Obituary: Don Potter ; Pupil of Eric Gill Whose Own Pupils Included Terence Conran

Article excerpt

DURING AN exceptionally long working life the sculptor, ceramicist and teacher Don Potter inspired all around him. Many of his pupils at Bryanston School, near Blandford in Dorset - where he taught between 1941 and 1982 - became distinguished voices in a variety of creative fields.

His skill with young people stemmed from early days as a scout trainer at the International Training Centre for Scoutmasters at Gilwell Park, Essex, where he encountered Robert Baden-Powell. Baden- Powell utilised Potter's wood-carving skills, commissioning him to carve totem poles representing the five British Dominions of Australia, Canada, India, Africa and New Zealand for the World Scout Jamboree in 1929.

Among Potter's best-known works are the Brownsea Island Commemorative Stone (marking the spot where Baden-Powell held the first scout camp in 1907) and portraits of Baden-Powell carved in the unyielding and difficult material of granite, one of which adorns the exterior of Baden-Powell House at Queen's Gate in Kensington, London.

Don Potter was born in 1902, the eldest of three children, and together with his two sisters enjoyed a congenial upbringing in a rural idyll near Sittingbourne in Kent. After a downturn in the family business, however, the family moved to Gillingham. Potter's imagination and creative inclinations were fired by an early love of music (he later played the cello) and by an interest in the folk crafts of gypsies, which he encountered for the first time at fairgrounds pitched behind the Potter household in Gillingham.

After school, he worked in post-First World War munitions factories in north London, an occupation he hated. He did, however, acquire crucial metalwork skills there that were relevant to future sculpture-making. The big break came when he met the sculptor and engraver Eric Gill on scaffolding outside BBC Broadcasting House in Langham Place, where Gill was installing the stone relief Prospero and Ariel (1932).

Originally taken on as an assistant by Gill for six months, Potter stayed on at Piggotts, near High Wycombe, for six years. Potter's later memoir My Time with Eric Gill (1980) described the value of being in the shadow of a great craftsman and religious visionary (Potter's own spiritual instincts looked eastwards and he later practised transcendental meditation).

As well as executing carved work for Gill in assorted religious, educational or temporal locations (such as wood panels for the Radcliffe Science Library in Oxford), Potter came into contact with neighbours like the painter Cecil Collins and with distinguished visiting artists like Eric Ravilious, Bernard Leach, David Jones (who painted a portrait of Potter playing cello) and the critic Herbert Read, who lived at nearby Seer Green. Potter's education at Piggotts, from both a practical and an intellectual point of view, could scarcely have been more propitious.

The tiny, ironically named cottage "Slab Castle" at Speen, in which Potter lived during the Gill years, was symptomatic of financial strictures. A teaching career beckoned; with letters of reference from Baden-Powell and Gill, Potter took up his first teaching post at a Quaker prep school in Swanage, Dorset. From there Potter was recommended to T.F. Coade, head of Bryanston, the liberal and artistic public school at Blandford Forum. Following the painter Roger Hilton and sculptor Willi Soukop, in 1941 Potter became art master.

He married Mary Broomfield, a nurse, in 1945. Based in a small flat in school grounds, Potter started a family, a daughter, Anne, born in 1947, followed by a son, Julian, in 1952. Later they moved into a leased property in a nearby village.

Social and professional connections gained through the Bryanston milieu mitigated the cloistered effect of being in full-time education away from the art world. …