Interview with Gwen Bainbridge – March 2022 – by Polly Marix Evans
Gwen describes herself as a ceramic designer/maker and an acquired taste, ‘Like Marmite, you either love my work or you don’t like it at all.’
When I first met Gwen at her studio at Brougham Hall, almost a decade ago, I was totally enthralled by her and desperately wanted to be as successful and self-confident as she was. She came across as this amazingly strong woman with a great, if not a wee bit quirky, dress sense. I think actually I really wanted to be friends with her! Gosh, I hope this doesn’t come across as a bit stalkerish!
When I tell Gwen this she laughs and tells me it’s all a bit of a show and she’s only really confident in her ceramic work because she understands her own work. And then she praises me for being a bit of a warrior too. We have a ‘mutual respect to the girlies!’ moment and a good discussion on buying clothes from charity shops and dying them interesting colours.
Gwen comes to The EVAN Gallery in Penrith for her interview and I am delighted to say that I do now count her amongst my friends (this makes me really happy, I’m smiling as I type this!). She’s sporting an amazing pair of green leg warmers and a tweed jacket with a scarlet hanky in the top pocket over a charity shop been-through-the-dying-process-several-times skirt. She looks wonderful.
She’s a local Cumbrian lass, raised on a farm near Kirkby Stephen within a Methodist family. She was in the choir as a child, because all the family did it and she was born into it, known as the ‘Soulby Party’, initially starting as one of the ‘Little Ones’ and progressing to the ‘Young People’ section. Gwen remembers being about seven years old when she was one of the Queen’s Attendants in The Band Of Hope, a temperance organisation, partaking in a procession through Appleby with other local villages. She says her religious beliefs now stem from the strong foundation of her upbringing, of right and wrong, but would be seen by her child self as ‘not in the conventional sense.’
When she went to Cumbria College of Art And Design (CCAD) to study Foundation Art, Gwen’s eyes were opened to the rest of the world. But it was when she went to study Glass and Ceramic Design at Sunderland that she really learnt to party! Back then both tutors and students socialised together and the wild parties would often end up in the hot glass studios with people glass-blowing under the influence! Health and Safety really wouldn’t have it these days!
Gwen has always enjoyed combining ceramics with another material: stitch; metal; print.
She’s experimented with precious metal clay melting it onto the Bone China surface so that it looks like mercury. Seeing demo samples in the textiles department at CCAD, where she then worked, led her to try her hand at making structural textile pieces and pouring plaster over them.
Textiles have been a major influence in her work. She has a slab roller in her studio which caught my eye as a printmaker, she uses it to transfer antique lace patterns onto her clay, literally ‘printing’ the pattern onto the clay itself. Embroidery, lace, stitch, it can all be transferred to the porcelain. It picks up individual stitches, so Gwen can ‘draw’ her designs in stitch on a sewing machine and impress it into the clay. Then the impression can be flooded with colour and ‘wiped back.’ Gwen went on a collagraph printmaking course with Hester Cox and this process is very similar to the one she uses on her ceramics.’
Porcelain isn’t easy to work with. It’s really strong once it’s been fired, but it has a memory, so if you’ve knocked it and reshape it, it can distort back in the kiln. But Gwen embraces the challenge of its difficult characteristics. She’s seduced by its whiteness.
She says her work doesn’t necessarily reflect her, she likes bright colours and quirky things, yet she can’t get away from black and white.
‘I get bored,’ she says, ‘I’m not a good business woman like Mary Chappelhow. I make something then decide I don’t like it or no one will buy it, so then move onto the next idea, not giving it a chance. But ultimately, I’m intrigued to explore more and want to see what happens next.’
Gwen tells me there aren’t many pieces she’s really happy with, ‘If I had to have a retrospective of my work there’d be about three pieces in it!’
At shows in Germany her work has been described as ‘very English.’ She’s not sure if that’s because of the Bone China or the humorous quality. Though she’s not always aiming for humour, sometimes people just see that in her work. She does admit her Lizzie Bet jewellery range can be comical.
Gwen says she’s been going down the more natural route recently. She used to think nature was already perfect so she didn’t want to copy it. But now she aims for more of an essence of nature, using ideas and objects found on walks.
She’s moving away from vessels slightly, starting to head towards sculptures using the illusion of stitch, like a soft toy.
She’s deeply inspired by hand-me-down-heritage and childhood memories, and this comes through in both her ceramics and her music, the ideas for each bounce off each other, a song inspires a piece of ceramic work or vice versa.
Gwen, her sister June Swift, and Dawn Hurton worked together on ‘Beneath The Beacon’ in 2018. A combination of automaton, songs, poems and readings based on characters from Penrith and North Cumbria. From that ‘The Clifford Movement’ was born, where stories, songs, poems and puppets celebrate the lives and landscapes of the Eden Valley.
‘My sister June and I used to fight nonstop as kids, but were the best of friends as teenagers. When I left school for college there was no music, no singing together. June had four kids, I was at college, then teaching. But I learnt to play the banjo with John Cottam, and invited June along for a sing-song.’ That was the beginning of The Misdemeanours, founded in about 2013.
Gwen and June are both in The Errant Thieves too, with the two Petes. A band that sprouted up for the reopening of The Old Courthouse at Shap, when they wanted a band to sing about criminals and robbers and Christmas, jokingly named ‘Beneath The Bauble’ to link to the ‘Beneath The Beacon’ exhibition.
‘Everyone brings music to the table and it balances out well.’.
Gwen sings as well as playing various instruments. She plays a metal washboard but her fingers are too small for thimbles. Luckily her ceramic work leaves her fingers really hard! No thimbles? No problem! TBH, she uses drum brushes!
Gwen’s local upbringing and interest in local history, certainly comes through in all her work. She’d love to delve through the newspaper archives and make sculptures and songs based on bizarre, and sometimes unsettling, stories from the past.
‘My sister found my Nana’s (dad’s mum’s) diaries. There’s nothing personal in there really, it’s about the farm: how many bales of hay from each field; potato picking; lambing; a rat getting into the room where she made the cheese; and then, very matter of fact, “I think I had a bit of a heart attack today.” I love the picture she paints of the people in this area, the connection and importance between the past and the present. And that’s what I want to portray in my work, the hand-me-down-heritage of my family, my Cumbria.’