft and art, patiently, diligently and thoughtfully over many years, slowly evolving, becoming more familiar with his repertoire of materials and techniques. His is a man wholly himself and wholly comfortable – but not complacent - with his work. The man and his medium seem in harmony while his pots still carry the excitement and freshness of one who loves his work. These are forms and objects which are beautiful and inspiring but never too precious to fulfill a useful purpose.