Isaac Button, Soil Hill Pottery, Halifax, England | Biography & full length video (44 minutes)

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Isaac Button, Soil Hill Pottery Near Halifax, England

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We (Patty and Morty) were riveted by this video that documents the dexterity of Isaac Button, a country potter, and we wanted to pass this piece of history along. Isaac Button retired in 1965 just a few months after the last segment of the movie was filmed. He died in 1969 -- one of the last masters of this difficult craft. If you are an aspiring or accomplished potter, a teacher of art and crafts or interested in history of ceramics - this movie is a "must see".

Mr. Isaac Button was the last true English Country Potters and he was renowned for making a ton of clay pots in any 1 day. In fact, he was once timed from throwing the lump of clay onto the potters wheel, producing an excellent pot and then cutting it off using a wire cutter which in total took him 22 seconds. This would translate into 120 pots in any 1 hour and up to 1200 in any 1 day.

By 1900 England had only around 100 country potteries and sadly by the end of the depression no more than a dozen. At Soil Hill there has been a pottery facility since the 17th century and before the first world war this pottery shop employed 13 men. As time passed, Mr Button ended up working the pottery business on his own becauseo he could not find anyone to take an apprenticeship with him. He passed 18 years on his own.

Note: The hope you like the Beatles music sound track we have added to this silent movie

Source: Yorkshire Film Archive

21 mins 11 secs of 44 mins 0 secs

format: 16mm colour black & white sound silent

credit: john anderson - photography and editing, robert fournier - script

Film narrative:

Made by John Anderson and Robert Fournier, this film records the pottery-making process at Soil Hill Pottery near Halifax. This film is of particular significance as, by the 1960s, Isaac Button was one of the very few potters still making clay pots using this process. Intertitles appear throughout the film providing an explanation of this particular method.

Title 1 - Isaac Button Country Potter, Filmed by John Anderson Robert Fournier, Slide Loans (Ceramics) 1965

Map with Titles - Part of West Yorkshire Keighley, Bradford, Halifax.

The film opens with a map and is followed by scenes of the roof tops of factory buildings and farm land with grazing cattle. The corn is blowing in the wind.

Map and Title - Bradford Halifax - Soil Hill Pottery.

On the side of a pot is the engraving "I Button Soil Hill Holmfield".

A row of clay pots sit by a wall. Isaac, smoking a pipe and wearing overalls, walks out of the workshop and looks up at the smoking factory chimney. Isaac puts his cap on and walks back into the workshop past pots of various shapes and sizes.

Title 2 - Mr. Button now runs this pottery alone, supplying the neighbourhood with farm and household vessels.

There are stacks of glazed bowels and chicken feeders in the workshop. Chickens in the farm yard eat and chickens drink from the feeders. A woman standing in a kitchen mixes ingredients together in a bowel. A man pours drink from the stopper of a potted vat into a potted tanker.

Title 3 - Until 1939 thirteen potters kept the kiln filled weekly.

Photograph of men outside the workshop next to rows of pots and an arrow identifying "Isaac Button, 1930."

A glazed pot JMR 1851. "19th Century Soil Hill Slipware".

A jug with painted words "From Mother Earth I claim my birth, I'm made a joke for men, Now Jam here, filled with good cheer, come take me if you can".

Title 4 - The three essential clays are dug from Soil Hill.

Using a shovel, Isaac cuts turf from the ground, He pats a cow in the field as he works and then digs the soil underneath the turn reaching the clay bellow.

Title 5- Red Clay for pots.

Isaac is making a pot on a potter's wheel.

Title 6 - Buff clay for slip.

A man lifts a pot with "slip liquid" inside and rotates it to cover the inside of the pot. He pours the excess into a bucket on the floor.

Title 7 - Refractory clay for the kiln.

Both the exterior of the kiln and the interior shelves are stacked with pots. Spinning cogs can be seen rotating.

Title 8 - The clay is mixed with water in a "blunger", passed through a sieve and run into a drying trough.

Isaac shovels clay into a "blunger," and inside a rotating whisk mixes the clay and water. The cogs of the blunger rotate. Isaac turns a tap on letting the clay and water flow into a rectangular sieve which moves from side to side through which the mixture is poured. Isaac smokes a pipe and shakes the sieve from side to side.

