Artist talk & Q&A: Helen Beard
‘You have a lot of ups and downs working with clay. There are so many things that can go wrong in a final firing, whether things crack or slump, when you put as much detail and effort into every illustration it can be very, very nerve-wracking firing things. But the joy of it is when you take them out of the kiln and they’ve formed a new life of their own.'
Helen Beard is an acclaimed potter and illustrator. Her highly collected work is all about observations of our everyday lives - some are whimsical, some cheeky and some are nostalgic, each telling their individual narrative.
Our solo exhibition ‘Helen Beard: A Sense of Place’ opened with our doors after lockdown on Friday 19th May, marked with a digital private view where our Gallery Director Claire was joined by Helen in the gallery to give a personal introduction to the work on show. The text below is a written up version of this conversation to share with you:
Helen: ‘This exhibition has been an absolute pleasure for me. I make a lot of work that is commission based, whether it’s for Fortnum and Masons, Chelesa Physic Garden, a lot of my work is illustration based around a project. So this is the first time where I’ve been invited to a gallery to play entirely on my theme, my own story.
Window and interior view of 'Helen Beard: A Sense of Place' (19th June - 19th July 2020)
‘We have been planning this exhibition about a year and my hope was to fully immerse myself in the pond life and to become a regular swimmer at the ponds – to get to know everyone there. To take my sketchbook and really see it from the inside. As until now, I’ve only really been an observer, a people-watcher, I’ve never been able to fully immerse myself in it. I booked off 3 months to work entirely on this show and then lockdown started and the ponds closed. So instead I started to work through my archive sketches - of swimmers, local people, the markets... and I’ve also added in things from the last three months. There’s a bowl in the window with no swimmers. There’s an emphasis on the allotments so the quiet solitude that we all have been experiencing over the last three months. There’s a combination of the busyness, the life before lockdown, but also a sense of reflection of our sense of place. It’s all about the places that I feel very connected to, my local environment.’
[Going to the window to show looking in at the exhibition] ‘This is one of the bowls with the empty ponds and then the swimmers in the mixed ponds, splashing about.’
Claire: ‘This is a great one to speak about with the empty pond. It does feel quite poignant with the ponds being empty but people doing their one-hour exercise perhaps around the outside. Did you create this in the middle of lockdown or how did it come into the collection?’
H: ‘Yes, it was in the middle of lockdown. It felt quite surreal to be creating my normal busy market scenes in the middle of it all and in reaction to that I was deciding how to decorate this bowl. We’d been up to Hampstead quite a lot over the past couple of months, it just feels so quiet now, its lovely to see the nature taking over and I wanted to capture that. Although, at the same time, we all miss being able to swim.’
C: 'Absolutely, so many people have been saying that!'
H: ‘There’s another piece that is a reflection on the ponds [pointing out the swimmers hut, swimmers and ladder in the grey box on our wall] which is a new style of working for me. I’m doing a lot more of the props and hand-built pieces. It’s a really nice way for me to be able to play around with the story. So this one is the swimmers hut and swimmers and ladder and I like the playful element of mixing thrown pots and non-functional props. It becomes an illustration in 3D.’
‘And then [gesturing to the bowl on the plinth below] we have a busier picture of the ponds – this is the ladies ponds. And I like to imagine on the first day back with it being really full.’
[Walking over to show the largest piece in the collection, a large cylinder of Columbia Road] ‘This is Columbia Road flower market. From the outside, I hoped to create times of it being really quiet as people set up before it starts. On the inside, I wanted to create the flower market as as busy as it gets – maybe it even gets even busier than that. It’s very difficult to decorate on the inside like this as I’m using a method of drawing on clay using a sheet of carbon paper that I make myself using stain impregnated newspaper. I do the line drawing holding the piece of paper and drawing through it. It’s a huge amount of work, trying to keep my lines roughly straight and to get the actual visual of the people and all the flowers.'
Flower Market Cylinder
C: ‘Were you a painter or a ceramicist first?
H: ‘I’d like to say they came at the same time. I’ve always been a drawer, probably since I was a little girl, a tiny young one, and I’ve always built sketchbooks. The ceramics are something I did at art college and it was very natural to want to draw and decorate on clay. From the beginning I’ve always combined the two.’
C: 'For your ceramics, is there a reason you work with Limoge porcelain in particular?'
