Arbeid, Dan

First name: 
Year of birth: 
Stepney, East London
Country of birth: 
Great Brittain
Working period: 
Year of death: 

Dan Arbeid was born into a secular Jewish family in Stepney, east London on April 2, 1918.

Dan Arbeid liked to use all sorts of processes and techniques. Artists who work outside the mainstream, and refuse to be bound by convention, are invariably fascinating, as much for their verve as for the work they produce. Dan Arbeid was one of the pioneers of unconventional vessel-based handbuilt forms that celebrated the earthy plastic of clay. Like many potters, he discovered the medium almost by accident, but knew that this was what he wanted to do. With no formal training, he approached clay without inhibition, making use of any technique that seemed appropriate. Arbeid's free-thinking approach paved the way for a new generation of potters, such as Alison Britton and Richard Slee, and was crucial to the renaissance of postwar ceramics in Britain.

Arbeid was one of four children of a salesman father who showed no particular interest in art. His mother died when he was four. He left secondary school aged 14 in 1942, and was put to work in the rag trade, learning how to cut fabric and make patterns. It was a job he loathed, but the skills involved may have subconsciously influenced his work with handbuilding processes in clay, such as constructing pots from rolled-out slabs. After 13 years, he could stand the work no longer and travelled to Israel to live on a kibbutz. A year later he took a job in a ceramics factory in Beersheba, which had a studio attached where potters made their own work. Here Arbeid knew that he had found his metier. He returned to London in 1957 and, through one of his brothers who worked in the film industry, gained an introduction to the Central School of Arts and Crafts, where he was offered the job of pottery technician. Arbeid joined a lively department which, until 1955, had been led by Dora Billington, who always emphasised the importance of handbuilding as the first stage of working with clay before starting to work on the potter's wheel, and this continued as part of the educational programme. It had little or nothing to do with the prevailing orthodoxy of an eastern aesthetic of reduction-fired stoneware, which favoured the muted browns and creams advocated by Bernard Leach, then regarded as the guru of studio pottery.
The department fostered the talents of potters such as Gillian Lowndes and Gordon Baldwin, all of whom developed unconventional ways of working. Handbuilding was Arbeid's passion and, though he was a skilled thrower, his handbuilt forms are the most engaging. At the Central he met his wife, Maggie Wood, and they moved to the innovative Abbey Art Centre, New Barnet, set up by the artist William Ohly.

In 1963 the family settled in an old Victorian School House at Wendens Ambo near Saffron Walden, Essex, sharing the large house with the potter Jerome Abbo and his family. Now a lecturer at the Central, Arbeid successfully combined making and teaching. Students were encouraged to visit at weekends and experiment with raku and salt-fired flame-burning kilns, projects that were impossible at the Central's London site.
The qualities of Arbeid's work were spotted by the gallery owner Henry Rothschild, who gave Arbeid a solo exhibition at Primavera, then one of London's leading outlets for contemporary crafts (it later moved to Cambridge). The usually staid Pottery Quarterly described his work as a "real breakthrough", writing admiringly of the coiled forms. These included a coiled vase form made from textured clay, the shape seeming to grow and expand. A further exhibition in 1963 included thrown pots as well as slabbed and coiled forms. Pottery Quarterly said they were all "impressive".
It is, however, the handbuilt pots for which Arbeid is best known, exemplified by what he described as Pin Pots. These were made, initially, by wrapping slabs of clay round a cylinder and joining them with a clearly visible seam covered with dry ash glazes, the textures and semi-opaque glazes perfectly integrated into the surface. These twisted and turned as they dried to create forms that combine a sense of the organic with darker, more sinister aspects of decay.
In the early 1980s the Arbeids moved to Brighton, setting up a studio in an old coach house. Dan Arbeid retired from the Central in the mid-1980s and showed regularly at the British Crafts Centre and the Bristol Guild. He is survived by Maggie and their children, Adam and Hannah. Dan Arbeid died 19 September 2010 (text Emmanual Cooper).

  • Cooper, Emmanuel, "Dan Arbeid, a potter known for his unconventional handbuilt forms", in: The Guardian, Monday 22 November 2010.  
Image source: 

Portrait (source The Guardian, 2010); Dan in his studio (source The Times, 2010).