Fashioning a life in clay

He studied his art in London, perfected it in Japan and has lived the dream in San Francisco – but for ceramicist Neil Tregear there’s no place quite like the Isle of Wight for sparking his creative inspiration.  So what was it that led him to settle and establish his business here?  Jackie McCarrick has been finding out.

It was 15 years ago that Neil made his first trip across the Solent, to attend a job interview with the local education authority – and he recalls it with all the visual detail you’d expect of an artist:

“I absolutely adored the Island from the first minute” he says.  “It was in the middle of a heatwave and there was something about it that reminded me a bit of San Francisco – totally inspiring with its amazing light, the coastal views and the constantly changing scenery.  And then there was also that feeling of freedom you get from being totally surrounded by the sea”.

However, there was to be just one fly in the ointment, and that was the job!

“I knew I’d found the right place – it just turned out to be the wrong job” he explains.

The job he took on involved using his specialist skills in autism, in an Island-wide consultancy capacity, and was a role he fulfilled for a year.

“I soon realised that my future lay elsewhere, but I didn’t want to leave the Island” says Neil, who had quickly acclimatised to the lifestyle and got himself involved with the sailing fraternity at Wootton’s Royal Victoria Sailing Club.  

“After only a year I felt I already knew both the interior and exterior of the Island pretty well, and knew it was definitely where I wanted to stay”.

He and his wife Catherine have a combined family of five children, and at that time, the youngest two were still at primary school, so finding another job was a priority.

In the end, it was that pressing need for a solution that brought Neil back to his first love, pottery, and it was the hours he spent sailing around the Island that helped the process along.

“My favourite position of all on a boat is on the foredeck” he explains. “It gives you plenty of scope for looking at the sea and just thinking.  

What I increasingly began thinking was:  ‘I’m a potter – I want to find a way of capturing what I am looking at in a pot’.“

Which is why, gradually, this previously successful ceramicist started making pots again in his garage, and in 2007 had enough work to stage a solo show at Quay Arts. It was a sell-out, and proved a major turning point in his life.

“That was a major boost to my confidence” says Neil, who was sufficiently bouyed by the positive reaction on the Island that he immediately began contacting galleries around the UK.

Artistic Revival

This was a strategy that Neil had already tried and tested during his early years as a potter, running his first successful business in Oxfordshire in the 1980s – and effectively, it was what brought him full-circle in his artistic career.

So how did he get into pottery in the first place?

The second of four sons of a scientist father and social worker mother, Neil recalls that early on, he had been expected to go into engineering, and in fact harboured the idea that he’d like to ‘build motorways and bridges’.

All that changed when the family moved to San Francisco when he was 14.

“It was a huge culture shock, being there in the mid-70s, among people who were living so differently, in communes and arts communities” he recalls.  “The sheer beauty I saw in California led me to realise that being an engineer wasn’t everything, and that I somehow had to find a way to be an artist”.

Neil opted to do pottery rather than art at his school in the US, and unlike many of his fellow schoolboys, he found the traditional subjects of metalwork and woodwork ‘sharp and unforgiving’.

“On the other hand, I found clay the most wonderful material, with great flexibility combined with strength.  I liked the fact that you could change it halfway through the process.”

By the time his family moved back to the UK three years later, Neil was 17, and found himself being taught and inspired by a great pottery teacher at his school in Oxford.  Ultimately he became the first student of the school to study for A-level Pottery, and then went on to Banbury College of Art to continue studying his new passion.

Finally, he graduated from Middlesex Polytechnic with an Honours degree in 3-D Design and Ceramics.

It was at that stage that he was offered the chance of a lifetime, thanks to his Aunt Mary, who was the Keeper of Oriental Art at Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum.  Her parents (his grandparents) had been missionaries in China and had even met the legendary Chairman Mao, which meant she was able to draw on influential Far Eastern contacts to arrange an Oriental trip for her nephew.

He was promptly packed off to the Far East and lined up with an apprenticeship with Yamada Hikaru, a prominent potter in Kyoto, Japan.

“I perfected the art of making hundreds of tiny little porcelain bowls, day in, day out” says Neil, “and also travelled the country quite a lot, visiting other potters and kiln sites with introductions from my Aunt.”

Back to earth

Having “lived and breathed” the subject for a year, Neil came back to the UK with a whole set of new skills, working techniques and aesthetics – and then bumped up against the reality of having to make a living.