Title 9 - The kiln dries the clay.

Clay is spread over the flour in blocks.

There is a diagram indicating the location of the clay, flue and kiln. Arrows show the flow of heat as it passes through the kiln and out of the chimney.

The misshaped pieces of clay are removed with a shovel and stacked up. Cogs rotate, and the clay is mixed. Isaac puts the clay into the machine to be churned, and at the other end of the machine, a thick slab of clay is pushed out. In the workshop, slabs of clay are stacked up.

Title 10 - The clay "sours" for a month or two, and is then re-pugged.

Isaac puts the slabs of clay back into the mixing machine. A new slab is created, and Isaac uses a wire to cut the slab in half. He places a small piece of clay on to scales to weigh it and then begins to mould it with his hands placing it in a pile. Isaac places one of these clay balls onto the potter's wheel and moulds it by dipping his fingers into the slip and getting the clay in between his fingers giving it shape as it rotates. Finished pots are lined up on a plank of wood. Isaac separates the pot from the wheel with a wire, and another man puts it with the others on the plank of wood. Isaac makes more pots on the wheel in the same way, and they are taken to the plank of wood by the other man who lifts the plank filled with pots and takes it to the kiln. Several varieties of pots are stacked on the shelves in the kiln.

Isaac takes a larger piece of clay and builds a taller pot on the wheel. He runs a piece of card along the outside of the pot keeping his fingers inside, following the line of the pot upwards keeping the outside of the pot smooth. He removes it from the wheel by cutting it with wire.

Pots are lined up on planks outside and are rotated.

Title 11 - Isaac Button can throw a ton of clay into pots in a day.

Isaac weighs out the clay using a large set of scales. He shapes it into one small ball and one large ball. He lifts a large vat from one side of the workshop to the other. He makes a base out of the small ball of clay on the wheel and puts the larger ball on top and begins to mould it into a vat, smoothing the edges with the card and making a funnel at the top. He then cuts the vat from the wheel with wire and uses a crescent bracket to help him lift it to the work bench. Large pots with handles are lined up on the shelves in the kiln. Isaac breaks pieces of clay in to smaller sausage shapes, and with the slip, places the pieces of clay onto either side of a finished pot. He shapes them over the top to create a handle.

Title 12 - Some pots are slipped - coated with light coloured clay.

Slip is mixed in a blunger. Isaac pulls out a shelf of large pots and pours a little slip from a bucket into the pots. He takes one of the pots and turns it around to coat the inside with slip, pouring the excess in to the bucket. Vats and pots are line up in the kiln.

Title 13 - The dry pots are coated with glaze and packed into the kiln.

Isaac mixes the glaze with a plank inside the container then dips the pots inside to coat them. Isaac lights his pipe and then pours the glaze into a larger pot using a cup. He then pours the excess out before painting the rim of the pot in a different coloured glaze, making the top of the pot a different colour than the base.

Isaac takes a lid of one of the pots and turns it the other way around. Pots are stacked on shelves in the kiln. Groves are placed on top of each other creating a ledge so that Isaac can place a pot inside another pot. More groves are placed on top of that pot so that more pots can be stacked in the kiln. Isaac creates more shelves inside the kiln using slabs resting on small bricks.

Isaac places pots in the kiln, puts small pieces of clay on the side, and puts a slab on top and then another pot on top. Isaac fills up the kiln with pots and then places bricks in front of the archway before covering them, sealing them with clay, and smoothing it over with a trowel. The chimney from the kiln goes through the roof of the workshop.

Isaac lights the kindling in the furnace and places bricks in front of the hatch. He then places pieces of wood into the furnace to keep the fire going. Isaac wheels coal into the furnace room. Fire and smoke billow out of the furnace, and Isaac shovels coal into the furnace to keep the fire going.

Title 14 - Drying off overnight.

Smoke billows out of the chimney. Isaac locks up the workshop in the evening. He walks back to the workshop where the chimney is still smoking. Isaac opens up the workshop doors and goes to shovel coals into the furnace.

Title 15 - The six hearths take 50cwt of best coal.

Isaac shovels coal into the furnace and smoke billows out of the chimney.

Title 16 - 48 hours firing.

There is a shot of smoke and fire in the furnace and chimney. Isaac removes one of the bricks to check the fire. The thermostat reads 800 degrees.

