Robert Hesketh talks to Somerset animal pottery artist Sue Masters at her Somerton home

PUBLISHED: 20:03 14 January 2010 | UPDATED: 15:00 20 February 2013

Duck with crackle glaze

Duck with crackle glaze

A new chapter opened for Somerset-born Sue Masters 16 years ago when she began pottery evening classes in Wells. Encouraged by her tutor, she commandeered the garden shed to work in and house her first electric kiln. At first, potting was a hobby,...

Robert Hesketh talks to Somerset animal pottery artist Sue Masters at her Somerton home

"My interest in clay goes back to when I was a child in Chilcompton," smiles Sue. "I loved shaping mud pies as most kids did then, and always enjoyed making other things, especially clothes. But when I left school, I did something quite different and trained in institutional management. Then my two children came along and management went by the wayside. I don't miss it at all.

"I remember the excitement when I first sold some of my work from a little antiques/collectables shop in Wells. After that, I just wanted to make more, and I haven't stopped since. It's become my love and my full-time career."

Sue found more outlets. Sales increased, commissions came and she had photographs of her work included in books on decorating ceramics, which all gave her the confidence to develop her skills further. She became an associate member of the Somerset Guild of Craftsmen , then a full member in 2002.

"Being largely self-taught has meant that sometimes I haven't done things in the accepted way, but this has helped me develop my distinctive style"

"Being in the Somerset Guild stimulated interest in my work. I've enjoyed being part of the Guild and exhibiting with them at their gallery in Somerton. I'd recommend it to other makers as a way to get their work to a wider audience."

Sue sometimes makes bowls, plates and garden features, but her consuming interest lies in modelling clay animals. Her earliest animal subjects were cows and she went on to model bulls, cats, hares, foxes, ducks and geese. Dogs, notably basset hounds and pointers, are a particular favourite, as are horses.

"Last year, I was lucky enough to have one of my models, a white pony, selected for a book, '500 Animals in Clay' . He was based on a tubby, bad-tempered pony we had as children called Gaytime. When you tried to mount him, he'd either bite your backside or kick out, landing a hefty blow!"

Animals in motion particularly fascinate Sue. George Stubbs, the English artist who specialised in painting galloping horses, has been an inspiration. Sue finds living close to the beautiful Somerset countryside where she grew up a great help. She and her husband often go for walks with their two dogs, taking photographs of animals and collecting ideas for future projects.

Inspiration comes from diverse sources; walks in the countryside and visits to local agricultural events spark ideas, as do photographs from colour magazines and old books. Sue's hare, which has the humour and individuality characteristic of all her work, was suggested by illustrations in a children's storybook. She also gets requests from customers to model particular animals. As the subjects won't sit still, photographs are indispensable.

Although close to the centre of Wells, Sue's home feels like it's in the country, being surrounded by two acres of grounds, part of the former 'Strawberry Line'. Foxes, badgers and a large variety of birds have made their homes amid the trees. We walk across the garden to the airy, sunlit pottery studio where her ideas take shape.

The first stage, Sue explains, involves making the model by hand with potters' fettling tools and takes several days. Making plaster of Paris moulds both preserves the original design and enables her to reproduce the model. A large animal like the hare has to be moulded in several sections. Allowing for drying times, the whole mould-making process takes more than a week.

As for glazes, Sue likes to ring the changes. Her crackle glaze is the most popular and suits the animals. Once completed, the model is fired twice. Sue's latest kiln is computer-controlled and gives very accurate temperature control, 1050C for her earthenware models.

Another technique is smoke firing. "That's great fun. I biscuit fire at a lower temperature, 950C, so that the clay is softer. After preparing the work with slip, foil paper, etc, I place the animal on bricks within a container, cover with wood shavings and paper. Next, I set fire to it and put a lid on the container, so the smoke percolates around the ceramic. When everything's cooled down, the animal is washed with water and finished with a variety of waxes."

"There's a big element of trial and error in pottery. Being largely self-taught has meant that sometimes I haven't done things in the accepted way, but this has helped me develop my distinctive style. But, after all these years, there's still plenty to learn."

Feedback from customers and students is always encouraging. "I look forward to having students from the Blue School, the local comprehensive, who join me for part of their GCSE and 'A' Level coursework. It's really rewarding to get e-mails from customers too, when they say they love a piece and tell me the name they've given it. Recently, I had an American lady buy a hare from a local gallery. She travelled all the way back from Maidenhead the next day to get me to write a message on the underside." BY ROBERT HESKETH

Sue's work can be seen at several outlets including Alcove , Wells; Somerset Guild of Craftsmen , Somerton; Clavelshay Barn , North Petherton, and at Yandles' 303 Gallery , Martock. For further information call 01749 673547 or visit

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