Having become a first-time dad whilst in Japan – to daughter Lotte – he suddenly found himself “very, very poor” and living in a rented room back in Oxford, working as a so-called ‘humper’ (loading and unloading lorries) at a theatre in between doing his pottery in a borrowed garden shed.

This was the period when he first began sending slides of his work to galleries and shops – a process that definitely worked for him, because by the mid-80s, his creations were being featured in a wide variety of locations such as Liberty’s of London and Leeds City Art Gallery.

However, he still wasn’t making enough money to support a family, so when in 1986 he was approached by established ceramicist Deborah Sears of Isis Ceramics, he was more than happy to take up an offer to collaborate with her in creating a range of reproduction Delftware.

The classic blue and white tableware was such a huge success that Neil ended up employing four people and Deborah employed 12.

They were sending work all over the world, supplying clients like Colefax and Fowler interior design and many big department stores in New York and Japan.

“It was during that period that I really learnt the professional side of being a potter” says Neil, “all the important stuff about making a profit and employing people as well as just making the ceramics.  I also realised that quality and consistency are more important than anything else.”

Typically, though, there came a point where Neil had reached a point of success financially and business-wise – but was becoming creatively ‘dry’ and worn-out, with no time to produce his own pots.

“I’d sold my soul, but at least I’d managed to buy a new car” he jokes wryly.

It was around that time that the UK recession of 1990 began to bite, seeing off a large chunk of the luxury goods market in which Neil had been successfully trading.

“We as a business were pretty heavily exposed to the recession when it hit” he says. “We were dealing in high-end luxury items such as a dinner plate that retailed for £30 even then – goodness knows what price that would equate to now – and people had been buying entire dinner services.”

Changing course

Deciding to leave the pottery behind was made easier by the fact that Neil had a new focus, following the diagnosis of his second child, Jan, with severe autism.

Having been impressed by the teachers who worked with his son, Neil promptly decided to quit his business, hand over to his assistant, and  re-train as a primary school teacher himself.  After graduating, he was immediately offered a job at the Chinnor Resource Unit for autistic children, and dedicated himself to teaching for the next 12 years.

He kept his hand in with the pottery by teaching adult education evening classes, but effectively, he’d stopped producing any original work of his own.

“Life just took me on another course, as it sometimes does”, says Neil, who, during that time had met and married his second wife Catherine, also a special needs teacher, and was kept busy bringing up their blended family of five youngsters.

But life took another turn in 2003 when Neil saw a job advertised on the Isle of Wight.

“We felt ready for a change and had considered moving abroad, but that wasn’t possible because of our children” says Neil.

And the rest, as they say, is history!

After that initial show at Quay Arts in 2007, and his subsequent approaches to galleries, Neil has never looked back.

In no time he was supplying his work to big names in cities and towns all over the UK – even while still working out of his garage and living room at home in Niton.

In 2010 he had a  new exhibitor stand at the British Crafts Trade Fair in Harrogate and ended up with a queue of buyers for the whole three days of the show.

“I remember coming back home in my battered old car with 50 orders and my wife was horrifed!” he laughs.  “All she could think of was ‘How are you going to do that?’

That was the point where Neil and Catherine had enough confidence to launch out and take on the lease of Niton’s old butcher’s shop, which is where they run their studio to this day.

Customers love being able to see the potters at work – and these days there’s a team of them – Scarlett Felstead the studio manager, Pete Avery the technical manager, Tim Alexander the pottery assistant and Sarah Parker the apprentice, along with Neil and Catherine.

Now supplying 70 shops, galleries and interior design stores around the UK, the business has been growing at the rate of 20-30% year-on-year.

Island customers also love the distinctive marine-inspired designs in relaxing, cool colours that feature on bowls and dishes, mugs and lamp bases, and enjoy being able to see the making process.

“I was initially a bit worried about opening the studio to the public” says Neil, “but we now really enjoy having people around and seeing how interested they are in what we do.”

And the teaching hasn’t gone to waste either – because Neil hops on the ferry once a week to the Solent Academies Trust in Portsmouth, where he does a day of specialist teaching in pottery and autism.

“As much as I love doing it, I’m always pleased to get back to the Island” he says.  “For me, the happiest place in the world is my studio”.