23 Nov 2011

Back to Eton and the pottery of Gordon Baldwin

Ambiguity about one's past, or some aspects of it, are probably our lot in this life. In other words, we cannot possibly choose where we come from and, when we make decisions to push our lives in other directions than those seemingly pre-determined for us by our social background, we sometimes have a problem dealing with some aspects of our history. And yet why should we be so reticent about, or even ashamed of, what has made us? Diversity is the salt of the earth and everyone keeps harking on about "roots". So we should in any case be capable of assuming what we are, and all or most of it, warts and all. And, goodness knows, there are some warts attached to the education I had, as well as a lot of very good things and some inspirational teachers.

For personal family reasons, and in order to see one of those teachers again, I recently decided, for what must have been the first (or maybe second) time in the 47 years since I left this school, to return to Eton College, where I spent the years 1959 to 1964.

The chapel of Eton College (my photo, taken in 2011), built in the 15th century and started when Henry VI founded the school. Like some other schoolboys who had a voice before it broke, I sang in the choir here (I do not think that I am in the picture below, but it gives you an idea of the thing)

 A mid-18th century painting of the same chapel, from across the River Thames

There is something both magical and rather lugubrious about this Eton, as I felt again on returning there, just for one late summer's evening in September 2011. Of course things have changed a lot since I left the place in the mid-sixties. And very probably for the better. But atmosphere has a way of hanging around, sliding down the ancient buildings and seeping into and through our memory, even when much of this has been shuttered up for nigh on 50 years.

We had to dress up like penguins for most of the time (see above). Black tail coats, hard collars with studs and so-on. Even though I can respect some aspects of "tradition" today, you can maybe understand why this "T" word also can also annoy me a little. Fortunately there was also sport, and lots of it, and the Art School, of which more below.

The Eton rugby team

cricket at Eton

I should add that the buildings are often beautiful. I was struck with their calm perserverance on that evening in September, when I returned there to participate in the inauguration of an exhibition area for works of art, especially ceramics.

Lower School, on the opposite side of School Yard to the College Chapel, shown above (photo DC)

The tower of College Hall (photo DC)

and the dinner table inside the above building (my pic, and thanks to i-phone). The food was far better that what I remember from school days, but then times have changed and the occasion was perhaps special

One of the main reasons for my going back to Eton was to meet again, after a long interval, someone who had been a truly inspirational teacher for me. Not in the academic field (there were a few of those too) but in that of the so-called arts, and hence, to a large extent, a vocational inspiration, albeit not a very successful one in my case. The man's name is Gordon Baldwin and he is still making pots every day and is about to have a major retrospective exhibition in the UK. Here is one of his pieces shown in this tiny but well conceived exhibition room that lies just to the left of the tower shown above.
a Gordon Baldwin pot (my photo)

I find that this piece has that kind of broken tranquillity that attracts me to the best modern ceramics. As if the calm of ages and perfect shape, reaching back to the Song dynasty, had come though the horrors of modern "civilisation" and out on the other side, inevitably scathed, but still kicking and showing the layers of experience and diligent craftsmanship.

So yes, it was worth going back. And the man has not really changed. His sincerity and love of his work is intact. He goes to his studio and works there every day. A lesson to us all. Here is another work of Baldwin's and a picture of the man himself, showing all his enthusiasm which was totally contagious to his students. And, as you can see, his work is as as scuptural as it is about the medium of ceramics.

If you want to take a look at more of Gordon Baldwin's work, try this link: