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Voices of the Landscape

In conversation with Irish potter Jack Doherty, whose work takes its narrative from ancient and elemental forms resulting in vessels that reflect both time and place. Words by Hannah Tapping, images by Steve Tanner.

Working from his studio in Cornwall, Jack’s porcelain vessel forms are thrown on the potter’s wheel, carved and shaped while the clay is soft. The elemental colours of smoke grey, lemon, russet and turquoise are created by a firing process that combines flame and soda in the intense white heat of the kiln. The pots are figurative on many levels. The individual forms, both large and small, each have their own character, particular emotional range and response, while all having a connection as part of the group with which they are fired.

Lulled by Jack’s gentle Irish lilt, I am intrigued to learn a little of his background, so ask him to talk me through his formative years as a potter. “I was born in Co Derry and am a ceramic artist with a studio in Penzance. I have been practising now since I trained in ceramics at the Ulster College of Art and Design, Belfast. I came to Cornwall in 2008 as the first Lead Potter and Creative Director at the restored Leach Pottery in St Ives, where I set up the new production studio. I worked there for five years, before moving to my own studio space in Mousehole and then on to our current studio and gallery at Trinity House, Penzance. Here I have a specialist porcelain studio where I draw and create my exhibition pieces. We also have a workshop at New Mill where we make our range of domestic ceramics. All the production, clay preparation and firing take place there.”

The form and colour of Jack’s work is reminiscent of Cornwall’s landscape and I’m curious as to where his inspiration is drawn: “It certainly spans a very long period of time. I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of the vessel form. So, while my pots are sculptural pieces in one sense, they’re functional forms in another. I look at the place of everyday objects used across the world and these forms inspire my work. Over time, I have stripped down the ingredients and techniques that I employ and now use one clay, one colouring mineral and one firing process. These choices are interestingly informed by the local landscape. China clay is a part of the porcelain I use, and copper is my mineral of choice. Copper was mined prolifically across Cornwall, and the ensuing colours from my soda-firing technique are similar to those seen when minerals leach from deep within the ground. The combination of this, along with the firing, allows me to develop my own colour palette that reflect the voices of the landscape.”

Jack continues: “I make forms inspired by pre-historic pots, as far back as the Neolithic age. Beginning with the idea of function, but then taking it beyond, to where the boundary between form and utility cross. Our New Mill studio is just along the road from an Iron-age village. I find a sense of timelessness here amidst this pagan landscape. I look at the objects that were discovered here and wonder: what were they used for, how were they made? These ancient vessels had multiple functions; used in daily life, but also taken to the next life. Today, I think that the need for functional ceramic pieces has probably changed, but I feel that there remains an emotional and spiritual connection between us and the objects that we use every day.”

“The simple bowl is the most archetypal of pottery forms and the most elemental of shapes that informs my work. It has the capacity for holding, containing and storing” says Jack. “I’m fascinated by the cultural idea of objects. For example, the way that domestic pots are used for cooking and nurturing. They keep people safe by preserving and protecting food or by caring for precious items. Developing the theme of containing and holding, I make keeper forms with a tiny lid, while non-functional, they are designed for storing thoughts, ideas and intangible things. I refer to my larger pieces as Guardian vessels. Their shape and size invite cradling; often people feel compelled to put their arms around them. There’s a range of ideas and scale across all my work.”

The depth of range in colour and surface texture on the vessel forms is both unique and intense. “I discovered this way of working some years ago,” explains Jack, “after experimenting with different ways of using soda-firing. I began introducing copper and had never seen the resulting colour combinations before. It took a lot of attempts, re-firing the kiln trying to work out what I was doing, but I finally worked out a system. I use a gas catenary kiln and don’t apply a conventional glaze. Instead, I use copper carbonate dissolved into a liquid porcelain slip which is then applied to the pots in layers. By diluting sodium bicarbonate in water and introducing that into the kiln at a very high temperature, it reacts with the copper and porcelain to produce this dramatic range of colour.”

“In ceramics, copper is a very volatile substance and gives me a range of colour depending on how I manage the firing. I now have a palette of colour that I know I can achieve. There will always be some little variations but it’s now controllable to a point where I can produce varying tones of colour in different ways. However, there’s still an unexpectedness about the way that the forms relate to one another within the kiln environment. The pots are dry when they are introduced to the kiln – there’s no bisque firing – and so at this stage they have an egg-shell vulnerability. Each pot goes through a single firing, and it is an intense and hugely pivotal process.”

“I’ve just fired a kiln for an exhibition that contained some of the largest pieces I’ve ever made,” explains Jack. “The firing lasted about 17 hours, during which I had to be in complete control as the interior of the kiln had a turbulent atmosphere. It’s not something you can be switched off from and leave, I have to be constantly tuned in. There’s a lot of tension at the firing stage as I must retain a connection with the fire and flame, and the way the colours are developing.”

“I check the kiln every 15 minutes – I’m checking the temperature and I’m checking the direction of the flames. The final hour and a half of the firing process is the tensest, and I’ll be spraying the sodium solution through various opening points. Combined with the white heat of the kiln it creates a very dramatic situation. The transformative nature of fire acts as a catalyst. If you look into the kiln you can see the sodium touching the pots, etching its way into the surface. The vessels themselves tell the story of the firing both in the way that I group them together, and from the relationship they have with each other inside the kiln. For example, the shadow of one pot may make a mark on another. The vessels are fired as a ‘family’ there will be a range of sizes and proportions, but each one will relate to the next.”

The Doherty Porcelain gallery and studio can be found in the 19th-century former Trinity House depot on the quay of Penzance harbour. It is an iconic building with a unique history and was previously the National Lighthouse Museum. Jack is from a fishing and seafaring family on the north coast of Ireland. With his personal connection to the sea, it seems fitting that the buildings are connected to Jack’s past.

Jack works in creative collaboration with his partner Sarah to show his internationally acclaimed porcelain vessels. Sarah has a background in theatre and studied for her MA in Curatorial Practice at Falmouth University. She tells me: “As a curator I am very interested in the idea of storytelling and visual narrative. When we first started working together, Jack’s pots were displayed in our home, the concept of place and protection was very much part of an exhibition we created there. Unlike a painting or sculpture, Jack’s vessels are not static, they come to life seen in shifting moments of light and shadow.”

“Since finding Trinity House, we have continued the idea of a living-working space. When people visit, we like them to experience the work in natural light and want them to interact with and experience the work in a different way to how they would in a more traditional gallery space. There’s a story behind every pot and the way we show the work. In the future we have plans to develop what we do in the gallery by hosting related workshops and events. We are currently working on our online Spring Collection opening in May and planning our summer exhibition.”

As well as exhibiting at Trinity House and various galleries in Cornwall and across the UK, Jack produces two collections of new work for sale online. All the details are available on the website. The gallery and studio is open Wedesday to Saturday, 11am to 4pm. Other days and times by appointment.


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