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A Maker’s Story: George Bronwin’s wheel of fortune

A twist of fate led George to pottery – and now his blue-and-white wares are the toast of the town. We visit his Somerset studio to chat happiness and happenstance

Grace McCloud
Elliot Sheppard
Harry Cave
A Maker’s Story: George Bronwin’s wheel of fortune

One gets the sense that if you’d told a 25-year-old George Bronwin that, in his 30s, he’d be living in the depths of Somerset, earning his living as a potter and gardening furiously, he’d have laughed. Not that that says much, for George – who until 2020 worked in hospitality for super swish clients on the slopes of the Swiss Alps – laughs a lot.

In part it’s because life’s pretty good here on the edge of the Quantocks. We’re in George’s studio, an ancient timber-framed building that he rents from friends for whom he used to work as a volunteer on their organic farm. He’s recently done the place up, painting the outside in traditional yellow limewash – “though it currently looks more Sweden than Somerset,” he says wryly. “It needs a bit of grub on there.”

There’s a good creative legacy here, George explains, as his landlord’s late wife, Suki, was also a potter. George even uses her old wheel – “it’s a really lovely thing, full of important memories for me.” He seems happy here, with Suki’s veg garden at the back and his own little plot to tend to at the front – and it’s this, in all its blowsy beauty, that George overlooks while throwing the striped salt pigs, swirled pots and tendril-tangled bowls that have won him the attention of the likes of Birdie Fortescue, Tat’s Charlie Porter and Glassette. “I’m trying not to make it a granny’s garden, but I do seem to have planted everything in purple and pink…”

George’s real preoccupation, though, is blue. When asked why, the answer comes from his wide eyes more than anything he says. He just loves it. “I think it’s also something to do with the tradition of blue-and-white ceramics: delftware, Chinese porcelain, ancient Persian pieces… I like feeling part of that tradition – even if I’m making my own version of them with stripes and squiggles.” That and the fact that, practically, “cobalt is just really easy to work with – it stays on the pot beautifully.”

George came to his craft – as you might guess – unexpectedly. He was a mature – and somewhat depressed – student when one day he wandered into a studio looking for something to do. Soon, “I couldn’t get enough. It was like I was addicted.” Returning to the mountains, he continued working as a chef and operations manager until life in Switzerland – “too perfect, too many rules”– started to get him down. Seeking a change, he returned to London and went back to the wheel – where, naturally, he found the answer. Setting up a studio in his sister’s house in Islington, he started selling.

He’s come a long way since those north London days. While he claims those “first pots were rubbish – everyone’s are!”, it’s hard not to think George’s might just have been a bit less rubbish than most others’. Ever-modest, he says it’s because “everyone went mad for wonky pots in the pandemic”. But what we all know, really, is that everyone went mad for George Bronwin. And frankly, who wouldn’t?

“The first pottery classes I ever did were at Lewisham Art House. It was a strange time in my life, but sitting at the wheel gave me a connection I didn’t even know I was craving. I’d never done something like that – I’d never even properly looked at ceramics before – but I loved the idea of making things I could use.

“And the thing about pottery is that, even when you’re a bit crap, it’s easy to get your head around. It’s not like someone putting a blank canvas in front of you and saying, ‘Make some art.’ You already have a vision of what you want – a mug, a bowl, a teapot. Whether you’re able to actually make it is the challenge…

“My teacher in those days was a very hardcore lady named Shirley who, you got the feeling, didn’t want you to be there. And I loved that! She’d give us five-minute demos and then let us get on. She’d tell us when thing were shit and when they couldn’t be fixed – and that was an invaluable lesson. Sometimes, you do just have to smush the clay up and start again. And even then, at any point in the lifespan of a piece of pottery – glazing, firing, in use – it could go wrong or break. You can’t be precious about it.

“Later, I joined another studio, called Turning Earth. It was so much fun; there was a great community of potters there. You’d sit next to someone different every time and learn something new from them, as everyone was making different things. One guy just moulded huge phallic-like sculptures, which were hilarious; another woman just made teeny-tiny teacups, nothing else. I’d rock up with my headphones and inspiration pictures, prop my phone up in front of me, watch YouTube tutorials and make laughable copies of the things I’d seen.

“I was living with my sister at the time and cooking for money, though I’d fallen out of love with cheffing, so making pots was a bit of an escape. I’d walk the dog on Highbury Fields and get chatting to people. A few of them started to ask to see what I was making and then, suddenly, they were buying it. I was amazed.

“It went from there. People were so pot-hungry – it was mad! I didn’t even use Instagram – it all happened through word of mouth. My sister let me put a wheel and a kiln in her conservatory and I was just making and painting. It was dreamy, if a little hot in there… Then lockdown came and – ta-da! – I couldn’t do any catering, which was a blessing. I just doubled down on the ceramics, delivering them on my bicycle.

“I was always pushing myself, always trying new things, which I think people liked – and that’s still true. I’m a complete magpie – I’m constant looking for new motifs, new ideas, things I haven’t seen before that I can do a version of. Thus it always was, really. Delftware from the 17th-century doesn’t exist in a vacuum; it was informed by Persian pots, which in turn were influenced by Chinese ones. There’s nothing new under the sun and yet, miraculously, we can make things feel fresh.

“I’m not a perfectionist, a trait that’s helped me with pottery. Accepting the flaws in the things I make is part of the whole experience for me. I’m not saying that’s the case with everyone – Edmund de Waal’s ceramics are things of perfect beauty, for instance, but mine are not. What I love instead is that I can throw a pot and it might be a good pot or it might be a bad pot, but it is a pot nonetheless. And in its creation will be all sorts of lessons for the next one: its foot might be slightly off-kilter, its walls might be a millimetre too thick. Or it might be just right and I’ll want to recreate it again the next day – and then inevitably can’t. That feeling of ‘Next time I’ll do that differently…’ is what pushes me forward.

“I’ve still got some pieces of pottery that belonged to my granny, who was rather stylish. They’re a bit battered and chipped and they’ve been mended a few times, but I love that they’ve carried on living, imbued with a new sense of beauty in their breaks. I like the idea of creating useful things like that, which in theory might last for hundreds or even thousands of years, but may just smash tomorrow. That’s the mystery – and isn’t that fun?

“I’ve found real stillness working at the wheel. I started potting when I was in a bit of a black hole. I could barely lift my head up. But the physical act of making demanded my concentration, which was a brilliant thing. The wheel spins, you touch the clay and if you stop thinking about that and only that for a second, you’ll lose it. The magical thing about it though is how, when you get home, the wheel keeps spinning in your mind. It sticks around, forcing you to think about things you might make or do differently. I experienced that at such a crucial point in my life. It gave me something to think about, something that lifted me out of my dark reverie. For some people it can be running that does that, for some it’s gardening. For me, it just happened to be pots.”

Further reading

George Bronwin

George Bronwin on Instagram

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