Title 17 - A test is withdrawn from the top of the kiln.

Isaac stands on top of the roof looking into the kiln. The thermostat reads 1000.

Title 18 - 1000 C

Isaac places the brick back and covers it with clay to seal it.

Title 19 - The kiln is sealed and left to cool.

Isaac takes down the bricks from the archway with a trowel. He then takes the finished pots out of the kiln and places them in the workshop.

There is a shot of the workshop building and yard. Isaac leaves the workshop and looks up at the chimney.

Title 20 - The last potter on this ancient site?

Isaac walks back into the workshop. There is a scene of the workshop chimney cogs and machines inside, and outside the workshop, corn in the fields blows in the wind. The film closes with a shot of the surrounding countryside.

Title 21 - End

This film was made as a joint effort by photographer John Anderson and Robert Fournier, a founder member of the Craftsmen Potters Association. The two of them made several other pottery films, now with a pottery museum in Devon, with the original of this film deposited with the YFA. John recalls the story of making the film in detail in Ceramic Review and in the RPS Journal (References). Robert’s wife Sheila set the ball rolling by introducing John to Isaac Button in 1960, who he then photographed the following year. Then in the summer 1962 the two of them started filming, using a rather ancient Bell and Howell ‘Filmo’ which he had bought second hand in 1953. Robert, being something of a cineaste, wrote the script. This resulted in a ten minute film the following year which they hired out.

But on learning of the imminent retirement of Isaac Button they began work on making a longer film in the summer of 1964, made over a period of 4 or 5 weekends, and competed in 1965 on a budget of £200. Robert’s wife Sheila made the captions in Letraset. In his article Philip Stanbridge gives John as the cameraman and Robert as the director, but given John’s photographic expertise this doesn’t seem likely (References).

Over a period of 15 years about 40 copies were made, and later on, around 1982, this was followed up by some 80 VHS copies. It got seen around the world via the British Council. John also set up a postal video business, ‘Films for Potters’, which he ran until 2008 that sold and hired films. A collection of Anderson and Fournier films is held with the British Film Institute, and some with the Leach Pottery Studios and Museum in St Ives.

The film has been acclaimed by many, including, at the time, the magazine Film User which gave it an enthusiastic review. The art and craft historian, Tanya Harrod, has written that: “Anderson’s masterpiece was Isaac Button . . . an elegiac black and white film which in turn has been infuenced by inter-war British documentaries, like John Grierson’s Industrial Britain with its splendid dramataic shots of steel workers, potters and glass blowers caught close up in concentration and its serried ranks of dramatically lit pots.” (References, 1999). The Craft Potters Association, formed in 1956/7, published a booklet in 1970, Films on Craft Ceramics, listing films available at that time.

Robert Fournier was also an interesting character: a lifelong pacifist he was imprisoned during the Second World War for refusing to enlist and as bombs fell on London, he helped produce the prisoners' magazine. He taught pottery as well as making his own highly inventive ceramics, producing many illustrated books. The Sound Archive at the British Library has a recording of an interview with Robert from 2005 where he talks at length about Isaac Button and his work – remarking on him taking Isaac to the opera – and describing the making of this film. He went on to write several novels in retirement.

Evidence of pottery going back to preo-Roman times has been found in East Yorkshire and in groups of mainly rural potters at locations such as Crambeck near York. Wheel-made pottery took over during the Roman occupation, and then there seems to have been a break in pottery making after the Romans left until it took off again after the Norman invasion, when the practice of wheel-made pottery-making returned to Britain, introduced from Europe. In the medieval and post-medieval periods potteries became widespread in Yorkshire, especially in the vicinity of Ripon, notably medieval works at Winksley, Fountains and Sawley, and seventeenth-century works at Yearsley near Coxwold. There is also plenty of evidence for their existence in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries on meadow lands at Thorpe and Bondgate in Ripon (see the article by Richard Carlton, References).

