David Roberts

Vessels: Painting with Smoke

20 November – 24 December


David Roberts (b.1947) is one of the leading international practitioners in Raku ceramics. His career in ceramics itself began, not by formal educational training, but by fortuity. During the late 1960s Roberts was studying for a degree in teaching at Bretton Hall in West Yorkshire and was introduced to ceramics as an element of the teaching programme. In a similar serendipitous vein, his engagement with Raku began in the early 1980s after experiencing American Raku ceramics, the inspiration of which has led to 40 years of experimentation with the Raku process. Roberts believes this unconventional background introduction to the discipline has been fundamental to the development of his unique and nonconformist approach, which frequently allows for the element of chance to form an integral part of the making process. He has been at the forefront of developments in contemporary Raku ceramics from creating a kiln in the 1970s sizeable enough to enable large coil-built vessels to be Raku-fired, to his pioneering work in the process of ‘Painting with Smoke’ (Naked Raku) during the 1980s and early 1990s. He is acknowledged for his innovative contribution and popularisation of contemporary Raku ceramics in Europe and America, and inspiring ceramicists throughout the world.

Roberts’ work draws inspiration from his burgeoning engagement with the natural world, particularly the organic rhythms of landscape, the visible effects of water and erosion, and the layers and strata of rock. This is conveyed in the shape and surface decoration of his elegantly formed coil-built vessels with their intricate linear patterning created from the smoke-marking Raku process. Recent work has also found particular stimulus in postwar abstract painting.

Roberts’ ceramics are represented in internationally important public and private collections. He is an honorary Fellow of the Crafts Potters Association of Great Britain, an exhibiting member of Contemporary Applied Arts and an artist member of the International Academy of Ceramics.

Writing by Dr Claudia Milburn

Q. Do you see yourself as a ceramicist or sculptor?


If I have to choose between the two I would label myself a ceramicist — rather than a sculptor. All my focus and energies over the past 40 years have been on ceramic processes and materials whilst engaging with the fundamentals of ideas, form, volume, texture etc.


Q. How did you initiate your practice? What has been your background / training and how influential has that subsequently been?

Interestingly I began my involvement with ceramics not on a specialised degree course but as part of an education degree at Bretton Hall, West Yorkshire. This was an influential post-war teacher training college specialising in the arts, now the home of the internationally acclaimed Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Initially I intended to specialise in teaching painting & print making. However in the second year of the degree we had to choose a subsidiary discipline. Simply because the studio seemed to contain committed students making what I thought looked interesting work I chose ceramics. Good move! I never returned to the painting studio, this was in 1967 and I have been involved with ceramics ever since then. Following my time at Bretton I taught at a couple of high schools whilst making ceramics at weekends etc. In the mid 1980s I was introduced to American Style Raku which I took to immediately and have been working in ever since, abandoning glazed work for unglazed Raku around 1989. I left full time teaching in 1981 and part time teaching in the year 2000. Apart from hosting the occasional workshop I now devote my time to making.

Although not unique this is obviously not a conventional introduction to ceramics as a professional career and has had implications for my work which is idiosyncratic and does not conform to any ‘house style’ identifying ceramists’ work from the then main ceramic college/university degrees. That, in the mid 1970s, I began making large, coil built vessels which were then Raku fired is also indicative of this singularity. I believe I was one of the first British ceramists to both make this type of work and design kilns suitable to cope with large scale work. I suspect if I had been subjected to a conventional education in ceramics I would now be making high fired stoneware, porcelain or slip decorated earthenware. Similarly in the early 1980s I was one of the first ceramists to experiment with Unglazed (‘Naked’) Raku which since the late 1980s I have been fully committed committed to. In Raku firing you are physically engaged with the process which is as much about judgement as measurement. I am also very comfortable with the role that ‘accident’ plays in the final result.


Q. What is the inspiration behind this specific work?

Q. How does this specific work sit within the context of your work to date?

My piece in the Koç collection was made in the mid 1980s. As previously mentioned the piece is coil built and decorated with a crackle Raku glaze. As in all my work it is the result of a fusion of several elements both aesthetic and process orientated. The neck of its form has echoes of photographs and drawings of the concave shape of cooling towers, in particular the two great examples adjacent the Tinsley Viaduct, Sheffield which are now tragically demolished. The piece’s bulbous body is a result of the volumetric quality imparted by the coil building process together with ideas generated by photographs and drawings of massive boulders I encountered on Sennen Cove beach, Cornwall. At this time the crackle glaze was regularly employed in my work as it both emphasised the piece’s form, fused surface and form into a unified expression. Equally important the crackles and spots of the glaze were a ceramic equivalent to the markings and patterns traversing my local Yorkshire Pennine landscape. This engagement with landscape has been a constant feature of my work and is very much in evidence in my newer pieces.

Q. Are there any works in Ömer Koç’s collection that you have been particularly influenced by?

I must admit that until now I have been unaware of the Ömer Koç ceramic collection so sadly I cannot comment on other pieces at present.


Q. Who or what has been your greatest influence as an artist?


There have however been many artists exercising influence on my work over the past 40 or so years. However I shall mention only two who have had a continual and profound effect on my work. First is the potter Hans Coper whose work I first encountered when studying at Bretton Hall in the mid 1960s. Second is the American Abstract Expressionist painter, Barnett Newman.

Although my work is very different to Coper’s the way his work looked to pre classical Mediterranean sculptures (Cycladic) and modernist artists such as Brancusi gave me permission to look to influences other than Chinese, Japanese and Korean high fired ceramics or medieval English earthenware as a lot of potters were doing when I became interested in clay in the mid 1960s. Also the fusion of form and surface in his work has always been reflected in the unity of surface and form in my Raku pieces. My forms are not there just to support imagery — they, in a sense, are a unified expression or gestalt.

Barnett Newman is important to as in a similar way he treats the canvas as an object not merely a vehicle to carry imagery. The spontaneity of marks and drips in his paintings also echo the surface incident derived from my Raku processes. Finally the way he uses vigorous marks (stripes, zips) to carry energy and meaning I try to emulate in the linear patterning evident in my work.

David Roberts, Spongano, Puglia, October 2021.