Alan Caiger-Smith was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina on February 8, 1930. His father, Christopher Caiger-Smith, was an industrial chemist working for ICI. His mother, Helen (nee Massey), had been to Roedean and Girton College, Cambridge. After her husband died in an accident on a family holiday in Cornwall, she brought up Alan and his brother, Mark, on her own, moving to the Berkshire village of Aldermaston and forging a career in orthoptics. At Belmont preparatory school Caiger-Smith learned metalwork and printing alongside more conventional subjects, going on to Stowe school with a scholarship. Partly inspired by the beauty of Stowe, set in grounds landscaped by Capability Brown, Caiger-Smith decided to become an artist. In 1947 he went to Camberwell School of Art; he was excused national service because of asthma. Disappointed by the teaching there, in 1949 he took up a scholarship to King’s College, Cambridge, to study history, switching to English for “a last golden year”, tutored by George “Dadie” Rylands. At Cambridge Caiger-Smith continued to paint and draw, selling paintings to EM Forster. He began to model figures, getting clay from the local Land Drain Company and using their firing facilities, making erotic figures from Greek mythology for his friend the future novelist Simon Raven. He received encouragement for his paintings from Bryan Robertson, then running the Heffer Gallery, later the inspired director of the Whitechapel Art Gallery, and from the sculptor Betty Rea. Her son Julian Rea, a fellow student, introduced Alan to throwing. Caiger-Smith went on to postgraduate studies with the art historian Francis Wormald. His researches took him all over Britain, but while in London he took evening classes at the Central School of Arts and Crafts with Dora Billington, who proselytised a tin-glaze revival. Although the fruits of his postgraduate research were published in 1963 as English Medieval Mural Painting, Caiger-Smith had already decided to forgo an academic career, with his mother’s help buying a disused smithy to found Aldermaston Pottery, thus making sense of his experience in Triana. From the start Caiger-Smith’s work was purchased by all the major British public collections, with particularly striking holdings at Reading Museum and Art Gallery and a study collection held at Great Dixter in East Sussex, a tribute to his friendship with the great gardener Christopher Lloyd. The man and his work made an immediate connection with ceramic historians and he was admired by figures at the Victoria & Albert Museum, by Henry Rothschild, the founder of Primavera, the most important craft outlet of the 1950s and 60s, and by the Design Council.
Alan Caiger-Smith, the founder of Aldermaston Pottery, employed an average of eight co-workers over 38 years, some 60 men and women passing through the pottery. Caiger-Smith was the first among equals, his employees guided by his distinctive earthenware forms, evolved through the process of throwing and his understanding of historical Islamic ceramics.
His bowls, plates, teapots, goblets, albarelli, jugs and majestic tall jars, some over 4ft in height, were all tin-glazed white and decorated with brushwork that looked both abstract and calligraphic, often reduction fired to achieve lustre effects, in wood-fired kilns he designed and built himself. Aldermaston Pottery ran from 1955 until 1993, proof that a collaborative group of creative craftspeople could achieve economic success and artistic recognition alongside the economies of scale inherent in industrial production.
After 1993 Caiger-Smith concentrated on his own personal work. His beguiling account of running the workshop was published in 1995 as Pottery, People and Time. Fellow workers included Geoffrey Eastop, Gwyn Hanssen Pigott, Edgar Campden and Julian Bellmont.
Caiger-Smith was also a noted ceramic scholar whose Tin-glaze Pottery in Europe and the Islamic World (1973) and Lustre Pottery (1985) continue to be key texts. With Ronald Lightbown, Caiger-Smith translated a facsimile edition of the Victoria and Albert Museum’s manuscript of Cipriano Picolpasso’s The Three Books of the Potter’s Art. Written in about 1548, it is an example of aristocratic interest in craft technologies. Picolpasso was writing about maiolica techniques, but in the context of his own ceramics Caiger-Smith took more inspiration from 13th century Nasrid lustre wares made in Granada, above all the majestic vases associated with the Alhambra, and in 17th- century Dutch and English tin glaze.
A visit in 1960 to Egypt, where Caiger-Smith met the potter Said el Sadr, who worked at the historic site of Fustat, was of vital importance, as were travels in Spain. In later years he was involved with the ceramic communities at Deruta and Gubbio in Italy. Excited by the pots that he made at the Central, he slept with them by his bed so that they were the first things he saw when he woke. On an undergraduate sailing trip to Spain and Morocco, he had seen potters at work throwing bowls in the Triana district of Seville. As he watched, a disembodied voice told him “this is something for you”.
Caiger-Smith was a man of great personal charm and humour. During the 50s he had encountered Francis Roles, who in 1951 formed the Society for the Study of Normal Psychology, better known as the Study Society. Caiger-Smith’s membership of the Study Society bestowed an inner calm. The Study Society was a quiet, private enthusiasm he shared with his wife, Anne-Marie Hulteus, a Swedish architectural engineer who was very much involved in the growth of the pottery, designing many of its buildings.
Anne-Marie died in 1994. Alan is survived by his four sons, Nicholas, Martin, Patrick and Daniel, and 11 grandchildren, and by Charlotte Davis, his partner from 1995. He passed away February 21, 2020 (Text: The Guardian – March 18, 2020 Tanya Harrod).
Pictures: Alan Caiger-Smith, at work, 1966 (source The Guardian (18-03-2020); Alan Caiger-Smith painting a lampfoot (photographer Wim van de Loo 1993); Alan Caiger-Smith, two more pics during work (photographer Wim van de Loo 1993); Alan Caiger-Smith and his wife Anne-Marie in 1993 (photographer Wim van de Loo 1993); bowl (source The Guardian 18-03-2020).