The last time I wrote about Walter Keeler was in 1984. In the context of the short history of studio pottery his story already seemed a remarkable one. From 1964-78 he taught on the Harrow studio pottery course originated by Victor Margrie and Michael Casson. He was an inspirational figure and the improvisatory nature of the course – designed to prepare potters to survive with their own workshops – suited him. Keeler built kilns, designed and perfected home-made burners, salvaged materials from defunct gasworks, led raku experiments and, after seeing work by Denise and Rosemary Wren, worked with salt glaze and interested a whole generation of students – Micki Schloessingk, Jane Hamlyn and Sarah Walton – in the salt glaze process.
Faithful to the Harrow ethos, Keeler became committed to production pottery. In 1976 he and his wife Madoline moved to their present home in South Wales. He was teaching three days a week, and the gradual decline in demand for domestic stoneware was setting in. He felt on a treadmill with orders for coffee sets, jugs and mugs to fulfil. He even thought of abandoning ceramics but his wife – herself a gifted potter – persuaded him to continue and he began, bravely, to rethink his work. He began that vital business of playing with ideas – throwing but then altering the thrown form, cutting and luting pieces together.
The results of the re-invention of his practice were first exhibited in 1980 by this gallery – then known as the British Craft Centre. His pots remained functional – all salt glazed – but they looked sharply designed and aceramic, appearing to quote vessels in other media, from tin cans to leather buckets. Keeler’s striking new work came to exemplify the inventiveness and wit of the ceramics of the 1980s. His goal as he explained was to create ‘a surprising object doing an everyday job’. His 1980s work recalled the design freshness of eighteenth century industrial ceramics before the industry became ossified.
By the early 1990s this interest in early Staffordshire ceramics took a new turn when he began to experiment with earthenware, taking time off teaching at the University of West England to evolve a suitable clay body and to make speculative pieces. Some of the inspiration for this new work came out of a pioneering collaboration between Keller’s ceramics department and the research department at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Keeler and his students regularly handled eighteenth century ceramics alongside V&A staff. Both student and tutors from the University of the West of England annually exhibited at the V&A showing work inspired by objects at the V&A.
Some of Keeler’s first tributes came very close to pastiche but his inventive sensibility soon pushed his work in a subtler direction. Jugs with tortoiseshell glazes were mounted on integral plinths in amused homage. A series of remarkable pieces with crabstock handles were followed by a range of work which explored the creamware tradition at its simplest and most austere. At the time of my visit to Keeler’s studio a few weeks ago, he was undecided about the exact contents of his exhibition. But whatever he selects we can expect fine design, wit and a newly forged and uncannily imaginative relationship with our ceramic past.
Tanya Harrod 1999
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