In his early twenties he worked his way round France, becoming fluent in the language and making life-long friends – this included Martin Lesoeur who wrote this account in 2012...
“It is summer ’69.
David was hitchhiking on the Avignon sliproad when I arrived to do the same, the two of us on the road south. He was discovering France and following the sun, I was full of youthful rebellion and fresh from the ’68 riots, also seeking another kind of sun.
He had a few words of French, I had a few words of English. Enough to understand one another and find out more in the car that picked us up together.
We lived through hard times travelling together and met at least one beautiful woman “au Racou”, beside the Mediterranean.
One night, sheltering under a rock from a magnificent storm, he listened to the entire repertoire of George Brassens sung by me; this was the beginning of his education in the French language.
And next… our return to Paris, he stayed with me, and then…bye.”
Arriving home in Halifax from France on a chilly February day in 1977, David faced a stark reality. He had a long-nurtured ambition to become a full-time potter but, because he had been unable to get onto a ceramics course after leaving school, he lacked the most basic craft skills he would need. And of course, he had no money to set himself up – so solving that financial problem by getting a job would become his first priority.
Then, in 1978, at the age of thirty, David began to feel unwell. Cancer was soon diagnosed and, after an operation, he then endured months of radiotherapy at Cookridge Hospital near Leeds. “I was very sick and the experience didn’t improve my mental state,” David recalled, ” but I gradually got better.”
Beating the cancer was a long battle, with David finally putting the disease behind him in 1981. He could then once again turn his attention to the practical challenge of setting himself up as a potter. “Getting cancer made me realise that pottery was the only thing I was interested in,” he said later. “It had made me realise that if ever I was to start a business as a potter, I had better get a move on.”
David found a vacant workshop in Mytholmroyd, a small town in Calderdale, West Yorkshire, and his £850 savings would be sufficient to rent it for one year.He also had a little spare to buy bricks for a kiln (although he wasn’t yet sure exactly how to build one)and for ‘a few ill-assorted materials’. That workshop was Bier Hey, which would remain David’s pottery workshop for the rest of his life.
With his sketchbook to hand, he recorded the colours, textures and diversity of the natural life around him. His observations were to inform his use of colour, design and texture throughout his career in the studio pottery to which he devoted his life.
Something else the would-be potter couldn’t afford to buy was clay. But, following the example of his old mentor Issac Button, David knew the solution – he would simply dig it up free of charge and process it himself. Geology was another passionate interest of David’s and he knew that wherever there was coal, there would be clay. “I’d been studying a geological survey map of Calderdale and I knew there was plenty of clay.”
In the early days David sourced his clay from the districts river beds and also from a building site in Sowerby Bridge, about four miles south east of his workshop along the A646. Later, he discovered another source of clay at the site of an old fiercely works in Backup,ten miles to the west of Mytholmroyd.
The Self-Taught Potter…
Towards the end of 1984 David developed his “buildings” theme by launching a range of candleholders in the shape of familiar Calder Valley landmarks – Stoodley Pike, Todmorden Viaduct, Lob Mill Lock and Gibson Mill. The range was soon extended with other carefully modelled houses, cottages, mills and farms inspired by local architecture, all in limited editions of 200.
“Busy for Christmas, and making money. The houses are selling well,” wrote David in his journal in late December 1985.
Yet in the midst of this modest success, David was already displaying an ambivalence towards making money that would characterise his entire career. Just before Christmas 1985 he wrote, “The price I’m asking for the houses I’d like to keep low so that people can afford them. It’s not entirely fair that they cannot buy one because I’m asking too much. These things are bought because people enjoy the same things that I do.” Considering his products were in such demand, it could be said that his attitude wasn’t very commercial. It was, however, very David.
David the Teacher
Lack of aceademic qualifications and a prison record ruled out a full-time teaching career for David White but, back in the early 1980’s, appointments in adult education were made on a far more casual basis. if someone had a demonstrable skill, they could be employed with little formality.
And so it was that, while exhibiting his work at a craft show in Hebden Bridge in 1983, David was asked if he would like to teach posting part-time at Calder College (now Todmorden Community College) to a class of students with learning difficulties – an offer he enthusiastically accepted.
“Quite apart from the fact that the small salary comes in handy, I’ve found that teachings given me a lot more confidence in myself,” said David. He proved to be a good and enthusiastic teacher, and would continue working with those students until the early 1990’s.
Dorothy Clarkson was working at the college at the time, and remembers that David’s classes were always well attended. Oe evening she stayed to watch…
“He was teaching the group about making pottery handles, teaching the technique, helping students to progress. People just kept coming back – David was popular and well respected.”
By 1988, a simple discovery opened the door to a new chapter in David’s pottery career – a way to escape from the tedium of Issac Button-style artisan manufacturing and give the creative artist within full reign. “I had been looking for a stimulating and exciting way of using my clay instead of just making garden pots.” David wrote. The turning point came when he chanced upon a Moroccan plate made using the majolica technique. He said later, “I was enticed by its colour and painterly possibilities.”
