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The secret talent of Norfolk artist Robin Welch

PUBLISHED: 10:19 26 March 2012

An exhibition of work by Robin Welch at Wymondham Arts Centre

An exhibition of work by Robin Welch at Wymondham Arts Centre

Archant Norfolk Photographic © 2012

Despite having pieces in the collections of Norwich Castle and the V&A, Robin Welch remains one of the region's best kept secrets. IAN COLLINS reports.

otter, print-maker and painter Robin Welch has been building an international reputation while working at an isolated Norfolk farmhouse for the past 46 years.

And yet, despite many shows, notably at Holt’s Bircham Gallery, and prized pieces lodging everywhere from Norwich Castle and the Victoria and Albert Museum to the private collection of Sir David Attenborough, one of creative East Anglia’s best players is also somehow still one of our best-kept secrets.

Maybe it’s because we don’t take pottery seriously enough. If rebranded as clay sculpture its prices would appear incredibly cheap.

Now 75, and in his artistic prime, Robin Welch is set to launch Wymondham Arts Centre’s 2012 programme with a bold, bright and big solo show of 40 pots and nearly 30 pictures.

Studying as a painter and sculptor in Cornwall from the age of 15, and then at London’s Central School of Art in the late 1950s, he gradually focused his ideas on abstract art towards ceramics after a spell with pioneering potter Bernard Leach in St Ives.

In London, inspired by an exhibition for the great American abstract expressionist Mark Rothko, he set up a first workshop in 1960. Three years later he had emigrated to Australia and another three years on found him moving to East Anglia with his ceramicist wife Jenny Knowland, and the couple have been based near Diss ever since.

They set up a cottage industry in an ancient barn, producing domestic ware with several assistants and winning major export orders to America. But the enterprise was gradually sunk by exchange rate issues, transport costs and, most of all, by Jenny’s having to give up pottery altogether due to neck and back problems.

Robin has continued to carve out a singular career, with related prints, paintings and very sculptural pots.

The baked earth, bright light and brilliant colours of Australia remain an abiding influence in pots which are thrown, hand-built and fired, often repeatedly, in an oil kiln.

The rugged surfaces of his ceramics are adorned with brush strokes of slip, glaze or enamel colour and created alongside gritty paintings where the pigment may be mixed with sand.

Hence the linking to desert landscapes of the Outback, and also of the Jordan he visited during national service with the parachute regiment.

Trained first as a painter and then as a potter, he always felt it natural to put the two together - most especially in formal installations of clay and pigment.

“There’s no divide between art and craft,” he says. “You decide to be an artist and you’ll use anything - if marooned on a desert island you’d use driftwood.”

Often outsized, his art reached a peak in a series of monumental candlesticks for Lincoln Cathedral fitting well with vast medieval masonry.

Time was when he went into his workshop at 6am and stayed there until 10pm. Now he likes to start after a leisurely breakfast. But he is drawing on decades of experience to work probably better than ever, though he claims that his phases of inspired productivity and inaction are getting longer. “When it’s all going well the days just fly by.”

Robin Welch absolutely wouldn’t, of course.

Artists don’t retire.

Happily the pots and pictures are still on a roll.

■ The Potter and The Painter, the solo exhibition by Robin Welch is at Wymondham Arts Centre, Becket’s Chapel, Church Street, Wymondham, March 24-April 15, Mon-Sat 10am-5pm, Sun 12pm-5pm, free admission, www.wymondhamarts.com

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