David Burnham Smith is a born artist and a self-taught potter, His vision is fresh and original; his art cannot easily be categorized. His porcelain reveals a range of techniques wider than he could ever have acquired on any art school course.
Burnham Smith can hardly remember a time when he did not draw. From an early age he found it the most satisfactory way of expressing himself, of sharing his experiences. As a young man, he had a serious accident on his motorbike, Forced to remain in hospital for two years, he spent much of the time drawing - portrait sketches of fellow patients and cartoons full of hospital humor. An artist, Erian Slack, heard of his plight and gave Burnham Smith regular lessons in academic drawing, teaching him to observe his subject closely and carefully, and then to transfer the image from is retina to the block. when finally he was well enough to leave hospital he worked as Slack's assistant, at the same time designing patterns for Sanderson's and taking a night school course in technical illustration. For most of the 60's, Burnham Smith was employed in the computer industry at Stevenage, Hertfordshire, where he made exploded drawings of complex machinery before moving on to illustrate advertising and promotional literature. He painted in his spare time, and began taking an interest in ceramics, visiting museums and buying pieces he could afford, which usually meant that they were damaged. China restoration became Burnham Smith's preoccupation. He read manuals and went to the Patents Office to find out as much as he could about the various techniques involved. He turned an old pantry into a workshop and used a domestic oven. In 1967, he left his job and set up as a self-employed china restorer.
In 1970, he moved to Birchwood Hall, near Malvern, Hereford and Worcester, where he still lives and works. After the move, his progress from restorer to maker gathered pace. He restored a missing finger on a Meissen figure of a Jesuit priest for David Palmer, a glaze chemist working for Royal Worcester, who was about to set up an independent company to make figures in bon china. Palmer was impressed by Burnham Smith's skill at modeling and suggested he made models for the new firm, Albany Fine China. With the alacrity of a restorer Burnham Smith jumped at the opportunity of creating something original, but produced a huge Plasticine group of gallants, their ladies and a goat, all in the Watteausque style of 18th century European porcelain! Nevertheless, he was commissioned to model a series of bird figures for the company. His discussions with the mould-maker there, and the knowledge of kiln management that he gained, were important to his future as a potter. t that time, much of Burnham Smith's work as a restorer had been concerned with decorated Oriental and European porcelain, and his ceramic outlook might fairly have been described as antiquarian. That would change, however, when he started restoring for Richard Dennis who, with John Jesse, was collecting pieces for the ground breaking exhibition of Christopher Dresser's work, held at the Fine Art Society in 1972. The shapes and decoration of Dresser's ceramics opened his eyes to the aesthetics of modern design, while pieces of Martinware and Doulton stoneware that Dennis also brought for repair showed him how concepts such as originality, individuality, informality and humor had been admitted to the canon of modern ceramics. Later, in 1984, Dennis held a huge exhibition of Parian ware at Chelsea Town Hall. He had discussed with Burnham Smith the best way to restore several damaged pieces, and it had even decided that new parts should be made then pinned and glued in place; there should be no over painting and no attempt should be made to disguise the restoration.
For Burnham Smiths's career as a potter, the decision was important, It meant he would be making his own porcelain for the first time. Not long after, Burnham Smith made his first porcelain masks and soon started decorating them. A substantial collection was exhibited in 1987. Burnham Smith slip-cast the masks and decorated them with a wide variety of blue and white ornamental deigns. Through his restoration work, he had developed an admiration and knowledge of oriental blue and white, and he succeeded in emulating the incredibly wide range of tones achieved by the Chinese decorators, using iron and manganese to modulate the blue of cobalt, At a second exhibition two years later, he showed a collection of masks and tile panels decorated in a wider palette, using a range of manufactured underglaze colours. Burnham Smith soon turned underglaze colours. Burnham Smith soon broadened his repertoire, making figurative pieces - cats, kittens, frogs, human heads - and eventually vessels such as jugs, covered jars, tea pots and vases. He was still using moulds, some times as many as a dozen for a single figure. Inspiration for decoration comes from a myriad of sources. The designs are usually visual interpretations of ideas which have lodges themselves in his mind. He made a series of heads of St Joan in which he expressed his reposes - cerebral, emotional and psychological - to George Bernard Shaw's play, which he had first seen in the 50's. The grid design which covers the whole or part of many of many of his pieces was first inspired by 1960's op art. It often has an almost metaphysical significance in his work he has said that it represents the 'organic, geometrical flow of natural structure', and he has recently decorated a tile plaque with a design he entitled Heaven's Window. many designs provide a sharp reminder that he was an artist before he was a ceramist, and it is surprising that the virtuosity of his technique has not been allowed to interfere with the expression of his thoughts and feelings. In fact, his technique has always provided and sometimes even suggested a new means of expression. For instance, the interaction between mould and model - negative and positive - has inspired several of his pieces. He has made heads half-encased in their 'moulds', the different pieces painted with reciprocal decoration. The faces that he casts in intaglio can have extraordinary illusory effects when lit in certain ways, and they are, perhaps, another legacy of op art.
Burnham Smith has reached the point he is at today by an unusual and sometimes circuitous route, so it is no surprise that his porcelain is very different to that of other potters. His ideas have not been for emulated in the art school environment, and his antecedents are not those of most ceramic students of the last ten or twenty years. His knowledge of past pottery has been acquired in chronological order - first Chinese porcelain, then 18th century European porcelain, then Parian ware, art pottery and modern stoneware - and this seems to have given his work an essentially ceramic quality. His interest has always been practical as well as aesthetic, and through restoring he has had successive generations of ceramists have solved technical problems to represent more precisely the artistic aspirations of their time. The references in his decoration to 60's and 70's art movements may irritate those who prefer the more fashionable neo-primitive or postmodern, but they might bear in mind that variety is a virtue and that ceramics - particularly the making of porcelain - is a craft, and craft is timeless. Recently, Burnham Smith has been throwing more on the wheel and has devised ways of modeling figures from thrown forms. He has started using reduction glazes and has been experimenting with blanch de chine. David Burnham Smith the potter always wants to try new methods and different materials, and there will always be fresh ideas and deeper insights that David Burnham Smith the artist will need to communicate.
David Burnham Smith 30 March 1937 - 3 July 2019