Elizabeth Macneal of Limehouse Ceramics makes by hand a variety of mugs, vases, little dishes, teacups and tumblers in pale clays, painted in blue green glazes in elegant geometric patterns. Her pieces are simple with a quiet beauty, and do exactly what a good ceramic should do: they are both pleasing to look at and invite you to use them. And so I went to find out more about her work.
From the moment I stepped into Elizabeth’s house, I was completely captivated. Tea was made and drunk out of her beautiful Zigzag Mugs. And she spoke about her ceramic business with the kind of enthusiasm that leaves you feeling invigorated, and with the certainty that she truly loves what she does. She says she loves the notion of taking a piece of earth and making it into something which you can use, and I completely agree with her. Picking up and using any one of her pieces fills me with a sense of accomplishment; this is something that has been created by hand, lovingly crafted and cared for, and made to be used.
Elizabeth is relatively new to pottery, and I loved speaking to her about jumping into the very exciting and slightly daunting world of becoming self-employed and starting up her own business.
After graduating, Elizabeth worked in management consultancy for five years, and 18 months ago, she decided it was time to pick up a creative hobby. She took a pottery class for two hours a week, for ten weeks and in these classes learned the very basics of pottery. She says she always looked forward to these classes immensely, and each class was a great contrast with her day job in project management. After, she joined Turning Earth studio for a month and as her making improved, she decided to take the leap and set up her own studio at home. In June this year she made her first sale, and since then her business has been going from strength to strength. She currently sells at fairs and from her website and also takes commissions.
Elizabeth showed me her studio where she makes her pottery, and it really is a place of daydreams. Her studio sits at the end of her garden, a single room with pull back french windows along the front, and in pride of place sits her potters wheel. Her kiln (which often reaches 1240 degrees) is, quite amazingly, plugged into the mains at the wall. Shelves on one wall hold clay, glazes and ceramics waiting to move onto the next phase of their journey.
When I visited, the floor was covered with identical bowls drying out (they need to be ‘leather hard’ before they can be trimmed, this take about a day), other bowls waiting to become ‘bone dry’ (this takes around two weeks) before they can be biscuit fired for 24 hours, and others ceramics waiting to be glazed.
Elizabeth really enjoys the making process and is often up and in her studio throwing clay (I love this expression) by 6am. Her favourite part is the trimming, which is when a piece really starts to come together and attains its individual ‘look’. She is not as keen on glazing, and her husband often ends up doing this part! It can be solitary work and she tends to listen to either audiobooks (nothing too heavy, it’s hard to concentrate fully on both, Ian Rankin is in favour at the moment) or 70s music. And she does wear a face mask as too much clay dust is not so good for the lungs over a long period of time – she says she sometimes wonders what the neighbours must think!
For me it is perhaps one of the most rewarding sights, observing the work of a maker in progress, beginning to understand the different stages of the making process and the dedication and skill that goes into hand-crafting each and every one of these beautiful creations.
Her designs are very organic – so far she has been experimenting and often just thinking ‘why don’t I try that’, and seeing how things look as she goes. Often mishaps in design occur, a mug which ended up as a vase, a glaze that pooled in an unexpected way. There are designs that she has personally loved, which have not sold and others which were unexpectedly popular – she is completely sold out of her teacups and is currently in the process of making many more. She keeps all her the pieces that have ‘gone wrong’ and has an assortment of playful pieces which have ended up as vases, or other fun decorative items, although these mishaps are now occurring less and less.
At the moment she is mainly using two clays, a white clay and a speckled clay. She also uses liquid black clay as a ‘slip’ – masking tape and wax are both used to create her geometric designs, keeping slip or glaze in the correct place, so that it does not run.
Each piece has the subtle Limehouse Ceramics stamp on the bottom, and she can also add ‘bespoke’ stamps – perhaps a name or a message, which I think are really great as I like the idea of a message on the base of a mug or bowl – it’s there for those in the know.
Her favourite pieces are her Bee Dishes – the bee is made from gold leaf, and her mugs – particularly as she gets to use these every day. She is also making a unicorn Christmas decoration, for the Atheist.
Elizabeth really enjoys the sales and marketing side of her work, meeting and speaking with and getting to know her customers. At first she had the feeling of ‘do they really want my ceramics’ but now, and perhaps with confidence grown from the wonderful reaction she has had, she loves selling her ceramics at fairs. And they really are special. I think in Elizabeth’s case she has the perfect combination of a beautiful product and a genuine passion for her art which she enjoys talking about.
Elizabeth also writes. Having studied English at Oxford, she is currently taking an MA in Creative Writing at UEA and spends half the week in Norwich where she is renting a tiny 18th Century cottage with a log fire (I am only a tiny bit jealous). She signed with a literary agency 3 years ago, and used to get up at 5am before work to write – and now she has more time is using it to pursue both her passion for writing and her budding ceramics business.
I have to admit I am a little in awe (she hopes people don’t think of her as a mad artisan), I think she is completely marvellous. The energy and enthusiasm with which she speaks and the obvious time and effort she is putting into her work really show that moving away from a desk job can be a reality, not just a distant dream. It was a real treat spending time with Elizabeth talking about her work and seeing her pieces, and definitely do go along and see her at a fair soon – the next ones she is showing at are the Crafty Fox Market in Brixton on December 4th, Independent Ceramics Market in Dalston on December 4th and Crafty Fox Market in Museum of London Docklands on December 8th.
Have a look at Elizabeth’s work here Limehouse Ceramics