Potted history of a Hampstead family business
Piers Plowright wanders down memory lane... or rather Well Walk in Hampstead, recalling its iconic pottery shop
31 May, 2018 — By Piers Plowright
Piers Plowright outside Well Walk Pottery
FOR 35 years, from 1978 to 2013, the Plowright family gazed out of their front windows at the Well Walk Pottery – proprietor, potter, instrument-maker, and stained glass artist – on the corner of Willow and Gayton Roads. A chaotic and brilliantly coloured place, whose front door notice was a hopeless guide to what went on inside: SHUT often meant OPEN and vice versa.
Growing up in Hampstead in the 1940s and 50s, I knew the shop as a general grocery store, Sidney Spall & Sons. Mr Spall wore a brown coat and stood behind the counter, a slightly daunting presence. I’m not quite sure when it closed, but in the early 50s, the Magarshack family bought it and moved in.
David, the father, had come to Britain from Riga in 1920, and made his living translating from the Russian – particularly Dostoevsky and Gogol – and writing biographies of Chekhov and Pushkin; Elsie, his Yorkshire-born wife, was the centre of everything: helping David with his translations, running the house, feeding the cat, and looking after the four children.
Christopher was the youngest, and not academic like the others. Elsie saw that his talent lay in his hands and so the pottery was born.
Matilda Moreton inside the shop
Living across the road from it was like watching a soap opera co-written by David Lynch and Anton Chekhov. A father and two sons, bearded and in white Tolstoyan smocks, could sometimes be seen through the living room window, a samovar on the go, in deep conversation with Elsie – now Queen dowager, since David had died in 1977; clouds of children with or without parents would go in to learn to pot from Chris, and sometimes the French family – his older brother was a professor in Paris – would arrive with lots of luggage like Madam Ranavskaya and entourage coming home in The Cherry Orchard.
There were little dramas: a drunk man throwing a stone through the pottery window in February 1989 in protest against the Salman Rushdie fatwa, Chris coming out to fight him and both of them being taken away in a police car; Lisa, the endlessly patient Italian woman who kept the place going when Elsie got ill, coming over for help because Chris had thrown away the front door keys; parties that began quietly and ended noisily with games of Pass the Parcel, and someone playing the impressive French-built harp that dominated the salon – Chris had taken lessons from the great Marie Goosens. And, increasingly, a ring at our door bell as he came over with a letter or a bill to decipher – he was dyslexic before people know what to do about it.
Elsie was my favourite. Looking like Tenniel’s drawing of the White Queen, her hair escaping from pins, she was practical and strong-minded. When she died, just short of her 100th birthday, in 1999, the house and pottery began to fall apart.
Stella, Chris’s painter sister, did her best, and Lisa was ever-faithful, but the centre had gone.
The lessons dwindled, dust settled on the kiln, and the SHUT notice was up almost permanently. Chris became ill and not really in the real world, though he could be “fired up” to make individual commissions in clay and stained-glass, and appeared at the Gayton Festival until about three years ago.
He died this January and I’ve no idea how old he was – he always looked ancient and Russian and bearded.
End of an era? Yes, but the start of another. When I walked into the “shop” a week ago, the notice showed OPEN – and meant it, the place was clean and shining, and full of pottery. And Matilda Moreton, ceramicist and one of the new pottery teachers, showed me round.
The place is open for business again, run by Finsbury Park-based Clay Time Pottery. I think the ghosts of Chris, and Elsie, and many departed potters, would rejoice.
• For enquiries about lessons and exhibitions go to www.claytime.london or email at email@example.com or call 0203 441 8787.