But by 1900 there were only about 100 traditional potteries surviving, dwindling to less than a dozen by the end of the Second World War. Issac Button was therefore one of a dying breed. The pottery he worked at Soil Hill, an exposed windswept hillside by the Halifax-Denholme road at Ogden, north of Halifax, had existed since the 1760’s. It had originally been started by the Catherall family. His grandfather, a brickmaker (also an Isaac), bought the pottery in 1897 and re-built to a design, unusually a downdraft design for the kiln. Before the war it employed 13 men, and in 1943 it passed into the hands of Isaac and his brother, Arthur. However, the brothers fell out (John Anderson has this as 1954, although another source has it earlier) – after an argument they don’t speak to each other – and Isaac, being unable to find anyone willing to become an apprentice, worked it alone for the last 18 years (the story seems to have a biblical flavour). Recently an online blogger, who goes by the name of ‘soubriquet’, revisited the site and talked to two old men in the pub opposite who had known Isaac. He reports that: “Apparently, despite what John Windsor said, he lived there with his brother [Arthur], and they worked together, but following some argument, years ago they would not speak to each other. They'd talk volubly with others, but if asked anything that referred to the other, they'd say "Tha'll 'ave ter ask 'im, Ah dooant know".”

This was truly a herculian task, given all the work that was required: digging the clay from the local hillside himself (he used a ton a day); firing up the 500 cubic foot kiln, which had to be stoked with two and half tons of coal at six firemouths; this had to be kept him up for 48 hours or more at a time, during which, according to John Windsor, “he would climb on to the hot kiln roof, even in gales, to pull out test firings”. Despite all this he still managed to turn out, and deliver, 120 pots a day; and this using dangerous substances such the country glaze was galena toxic – lead sulphide (now illegal) – which could give potters "bellyache" if pulverised when dry. Yet, with his pipe, he looks so laid back in the film. Possibly the best account of Isaac’s work is that given by John Anderson in his book Making Pottery, but Philip Stanbridge also provides a good description (see References). For a more poetic description of Isaac at work see the collection of poems by Graham Mort, A Halifax Cider Jar, inspired by this film and which won an international poetry prize (References).

Mary Sara, one of the illustrators for A Halifax Cider Jar, along with many others, has remarked that in the 1950s and 1960s most people were buying modern made from plastic and metal and earthernware was out of fashion, only to return again later when the rustic look became popular again. But this renewed interest was due in part to people like Isaac Button. Also in his article, in the Independent from 1995, None of that fancy stuff, John Windsor states that: “The founders of British 20th century studio pottery - Bernard Leach, Michael Cardew and the Japanese Shoji Hamada - sought out the few remaining English country potters and copied their techniques. But their debt to them is often overlooked and English country pottery remains largely undiscovered.” But these later artist potters are not in the business of providing cheap wares for everyday use: a cider pot made by Michael Cardew is worth considerably more than the 28 shillings Isaac would get for his 28lb cider jars.

In his appreciation of Issac Button (Introduction to Mort, 1987), Barry Sheridan states that Button, “was the very last surviving local craftsman producing earthenware pottery in the domestic manner, and, when he retired in 1965, the industry died with him.” But this may not be quite right, as Richard Carlton claims that Littlethorpe, just outside Ripon, “is now the only surviving example of a British country pottery where production has been unbroken and whose working practices and technical appliances have remained essentially unchanged since the nineteenth century.”

The pottery at Soil Hill was bought by Donald Greenwood in 1968 – possibly sold to him unwittingly by Issac Button (see John Windsor) – who rented it to potter Peter Strong (later of Wetheriggs), who re-opened it for a while in the 1970s, with his wife Cynthia and Bob Hammond; but problems with the lease meant that this only lasted a couple of years (the YFA has a letter from Peter Strong to John Anderson, dated December 1976, detailing the restoration work on the buildings he was doing at that time). In 1980 the kiln, drying shed and chimney at Soil Hill Pottery, were Grade II listed. Later on in the 1980s the Friends of Soil Hill was set up by, among others, Rob Walker. This wanted to rebuild and rework the pottery incorporating a museum and educational facilities. To this end an auction of contemporary ceramics was held at Bonhams in London in 1988 which raised £15,0000. It isn’t clear at this time what has happened to this project. Today the buildings stand derelict and dilapidated.

After such a hard life, it might not be surprising that Isaac lived for only a few years, until 1969, after retiring in 1965, just six weeks after the completion of this film. But this didn’t mean that Isaac was always working: according to John Windsor he maintained that, “he never left a pub on the same day that he entered it.”

