In a little cottage tucked away in Polyphant, you will find shelves of beautiful pots, handmade by local potter Ben McManigan.
Ben, who started his pottery career when he was 15 and went to the Medway College of Art & Design, creates stunning works of art from his home in Polyphant - mainly Raku pottery, inspired by Japanese culture with hints of his own unique style too.
On a warm, grey day in August, Launceston Life went along to visit him, finding out more about the art of pottery and even how to make our own pot!
Ben was encouraged early on by his father and pottery teacher, before heading on to the Medway College of Art & Design (now the University of Kent) where he was the youngest student in his year. Around 1975, he graduated with a National Diploma in Ceramic Design and at this time the arts and crafts movement was big. Bernard Leach, potter and art teacher, was Ben’s inspiration and after graduating from college, he made the move from Kent to St Ives, where Bernard had a gallery. After Ben showed his own pots to Bernard, he received strong words of encouragement and Ben knew he would continue with the style he was already practicing - the Japanese pottery known as Raku.
Ben went on to open a pottery in Rochester before moving down to Cornwall and setting up a pottery in Polyphant. It was from this point that he ran the pottery studio at Morwellham Quay for a few seasons and also made pots for exhibitions in Kent and London.
“I like to have a presence here,” Ben explained. “For the last 40 years I’ve been making the same pots using Cornish clay from St Agnes, and I source all the copper myself, mainly on the Tamar, and then begin grinding it to a powder. I like the fact it’s all my own work.”
Most of Ben’s pots are striking blue and green colours, with dark, earthy tones from the copper, and he likes to follow the Japanese philosophy by making sure the pot is ‘perfect within its imperfection’.
“It’s a balance between keeping the tradition and making it interesting too,” he said.
As well as making his stunning Raku pots and bowls, Ben also creates pots for pet owners who have had to put a beloved animal down. The pots feature the pet’s hair within it, creating a meaningful permanent keepsake for the owner.
The pottery making industry is not as simple as throwing some clay on the table and fixing it into shape. Ben spends days digging the clay, then sieves it of any impurities, stones and greenery before putting it in the pugmill. The clay is then left for a month, then ‘pugged’ again and left to mature. He also mixes his own glazes for the pots - a secret recipe - and sources copper in the stones on the Tamar, before grinding it to a powder to be used in his designs. Ben said: “The actual sitting on the wheel and throwing the pots is a very small part of the process.”
Ben then led us to the place where all the magic happens - an outbuilding in his garden where the pots are thrown and created. We were even allowed to sit at the wheel and make our own pot, and Ben often welcomes small groups in for pottery lessons.
“I hate wasting clay, and so I want the people who come in for lessons to be serious about learning,” he said. “It’s a very precious living thing. We’ve dug up Mother Nature to make a pot, so it’s important to treat it like that - it’s not playtime. I like to think that people leave with an enthusiasm for the work, and might like to go away and practice some more!”
But how does a pandemic affect a small business like this? Ben admits lockdown was bitter-sweet: “Lockdown was quite brutal in terms of sales, but mentally it was okay because I was still making pottery. Facebook came in handy because I was doing lots of live videos, so people were always on the end of a screen watching!”
Ben’s pots and bowls can be purchased from his home, but also feature in a number of galleries, including local galleries Terre Verte in Altarnun and Zebediah’s in Launceston.
If you would like to arrange to visit Ben to browse the pottery, or if you’re interested in attending a lesson, call or text him on 07869662290. You can also visit his Facebook page - Ben McManigan Ceramics.