Roy Hamilton is wonderfully British—just look at the photos of the silver teapot in which he served us Earl Grey tea—but then look at the way he paired it with delicate handmade ceramic mugs made by fellow potter, Nic Newcomb. The objects are each given new life through the contrast as can only be done by someone with a natural design and aesthetic sensibility. He generally prefers the term ‘potter’ to ‘ceramicist’ and after a career in textiles, he eventually let himself return to his first love, which was throwing pots.
An introduction to Albert Hadley and Sister Parish launched him and he spent decades in California, often specializing in very large forms for large Californian spaces. Now, at the age of 80, works at the epicenter of the artisan trend in South Williamsburg in what he calls “the clay co-operative”. He told us that even after a lifetime of showing and selling he’s always surprised when people buy his pieces. “One of the reasons I keep working is that I’m still so thrilled that people actually like what I do.”
You started pottery as a hobby—how did you turn it into a career? Wasn’t it more fun as a hobby … no pressure and so on?
[Laughs] It was an extra-curricular activity at school in England and they had opened up an art studio. This super guy was running it—there was a wheel and he brought in clay. I was one of the very first to say, “Let me try—clay sounds fun.” So I started doing it as a sort of weekend hobby and I made Christmas presents for various aunts and things like that.
But then you went into textiles.
Yes. I had to do national service first and I went to textile school in Switzerland because I had joined up with a man who was famous Hungarian émigré. He had set up a silk mill in the north of England and had spent the entire war just weaving parachute silk for the government. But then after the war he became one of the leading innovative textile manufacturers.
How did you meet him?
You see in those days, everything was done through family friends. I feel sad for all these youngsters today who have to send in their CVs and it has to go through Human Resources and vetted by somebody and if you are thrown into the trash, they apparently don’t tell you.
Well, I think connections still count … but did you want to do textiles or was it just a job?
Basically my family was involved in insurance and fortunately I had two older brothers. The eldest brother went into the business—somebody had to and it certainly wasn’t going to be me! Frankly, I came out of the Air Force after two years not really knowing what I wanted to do. Somewhere along the line my brother met this Hungarian man who said he was looking for bright young people. My older brother said, “Oh well, I have this brother—I don’t think he’s frightfully bright but…”
Did you consider yourself artistic?
Not really—apart from the clay at school. But the [textile] work was technical. It was an intensive weaving course. It wasn’t birds and butterflies and flowers. When I went to work at the mill in the north of England, we were producing fabrics for couture and I started traveling to Paris and Rome—it was absolutely wonderful. I would literally walk into Dior’s atelier or Balenciaga and open up my suitcase and show the collection.
You must have been the most glamorous traveling salesman ever!
It was glamorous! And then three or four months later I would go back to see the collections and shows and I got to know all the people in the press. This was pre-Diana Vreeland. Carmel Snow was the editor of Vogue. But I was living in Cumberland, in the industrial north and I became antsy. I moved to Canada—nothing was ever planned—and I lived there for two years and worked as a buyer of coats and suits for Simpsons.
Now on to the pottery … how did you get back to that?
Well, it was a hobby and I never thought I could ever make a living at it. It didn’t occur to me that there might be a future there. The thing that brought me to New York was that I came to work for Liberty of London. One day I passed the mid-town YMCA and there were big signs outside saying “Sign up for Spanish dancing or German lessons or ceramics.”
Hey, you could have been a Spanish dancer instead!
[laughs] Well, I thought, I can’t see myself as a Spanish dancer; I speak German from having studied in Switzerland … so I went in for the ceramics. I suddenly realized what fun it was. I turned the garage at my small house in East Hampton into a studio and started making pots. Eventually a well-known interior designer, Kevin McNamara said to me, “Roy, you’ve got to get serious. I want you to meet Albert [Hadley] and Sister Parish. And triple your prices.” And they became my mentors and really got me going.
What for you is the most powerful distinction between mass produced ceramics and handmade, individually crafted pieces?
Mass produced ceramics are largely done using plaster of Paris molds. What I do, the base that I make in the molding is just the beginning—that’s the easy part. And then I start the decoration. The decorative treatment is what takes the time and that is done absolutely by hand. And I also hand throw things—that’s one of the things I like doing best.
Do you think potters are never taken quite as seriously as artists?
Potters are artisans as opposed to artists. They really don’t have the same status. There is no ceramics gallery in New York because it’s really not looked upon as art. It’s getting better though.
Is it because people see a shape that they look upon as just an object from daily life, a bowl or dinnerware?
Yes, that’s sort of the way people think of ceramics.
The beauty of ceramics is often so subtle … can it be too subtle for people to notice?
Yes, like these cups [we’re drinking tea out of cups by another potter, Nic Newcomb, who works in the same space as Roy] … I thought they were porcelain but he’s using the same clay that I use.
What is hard about making ceramics?
There’s a lot of skill in actually centering a piece of clay on a wheel. First of all you’re dealing with a ball of fairly solid material—it’s heavy and you’ve got to get it into the center of the wheel. You’ve then got to get the whole thing balanced in a way that it is going around with the wheel in complete syncopation. And that’s the hardest part of it. In fact in Japan, apprentices have always spent two years just wedging [preparing] the clay, before they actually put it on the wheel. And then they’ll spend two years centering before they’re allowed to pull up a shape.
I remember wedging clay and getting the air bubbles out of it. It was so boring. I would have failed a Japanese apprenticeship.
[laughs] You wouldn’t have lasted two years at it!
Why has Japan always had such a strong tradition of ceramics?
Because Japan it approached ceramics with a much stronger sense of discipline. I suppose it’s just a part of their culture – you think about China and Japan. China [the ceramic] is called china because of China.
What do you think of Edmund de Waal?
His work is lovely although I haven’t seen any of his work in situ. And I loved his book (“The Hare with the Amber Eyes”] He has become a celebrity potter!
If you were going to rescue one pot for the world, which one would it be?
I think I’d quite likely go for something Islamic, something from the Met. I’ve sketched patterns from them.
What do you think of seeing your stuff for sale on eBay?
Oh, that’s funny! That’s really quite fun! In fact, this [indicates a piece] I bought on eBay …
You bought your own stuff on eBay?!
I paid less for it than I got for it when I first made it!