Geoffrey Fuller obituary

·4-min read

The potter Geoffrey Fuller’s workshop was surely unique in Britain, attached as it was to the 18th-century pub in Derbyshire that he ran for about 35 years. The pub, the Three Stags’ Heads, situated in remote Wardlow Mires, in the Peak District, was very much Geoff’s creation. With his wife, Pat, also a fine potter, Geoff regenerated an old and atmospheric establishment, one that was the ideal showcase for his ceramics.

With its warm hospitality, good food and fine ales, it provided the best context for what he held most dear, making work to enhance the domestic space and the dinner table. There must have been drinkers quite unaware that the landlord serving them across the bar was one of the UK’s most remarkable artist-craftsmen. For Geoff, who has died aged 86, was a leading revivalist of native earthenware and slipware, producing low-fired pots and figurative work that drew not only on the vitality of pre-industrial pottery, but on Britain’s rich folk traditions.

Geoff developed a repertoire of wheel-thrown and slab-built vessels, as well as a range of highly individual figures that recalled Staffordshire 17th- and 18th-century pew groups and flat-backs, ceramic ornaments for the shelf and mantelpiece that had a wonderfully stylised life and personality but which Geoff reinvented in his own inimitable way.

He was responsive to the inherent softness of clay, which he enlivened with fluid glazes that kept his work perennially fresh and generous, and full of what the potter Michael Cardew called “kindness” in ceramics, kindness of spirit, an invitation to handle and use. Geoff’s work had much of the mystery he admired not only in old, anonymous vernacular wares, but in more ambitious pieces too, the work of Staffordshire master potters such as Thomas Toft and Thomas Whieldon.

Geoff also loved the elaborate narratives and decoration found on the early commemorative vessels made at Ewenny in Wales and the harvest drinking-wares of north Devon, producing celebratory objects based on their old wassail and posset pots. He enriched his surfaces with applied clay motifs and translucent washes of coloured slips under clear glazes, revealing the textures of the clay beneath.

He had strong views on pots that were technically too controlled. He held that the mechanisation of the Industrial Revolution, on the one hand, and overbearing teaching in modern art schools, on the other, had sterilised most contemporary studio work. Geoff strove to give his own pieces freer rein, revelling in the easy plasticity of the material. He made a virtue of its dents and ripples, squeezing and pinching rims to add character to form.

His gentle coloration reflected the temperate climate of a north Midlands landscape he knew well; he read keenly about its history, myths and folklore, and walked it with his beloved dogs. Geoff seemed incomplete without his whippets and lurchers in tow, animals that often featured in the humanity and humour of his work.

He was born in Chesterfield, Derbyshire, the only child of Fred, a labourer at the nearby Staveley works, and Sarah (nee Ball), an office cleaner. He did national service in the army and then spent 12 years as a librarian in Sheffield, a natural occupation for a book lover. Having become a keen collector of 19th-century Staffordshire figures, in 1965 Geoff decided to study ceramics at Chesterfield College of Art, and then attended the noted ceramics course at Farnham College of Art, Surrey, which was run by the potters Paul Barron and Henry Hammond.

This encouraged experimentation with materials and process, bringing out the most unhindered qualities of clay and firing. There Geoff was particularly affected by the teaching of the maverick Canadian potter John Reeve, who strove to discover “the soul of the pot” again, and encouraged Geoff to explore its materiality afresh. He looked at the natural expressiveness of medieval English jugs and Japanese Hagi, Shigaraki and Bizen wares, work that he loved for its imperfections as much as anything else. Initially he made salt-glazed stoneware before later turning to earthenware.

After a short period at Farnham as a ceramics technician, Geoff returned to Derbyshire, setting up his first studio in 1972. For many years he taught on the vocational ceramics course at his old college in Chesterfield, where in 1980 he met Pat Davison, one of his students, and a great creative partnership began.

After the department closed in 1987 he bought the Grade II listed Three Stags, initially attracted by the potential studio space, but soon relishing his new responsibilities as a publican, opening the pub at weekends so that he and Pat could do their potting during the week.

His other great contribution to British pottery came in 2012 when the Fullers, true to their ethos, pitched a marquee adjacent to the pub and set up an annual event to promote and sell the best functional pots and food side by side, hand-picking the exhibitors. Now a major fixture, the Wardlow Mires Pottery and Food festival attracts visitors from all over the UK.

Fuller’s first marriage, to Thelma Able, ended in divorce. Pat survives him.

• Geoffrey Fuller, potter and publican, born 28 February 1936; died 15 April 2022

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