Finch, Ray

First name: 
Year of birth: 
Streatham, South London
Country of birth: 
Great Brittain
Working period: 
Year of death: 

Ray Finch is born 27 November 1914.

From Ray Finch obituary: "Ray Finch, who has died aged 97, was one of the most respected British studio potters of the last half century. He was internationally admired for work that expressed the more traditional values of his craft – superbly glazed functional pots – and for running a legendary workshop at Winchcombe, in Gloucestershire. Winchcombe Pottery produced not only well-designed domestic ware, but trained dozens of potters over the years, many of whom became distinguished in their own right. Finch recognised that the key to their particular success was the close-knit team ethos; he disliked publicity that drew attention to his own status. He wanted, in the spirit of the teachings of his hero Eric Gill, to maintain a more anonymous workshop collective that simply made beautiful objects to enhance modern experience.
Finch was born in Streatham, south London and educated in Hertfordshire. He left school in 1930 to work in the laboratory of a paper mill near High Wycombe, in Buckinghamshire. It was during this period that he came across the writings of the sculptor Gill through his friend Anthony Foster, who was a Gill disciple. Gill's passionate defence of "useful" art appealed greatly to Finch, who was searching for a more creative direction. He became interested, too, in GK Chesterton's utopian Distributist movement, which advocated an alternative, more land-based, society and simple small-scale types of work.
These new interests found fulfilment at a friend's house when he saw and handled the slipware made at Winchcombe, an enterprise whose ailing fortunes had been revived by the pioneering potter Michael Cardew in the late 1920s. Finch realised what he really wanted to do; to "make things people could both use and enjoy".
In 1935, he travelled to Gloucestershire and asked Cardew if he could join the pottery. Cardew advised him to get basic skills first and Finch went to the Central School, in London, for a year before becoming part of the Winchcombe team in 1936. It was a brave decision, particularly in the 1930s, when it was virtually unheard of to devote one's life to making pots, and Winchcombe was hardly a secure business in the economic uncertainty of that time. Its large bottle kiln was fired only three or four times a year, and occasional technical problems could spell disaster.
But Cardew was an inspiring teacher, passionate about the importance and humanity of regenerated craft, as an antidote to rapid industrialisation. Finch became part of a team that included the elderly Elijah Comfort, brought out of retirement by Cardew, and the local brothers Sidney and Charles Tustin. They produced a range of slip-decorated earthenware that included cider jars, large bowls and platters, as well as everyday tableware.
In 1939, Cardew, restless for a change, moved to Cornwall to establish a new pottery and Finch, by then his partner, was left in charge. The Tustin brothers were conscripted and a smaller kiln built for the reduced production of the second world war years. Cardew returned briefly to help in 1941, but soon left for West Africa, and then Finch, who had married Muriel Beesley, joined the National Fire Service.
Life at the pottery only returned to comparative normality after the war when Cardew sold the business to Finch. However, the postwar years were also financially problematic and, by 1959, high-fired pottery, more suitable for everyday use, began to replace the slipware production. Finch's stoneware became unmistakable – bowls, jugs, plates and big dishes distinguished by their combed, sponged and finger decoration and covered in generous iron and ash glazes that reflected the colours of the landscape. His teapots were among the best made of any modern British potter.
From the early 60s to the early 90s, Winchcombe Pottery enjoyed greater financial success. It began to supply tableware to Cranks restaurants and exported to Europe, New Zealand and Australia. Finch was leading a team that was competing, albeit in a minor way, with industrial production, and Winchcombe's simple and restrained tableware appealed to modern design cultures such as those found in Scandinavia. By the 70s it was often used to illustrate cookery books and seen in interiors magazines.
Under Finch's direction, Winchcombe remained an effective place to learn the craft – potters who spent valuable time there included Colin Pearson, Jim Malone, John Leach (a grandson of Bernard) and the Australian Gwyn Hanssen Pigott. Finch helped to champion the workshop apprenticeship system at a time when many art colleges were neglecting basic skills. His pottery instilled not only essential technical knowledge, but also the notion that being a potter is a meaningful and rounded way of life, relevant to the contemporary world.
Finch was hard at work well into his 90s. He enjoyed the colours and textures of salt glazing – where salt is thrown into the kiln to give the pots added surface depth – as well as smaller delicate work in porcelain. Periods of ill health diminished his energy, but he would soon return to his customary supervision of firings and stoking of the kiln. The management of the pottery may have been given over to his son, Mike, in 1979, but there was little question as to who remained in charge. The workshop was where Finch preferred to be, away from the publicity of exhibitions and crafts world politics. This gentle, patrician and retiring figure simply wanted to make affordable and enriching pots for ordinary people, to pursue his humanising art. Finch died 18 january 2012.
Finch's wife and one son predeceased him. He is survived by six children (Whiting 2012)."

  • Whiting, David, 'Respected studio potter who ran a renowned workshop in Winchcombe, Gloucestershire', in: The Guardian, 31 January 2012.
Image source: 

Ray Finch, Winchcombe pottery, 1959s; portrait (source Musing about Mud); portrait (source Hatchville Potttery); teapot, date unknown; plate (source Musing about Mud).