“I’ve always wanted my pieces to feel warm,” says Manchester-based ceramicist Frances Savage. “I like the rims of cups to be nice and rounded and the base to be wide and rolled around the bottom. There’s a softness to my work that makes it quite friendly, I think.” Slipware potter Frances crafts comforting pieces that invite hands - you’ll find no sharply-trimmed angles, no instructions to observe from a distance. “I love buying other people’s pots. Choosing which mug I’m going to have my first cup of tea in is a lovely part of my day,” she says. “I feel that it’s important for people to surround themselves with objects that inspire them and that they enjoy. Pots are meant to be used, not looked at.”
It was at a community college in Greenwich that Frances began making “functional objects, that hopefully can become an important part of someone’s day.” Around her social anthropology studies at Goldsmiths, she spent evenings as a hobbyist on an adult learning course. “I knew I wasn’t going to be an academic and I really wanted to do something with my hands,” she says. “Then I moved up north with the idea that I would apply to Clay College.”
Clay College Stoke, the full-time intensive two-year course at Middleport Pottery in Stoke-on-Trent, the heart of the potteries, trains students in all aspects of ceramics, from throwing, glazing and decorative techniques to kiln building and firing. “They weren’t too concerned with whether you were experienced or not,” Frances says. “They take you back to basics, so just wanted to know that you had a passion and the drive to commit to it.” Despite studying during the pandemic, which saw Frances station a potter’s wheel in her living room for four months of the lockdown, the course, taught by working potters, was both instructive and inspiring.
“College is really where I learned everything I know,” she says. The course created space for the kind of experimentation potters often aren’t afforded elsewhere. “Sometimes, there’s an expectation is that your work will be really slick and straight and trimmed, but in reality there are so many ceramic styles out there,” Frances says. “College gave us the confidence to push boundaries and explore new avenues without judgement.” I wonder, is her work a departure from the pieces she was creating during her training? “It’s funny,” she smiles. “One of our first projects was to make a mug. At the end of the two years we looked back at the piece and you could really see each maker’s personality in that very first vessel. We had all changed, yes, but there was something there from the beginning of the potter we were each trying to be.”
For Frances, another invaluable element of her training was access to the roster of established potters that taught masterclasses as visiting tutors, each sharing their unique techniques and ways of running a studio. One such tutor, the Cornwall-based slipware ceramicist Richard Phethean, was due to lead on a three-month residency at La Meridiana, a ceramics school set in a restored 17th century farmhouse in Tuscany. He invited Frances to join him as a teaching assistant, a time she found to be as enriching and confidence-building as her time in Stoke.
“It gave me a lot of practical and teaching experience, but I was able to experiment a little more, too,” she says. “The pottery mixes its own clay body, a really beautiful local red clay, and I thought, a teapot takes a lifetime to perfect, so if I’m here for three months, I’ll focus on that. I began to play around with slip, too, and learned how to make a honey-coloured glaze for reduction firing. It was great not to put any pressure on myself and it’s where I started doing some of the decorations I still do today.”
For the Spring Summer 2024 collection, Outdoor Pursuits, Frances has hand-thrown three pieces exclusively for TOAST. A low, wide serving bowl, a large jug for table water or flowers and a rounded bud vase are crafted using terracotta clay and decorated with her signature scalloped slip pattern. Frances’ distinctive decorative style, created using a slip trailer, is simple and illustrative. Her rich palette of black, cream and honey compliments the warmth of the red clay. “I’ve always been drawn to these colours,” Frances says. “Honey glazes have historically been used in pottery because it’s a simple recipe made of local clay and a melting agent. I like to think that I’m nodding to the tradition when I slip my pots,” she says.
It’s easy to find that aforementioned friendliness in Frances’ forms. They’re voluptuous and full of character, with wide bases, substantial handles and curved bellies. “Generosity is important in my approach,” Frances says. “My tutor would let us know when he thought a handle was a bit mean, and I really liked that perspective. I think you should be generous with your proportions and your hand movements. If you’re squashing a handle onto a pot, for example, you should do so with a nice amount of energy - maybe leave the join visible, too.”
A lot of raw materials are used in ceramics and sustainability is front of mind for Frances. “I’ve been using a lot of red iron oxide lately. It’s a nice colour to work with, but it’s also a practical choice. There is an abundance of it in the earth, so it isn’t a scarce product,” she explains. “It’s the same with terracotta clay. It’s dug 40 miles away in Stoke, so it’s a sustainable option.”
Especially inspired by Medieval pottery, the maker’s mark is an key part of Frances’ practice. “There is a brilliant book called Medieval English Pottery by Bernard Rackham. These pots were quite crude in a way, with pie crust edges formed by the maker dragging their fingers down the clay,” she explains. “I’m creating a relationship with these objects when I leave my fingerprints on them, and someone else will form their own relationship with it when they use it. I’ve never wanted to rub off any trace of human touch in pursuit of pristine pieces.”
Pottery is often a solitary pursuit and for Frances fostering connections with both students and peers provides an important balance to long days spent maintaining a studio. “You spend less time throwing than people realise,” Frances says. “There are so many jobs - fixing kilns, building shelves, loading and unloading clay and mixing glazes.” Happily, she is now a part of the Manchester Ceramics Collective, in a studio space shared with twelve other potters. “I like working away by myself and then coming downstairs to have a cup of tea,” she smiles. “You learn so much from other people. Visiting other potters’ studios is one of the most inspiring things you can do as a ceramicist, too. People in the community are so welcoming - you can call anyone and pop in for a tour of their space. If you have a question, someone will reply with a glaze recipe.”
Beyond cultivating a strong community, what else does Frances believe are the essential ingredients for being a working potter? “You have to be patient - no one is good after their first lesson. Work hard, stay committed. And remember that the clay controls you, not the other way around,” she says. “It’s such an amazing material, there’s a reason it’s an addictive hobby. Suddenly this lump on a spinning wheel becomes a functional object - it’s like magic when you really think about it.”
Shop Frances Savage ceramics, hand-thrown exclusively for TOAST.
Frances wears the TOAST Stripe Donegal Merino Knitted Tank in Harissa/Red.
Words by Georgia Murray.
Photography by Adam Grüning.