H: 'I adopted this from Edmund de Waal, I trained with him in 2004 and this is the clay that he used. I love it for its buttery texture and it’s lovely to throw with. But since I’ve moved in to doing the hand-built pieces I’ve discovered I need to use a different clay as it doesn’t join in the same way so I’ve moved on Audrey Blackman, a Stoke clay. It’s lovely to work with as well. So I now use the Limoge for throwing and then the Audrey Blackman for the others. '
'It’s all very new to me, hand-building. It’s really me playing and developing this story idea, I’m discovering all sorts of new things every day. I had made a bridge for the ponds with a ladder going in but as I fired them everything just drooped. It’s been a steep learning curve actually, self-taught hand-building. With porcelain, you fire it so high it can really sink and change in the firing.'
'The trees are new as well. I love the idea of bringing illustration into the 3D so they’re intentionally quite flat trees, flat buildings, a flat bus. It’s bringing the picture alive but still feeling a bit like a picture.
Georgian Terrace, Tree & car
'I love the idea that people collect these and create their own stories through them so people might take home a bus from an exhibition and then at the next exhibition choose the people to go with it. It’s so much fun to explore that story-telling element.'
[Pointing out the work in our alcove shelves] 'So this again is one of my favourite places, Highgate Woods. I wanted to play with scale and so the idea of having tiny pots alongside the trees. Something again I hope people can play with. Here’s my kids cycling. The many, many dog walkers.'
Highgate woods pots, small dog walker pot & small bike riders pot
[Walking over to more shelves with a collection from her garden series] 'Over the last few years I’ve been working with the Chelsea Physic Garden and doing a lot illustration work for them – more commercial based designs that they’ve used for their Christmas fair and other things. I’ve had a really love chance to get to know those gardens, spend time in the greenhouses and see the gardeners at work. Living in London I don’t have a big garden, definitely don’t have space to have a wheelbarrow and all those things – maybe this is me dreaming of them.'
C: 'It definitely has that feel of peering into allotment patches and wishing you had one. Are these all inspired by the Chelsea Physic Garden?'
H: 'Not all. I grew up in Sheffield and my family home backed on to allotments. My sister still lives there so I have lots of sketches from being in our garden, feeding on to the allotments at the back.'
C: 'Is all of your work based on real life or are there imagined scenarios?'
H: 'I alter real life so sometimes it’s straight from my sketchbooks and sometimes I create a story. Like, for example, in the big swimmer bowl with all the women getting ready to get into the water – that’s not what it usually looks like in the ponds. I just picked different swimmers and characters.'
‘You asked me earlier if anyone had ever recognized themselves from a pot. And I actually had a really lovely experience in a gallery about 10 years when a man was looking at my swimmers. He asked if they were the serpentine swimmers and I said yes. He looked at one of the sketches and said that’s my fiancé! He recognized her from the swimming costume and bought the beaker to give to her. It was one of those old-fashioned swimming costumes so very distinctive. It was lovely as they got in touch when they were actually getting married and I made them a swimmers card for their wedding, which they invited all the guests with.
C: That’s so sweet!
[Pointing over to a row of shop vases] 'I have really enjoyed researching the different shops and pubs you have drawn, how do you decide on which ones to focus on?
H: 'It’s really easy to find places to draw and study. It’s usually places that are a bit quirky. Past Caring is this really quirky bric-a-brac shop, lots of unusual antique-y things. They always have these vast displays outside of all they’ve collected. I love places with charm.'
Shop vases & shopper
'This is Leila’s shop, probably the nicest grocers in London, she selects the most amazing fruits and things from all over the world. She curates them in her grocers shop and has a beautiful café too. It’s really places I fall in love with.'
'The Famers markets [drawing our attention to a bowl and tiles of market scenes] are in Hampstead where they set up their trestle tables around the trees. I love them for their colours, the mixtures of vegetables and fresh produce which all look so delicious.'
C: 'Absolutely, and I think with your sketches too the colour really comes through. We’ve hung them along one wall of the gallery and then on the website I’ve enjoyed mixing them into the collection so that they all start to tell a story alongside each other. I thought your use of colour was really evident here. You get these wonderful splashes of a bright colour, particularly from the market pieces. How different is it working on paper compared to working with clay?'