“You enjoyed walking from spring to winter. We chased sheep. We chased sunset. You gave me heather, just like you did to my mother. One minute you were sweet, and next minute you were bonkers. You were a bit like that, and liked the way you were.”
The name majolica is an English adaptation of the original Italian word maiolica, describing tin-glazed pottery, and should to be confused with the clear lead-glazed English Victorian pottery which, whilst using the same name, is entirely different. The original majolica which so captured David White has a glaze that provides an opaque white surface. Decoration is then applied to this surface before firing using a brush or sponge and makes use of a range of metallic oxides – typically cobalt, copper, iron, manganese and antimony – which provide beautifully vibrant colours after firing. In addition, David found that by adding lime to his usual clay he was able to change the fired colour of the pottery body from red to buff or even cream, adding to the creative possibilities.
By 1990 David had taught himself the techniques that would give his work its distinctive style. One of his favorites was wax resist, in which wax is painted onto the pot’s surface prior to glazing or painting. The wax prevents any decoration laid over it from adhering an so, when the wax burns off during firing, the underlying surface of any area it was painted over will show through the fired pattern – in other words, it is the pottery equivalent of batik fabric decoration.
As David’s self-taught mastery of majolica grew, his output of exuberantly colourful domestic ware also grew until he was producing at the ‘mini-industrial’ scale. “Often he’d spend all his time working at Brier Hey, only going home to sleep,” says Jim Robinson – potter and owner of Booth House Gallery in Holmfirth, West Yorkshire. Or, on many occasions, David would simply bed down at the pottery. Yet, despite this punishing workload, David retained a generosity of spirit when it came to helping others.
David’s willingness to share his learnings was something he trained all through his life. In the year 2000, a young ceramics student called Makiko Hastings had just finished her diploma and had visited Pottiest in the Park in Penrith, Cumbria. “David was there and I fascinated by his work,” she remembers. “I introduced myself as a ceramics student and asked questions and David was friendly. He invited me to command visit his workshop. He gave me work experience and I became a regular visitor – his ‘part-time” assistant almost. The was he did majolica was special. So many different colours of paint!”
David White was dedicated to his work – the alchemy of the clay was his life – but he never showed the slightest desire to be part of the ‘art world’.
He was the inveterate experimenter who revelled in the fact that no two pieces would ever be quite the same and that there would be another surprise around the corner – another variant on a familiar form, another quirk of the glaze – that would delight him. For those who followed David’s work, the sheer unpredictability of his ouput was part of his great attraction as a potter. The exuberant spontaneity did not always endear him to everyone, however.
David’s friend Tim Leyland recalls accompanying David when he visited a fashionable gallery on Merseyside, taking along a selection of his domestic ware pieces “The people at the gallery looked down their noses at David’s work,” Tim said. “David didn’t conform to what and ‘artist’ should be. He did what an artist shouldn’t do – his houses and mugs – artists can’t do things like that! They were looking for a ‘standardised’ art-piece type of product which the potter would then reproduce over and over again, each identical to the one before, possibly limited editions, each piece painstakingly finished. David didn’t work like that at all. For him, every piece had to be different, he had constantly to be developing the new ideas that were constantly popping into his head.”
According to Tim, rejection by the gallery didn’t upset David so much as frustrate him. He wanted to accepted for his own individual style and he wasn’t prepared to compromise his ways for the sake of being ‘part of the arty club’.
This was not to say that David’s work was not highly desirable and saleable. Throughout the 1990’s and into the new millennium, David was a regular exhibitor in France and Holland as well as in the UK. His energy and passion to go to the shows – and to enjoy the social side of the events as a break from often solitary working life – is not in doubt. When it came to selling, however, David had what some people might call a lack of application.
The Arrival of the Figures
“The tribal figures, I was fascinated by them, how he’d collect moulds. I remember heads moulded from Action Man would appear on all sorts of things!”
Many questions about the art of David Constantine White centre around the figurative work – what inspired it and what was he saying through it?
David wrote, “The basic idea is to make a number of vessels or flat panels that are constructed of figures. The motivation is to achieve a narrative sculptural form. A means of telling a story, recording an event or telling a joke. The face for the figures would be made with press moulds I’ve made from dolls and suchlike over a number of years.”
Some years later, with his figurative work well developed and a regular part of his output, David said this of it, “They are half told stories – incomplete images – stimulation for our memories – each one of us bringing different experiences to interpret what we see within our European culture.”
It seems that the strange figures are best viewed as a branch away from the main evolutionary tree that grew up from the earliest majolica through to David’s inspirational use of the same majolica techniques in the last years of his life when his work became much bigger, bolder and more ‘glittery’, as Jim Robinson puts it. The figures, although forever associated with David White, cannot be said to reflect the main thrust of his work.