In the Independent, November 18th, 1995, John Windsor wrote:

"Isaac Button was a true English country potter. In a day, he could turn a ton of clay into pots. I timed him as he threw a lump of clay on to the wheel, pulled it high, then cut it off with wire: 22 seconds. In an hour, he could turn out 120 pots. In a day, 1,200.

Button's kiln, at Soil Hill, near Halifax, now lies cold and desolate. He died in 1969. But the 41-minute video that records his dexterity had me on the edge of my seat. In his day, speed was essential. Even before the packaging revolution, household pots and jugs made from clay were treated as disposables. They cost only a few pence. Craftsmen potters had to be quick to earn a living from poorly-paid villagers.

Unlike other mass-produced art, hand-thrown pots seem to look better the faster they are turned out. The potter's skill improves with practice - yet there is no time for pretentiousness. Hence the charm of English country pottery made for cooking, baking, brewing, storing, growing seedlings or feeding chickens.
The founders of British 20th century studio pottery - Bernard Leach, Michael Cardew and the Japanese Shoji Hamada - sought out the few remaining English country potters and copied their techniques. But their debt to them is often overlooked and English country pottery remains largely undiscovered. There are fewer than a dozen collectors, few textbooks and no national collection. By contrast, the Japanese prize our country pottery, as do American folk art enthusiasts.

On 29 November, the first private collection of English country pottery to come to auction is at Bonhams - 85 lots discovered over 20 years by the artist-designers Peter Highley and Ruth Scott-Walton in markets and shops, in particular where the last country potteries clung on: Cornwall, north Devon, Dorset and Yorkshire.
Mr Highley defined its appeal: "The old country potters did not think of themselves as artists. But there is a purity and an honesty in their work that is sometimes missing from more refined contemporary studio ceramics."
By 1900 England had only 100 country potteries and by the end of the depression a mere dozen. There has been a pottery at Soil Hill since the 17th century. Before the war it employed 13 men. After that, Button could find no more apprentices and worked it alone for 18 years.

Most of the pots in the sale are "slipware", slip being creamy white diluted clay. Red earthenware was either dipped in it or decorated with it. The country glaze was galena, toxic lead sulphide, now illegal, that gave potters "bellyache" if they pulverised it when dry.

There are some Victorian remnants from Soil Hill in the sale: three bulbous jugs with cream slip interiors are estimated pounds 80-pounds 140 the lot. At the turn of the century, few earthenware cooking utensils cost more than 7d - pounds 1.60 today. In 1964, Button's 28lb cider jars cost 28s - pounds 14 today.
Button's strength and endurance were Herculean. The ton of clay he could pot in a day he dug himself from the hillside. Each firing of his 500 cubic foot kiln had to be stoked with two and half tons of coal at six firemouths. That kept him up for 48 hours or more at a time, during which he would climb on to the hot kiln roof, even in gales, to pull out test firings.

Once he had emptied the kiln he would begin barrowing to the wheel blocks of clay that he had processed: first blunged (mixed with water), sieved, dried on a stone floor heated by the kiln and twice pugged (compressed); all the time he smoked his pipe.

Button did, somehow, find leisure time, maintaining that he never left a pub on the same day that he entered it.
Bernard Leach, the father of British studio pottery, sought him out, wanting to know how much grog (gritty bits) he added to the clay of his "bigware". The dry Yorkshireman told him: "I have enough trouble gettin' t' bloody stuff out wi'out puttin' it in."

Me Again: Some years ago I wandered over the land at soil hill, picking up broken shards. The buildings are dilapidated, on a bleak hillside. In the pub opposite I found two old men who had known Isaac, and talked about him, the way he would stride down the hill at the end of the day, ready for a long session of ale.

Apparently, despite what John Windsor said, he lived there with his brother, and they worked together, but following some argument, years ago they would not speak to each other. They'd talk volubly with others, but if asked anything that referred to the other, they'd say "Tha'll 'ave ter ask 'im, Ah dooant knaw".

The brother died first, Isaac kept on until 1965, when ill health forced him to retire, he died in 1969, last of an era.

In pubs and cottages around, you'll see his pots, often regarded as just old things of no real value, though the antiques market has in fact seen a sharp rise in values, especially of marked pots clearly attributable to Isaac. He'd have laughed and shaken his head, "Dooant be daft, They's nobbut clay".

This is how Soil Hill Pottery Looks Today:

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