“To Work is to Pray”
Long before I met the man, Ray Finch’s pots changed my life. On a snowy night in January, 1978, I arrived at The Guildhouse, the craft school in the Cotswolds where I had come to teach. At this point, I had been working with clay for several years while attending several universities, mostly exploring the sculptural side of ceramics. As I entered the great hall of the Guildhouse, there was a spectacular fire place in the center and above the fireplace was a large charger (that’s a platter for you Americans!) with the latin phrase above inscribed around the rim. The phrase is the motto of the Benedictine order (and the city of Cincinnati as it turns out) and it was also adopted by the founder of the Guildhouse. Mary Osborne had commissioned Ray to make this for her and it continues to be a much treasured piece. Everywhere you looked in that place were fabulous pots made by Ray, by Cardew and many of the fine potters who were part of the Winchcombe team.
I had never before entered a world that so wholeheartedly embraced and celebrated hand made objects. I am sorry to admit that at this point I had almost no knowledge of the history of pottery in Britain. How lucky then to end up just 7 miles down the road from this extraordinary pottery and it’s wonderful people.
When I tell the story of my own pottery life, this is the point where I mention that I had a 2-part epiphany that led to my life as a potter. The first part being my entrance into the Guildhouse and the second, when a week or two later I first visited Winchcombe. I can still recall the sound of the sliding door that opens into the workshop and the earthy smell of a place where clay is king. Of course, in those days, you first met Eddie Hopkins as you entered and Ed always had lots of to say. Meeting Ray was a bit terrifying for me, really…Quiet people often leave me unnerved and if you ever met the man, you know that quiet is his middle name.
Ray was an island of serenity in a vibrant workshop full of characters behind their wheels and plenty of interesting visitors that always kept it lively. Ray took it all in, but remained on the edges, rather than in the middle of things. He had a strong internal life and was content to go through his days quietly, smoking a pipe while making pots or digging potatoes.
I have too many stories to tell about this man who shaped so much of my life…to begin with, I’m guessing that if it weren’t for Ray I wouldn’t have known any of you folks out there reading this.
Here are just a few little pieces of memory that make my smile and cry at the same time:
Just as I arrived Ray was exploring salt glazing for the first time. The best education I ever got was standing with Toff and him while they were figuring it all out…2 great minds solving a big puzzle. When I last saw Ray in the summer of 2010 he was still making tests and firing the salt kiln! At close to 96 years old! It is only too appropriate that I and my 2 assistants began building my new salt kiln on the very day he passed.
I usually spent the evenings finishing off the firing of the wood kiln with Ray. The work day at the pottery would end at 4:30 when everyone went home. I would tend the kiln while Ray went into the house for his evening ‘tea’ and when he returned he would often bring with him a couple of Newcastle Brown Ales and we would then finish off the firing together into the night. I would try to be a bit quiet myself, but I’m sure that I drove him a little crazy with my questions and babbling, not that he’d have let me know that.
I asked him once what he thought his legacy might be….not a question that he wanted to entertain, but he answered just the same. He felt that he had spent his life refining the somewhat raw ideas that Michael Cardew brought to our consciousness…those ideas included creating a working environment for his team that had purpose and meaning as well as refining the classic forms and decoration that Cardew used. When the red clay at Winchcombe finally played out (it was full of lime) he adapted the Bourry firebox to stoneware temperatures. There are kilns all over the world that use this idea. I’m not sure that Ray gets the credit he deserves for that. He also found a way to bring some classic slipware decoration ideas to stoneware.
In his later years when I’d visit we would walk over the hill just across from the pottery and talk about the landscape of the Cotswolds and the rural life that, even there in that special place has been disappearing. He wasn’t a man to express regret, he was a pragmatist about the changes that life wrought while at the same time he pursued his seemingly idyllic life as a country craftsman. He was a man firmly rooted…in that place and in his deeply felt beliefs. Ray was devout Catholic and a man of strong conviction…he was a pacifist during WWII and refused to fight. (He served with the fire brigade during the war). I’ve often thought that it takes a lot of conviction to remain a pacifist when your own homeland is under attack.
I could go on and on here, but I won’t. Most of you have probably given up reading to this point anyway. I appreciate the kind words that have been sent my way and if you haven’t read Hollis’ or Doug’s recent writings about Ray you should.
Ray was a great potter and an even better man and I am so grateful to have counted him as my friend.
It always seemed to me that he lived his own life by the words ‘to work is to pray‘. His life helped me to understand what that means. Peace.
Here are just a few of his pots in my collection. I’ve been greedy and I’m proud of it!
|Stoneware jug/ earthenware creamer|
|look at the lids on the 2 large teapots…I switched them to show that, while made years apart and fired in different kilns, they fit each other exactly.|