Crowan Pottery pin tray (7cm diam)

 

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Phil Oliver

5 June 2013

 

 

             Harry Davis

 
 
 

Harry Davis demonstrating in Sydney, 1972
Harry Davis demonstrating in Sydney, 1972


The Complete Potter

 

'As well as being a great potter, Harry Davis was a self-taught intuitive engineer, a thinker, an environmentalist (before his time), a pacifist, a writer and a very fine person.

He was independent, self reliant, inquisitive, humorous and had a clear understanding of the technical side of everything.'

Stephen Harrison
Pottery in Australia, Feb 1987

Harry was born in 1910. As the only child of a Swiss mother and an English father he was educated in both countries, and left school at sixteen fluent in German. He was sent to Bournemouth School of Art. There, pottery classes were full so he couldn't join them, but out of hours, alone in the pottery room he worked away by himself, putting his efforts on the shelves with the rest. At the end of the term when the firing was due, and the finished pots were assembled, it was discovered that all the biggest pots, and half of the rest, were made by Harry who did not even take pottery! So, in 1927, the headmaster organised a job as 'handy boy' with the local Broadstone Potters, near Poole, makers of the Joyous Pottery range. (Pots Harry later described in 1968 as 'appalling'!)

We think this is Harry Davis glazing Joyous Pottery in 1930
This is probably Harry Davis glazing Joyous Pottery in 1930

At Broadstone Potters, Harry started as a decorator on the Joyous range, but he made himself useful wherever possible, learning whatever he could, whenever he could. It was here that he developed his prodigious skill on the potter's wheel and an ethos for hard work. A Mr Bean taught him to throw; he had worked at Doultons and with the help of an assistant to bring the clay balls and carry off the pots, had been known to make 1,800 ink bottles in a day. He taught Harry the old traditional fingerings, such as the claw grip, many of which Harry used all his life.

But the years of the slump finally reduced the staff from a workforce of about fifteen to three: the working proprietors, and Harry. In early 1933, an accident on an icy road and a broken collar bone brought the whole episode to an end, including the Broadstone Potters!


A rare slipware vase made by Harry Davis in 1936
at the Bernard Leach Pottery, St Ives

Later in 1933 he applied for a job as a thrower with Bernard Leach at Dartington, and cycled to Devon in August for an interview. He was successful, but the project fell through, so he went to work with Bernard and David Leach at St Ives in Cornwall.

Harry worked at the Leach Pottery until 1937 and developed the potting style he was to use for the rest of his life. He was by far their best and most prolific thrower and ran the pottery when Bernard and David were away; he helped May with her throwing skills in 1936.

Harry Davis always recognized the debt he owed Bernard Leach for this early introduction to pottery which was invaluable in helping him to understand the aesthetic qualities of a good pot. This knowledge was also furthered by the long hours he spent in the London museums, filling book after book with drawings and sketches of pots.

Harry left St Ives in June 1937 and was offered the job of Head of the Art School at Achimota College in the Gold Coast (now Ghana). He was employed by the Crown Agents for the Colonies to research the possibilities of the manufacture of tiles and bricks and later also of pots.

Harry and May married in 1938 and she went with him on his second trip to Africa, but after a period of home leave war intervened. May couldn't travel back to Africa. Harry was unable to return to England. He stayed until 1942 successfully finding local materials for clay and glazes. It was at Harry's suggestion that Michael Cardew was appointed to succeed him.

In the meantime in desperation May had joined a sect - the "Hutterian Society of Brothers", the Bruderhof - and moved with them to Paraguay.

Towards the end of the war Harry finally managed to join her there, but he was unable to commit himself to the Bruderhof.

After much 'trouble', they left with very little and Harry found work in a nearby pipe and tile factory in Asuncion. Later they moved to Patagonia where Harry had a job as a 'ceramic expert' for a china clay company. He would have hated that title!

A Crowan Pottery lidded bowl - incised stoneware
A Crowan Pottery lidded bowl - stoneware

They returned to England in 1946 and set up the Crowan Pottery, near Praze in Cornwall. Crowan Pottery produced mostly domestic ware, with Harry Davis making most of the pots himself. His skill as a thrower was legendary. The quality and practicality of Crowan pots was exceptionally high. It is said that he could test his dinner plates by standing with his feet on each side of the rim and rocking! With their present value not many would try this today.

Ken Moore recently contacted us.  "Harry Davis' throwing skill is legendary, but I often wonder if the consistency of his whole production is appreciated. We bought a 2 place setting breakfast set from Crowan when we married in 1956. We subsequently built it up, by several different orders, to more than 12. The later pieces were indistinguishable from the first, not only in size and shape but in body glaze and decoration. It is one of my great regrets that I never managed to visit Crowan before they emigrated."

Click to open a larger image
A sample of Harry and May Davis stoneware pottery made at Crowan

The pottery flourished for 16 years, but the Davises were restless. England and Cornwall seemed overcrowded, over developed and congested and the Cold War loomed large with the threat of nuclear action.

In 1962 they closed shop and emigrated to New Zealand. They arrived in the middle of August with their four children and the apprentice potter, Stephen Carter, who had been with them at Crowan for three years. Fifteen tons of luggage and equipment followed them on a cargo boat. They established the Crewenna Pottery near Nelson and for another ten years produced very similar pottery, as shown below.

A Crewenna Pottery stoneware bowl
A Crewenna Pottery stoneware bowl

But again Harry and May became restless. After a lecture tour to raise funds, Harry left for Peru in 1972, May followed the year after.

They spent eight years building and establishing a pottery production unit for the locals at Izcuchaca, 9,500 feet high in the Andes.

This was not a happy project and May returned to New Zealand in 1979 and Harry, with his health broken, a little later.

In the following years he wrote two books. The Potters Alternative, and an autobiography which unfortunately has never been published. He also travelled widely; lecturing about pottery, alternative technology and self-reliance.

He died at Crewenna in 1986.

The extracts below are taken from May's autobiography.

"Towards the end of his life, as Harry's health, mainly his heart, worsened, he needed a lot of time and love and attention.

On his last night, I got up and went to him, as I did at frequent intervals, and we had a cup of tea together at midnight.

Then he said "I think I'll try and get some sleep now." So he went back to bed and when I came in the morning, he'd gone. He'd obviously gone in his sleep. He looked so very, very peaceful.

My daughter Nina, who lived five miles away, didn't know that he had died, but woke in the early hours of that morning, to the distinct sound of the Crowan pottery door being closed.

She interpreted that his spirit had gone back to the place where he had been happiest."

A Crowan Pottery stoneware lidded jar
A Crowan Pottery stoneware lidded jar


 

More about Harry Davis and his work
 
The Potters Alternative

The introduction to this book gives a good indication of how Harry Davis viewed the Studio Pottery movement, as 'led' by Bernard Leach. Although he used the design style he formed at the Leach Pottery for the rest of his working life, he had no time for the artistic 'posing' that went on there.

Glazes and Pigments

This gives an idea of the materials he used to achieve the very distinctive glazes and colours of Crowan and Crewenna pots.

Working at Crowan Arthur Griffiths worked with Harry and May Davis at Crowan Pottery between 1949 and 1953. This article from Ceramic Review gives a good insight into the workings of the Pottery, and the work ethics of Harry Davis.