Student Holly John reviews the work of potter/painter Robin Welch in our collection. Holly is a third year on the BA (Hons) History course at UWE
Robin Welch (1936 – 2019)
Robin Welch is, was, and remains, a highly respected British potter. At 15, in 1951, he attended Penzance School of Art and Design, where he was taught by Michael Leach, son of Bernard Leach – the founder of Leach Pottery, where Robin worked in the holidays and on the weekends. In 1956, Robin went to study at Central School of Art, where he built on his skills, and learnt to adopt a more informal and unfettered approach to making and cultivated his skills in painting and fine drawings.
Each of Robin’s ceramic pieces is finished like a painting, their surface texture and layered colours give his work a distinct quality. Visiting the Ken Stradling Collection several of Robin’s pieces particularly caught my attention.
The conical piece was the first to catch my eye. The colour combination and the barnacle-like texture reminded me of coral. I was drawn to touch it in the same way I have felt the urge to feel everything around me when I have been scuba diving in tropical waters; these pieces capture that choir of textures and colours.
The warm earth tones and rough sandy finish echo a desert under the beating sun; ripples of heatwaves, rough and dusty terrain, and deep shades of a dusk sky. The pieces stirred up this environment or setting for me before I had discovered that Robin spent a lot of time in the Australian Outback. His first visit being between 1962-65, during which he helped Ian Sprague establish a pottery workshop in Victoria. Throughout his life, Robin returned to Australia multiple times. His visits were sometimes short, like when he went to New South Wales to continue his study of the Outback; and at other times he stayed for longer periods, taking up the Craftsman in Residence position at various Australian universities.
Robin always worked in a process of layering. He layered his colours to give depth; he often fired his pieces multiple times; and hand-built forms, altering individual pieces as he built. He often employed a technique of making up to twenty bases, from which he built upwards using coils and slabs or thrown additions.
Robin’s other items in the collection include a cylindrical vase, a tea bowl, and a rectangular form stoneware vase. While the pieces are all individual, but when combined each piece seemed to strike a different note of the same chord. Each piece incorporates earthy purple, orange and reddish tones of dusk sky and sand.
We are always drawn to things that relate to experiences we’ve had. I love these pieces because their earthy colourway and textured finish captures the hot climates and tropical waters that I always long to return to.
Oliver Kent, KSC trustee, was a student of Robin’s. I asked Oliver to recall the time he spent with Robin, and tell me about his practice:
“When I was a student in the late 70s Robin Welch was a visiting tutor whose main job was to teach us mould-making. We did basic casting but also multi-piece moulds and lathe-work. This was typical of his interest in industrial as well as studio processes and reflected his own work at the time. We also did Raku with him – something he was doing quite a bit of in his own practice then. I think we drove him up the wall at times, mixing plaster badly and making a mess!
Later we visited his pottery in Suffolk and got a real impression of his practice. We visited factories in Stoke and several studio potteries including his, David Winkley’s pottery at Wellow in Somerset and the Winchcombe Pottery in Gloucestershire. Wellow and Winchcombe were/are both very much studio domestic ware potteries with an Arts and Crafts/Bernard Leach philosophy behind them. Robin was different. His workshop was very much divided between mould-made production domestic ware and his own practice as an artist. Production work was partly done by him and partly by assistants (mainly former students as I remember). The Stradling Collection has examples of both – the domestic ware is very precise, geometric and Modernist with elegant matt glazes. The acceptance of industrial processes, and the acceptance of the idea of the ceramicist as artist was part of a strand of fresh thinking emerging from the later 1950s and 60s particularly driven by the course at the Central School of Art where Robin had studied. The Bristol course had been set up with that ethos in mind and I am sure Robin’s influence was planned.
At that time his personal work, which mixed throwing and hand building was quite black and white but in the longer term the matt glazes used on his domestic ware underpinned a lot of his painterly personal work. We loved his glazes and I think we had most of them made up at college and I still have them/permutations on them recorded in my notebooks. The glaze book at Bristol School of Art owes a lot to Peter Bridgens who had been a ceramics technician alongside Robin and the matt blue and buff glazes there are the same ones I think.”