Mudlarking and Pottery with Fliff Carr

By Ylwa Warghusen

It is a sunny autumn day when local potter Fliff Carr, clad in bright blue overalls, greets me in her Primrose Hill studio. Fliff (a family nickname from when she was about six months old) is charming, refreshingly modest and brimming with enthusiasm for her art form.  
Working with white earthenware, she throws or hand-builds clay into delicate pieces that explore scale, shape and detail. One series of cups has widely extended, gold-lustred handles; a collection of plates carries a subtle lace imprint. There are also finely rolled plates with undulating edges, and a distinctive series made especially for the shop Circus in Brixton, complete with circus-themed motifs. There’s always room for spontaneity – small variations in pattern or hue, or perhaps the addition of a found object. Each piece is unique, but put them all together and they make perfect sense.

Fliff moved to London after completing an art foundation course in Bournemouth, and worked as a make-up artist in film and TV. While her children were young she studied ceramics, soon sharing a studio space on Gloucester Avenue with other budding creatives. She has been a resident of Primrose Hill since 1988 and brought up all her three children here, valuing the area’s tranquility and strong sense of community.

Fliff fondly remembers going to local institutions such as Anthony’s Deli and Mercury Stores when her children were babies, greeted by the same proprietors who still greet her today. “As a child, my father’s work took him abroad a lot so we were constantly moving. Perhaps that’s why I loved settling here. There’s a real sense of belonging.” The creative nature of the area is also a pull for Fliff, with so many artists living and working in Primrose Hill. 

Mud-larking and artefacts

Fliff loves mud-larking on the foreshore of the Thames and has an impressive collection of finds, neatly arranged by colour, type and origin. They are often fragments of tiles and old pottery. “This one is Elizabethan Green; this is a Roman roof tile, and you can see the grey in between the terracotta where it has been under-fired; this is Tudor…” she explains animatedly, showing me next a small seventeenth-century lead trading token. The objects provide “glimpses of the past. It’s about seeking and finding something special and it inspires and informs much of what I do.” 

Collecting objects and artefacts is something Fliff has been passionate about since an early age: classifying, arranging in size order and displaying the objects in groups. “Something about arranging objects in multiples really appeals to me,” she says. 
Functional pottery vessels are one of the oldest human inventions, dating back to at least 10,000 BC. Fliff discusses pottery’s strong link to archaeology: owing to their durability, ceramic finds are often the most important artefacts to survive through millennia, giving us important insights into the culture of the people who made and used them. This bridge to the past is something that resonates strongly with Fliff – the sense of an object’s unique story, creating a thread of continuity through time.  
There is a certain Japanese aesthetic to Fliff’s work in its asymmetry, muted shades and purity of expression. The Japanese practice of Kintsugi intrigues Fliff: it means ‘golden joinery’, because broken pottery is mended with a special lacquer dusted with gold, silver or platinum. It treats breakage and repair as part of the object’s history, rendering the piece unique, with a story to tell. This heirloom quality is also evident throughout Fliff’s work.

Creating pottery

The process of creating pottery is a laborious one. Structural pieces like cups, bowls and jugs are thrown at the wheel; plates are hand-rolled. “It’s like working with pastry. I use a rolling pin to form the clay to the desired thickness, then cut around the edges, following a template.” 
The lace pattern recurring in some of Fliff’s work has its own unique history. “I found lace that my great-grandmother had made… It’s used in different ways – embossed into the clay or painted with ‘slip’ (coloured liquid clay), which leaves a subtle pattern.” Other pieces are decorated when dry using bold colour or thinly drawn lines. Fliff also uses transferred images and finds inspiration in various sources: found objects, old books, playing cards and textile designs, combining images from various sources, including her own sketches, to create a collage. She sends the final artwork off to Stoke-on-Trent to be turned into ceramic transfers.  
Firing transforms the clay – an irreversible process which renders it stronger, removing any water. After it has been fired, the piece is glazed to make it impermeable, then fired again if gold or platinum lustre is added. This means that an object may need up to four goes in the kiln before it’s finished. 

Outside the studio

Fliff’s pieces are stocked by independent retailers and art galleries, both nationally and internationally. She also works on commission and can be found participating at sales and shows, such as the hugely popular Design Sale at St Mary’s Church. “It’s always great to be out of the studio, meeting my customers face to face.” 

Fliff also teaches pottery at the studio she shares with friend and fellow potter, Lucinda Gresswell. Lucinda has had a studio here for twenty-five years and Fliff has been working alongside her for the last three. They both mentor young artists, architects and art students, something she relishes. “It’s an exchange of skills and ideas. We often end up working on collaborative projects and learning from one another.” 
This reflects the idea of pottery as a craft as well as an art form, spanning the duality of decoration and function – a tradition to be taught and passed down through the generations. A few years ago, Fliff worked on an art installation with local nursery school Ready Steady Go and brought in her wheel for the young students to try. “It was so exciting to watch the children become mesmerised by their own hands and the feel of the spinning clay.”

Fliff’s mood board is filled with inspiring photos, magazine cuttings and drawings. “I have a thing for lines of all kinds, and recently started looking at Asemic writing. It looks like writing, but it can’t be read, so its meaning is open to interpretation. That’s an interesting notion which I’m currently exploring in my own work.”

There is a certain purity to Fliff and her work – she seems to have retained that magical ability to look at the world with wonder. As a child she made intricate fairy houses, complete with beds, plates and food for the fairies. And in a way her pottery is reminiscent of a very elegant, playful dolls’ tea party, with its dainty detailed proportions. We are fortunate to have Fliff in the neighbourhood to interpret her version of the world for us!
Instagram: @fliffcarrceramics

Photos by Sarah Louise Ramsay