Keith Brymer Jones was born in 1965. The potter and ceramic designer has been a judge on the TV show The Great Pottery Throw Down since 2015, first broadcast on the BBC before moving to its current home on Channel 4.
Jones had been making pottery since the age of 11, when he designed an owl. However, a brief stint in punk band The Wigs saw him change direction, before he became an apprentice at Harefield Pottery in London. After that he worked for several well-known retailers before creating his own Word Range with retro (often sweary) letterings and punk motifs. Keith Brymer Jones published his autobiography, Boy in a China Shop: Life, Clay and Everything, in 2022.
In his Letter To My Younger Self, Keith Brymer Jones looks back at his life and explains how he moved from a punk band to being a big name in modern ceramics. He also talks frankly about the effects his mum’s alcoholism and her early death had on him.
I was a not incredibly confident 16-year-old, partly because school life was quite challenging. I’m dyslexic and in school in the ’80s, if you had dyslexia you were considered thick. The only support I got was being allowed to go into the art room and play with clay, which was brilliant. I loved pottery to the point where I used to bunk off school and go down to the V&A museum in London and spend hours there on my own, looking at pots and drawing pottery in the amazing ceramics department. I’d often fall asleep on a bench and a security guard would have to chuck me out at the end of the day. I was in there all the time. I loved it.
My love of pottery started in my first year of secondary school, when I was 11. My teacher gave me a lump of clay along with the rest of the class. Half the class started a clay fight. And the other half, we started making something with the clay. That moment of touching the clay for the first time, that was an epiphany for me. It was amazing. I can remember it like it was yesterday. It was so powerful.
My teenage self didn’t know it, but that first pottery class was a sliding doors moment in my life. It was the first time a teacher had ever paid me a compliment. I started making something out of clay and my art teacher said, you seem to be good at this, you should carry on doing it. There are moments in your life where you’re either encouraged or discouraged. It could be the difference between left and right or life and death. It is quite profound when you think about it.
I was pretty timid until I became a singer in a band [The Wigs] when I was about 18. I began to… I don’t know what the word is, when your personality seems to flourish. I became more confident and more outgoing. I had a friend who worked with me at Tesco and he piped up one day and said, we’ve got this band and we’re looking for a singer. And I said, I could do that. So I went along to a rehearsal. I wouldn’t say I was brilliant, but I held my own. When you’re a singer in a band, you go into a different character. You’re not really yourself; you put on a front. So, although I was very shy, I became this other kind of person, and that helped me to perform. You can find a skinnier version of me on YouTube on a video called Six O’Clock Shuffle [below] – that was one of our singles.
My dad was very, very sporty. He played a lot of tennis in the under-21s at Wimbledon. He was also a keen footballer. So I sort of connected with it; I used to play quite a lot of tennis with him. And I was seconded into football through playing for the London Welsh – only the fourth team. I was pretty hopeless, to be honest. I wasn’t as keen a sportsman as he was in general, but I realised that was the way to connect with him so that’s what I did.
My mother died when I was about 27. For want of a better way of describing it, she’d become an alcoholic. Sherry was her thing, being very middle class and from Finchley. She died at 55 – very early. And then I started getting panic attacks. I never understood what a panic attack was before. How could your emotional state affect you physically? Then someone suggested that the panic attacks might be happening because your mother has just died and it’s traumatic. So I had bereavement counselling because I was pretty closed off to my emotional state. It did fundamentally change me or make me look at myself more as a whole person. Then I had quite a lot of therapy for about 10 years. It put me in touch with my emotional state and my emotional awareness.
Pottery is so fundamental to my life that I can’t help but get emotional about it [he is well known for crying when he sees successful pottery]. Showing that emotion on television is not a problem for me. A lot of people, especially males, see showing your vulnerable side as a weakness. I would beg to differ. I would say it’s exactly the opposite. It’s definitely a sign of strength to show your vulnerability and be the person you are and communicate that.
I only started to think I could make a full-time career out of pottery when I started my own business. I was getting orders from big department stores and shops on the high street. I thought wow, this is something else, making a fairly good living just by making things with my hands. And I was totally in control of it.
I always have this moment in my head whenever I do something new. We’ve just bought this big chapel in north Wales. It’s raining indoors and it has pigeons in it. There’s a lot to do. But I have this moment in my head where I’m standing in the doorframe looking outside and I’ve got a cup of tea in my hand and things are looking good. That’s exactly the kind of vision I had when I started my own business. I envisaged this time where I was looking out at the yard in London with a cup of tea, the kiln on behind me and the pottery, still nice and warm, laid out in front of me. And I’m thinking, yeah, this is good. This is stable. I can do this.
If I could have one last conversation with anyone? Well, that’s a no-brainer. That would be with my mother. I’d want to ask her, why have you put yourself on a path of self-destruction? She was an intelligent woman. And she was creative. She was an amazing cook, and quite a good artist. We were very much a middle-class family growing up in suburbia. My father was a building society manager. My mother was a stay-at-home mum, making cakes and looking after the kids. Then towards the middle of the ’80s it went a bit pear shaped. Interest rates went up. My father’s job wasn’t as good as it could have been. And I think she suffered from empty-nest syndrome. When I moved out she didn’t really have a main purpose in life any more. And I think she got pissed off with her life. She got despondent and disappointed with the way things had worked out for her and Roy, her husband, my father. Sherry slowly took over.
My studio was in Highgate in North London and my mother and father still lived in Finchley, which wasn’t far away. Towards the end of my mother’s life, every Thursday afternoon I’d go over and eat some incredible cake she’d made, drink pints of milk and we’d have long conversations. And it was great. I’m glad I had that time with her. I think she really enjoyed it.
If I could re-live one time in my life it would probably be from my time with the band. Just being up there on stage. I wish we’d been more successful and not worried about what other people thought of us and enjoyed it more. That would have been fantastic. There were gigs we used to do at The Marquee in London. You could feel the moment when everything came together – the communication with the crowd was great, the PA guy had pulled his finger out and given us a decent sound. The place was packed. And there was a shift in the atmosphere. You could almost taste it. It was such a euphoric feeling. Being in a band does put you in some weird and wonderful situations. There’s nothing like it.
Boy in a China Shop: Life, Clay and Everything by Keith Brymer Jones (Hodder & Stoughton, £10.99) is out now. The Great Pottery Throw Down is on Channel 4 on Sundays at 7.45pm
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