the cornish arts and culture magazine

From 5th century China to 21st century Cornwall, firing up the anagama beast

Peter Swanson enters the timeline by firing the beast of his anagama kiln, just twice a year. Rick Davy was lucky enough to witness this event.

Words and Photographs Rick Davy
Cornwall has a long and rich history when it comes to pottery, you can see the remnants of this bygone in parts of the rugged landscape, on countryside strolls and, if you look closely enough in the eyes and hands of past and present ceramicists.

Leach, St Ives, Newlyn and Bodmin all have historically established potteries and more are dotted across the county. New ceramicists hear and pay attention to this history by following the narrative and choosing to set up their independent studios here.

Ceramicists all have differing methods when producing their work; using a potter’s wheel, handbuilding, soft slab, hard slab, coil construction and slip casting. One thing that runs true in this art form is the kiln that fires the material. Kilns can be fired using electric, gas, oil and occasionally wood and these kilns come in differing sizes depending on the volume of output.

However, there is one particular type of kiln that stands out from the rest in terms of its volume and firing method: the anagama kiln.

You’ll need to go back to the 5th century to fully understand how these kilns were first created. In their earliest forms, the kilns were brought to Japan from China via Korea. Stoking occurs round the clock until a variety of variables are achieved, including the way the fired pots look inside the kiln, the temperatures reached and sustained, the amount of ash applied, the wetness of the walls and the pots.

Anagma in Japanese means “cave kiln” which consists of a firing chamber at one end and a chimney at the other. Although the term firebox is used to describe the space for the fire, there is no physical structure that separates the stoking area from the pots. From 5th century China to 21st century Cornwall, Peter Swanson enters the timeline by firing the beast of his anagama kiln, just twice a year. I was lucky enough to witness this event.
Whilst building one of these kilns would phase most, it certainly didn’t and hasn’t phased the local and well established potter that is Peter Swanson. His love of all things pottery goes back some 50 years. In the early years he could only dream of building an anagama, but this came true when Peter started building some 22 years ago.

Peter’s kiln is not something you can just turn on and wait a while - the kiln needs constant feeding to maintain a temperature climb. You need to feed the kiln with seasoned wood for a minimum of 24 hours just to attain the right temperature. After this you need additional time and effort for soaking the fire and even the temperatures out to melt all the ashes inside.

Peters kiln chamber is 4.5 cubic meters which needs to reach an interior temperature of 1300C-1320C. That temperature needs to be the same throughout the kiln, from the front to the back. It's a very arduous task that requires Peter’s full attention throughout the whole firing process.

There is something very unique about using the anagama kiln, unlike any other kiln. A wood fired kiln such as this creates a tremendous amount of wood ash which is drawn through the pots in the kiln chamber and towards the chimney. As the kiln reaches its full temperature the superheated ash melts to create a natural ash glaze that covers the pots.

This gives Peter’s work a style of its own, one you will find hard to replicate anywhere else. Once the kiln has been fired for so long, it needs a few days to undergo the cooling phase, after which, Peter can finally open the kiln and get a first look at his finished pots. Peter is bound to be surprised by what he finds inside, due to the nature of the kiln, you witness an element of serendipity surrounding the results. Several hundred pots later, each pot will be different to the last and the ones before that, an ever evolving process with ever charming and ever changing results.

Rick Davy writes for his own blog

Tags | Ceramics, Interview

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