The Grantchester Pottery

What happens when two conceptual artists meet on a retreat in the English countryside and get to grips with ceramics in an abandoned studio? In the case of The Grantchester Pottery, they form a decorative arts collective that feels more like a piece of conceptual art — which is a bit misleading, considering The Grantchester Pottery sounds a lot like a heritage brand, and these guys don’t just throw pots. In fact, they don’t throw at all. “It’s not that we have not tried!” says co-founder Giles Round.

So what brought them together and why did they decide to form Grantchester? “About a year ago when I went back to London I heard two rumors about myself,” Round tells me. “One, that I had gone insane and moved to the countryside. The other was that I had given up art to make pottery. I thought that was brilliant.” Philip Root, the other co-founder of this mysterious fine art-cum-decorative art collective interjects: “That’s actually what happened to me. They just got the names wrong.” Conspiratorial laughter erupts over Skype.

Their work together first hit my radar this summer with their installation tucked under the stairwell at London’s contemporary cultural mecca, the Institute of Contemporary Art. There, they’ve kitted out a reading room with wallpapers, textiles, and slab-built ceramic coffee sets. Round tells me that he is keen to produce fashion under the label. “Or it would be nice to do some glass,” says Root. “That would be cool. I think it would be good to do some furniture. It would be nice to do a larger block printed wallpapers, maybe work with a manufacturer.”

To say their output is far-reaching is an understatement. There’s been an ice cream parlor carrying The Grantchester Ices, they print catalogues under the name of The Grantchester Press, and there is, they say, a mysteriously named Grantchester Catering Core. What’s next? “Ethical Gardening… astrology… ” I think Round is pulling the proverbial. “We need some decent Columbian coffee. What about The Grantchester Coffee Import Company?” Root offers. Ok… I get it, these boys have mischievous minds, but I press on. (Above photo: Installation view, Studio Wares, David Dale Gallery & Studios, Glasgow, 2013 (C) Max Slaven)Artist-Decorators-ICA-0079-Mar Blower
Installation view ARTIST DECORATORS, ICA, London, 2013 (c) Mark Blower

How did you meet and why did you form Grantchester?
Round: We were both doing residencies at the Wysing Arts Centre in the summer of 2011. I was there for six weeks and Phil was doing a longer residency at a live/work unit. We had discussions about whether it would be possible to create studio pottery; we like the idea of making utilitarian or functional things. We soon realized we could not become studio potters in the conventional sense. We don’t have the skill or learning to do that!

Root: The ceramic studio was in disrepair at the time and me and another artist Andy Holden were just starting to look at it as a possibility. It just so happened that Giles began his residency and was also interested in making some ceramics. When I was at Goldsmiths there was a little ceramics shed that I hijacked for a bit. Using really basic methods to make pots and bowls. Looking at English folk and medieval work for reference. It was basic, and I had not had much training.
Decor-Grantchester-05-Lewis Ronald
Installation view, Decor, Rowing, London, 2012 (c) Lewis Ronald/Plastiques 

Roger Fry’s Omega workshop was a historical reference point when you formed Grantchester, can you tell me more about their influence on you?
Round: Nearby to Wysing is the town of Grantchester, which had a literary group in the early 20th century made up of writers like Maynard Keynes, Virginia Woolf, and Ludwig Wittgenstein. And so the name Grantchester Pottery is sort of like a rival company to Omega, but cast in time and space. Just the connotations of saying the Grantchester Pottery: It’s a misnomer, as we are working in lots of different mediums. So that throws people off straight away.

The thing we took from Omega that is really interesting is their structure. Like Omega, none of our work is attributed to a singular artist. They used the Omega name and all works — whether fabric, furniture, full interiors or objects — were never attributed an individual (at that point).  Grantchester Ices-096-TGPS
The Grantchester Pottery: Grantchester Ices, Sundae Sculpture #6, 2012 (C) The Grantchester Photographic Society

Has Grantchester given you certain freedoms?
Root: Since we started Grantchester, we’ve been talking about whether you can look at functional ware as art. I was interested in this before in my own practice but I never really went through to making functional objects. I was really interested in art permeating all areas of life — about there being no boundaries between making a chair and making a sofa and making a piece of work that you are not supposed to handle. Having this collaboration and being able to renew my identity under the umbrella of the Grantchester Pottery is a step that I could not take as an individual artist, but working as a group we can take that step together.

Round: We are starting to sound like a cult now. But one of the nice things is that it does give you freedom. By having the meta-structure in place it allows a certain amount of experimentation and freedom. Because a specific thing is not being judged as being specifically you. It is bigger than you.Grantchester Ices-122-TGPS
The Grantchester Pottery: Grantchester Ices: Coffee Pot Head #2, 2012 (c) The Grantchester Photographic Society

How have the other artists and makers you are working with responded to this way of working?
Root: We sort of wanted it to be like a punk band. You can throw three different elements together: say someone gives us a drawing, you can make that into a pattern, you can apply that pattern, and then suddenly something is happening. And it is not necessarily skilled or craft based. It is that punk aesthetic, although it doesn’t maybe look punk! It is the sprit, freedom and anonymity that allow you to be playful.

Round: I don’t think this way of working is for everyone. The group of artists that we are working with are really open and into how distorted work can become through the Grantchester filter. You have to relinquish a certain amount of control of your work to another artist.

Studio Wares-2458-TGPS
The Grantchester Pottery: Studio Wares (C) The Grantchester Photographic Society

Do you have a favourite Grantchester piece?
Root: I really like our lamp heads. The first one we made is called “Head of a Man.” Titled after the Nigel Henderson work in the Tate. Ever since then they have been called potheads. The screens I like too, they were fun to make. Executed by both of us by the same time. Studio Wares-2573-300-TGPS

The Grantchester Pottery: Studio Wares (C) The Grantchester Photographic Society

What are the current plans?
Round: Well we have been looking at a field in Grantchester and we are hoping to open the Museum of Modern Art of Grantchester – The MOMAG. We need 5.5 million pounds. (More laughter)

Root: We have produced a lot of work very quickly so we are now beginning to compile a larger publication detailing it all. And then we are going to begin decorating our studio, which is very nice but we could do with a new floor. There is a big wooden table and lots of wooden shelving, and there is a mezzanine: but it is a bit crumbly.