Sketches with Ponds Bowl below
H: 'It’s actually not very different because I find it very natural to sketch. I do a very quick line drawing, sometimes I won’t colour it in until a week or two later. While I’m there in the present I really absorb the scene that I’m seeing. Once you’ve done that, the process of drawing it and looking at it very carefully, when you go back to it it can quite often feel like I’m there as I’ve studied it so carefully in person. If it’s a market, I can almost smell the smells.'
C: 'I was about to ask about this one with the writing [pointing to a garden series sketch], so do you write smells and sounds?'
H: 'Yes, I’m always scribbling in my sketchbooks. Sometimes it’s just that I’m writing down what people are saying. If I’ve drawn someone who looks quite fun or I love what they’re wearing, I’ll sketch them and just put a little bit of their conversation that they’re having with someone else. I’m imagining what it’s like in their world.'
Musician, Garden Series and Market sketches
C: 'What can you tell us about the musicians that you have sketched?'
H: 'I love the instruments. I have quite a musical family so I discovered the LSO (London Symphony Orchestra) did these free music concerts on a Friday a year or two ago. When I have time I will go there on a lunch-time with my sketchbook and just draw. I love the shapes of the instruments and the human connection to sound.'
C: 'I hadn’t thought about that before, how much sound you can imagine in here right now. From an image of two people around the vegetable market, you assume it’s busy. It’s really an amazing thing to evoke in a small drawing.'
Behind the desk [showing the back wall of the gallery] there are more of the cityscape pieces which I had a lot of fun splitting over our gridded shelves – you can keep moving them around, putting different characters with different houses or amongst the trees. So these are more examples of your new hand building for the houses?
H: 'Yes, it began with the buses and the taxis and creating a kind of crowd scene. That’s something I did for the first time a year ago and then got more and more ambitious with the shapes.'
C: 'I love the flats – that’s so clever.'
H: 'It’s very much where we live – these terrace houses and flats, we’re all alongside each other. And the combination of trees. I think for me during lockdown I was noticing the trees more than ever. You go out and there’s nobody on the streets, you really notice the trees.'
C: 'There’s so many wonderful details in the work. I love the Georgian terrace in that the front of the terrace is the front of the houses and the back is actually the detail of their backs too – I don’t know what I was expecting but it felt like a wonderful discovery when I noticed and it got me thinking about what I could add into the scene of the front or the back garden.'
'I’ve really had so much fun in putting it altogether in the gallery. Your work brings out playfulness in not just enjoying the work itself but in how we then start reacting to it. It’s a great quality to be able to do that to people, to bring a lot of joy. What are some of the highlights for you?'
H: 'You have a lot of ups and downs working with clay. There are so many things that can go wrong in a final firing, whether things crack or slump, when you put as much detail and effort into every illustration it can be very, very nerve-wracking firing things. But the joy of it is when you take them out of the kiln and they’ve formed a new life of their own. They’re a new piece as they’re formed a slightly different colour or they’ve changed shape slightly, of course they shrink as well.'
'From this exhibition, one of the things I’m most pleased with is actually the wheelbarrow. The wheelbarrow and the greenhouse. The main thing is the story about it. It came at the end of a very, very difficult day and I opened the kiln to two enormous pots that had completely exploded. I sat down that evening wondering how I was going to motivate myself and then had this really calm evening creating this wheelbarrow which came out of nowhere. When a story comes out of nowhere, when you hadn’t been expecting it, that’s the nicest thing about it.'
C: 'I know a lot of people have been admiring that wheelbarrow – well the whole greenhouse set. This is one of just two sets in this exhibition, with the swimmers hut set too.'
Swimmers Hut Set
H: 'Yes, this one I sort of wanted it to feel a bit cold so the swimmers have really red cheeks. By not adding too much colour and keeping the hut as just the white of the clay, I hope it emphasises that and that feeling of jumping into cold water.'
C: 'So are the ponds a favourite place? Or the markets?'
H: 'The ponds are probably about as green you can get in this part of London. Having grown up in Sheffield, right next to the peak district, you walk out of your back door and you keep walking into green. I’ve obviously got that connection so I try to find that.'
C: 'And do you think you’ll be a pond swimmer when they re-open?
H: 'I hope so!'
A big thank you to Helen for giving us this personal introduction to her work.
You can view the work within her solo exhibition 'A Sense of Place' in the gallery until Sunday 19th July. Open Wednesday-Saturday 11am-6pm and Sunday 12midday-5pm with priority given to booked appointments.