“The Potter who lives here in this house makes houses and shops, trees and rainbows all from clay which she raku fires in her garden. She loves dogs and never leaves home without at least two. She loves her family and friends, mashed potato, reading magazines, the Suffolk coast, rose wine and roast dinners”. (Amanda Banham May 2020)
This is the first in a series about what makes an English Country Home. Naturally pottery and china and ‘objets’ (fancy word for stuff) all contribute to make any house more of a home but I think that the English Country look needs plenty of ‘objets’ on shelves and pianos, it needs dressers stuffed with floral china, striped mugs, delicate porcelain nestled next to thick, home spun pottery pieces, one off creations that provide character and interest. Amanda Banham creates a whole unique world of English Country wonderfulness with her clay creations.
You create the most wonderful stories woven around your gorgeous clay houses. Each of your pieces is unique yet very obviously an “Amanda Banham”. Could you put your style into words?
Naïve, limited colour palette, narrative, tactile, community, friends and fun.
I like things to be tactile and slightly wonky or imperfect. Things that look like they have come from the china department at John Lewis leave me a little cold. I work in this way naturally which is somewhat of a relief to me!
Without sounding like a tosser I am so instinctive with how I make what I make that to make it consciously would immediately be apparent that I was “trying” to look like mine and it would lose its integrity.
What style of house do you live in? I always imagine you creating all these amazing pieces surrounded by people and pets.
My family and I have lived in the same house in Saffron Walden for the past 16 years. Our street is in the centre of town and most of the people in the street have lived here as long as we have if not a lot longer.
Our house is old and in constant need of repairs. It has undergone many transformations with three small boys and now our daughter. “No ball games in the house!” was a constant refrain when the boys were small. For Anna the refrains are more about the “floordrobe” of clothes and the thousand bottles of nail polish that are perilously not quite screwed up properly on the bed. Two of our sons have left home now and the youngest two aren’t so young so the house is entering a new phase.
My studio is at the back of the house which means I am rarely “not at work” but also means I can work without having to go anywhere else so my life hasn’t changed a lot in lockdown except that there are more people here and someone usually gets me lunch!
I love dogs. I have always loved dogs and haven’t been without one for any significant period since I was 14. Dogs get you out for a walk in all weathers and that lifts the spirits and gets you moving. They listen and don’t answer back, argue or have a contradictory opinion. They are always calming to absent mindedly stroke and are my constant companions and chums. Currently I have two dogs, a Lurcher, Daisy and a West Highland Terrier, Jane.
Does where you live influence your work?
Absolutely. I have lived in this corner of North West Essex my whole life except for a brief time in Lincoln and Cornwall for college.
I love everything about the Essex/Suffolk borders especially the old wooden barns patched up with corrugated iron and planks of different coloured wood and Tudor timber framed houses rendered in lime wash.
Did you have a creative upbringing?
I had a wonderful childhood in an idyllic rural Essex village. My parents moved there from London when I was under a year old. It was definitely my Dad’s dream to live in the countryside, my Mum is more of a town mouse….. My Dad commuted to London every day and we only really saw him at weekends.
My Mum was amazing at adapting herself to village life though. She was thrown into village life with a baby and a commuter husband and soon made hundreds of friends through the NHR (National Housewives Register).
Tennis became her sporting passion, my sister and I would be left for hours playing around the edges of the tennis courts with her opponent’s children in the sunshine of the 1970’s with a packet of Wotsits and one of those Just Juice orange cartons the milkman left for sustenance.
We went to the village primary school and would walk there from a young age in a gang across the fields. Everyone seemed to ride something, me and my best friends Rachel and Alison would be out from dawn until dusk on bikes, roller skates or ponies. When it rained we would be inside drawing from dawn until dusk. Rachel and I used to draw “fashions.” We drew so many different styles of clothes I am surprised neither of us ended up in the fashion design world. We also built houses out of shoe boxes and cut out curtains for the cut out windows from tiny scraps of fabric. The creativity was relentless. We were constantly trying our hand at sewing or dyeing or knitting, my Dad was an accomplished water colour artist and I suspect me and my sister got our creativity in the main from him.
When you were 16 you trained as a florist, as your children grew up, did you feel a need to find a new career or was it a need to be creative in a different way?
For about 14 years I was “A Mum” which I absolutely loved, having three boys quite close together by the time I was 30 and then my daughter 7 years later I had my hands full. I have always been a “lets get the crafts/pens and paints/ lego/baking/mud” type of Mum and for a long time my creativity was funnelled through the children and I couldn’t imagine how I would look after them “properly” and fit in anything else.
