The patchy mosaic of Irish ceramic history has many missing parts. Sometimes this is because there wasn’t a lot going on. More often it’s for lack of published research. If a student went searching, for example, for material on John ffrench’s sojourn at Arklow Studio Pottery they’d be left scratching their heads. All the more welcome, then, when someone steps in to fill the gap. Peter Lamb’s The Life and Work of John ffrench, Irish Ceramic Artist (1928-2010) fills several.
This is a thorough study, a comprehensive artistic biography, approached from the perspective of a collector and a connoisseur. It will be of interest to those who love John ffrench’s work, but also to those in search of a broader scope on Irish ceramic history of the period.
John ffrench was a ceramic artist before it was even known that such a thing as ceramic art existed and his work did certainly not belong to the Leachian school that came to dominate these islands. He was eclectic in his influences, extraordinary in his use of colour, prolific, and playful in design. Most of his influences were not Irish. As a young man, John ffrench travelled and worked in Italy, Iceland and India. Many of his colours and forms took shape in these early years and persisted in a body of work that, although it evolved, had an extraordinary consistency. John ffrench’s work was radically different to anything else made in the country at the time. For this reason, it’s easy to think of ffrench as an anomaly; a rare and precious one-off. Lamb’s book establishes a context for his work, both in the early years when he worked with Peter Brennan in Kilkenny (the divergence of their work became more obvious after the 1950s), and in the seven years that he worked at Arklow Studio Pottery in the 1960s. John ffrench’s work, and that of his apprentices at the pottery, was bought, sold, exhibited and otherwise consumed in Ireland. It was never mainstream, but neither was it niche.
Many of his colours and forms took shape in these early years and persisted in a body of work that, although it evolved, had an extraordinary consistency
Beautifully illustrated with the lavish use of colour that ffrench’s work demands, Lamb’s book reveals more about the artists’ work than the man behind it. Possibly, John ffrench was a very private man. If so, this is reflected in the writing, which follows a factual biographical outline but does not venture into interiority. The reader is left with a detailed awareness of his work, its influences and contexts, but John ffrench himself remains an enigma.
Eleanor Flegg is a writer and craft historian living in Dublin.