Laidback West Country potter Liz Vidal creates heirloom-worthy stoneware ceramics in her tiny studio. She gives us a tour and talks us through her collection for TOAST, finding her confidence and why teapots are her nemesis.
It was a happy accident that led to the creation of Liz Vidal’s most requested design. “About two years ago a customer asked for a pot with three different glazes on, so I tried it and it just looked so beautiful,” says Liz of the pattern that has become her signature: a trio of overlapping glazes, which create an alchemy of new shades making each plate, jug or bowl a true one-off. “I love how everyone sees something different when they look at a piece – a landscape, a sunset, even the pattern of Argyle socks!”
Working solo, Liz typically spends eight hours a day at her workshop, part of Hillside Studios; a bustling artist’s creative set on the green edges of Bristol that’s home to weavers, illustrators and glass makers.
Despite the fact that Liz gets through over a ton of clay in her studio every year, her ethos is considered and unhurried, with each piece taking around two weeks to complete – longer in the winter months when freezing temperatures makes drying time longer. Nothing is ever rushed. “I’m currently trying to conquer teapots, they are incredibly hard to make without getting any drip from the spout so I’m planning to dedicate some time to finding the perfect angle.”Swaying away from producing objects that are purely decorative, Liz seeks to “make things which will be used and enjoyed everyday, tactile forms which sit comfortably in the hand.” Ceramics that can be washed and used 1,000 times and are not destined to get dusty on a shelf are at the crux of what she does: making the everyday beautiful.
“I always just use the shape of my hands to form things and don’t use tools and formers,” she explains. “I keep the throwing lines too – so you can see where my hands pull up the clay. Lots of potters would smooth everything out,” she adds. Laid on her impeccably understated pieces, those marks become a feature in themselves; plates undulate with a swirl and the surface of pots and bowls have a pleasing ripple.
“When something is handmade, it has its own personality,” she explains, showing off a family of finished mugs which she makes in small batches, 15 at a time.
Each one begins life as 400g hunk of Stoke-on-Trent raw stoneware (known for its soothing biscuit hue and tactile rough texture) and emerges weeks later from a final 1260 degree firing, patterned with a with a delicate mix of dipped oxide glazes that Liz blends herself: “I use a lot of a rust colour which is made using iron, and a stunning blue teal which gets its shade from chromium and cobalt.”The side of each is hung with the same perfectly weighted handle (formed to the curve of Liz’s hand) and signed with a discreet ceramic pencil tag set beneath the glaze on the base.
“A cup of tea really does taste better from a handmade mug,” ponders Liz, “handmade clay just feels softer and heavier than a mass made, which I think always feels so cold and the lines unnervingly straight. I make my mugs with a slight curve so they sit comfortably in your hands and the glaze is almost like an egg shell.”
Before settling down in Bristol, where she lives with her chef and gardener partner Joe (they have plans to set up a café and studio space together one day), 33-year-old Liz spent a decade learning her craft and travelling the world. Armed with a first class degree from Manchester School of Art, she spent five years at North Street Potters in London, moving from an apprentice to part of its collective making tableware for the likes of Fera at Claridges as well as teaching.
“My style has changed hugely over the years,” she muses. “Pretty much 100 percent of what I do these days is on the wheel and I’m drawn to simplicity of design. But in those early years I still couldn’t really use a wheel, everyone else at the collective was so good it made me shy away. I mainly did hand building and I wasn’t confident with my making skills so I used to draw birds on everything!”
That crisis of confidence is now long gone and after stints in Bali, working at the Gaya Ceramics Arts Centre and alongside Renton Bishopric on the sunshine coast in Australia Liz laid down roots in the West of England four years ago. “I love it here” she says rattling off just a few of her favourite local spots: “Wapping Wharf on the harbour, walking towards the suspension bridge to get the views of Bristol’s iconic coloured townhouses and Clifton Downs on a summer evening is heaven.”
Lockdown was the kick-start for her to build a long dreamt of studio in the back garden of the Victorian home she shares with Joe. “I’m a bit tired of having to travel to my studio just to check how the clay is drying properly,” admits Liz who can’t wait to set up in her new digs. “It will look out over our veggie patch and I’ll be able to put the kettle on in the morning and come and check how everything is drying in my pyjamas. Life doesn’t get much better than that.”
Interview by Vishaka Robinson.
Photographs by Philippa Langley.
Shop the latest collection of hand thrown, functional pieces for the home from Liz Vidal and other UK-based ceramicists.