For Peter Beard, a large part of being a ceramic artist is in the honing of his craft. He has established himself as one of the leading makers of contemporary ceramics in the UK in a career that began in the early 1970s. As a compromise to his parents, somewhat at odds with his aspirations of working in clay, he studied Industrial and Furniture Design at Ravensbourne College of Art and Design. He was able to work with clay as an elective during this time, immersing himself in studying ceramics at every opportunity, while picking up wider material skills and a scrupulous approach to design.
Beard now works from his home and workshop in the Warwickshire countryside, on the northern outskirts of Leamington Spa.
When discussing his work and career, Beard is engaging, thoughtful, and occasionally provocative (without any malice) about how and why he works in the way he does and his enthusiasm is infectious. He explains, “I am all consumed by my work. I don’t have hobbies or another job other than my work and I think about my work all the time.” He has a focused, concentrated attention that is necessarily absorbing, particularly when involved in glaze application. His early training and his experiences working with people with different skill sets have provided him with a foundation of skills and approaches to working and living that have enabled him to develop his distinctive and meticulously wrought work. In the past he has supplemented his making with part-time teaching; however, he now teaches only five days a year at workshop venues outside of his hometown, which also allows him to travel a little. Although he enjoys teaching, he didn’t want to become a teacher. “My work is what I want to do. It’s all about the creativity and the enjoyment,” he explains.
Although known for his ceramic vessels and sculpture, Beard also works in bronze—including a 3-meter-high bronze sculpture commission—and has at times worked in glass and stone. Working with other materials allows him a wider freedom. He can make work in bronze that would be physically difficult or perhaps not possible in clay. Ideas from bodies of work in different materials can influence each other, help other work evolve, and form starting points for new work.
The artwork is always developing and growing into iterations upon themes and ideas that emerge over time. In the mid 1980s Beard became tired of the work he had been creating up until then, feeling it had become predictable. A three-month period of intense glaze exploration led to the work that he has possibly become best known for—using a combination of a high-firing matte base glaze with a lower-temperature glaze applied over wax-resist patterns. This resulted in the controlled unpredictability of surface qualities within a richly variegated visual texture. Recent work has developed this further with multiple layers of glaze and multiple firings. The fired surfaces are ground back to reveal sumptuous patterns and textures. Logistically, this can mean that some work takes months to resolve.
Beard always seems to be nudging the work beyond its established boundaries. The gestation of ideas is always underpinned by extensive glaze testing and drawing. He was nagged at college about drawing, never going anywhere without a sketchbook, and uses drawing and photography to record and inform ideas. He also recalls being told in college to put a glaze test in every firing and he has kept this up ever since, putting, at least five tests in every glaze firing. His studio is testament to this methodical research, with countless tests and glaze materials in evidence. He is, however, modest about his knowledge of materials despite his work indicating otherwise—appearing to be thoroughly grounded in material knowledge, understanding, and exacting technical process.
Early in his working life, he realized he didn’t want to be a production thrower. He balances working on the wheel with mold making and handbuilding depending on what a particular piece demands.
Although the vessel-based work is vitrified, he is clear that for him the work is not utilitarian. Although the work could be perceived as having a possible use, he sees no less merit in it than one of his sculptures, explaining, “I’ve put just as much effort and consideration into it.”
During our conversation, we discovered that we both admire the work of the late Colin Pearson, a postwar British potter and educator whose wider influence is sometimes overlooked. He was known for his highly individual vessels, winged vases, interest in foregrounding the material qualities of clay, and a more open approach to the potter’s wheel as a tool.
Beard elaborates that, in addition to other artwork, everything and anything has been an influence for him, from Chinese jade, to archaeology, to landscape. Aware of the shifts in creative clay culture, he is clearly respectful of the pioneers like Pearson, while also being positive about contemporary popular artists such as Edmund de Waal or Grayson Perry. He notes that making a living as a ceramic artist is not an easy thing and the visibility of these artists has helped to make it more accessible.
Travel has provided research and development time for his work on several occasions. In the past year he has completed artist residencies at The Clay Studio in Philadelphia, the New Taipei City Yingge Ceramics Museum in Taiwan, and the International Ceramics Studio in Kecskemét, Hungary. He says that alongside time to develop projects, trial new ideas, or research techniques, he always meets people and that this often leads to further opportunities. He has for example recently been invited to work with a brick company near Osnabrück, Germany. We can only but look forward to seeing the direction of travel with future work.
the author Paul McAllister teaches at the University of Wolverhampton’s School of Art in Wolverhampton, England.