An appreciation by Marianne Brown

BILL Brown, respected ceramics designer and teacher, has died at the age of 68 following a short illness.

He was an expert in his craft and gained international recognition for his knowledge of slip-casting and transfer printing. As Head of Ceramic Design at Glasgow School of Art in its final years, he unwillingly became “the last ‘real’ expert” still teaching ceramics in Scotland, according to former colleague Ian Pirie, before the department closed in 2011. It was the last single degree-level programme in ceramics left in Scotland’s art schools.

Born in Voe, Shetland, in February 1951, Bill was the second child of popular shopkeepers Maggie and John Brown. He left the islands when he was 18 to do a four-year diploma at Gray’s School of Art, Aberdeen, becoming the first in his family to attend higher education. He specialised in ceramics and, along with Pirie, was selected for a scholarship to do a post-graduate diploma.

Their external examiner was none other than David Leach, the eldest son of the famous potter Bernard Leach. The younger Leach was so impressed with their work he recommended they apply to join the elite Craftsmen Potters’ Association in London. They were accepted and became the first makers from Scotland to gain membership.

Bill spent the rest of the 1970s and early 1980s running a succession of potteries in Aberdeenshire and teaching part-time at Gray’s. He married my mother, Anna, and had two daughters, my sister Sunni and myself. In 1984 he left his young family and moved to North Berwick, near Edinburgh, transporting a hut from outside their small cottage in Monyroads to the backyard of ceramicist Dave Cohen. He taught part-time at Glasgow School of Art, with Cohen and Archie McCall, and at Cumbria School of Art. In 1991 he left the hut, which was by then rather damp and layered with plaster dust and cigarette ash, and moved to Glasgow to take up a full-time lecturing job at GSA.

Archie McCall, who became Bill’s predecessor as Head of Ceramics at GSA, writes: “Those who worked with him were impressed by his fierce intellect, deep knowledge and mastery of language, often including self-deprecation or a wry punchline, timed to perfection. He worked tirelessly helping students from all parts of the art school, usually long into the evenings. His advice, though often reserved for the very last minutes of any review, was always the most positive, practical and succinct, even if a gentle ‘well, I might sleep on that idea if I were you’ summed up everything there was to say.”

Bill’s teaching and research took him to many countries including Iceland, Norway, Estonia, Hungary, Malta, Russia, the United States and Australia. Although his own work explored the use of transfer printing and other industrial processes in the context of studio crafts, his interests and expertise extended to archaeological projects with the University of Glasgow, ranging from Neolithic digs on Orkney to the recreation of pots from moulds retrieved from the site of the famous Bell’s pottery in Glasgow.

He also had an excellent ear for languages and music. He was fluent in Norweigan and German, and loved playing the fiddle – in particular Swedish folk tunes.

The year 2011 marked a new phase of his life, though not at first a good one. After investing decades of his life into GSA, the closure of the ceramics department left him deeply disappointed. Archie McCall recalls: “One of his most telling comments prior to the closure of the department at GSA in 2011 was simply: ‘I don’t believe that the human race spent millions of years evolving opposable thumbs just to text message!’.”

At this time Dad’s second marriage, to Marjorie Fernie, broke down. But ever the optimist, he started making plans: a return to his native Shetland as an independent ceramics designer. The move, which he finally made in 2013, did not dampen his interest in travel and he took the chance to work with former student Sue Mifsud, who was pottery manager of the heritage pottery Ceramika Maltija in Malta at the time.

“He was the lecturer with the softly spoken voice and approachable manner and never became impatient with students,” Mifsud recalls. She invited him to give a series of lectures and workshops and to start rejuvenating the pottery’s moulds. “The pottery is still running today with much of its success due to Bill’s hard work, skill and creativity,” she says.

When back on home soil, Billbuilt a custom-made workshop and, later, a house on a croft owned by his grandparents in Voe, Shetland. On one side the croft overlooks the house in which he was born, and on the other side the view reaches across the bay to the graveyard where his parents are buried and indeed the plot where he himself would be interred.

With typical pragmatism and poetic flair, he used the ruins of his grandparents’ ‘but and ben’ as a sheltered spot to grow kale and fruit bushes, and experimented with local clay and soapstone, which he collected himself. His work played on Shetland’s culture and natural heritage – not to mention his acute observational skills and dry wit – and was in high demand at local galleries. He fell in love with art lecturer Sólveig Aðalsteinsdóttir, and was the happiest me and my sister had seen him for many years.

Tragically, he did not have long to enjoy this stage of his life. After being diagnosed with lung cancer in October 2019, his health deteriorated rapidly and he died at home on February 3, a few weeks before his 69th birthday.

Dad described ceramics as a “timeless material”, outliving the maker and subject to re-interpretation by every successive generation.

“The things we make have different meanings, the communities of makers have different places in society and a craft that is ‘high art’ in one time and place can be the lowliest of manual work in another,” he said. “Whatever we make now may well be around in a couple of thousand years’ time and will inevitably gain status in the process. Potters do have the last laugh.”

Bill will be remembered not only as a talented artist and teacher, but also as a loving father and grandfather, who was very proud of his family.

He is survived by Sólveig Aðalsteinsdóttir, his two daughters, and three grandchildren.