Design Moment: Arklow Studio Pottery, ca 1962
BT’s ffrench collection was ‘tortured ashtrays at three guineas apiece’, according to Flann O’Brien
A hanging wall plaque from John ffrench’s Arklow Studio Pottery
If you’ve a fixed image in your head of 20th-century Irish pottery being oatmeal coloured and unappealingly chunky, then the work of John ffrench (1928-2010) will come as a revelation. The hanging wall plaque pictured is from Arklow Studio Pottery, which the Dubliner founded in 1962 when a growing realisation had taken hold that there needed to be an emphasis on design to make Irish products more internationally saleable.
ffrench grew up at Castleffrench near Ahascragh, Ballinasloe, and was educated at the NCAD and in Italy, where he stayed until the mid-1950s. He was influenced by Italian modernism as well as Miro, Matisse and Picasso but also from his extensive travels which included India where he spent three years living and producing ceramics.
This plaque is typical of his work – if you can say anything is typical because he was so prolific over his long working life – in that it is colourful, playful, and almost sculptural with its bird, berry and tree imagery. ffrench made plates, bowls, wall plaques and all sort of vessels, some practical but most decorative. His work was sold by the Waddington Gallery in Dublin, where it was viewed as “art pottery” and exhibited in the same way as painting and sculpture. Indeed his work is now in the permanent collection of the Crawford Gallery and the National Museum. He moved to the US towards the end of the 1960s where he continued working, setting up Dolphin Studios.
ffrench's work at home was not always critically acclaimed. After a sell-out exhibition of his ceramics in Brown Thomas – the shop was, in the 1950s and 1960s, a supporter of Irish crafts – Flann O’Brien described ffrench’s collection as “tortured ashtrays at three guineas apiece”.