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Inspired by the Thames, creative pair go with the flow

Jane Clinton talks to Frances Bingham and Liz Mathews, the team behind Pottery Press

05 July, 2018 — By Jane Clinton

Frances Bingham, left, and Liz Mathews

A SHORT walk from Tufnell Park tube station on a busy main road are two plain wooden doors.

Open them and you are assaulted by ceramic pots, bowls and flowers.

It is such a sensory contrast and so unexpected I feel I need to step back into the “real, less beautiful world” to make sure I haven’t imagined it.

This is Potters’ Yard, the studio of Frances Bingham and Liz Mathews and their Pottery Press.

Liz is a lettering artist and creator of the pots that are dotted around their bijou studio. Her works include a huge artist’s book Thames to Dunkirk, which was exhibited in the British Library in 2012.

Using Thames water to mix the paint and driftwood retrieved from the Thames to paint with, the river inhabits the work. Based on extensive research of the Dunkirk evacuation 1940, Liz also used the texts of Virginia Woolf (The Waves, and her diary entry in which she anxiously awaits news of returnees from Dunkirk) as well as BG Bonallack’s poem, The Retreat. At 17 metres long it is the largest book in the British Library’s permanent collection.

Her exquisitely illustrated Paper Wings, setting a poetry song cycle written by Maureen Duffy, saw Liz lettering and illustrating everything from an email exchange to a silhouette of trees from Hampstead Heath.

Her work is now collected by the British Library. She is fascinated by the interplay of text and images: passage of time and the constancy of the Thames figures regularly in her work.

Frances is a writer and has written among other works a biography on the poet Valentine Ackland and a play, The Blue Hour of Natalie Barney, about the celebrated writer, patron of the arts and openly gay woman, Natalie Barney, which ran at the Arcola Theatre, Hackney last year.

As well as pursuing their own careers they run the micro press, The Pottery Press, which was set up in 1999.

In the spring they celebrated the publication of three pamphlets: Past Present: Piers Plowless & Sir Orfeo by Maureen Duffy; The Blue Hour of Natalie Barney by Frances Bingham and Under the Quarry Woods by Jeremy Hooker, all of which were illustrated by Liz.

Past Present is the coupling of two long poems by Maureen Duffy. For the past: there is her translation of Sir Orfeo, a medieval narrative, but reimagining it as an English folk tale. For the present, The New Vision of Piers Plowless is Duffy’s contemporary take on the medieval poem Piers Plowman.

Jeremy Hooker’s Under the Quarry Woods is a collection of prose poems meditating on time and place taken from his journals written over 16 years at his home in a Welsh former mining village.

“I have been working with the words of Jeremy Hooker, Maureen Duffy and Frances for a very long time, “ says Liz.

Liz and Frances met when they where 19 while studying at Warwick university and have been together ever since.

Liz studied Art History and Frances read English and Theatre.

After Warwick they came back to London, and had their first pottery in West Hampstead with help from the Crafts Council. After a few moves they eventually settled in Tufnell Park.

They work side by side, happily undistracted, although Frances admits that there have been occasional curious moments like the time Liz seemingly spent an hour examining a blank piece of paper.

“Eventually I asked her what she had been doing for the past hour,” explains Frances.

It was only when she looked closer that she realised Liz was examining the grain of the handmade paper she was working with.

Their publications come out sporadically: when there is something they really want to work on, and also when they have time between their own projects.

Liz, whose love of writers such as Virginia Woolf, John Clare and Shakespeare run through so much of her work, is currently working on a series of artists’ books that are like medieval Books of Hours.

These illuminated manuscripts are very much focused on the passing of the year and how the seasons define our place in the world.

“Those books tend to draw all of theses things together,” says Liz. “I have set a lot of writers in that context in a lot of different forms.”

For Frances there is the another play in the offing and perhaps another round of performances of her play about Natalie Barney.

Throughout their discussions of London and the work they have both done and collaborated on, the seasons and the ebb and flow of the River Thames is ever present.

They go mudlarking and Liz’s use of Thames water and driftwood in her work means that when the paint or the clay (she uses if for her pottery too) has dried the “signature” of the river has been left.

“The river brings the place in but it also brings the time in, says Liz.

“Most of my work is about time and place and nature and the way that we inhabit that. So that can be in the form of the city or the country or the wider world.”

And it is this that informs the works they publish.

Like Virginia Woolf’s works where you are being. “Virginia Woolf said that what she always hoped for in a book was to be made free of another world,” adds Liz. “I think that is what appeals to me most in all sorts of different writers.”

For more information on the Potters’ Yard, The Pottery Press and their publications as well the work of Frances Bingham and Liz Mathews go to www.pottersyard.co.uk

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