The many friends of artist John ffrench, in Ireland, the United States, and around the world, will have heard the news of his death on Friday (January 22 ) at the age of 81, with a deep sense of loss.
Not only was he one of Ireland’s finest contemporary ceramic artists, but he was a man of exceptional personal qualities. Possessing warmth, kindness, and gift for friendship, as well as an almost old-fashioned sense of courtesy, he was also, like Chaucer’s Clerk of Oxford, a gifted teacher, “and gladly would he teach and gladly learn”. Anyone who knew him will miss so much his delightful smile and hearty laugh, his sometimes impish sense of humour, and, perhaps above all, his passion for life and his love of beauty.
Although born in Dublin, he grew up at Castleffrench near Ahascragh, Ballinasloe. His first formal schooling in art was at the National College of Art in Dublin. After he had completed his studies he decided to specialise in ceramics, which was not taught at the college at that time. So he went to Florence where he attended the Instituto Statale D'Arte for almost three years, after which he worked as an apprentice in the Brogi Studio for a further four years.
Many years ago, when I first got to know John, he told me what a marvellous experience it was to study in this wonderful city.
"I studied the history of art, and what was so wonderful was that so many of the things the professors would talk about were literally around the corner. I worked in a little studio belonging to a Florentine potter and learned from him. The Instituto Statale was a wonderful school because it was really established for the children of the different art guild members in Florence. Every sort of art was taught - weaving, block-printing, gold-smithing and silversmithing."
As he grew in both skill and confidence he began sending pieces back to Ireland to Victor Waddington, who at that time had the most important and influential gallery in Dublin, and the only one who had international connections. When he eventually returned to Ireland, John worked with Peter Brennan at the Ring Ceramic Studio in Kilkenny for a few years before going back to Florence. At that point he received an invitation to go to India by an organisation that had been inspired by the ideal of Mahatma Gandhi, that villages ought to be as self-sufficient as possible - although he later admitted he had learned more than he had taught. He eventually spent three years in India and exhibited work in The West Bengal Design Centre in Calcutta.
Back in Ireland he returned to Kilkenny, working again with Peter Brennan. Unfortunately Victor Waddington decided to sell his Dublin studio, which immediately created an enormous gap for potters who wished to exhibit their work. However John was fortunate in being able to exhibit his work in Switzers and Brown Thomas. At that stage another bit of good fortune came his way when he was offered a job in Arklow by Bill Walsh, who was then the head of Coras Trachtala, and there helped establish the famous Arklow Pottery Studio.
In 1969 John was offered a teaching position at the Berkshire Hills School in Great Barrington, Massachussetts, where he taught ceramics and textile design. So he and Primm, his wife, also a fine artist, moved to the United States, and settled in the lovely New England town of Stockbridge, where they raised their three daughters, Felicitas, Crispina, and Sofia. There he founded The Dolphin Studios, and from it came over the years the beautiful calendars, each month illustrated with an original silk-screen print, designed initially by John and Primm, but as their family grew, eventually including prints by other members of the family.
John retired from teaching in the early 1990s, and in the years that followed continued to work and exhibit both in the United States and Ireland. In 2007 the Craft Council of Ireland honoured this pioneer of contemporary ceramics with a major retrospective exhibition in Kilkenny, A Life of Colour - John ffrench, Irish ceramic Artist, A Retrospective Exhibition 1951-2007.
I first came to know John and Primm after he bought a house not far from where I live in Kinvara, and their return each summer, from June to late August, became one of the quiet pleasures to which I looked forward. You could always tell when he was back in residence because you would see him bent over or kneeling to weed his lovely garden or bed plants. Over many years I came to value John as one of the most remarkable people I knew. His conversation was wide-ranging, full of delightful anecdotes, and passionate. A life-long liberal, he was absolutely thrilled with the election of Barack Obama.
Colour was the keynote of John ffrench’s work – bold primary colours. There was much talk locally after he painted the roof of the studio next to his house a bright canary yellow, and it became a kind of reference point in the area – “You take the turn after the yellow roof”, I remember someone saying. And his pots, dishes, ceramic wall-hangings, batiks and silk-screen works (these last taught to him by Primm ) are a delight to the eye. Influenced by Miro, Matisse and the cubist paintings of Braque and Picasso, during the 1950s some critics failed to appreciate his decisive modernism. The great Myles na Gopaleen once described some of his pieces as ‘tortured ashtrays at three guineas apiece’.
John ffrench’s work was imbued with the wisdom of the true ‘maker’, in its original sense of "one who makes, fashions, constructs". I remember when I interviewed him for an exhibition at Kennys in 1997, I read to him something written by the art critic Brian Keeble - "To make something by hand is a slow process, it requires commitment, patience, aptitude and skill such as is only gained over a long period of gradual mastery, during which the character of the maker is also formed."
John ffrench was a fine artist and very special person. It was a privilege to know him, and his wife Primm. I shall miss him deeply, as will all those who were touched by him during his long and productive life.