Funnily enough it was when I had my daughter that a need for a “new career” felt important, I wanted to show her that Mummies can work and have a family. I had absolutely no idea how that was going to take shape but I knew I was going to be a role model for her.
You talk about your lightbulb moment at college when you realised that you could combine your illustration degree with clay creations. Why did you opt for illustration as your degree and not pottery originally?
I was 38 and a mother of four children aged from 15-1 when I decided to do a degree. Cambridge school of art which sits within Anglia Ruskin University was the nearest place to study and I had heard excellent reports of the illustration degree there. I went to an open day and met the tutors from Illustration and Fine Art and much preferred everything about the Illustration degree. I like working to a brief rather than being too esoteric and the illustration course was all about briefs and deadlines. There wasn’t a 3D art or makers option otherwise I am sure I would have succumbed to that.
Do you think in clay or illustrations? What comes first?
I think in shapes and colours and shapes within shapes and colours with other colours. I am a potter. I think of my work as clay, storytelling, shapes and colours.
A doll with crazy woollen ringlets with my best friend Rachel and her Mum Trish round their kitchen table where I lived half my childhood. The other half of my childhood was out on ponies or roller skates with Rachel.
Favourite Childhood book?
When my sister and I were small, we had a book called “One Eighth of a Muffin.” It was essentially a maths book about fractions but Suzie and I saw past that and were lost in the beautiful naïve illustrations with their intricate pattern details, subdued limited colour palette and repetitive rhyming words.
This book stayed with us forever and just talking about it or looking at it creates a sense of calm. We have taken that basic recipe which we unwittingly discovered as very small children and used it as a “blue print” for taste ever since.
We use the shorthand of “ It was a bit One Eighth of a Muffin” to describe anything we have seen and adore when talking to each other right up to this day.
Favourite Book now
“The Consequences of Love” by Gavanndra Hodge. I have just listened to it on Audiobooks and it had me gripped for three days solid. I couldn’t stop listening.
Aside from your beautifully screen printed plates, bowl and mugs, you are famous for your tiny gorgeous houses. What was the inspiration behind these?
When My daughter was very small she was reluctant to accompany me on afternoon dog walks. I used to suggest we walk along Castle Street which is near us. A jumble of tudor cottages with impossible overhangs, quirky windows and lots of lovely colours.
The front windows are often low down and so a passer-by could be forgiven for accidentally peering in, observing all the goings on in the cottage and then making up stories about the inhabitants to encourage her daughter along on their walk.
Then I began making the houses of Castle Street in clay and writing stories about them and so it went on…. Factories and shops and castles joined the houses and whole towns were created.
What comes first? The house or the story?
The houses definitely come first. It’s like literally making new friends.
Could you explain what raku firing is?
Raku firing is done in an outdoors kiln. The kiln is a metal container with either ceramic bricks or fibres to insulate it. A gas pipe is fed to the mouth of the kiln from a propane gas bottle and then lit.. The pieces in the kiln are heated to around 1000 degrees to melt the glazes. At around 1000 degrees the kiln door is opened and the pieces are removed with tongs and placed into metal vessels with combustible material such as sawdust within. The combustible materials set alight and then a lid is fitted tightly to stop any oxygen getting to the pieces. This is called reduction. This creates carbon and then in turn forces the pieces to crackle or go metallic in colour.
I believe raku originates from Japan however I am not really interested in the history I just love being able to be outside which is my most favourite place. I also like creating something that people at craft fairs don’t say “Oh I could have made that…” when they are perusing your wares. That must be so frustrating for textile artists or painters.
When my husband hears the words ‘Amanda Banham is going to be there’, he rushes to my purse, cuts up my cards and snatches my cash. Then he locks me in the cellar for good measure. Ok we don’t actually have a cellar (nor foundations so a cellar would be impossible) but it is a metaphorical cellar. Are you aware of what is so magical about your work?
I hope my work has character, a sense of fun, and an appealing tactile quality. I am not sure about magic although that is one of my favourite words…… I just hope above all it makes people smile and they feel like they have made new friends.
Finally what do you think makes an English Country Home?
Dogs and plenty of them, wisteria, lavender and hollyhocks, dust and friends and family round for a roast dinner with plenty of wine.
You can view Amanda’s gorgeous ceramics on her instagram account https://www.instagram.com/amandabanhamceramics/
Alternatively her website is http://www.clay-club.com