Where Do You Get the Clay?
Accept on Living
By LORD DUNSANY
ONCE when I was living in the hills of Arden my hostess very kindly allowed me to use the kitchen fire for some clay figures that I was making. This is a craft that I had followed for a few years, and my work at it I have sometimes described to my friends as being of the Pre-Tang school, because I am ignorant of a very great many things that were known to those early potters who worked under the dynasty of Tang.
I had found out once, on picking up some clay with which a sculptor was working, that figures came rather readily to my hand; and having made a few,
I dried them in an oven, but did not risk them in the fire. When I did put some into a fire they of course cracked, or even blew to pieces, but I gradually learned how to prevent this, and all I know about it now is the following.
First of all, the figures must be well dried; and for this purpose I leave them for about three days among the hot plates over the kitchen fire. Then I put them in the oven after the fire has gone out. This is better than asking the maid who lights the fire to put them there in the morning before she lights it; because she may forget, and remember later and put them in the oven after the fire is lit, and they will then blow to pieces. In an oven they can gradually become so hot that they may be put from there right into the fire, at any rate near the top of it, and later they can be lowered into the middle of it where the heat makes it a light yellow.
Later I improved this method by packing them among cinders in a biscuit tin and putting that into the oven, and afterwards putting the whole biscuit tin into the fire. Heat then came gradually, as the cinders became red-hot. They never cracked when done in this way, but sometimes they would be spoiled by getting wrapped up in a piece of melting tin. Accident has sometimes given me a perfect glaze, which has rather surprised potters: it must have come from something in the coal.
The safety of the images is much increased by driving holes into them from underneath, and even through their nostrils and ears, with a needle. Any drop of water that there may be inside them then shoots out harmlessly when it turns to steam, along the track of the needle, like a blank fired from a gun, instead of going off like a Mills bomb.
I used to leave them an hour in the kitchen fire, and of course they required cooling off in much the same way that they were warmed up, or rather in the reverse order. And that is all I know about making pottery. I am told that plates baked in furnaces, everything in fact from which we drink our tea, have been in the fire for twentyfour hours, but the hour in the kitchen fire makes mine quite permanent.
Not so much with any idea of improving them, but rather to bring out the features so that the onlooker can see at a glance what I have seen, I paint these figures. Of course, the correct way to paint them is to do it before putting them into the fire, so that the color is burned into them, but I can tell the reader nothing about this, because I am ignorant of the paints used for this purpose and I merely paint them afterwards, though knowing that this is not the correct way.
The figures I do are usually three or four inches high, often only from the waist upwards. They are in no cases either portraits or caricatures of anyone I have ever seen, but are rather portraits of types, and not even those are types that exist, so much as those I have imagined.
Perhaps they are rather characters than types, and each character is dressed as such a character should be. I have several rather gorgeous uniforms in the armies of the old Austrian Empire and at its court, though they actually were not, and uniforms that I thought might be appropriate to certain officials who never really existed, in republics that I felt should have been in Central America, had there ever been room for them on the map.
As I emphasized their features with paint, so I helped to bring out their character with a line of prose, and each one had his description. Here, for instance, is a description of one in an admiral’s uniform, except that it was green, whose complexion indicated the tropics: “Even at 50 he could throw a knife that seldom missed the heart.” And a far more suave gentleman, in a uniform that to my mind seemed suggestive of Germany, was described in the following line: “He had a perfect sense of the moment at which to declare war.”
Once there was an accident in the kitchen fire, which I tried to mitigate in the line of description, which went: “Had he only had ears there are no heights to which he would not have risen.”
Another gorgeous fellow, whose figure was a little too elongated, had this description: “Thanks to his long neck, so greatly admired by the Empress, he rose to command the artillery of the police and to wear the cloak of St. Pavlov.” This, I repeat, was no caricature of anyone who ever existed; but might not such a man have appeared in the history of Europe if only he had been born in time?
And a somewhat similar character, who had also been damaged in the kitchen fire, was described thus: “Till he lost a moustache on the fatal field of Liebenau, he had been the acknowledged favorite of the Empress.”
And I had a little revolutionary study called “Judge condemning a man suspected of belonging to the Middle Class,” which was bought at my first exhibition by Mr. Alfred Bossom, the architect, from whom I have heard tales as thrilling as those that the first Lord Cowdrey told me — in particular one of how he built a skyscraper on the mud of the Mississippi, but that is his own story.
It is a curious thing how often one question has been asked me by many different people when I have shown them these figures. For a moment they are surprised, as indeed I was myself when first I found how quickly the various expressions seemed to come out of the clay, and then they ask me the question whose answer is to account for it all: “ Where do you get the clay?”
But my answer is always unsatisfactory, for I pick the clay up wherever I am, if there happens to be any, and there is clay in a good many places; if there is not, I buy it.