Sean Hetterley, artist
The following text celebrates Sean Hetterley’s contributions to the much-lauded Pottery Party. It is adapted from an catalogue text by John Vernon Lord from an exhibition of Sean’s work held in 1989.
The Pottery Party was one of the few annual social events at Grand Parade that managed to survive from the old Brighton Art School days. The entrepreneurial Charles Bone, the Lecturer in charge of pottery in the NDD days and Coordinator of the Certificate course in Industrial Ceramics, invented it in the 1970s. In the early 1960s it was always something of a privilege to be invited to this special occasion but, by the late 1980s, tickets were sold on a ‘first come first served’ basis.
Just at the end of term before the Christmas vacation the seasonal gathering of students and staff took place in the unrecognisable pottery workshop: pots, slips, glazes and clay seemed to have miraculously disappeared and somehow the throwing wheels, pug mills and work tables also managed to vanish into thin air. Apart from the serving of good food, and the occasional drink among the convivial atmosphere of mirth and dancing, one of the most delightful features of the party was always the murals.
The immaculately groomed Charles Bone, with a sharply pointed beard perched on the end of his chin, instigated and orchestrated many of the earlier murals in the 1960s and 1970s. Among the memorable themes set for the murals in those days were Gangsters, Classical World and Farmyard Frolics. Luther Roberts, Lawrence Sandy, Peter Strausfeld and predominantly Gary Turner were among the colleagues who lent a helping hand.
One artist who got involved (‘sliding into it under the skirts of others’) was Sean Hetterley, a lecturer in the Department of Three-Dimensional Design. He started to take a prominent role in 1981 when the theme of the murals was The Old Masters, with Sean paying homage to Pieter Brueghel the Elder in his painting of The Blind Leading the Blind. Here, the meaning behind the allegory was thinly disguised as we recognised the identity and sequence of familiar colleagues blindly following the other into the ditch. Walt Disney followed in 1982. Sean’s Cruft’s Dog Showof 1983 caused something of a stir at the time with its blatant symbolism giving inference to the foibles of staff. The honours degree in Wood, Metal, Ceramics and Plastics (WMPC) had been running then for about ten years and was undergoing some change. Perturbed about some aspects of the course, Sean expressed his personal aggravation pictorially by bringing in departmental issues. The mild-mannered caricatures of former days now gave way to mischievous satire. Cruft’s Dog Show upset a lot of people and even the lampooning of such august bodies as the CNAA (the Council for National Academic Awards) and EDU (the Educational Development Unit) caused some considerable resentment among sundry circles.
King Arthur’s Court followed in 1984 and in these paintings was visible a turgid grey self-portrait of the artist, who was going through a bleak period at the time. Life brightened up for him in the following year when he got a great deal of pleasure in executing Alice in Wonderland, with David Vaughan (the WMPC Course Leader) appearing as a flock of flamingos as well as a tea-pot spout. In the painting Colin Matthews roundly sat upon the wall as Humpty Dumpty and the artist himself was represented as a dodo – not because he felt extinct or was unable to adapt to change, but to bring in some of the current research he had been carrying out on this dumpy flightless bird. Dear old Luther Roberts appeared as the vanishing Cheshire cat following his debilitating illness. This year also marked the awarding of toads on plinths for fancy dress prizes and Gwyther Irwin (Head of Fine Art) threatening that he didn’t intend going to the party any more because he never appeared in the murals.
Sean considered his Neptune’s Palace to be his best Pottery Party series. These were produced in a last minute panic in the December of 1986 when illness had struck the artist. The paintings involved over sixty portraits and, rising from his sick bed, the ailing but undeterred Sean worked night and day clad in perspiring pyjamas. Neptune’s Palace caused least offence but we hear that the desperate Colin Matthews (then Foundation Workshop Technician, fed up with always seeing himself depicted as an egg, bubble or balloon) enquired in anguished tone whether he was ever going to be shown as a real human being instead of an innocuous nothing-at-all.
The fancy dress theme in 1987 was Symphony in Black and White and upon the walls was hung Sean’s painting of the Pottery Proms Orchestra with a plethora of David Vaughans. Notice was taken of Colin’s heart-cry, as he became almost a real human being at last; this time as a percussion player (but also as drumstick heads, with another portrait of him reflected in a shining cymbal).
The Pottery party murals provided Sean Hetterley with an opportunity to make pointed statements and they were one of the ways of articulating his thoughts about the way the WMPC course was going. Like the jester, who used to reveal home truths to the court in a veiled and more palatable manner by means of parody, Sean hoped that his murals offered a less painful and forthright way of telling people what he thought about their actions. Upon arrival at the party we were apprehensive of seeing ourselves as victims of the artist’s savage brush. But the dread of being held up to scorn was no worse a fate than the more terrible prospect of having been left out of the mural altogether. We all wanted to be included but dreaded the consequences. We laughed when we saw a particular colleague lampooned in the mural but were shocked to see any savage attack on our own physiognomy or actions. Some of us pondered with quiet satisfaction at the artist’s daring portrayal of someone in one corner of the wall, only to find ourselves a target in the other. Topical issues were ridiculed and current feelings in the Faculty satirised.
Sean Hetterley’s murals were worth more than a casual glance; they were part of the fabric of the Faculty. He made a point of thoroughly researching the themes for his murals and he hoped that viewers grasped the literary allusions and intended parodies incorporated in them. It was important for him to achieve a likeness in the portraits and most of them were initially drawn from memory, following the general habit of closely observing colleagues’ features and mannerisms. He carried out sheets of preliminary drawings from memory, and then looked for the opportunity to recheck the individual ‘victim’ for idiosyncratic proportions and any other distinguishing characteristics. The murals were done three weeks before the party, using emulsion paint on brown parcel wrapping paper: the smaller ones measured 2 x 3 feet and the larger ones 30 x 8 feet.