At Home With - Elizabeth Macneal of Limehouse Ceramics
I met Elizabeth at the end of last year at an independent ceramics fair in Shoreditch. The fact that I had yet to buy a single Christmas present had guilt tripped me into embarking on the hour and a half journey across London on the snowiest day of the year. Despite the weather, the fair was packed with people shuffling around, shoulder-to-shoulder, eyeing up beautiful ceramics left, right and centre.
It was the large mugs that initially caught my eye. I like a good hefty mug that you can wrap your hands around whilst sipping your tea for a good fifteen minutes, and I can vouch that Elizabeth’s fit the bill. “Simple, functional shapes, with white glaze and flashes of colour” (and a few graphic prints thrown in the mix) sums up Elizabeth’s style in a nutshell. She makes vases (big and small), glasses holders that double up as pen pots (the first I’ve ever come across), all sorts of bowls (for you or your pet), planters (filled with cacti and succulents), milk jugs, salt and sugar pots, soap holders and the loveliest little trinket dishes adorned with gold leaf animals and embossed with quotes. She’s also recently started making dinner plates in deep blues, soft greens and pale pinks that are just as lovely as they sound.
Chatting with Elizabeth for just a short while was enough to reveal her passion and enthusiasm for what she does. She kindly took some time out from finishing her novel (!) to answer a few of my questions about what life as a ceramicist entails.
Do you do ceramics full time? If not, what other careers or hobbies do you think compliment it?
Ceramics is my sole source of income, but I am also a writer. I write Monday-Wednesday, and pot Thursday-Saturday. I’ve just won an international award for my unpublished novel, and I signed with the agent judging it. My novel is going to the publishers shortly, so I’m feeling like I might implode at any second. In terms of writing and potting, I think they complement each other perfectly – one is very physically demanding, the other very mentally demanding. I always listen to audiobooks and vaguely think about my writing when I’m potting – it’s the kind of work which is great for mulling and reflecting. I can make a lot of things relatively quickly, which is satisfying, whereas when writing I can work for weeks on something and not be sure if it’s any good.
Do you think pottery is something people can do as a hobby or does it take more commitment?
It is definitely something that can be done as a hobby – I think one of the advantages of ceramics is that you can be anything from beginner to professional quite easily. It’s becoming more and more accessible with so many classes and studios springing up. You can do anything from beginners classes, to working in your home and renting out a kiln, to joining an open access studio, to buying your own equipment and setting up your own studio.
Has your style evolved from the early days? If so, in what way and why?
My style has stayed fairly similar – simple, functional shapes, with white glaze and flashes of colour – but my skill has improved drastically. With that, I’ve been able to make more things – stacking and nesting bowls, plates, teapots, larger vases. There’s also a lot more pink than there used to be!
Where do you get your inspiration?
I know some potters who produce beautiful pen and ink drawings with exact measurements, but I don’t have a strict design process. I like the freedom of making things up as I go, while always keeping practicality in mind. It's more fun that way, although there are always a few bits and bobs which end up in my seconds box.
What initially sparked your interest in ceramics?
I’ve always loved ceramics – there’s something really pleasing about a piece which is handmade and functional too. I’ll never get over the thrill of drinking out a mug which was a lump of earth a week before. I also love running my own business, and that was something which I’d always been drawn to.
Did you take a course or did you teach yourself?
I started off with an evening class once a week for ten weeks, and I learned all of the basics there – how to attach handles, how to mix slips, how to glaze. Beyond that, I’m entirely self-taught – I didn’t do any wheel-work in the classes (which is now my exclusive method of making), so I just sat down with some YouTube videos, wasted lots of clay, got extremely messy, and practiced. It used to take about ten minutes to centre a small lump of clay – now I can do it in ten seconds.
What were your first experiences when working with clay? Did you take to it like a duck to water or were there some initial challenges?
I loved it! I’ve always been quite a crafty person. I used to want to be an artist and painting was one of my obsessions as a teenager – I have lots of canvases and decaying oil paints in my attic, and my poor parents are saddled with a few angsty self-portraits of me at fifteen. But as soon as I sat down with a piece of clay I knew that I wanted to do it for good.
I think my friends would probably disagree if I said I took to it like a duck to water – they were unremittingly cruel and my deformed pots were a standing joke for a while. That said, I did develop quickly, and I found that satisfying – though quite a few of my early pieces are languishing in landfill somewhere.
How long does the process take, from start to finish? What’s your favourite part?
This is always a tricky question as it’s such a bitty process – multiple several-minute steps. It takes at least a week from start to finish as the clay needs to be completely dry before it’s fired, but all the stages add up – four minutes to throw a mug, three minutes to trim it, four minutes to attach the handle – and then you’ve got to prepare the clay, fire it, glaze it, fire it again, sand it.
What are your favourite pieces in your collection at the moment? What’s the most popular?
I’ve recently started throwing plates and I love them! I can’t wait to make more – I’ve had lots of requests for them, so I just need to get making. My most popular winter item is definitely my mugs – they are larger than most, so they’re great if you want a proper brew.
Do you have a long-term dream or goal for your ceramics, or are you happy the way things are at the moment?
I’m actually really happy with the way things are going right now - I’ve deliberately resisted expanding. As I’m also a writer, I try and keep my ceramics to three days a week. That way it doesn’t engulf everything else, and it doesn’t become too stressful.
My main goal is to keep enjoying it and to keep experimenting. There was definitely a time during the run-up to Christmas when I thought I’d created a monster.
Any advice for budding ceramicists?
Practice! Throw lots, and do a market. Markets are brilliant – you can get feedback from customers, find the right price-point, and (hopefully) encounter the thrill of someone actually buying something you’ve made.
What materials are your favourites to use?
My favourite clays are slightly speckled ones – while they lack the smooth finish of other clays like porcelain, I love the texture and ‘freckledness’ of them.
Where do you work? Do you work alone or with others?
I work in the studio in my garden. I work by myself, but I never feel lonely – I find it pretty peaceful and I’m an appalling multi-tasker anyway, so it’s a relief that I don’t have to sustain any conversations while working!
I do miss the community aspect of places like Turning Earth (I was a member there for a month), where potters would share tips. On the other hand, I quite like that I can leave the studio as a mess if I want to, everything is where I left it, and it’s entirely my fault if I break something.
My husband helps me out enormously too – he is my glaze-mixer and packages all of my online orders. I have an amazing pair of friends who often come and help me out on weekends, and we drink lots of tea, eat homemade coconut macarons and listen to the Famous Five on audiobook. It’s a little bit dreamy.
Do you have a favourite playlist to get productivity flowing?
I listen to audiobooks when I work. I’m a sucker for the classics – I’ve just finished War and Peace, and I’m listening to Vanity Fair (by Thackeray) for about the tenth time right now. It is SO GOOD.