David Rhys Jones

David Rhys Jones Cross by David Rhys Jones somerset House by by David Rhys Jones
keystones by by David Rhys Jones
spitalsfield sculpture by David Rhys Jones

David Rhys Jones sees himself as a detached observer of the modern metropolis. He makes work in a range of media, but is best known for his ceramic sculptures transfer printed with evocative photographic images taken during journeys through particular landscapes. They may include architectural details, anonymous figures or graphic material like signage and house numbers, and they all convey a strong sense of place and historic atmosphere.


What attracted you to ceramics?

About 15 years ago I made some animal-shaped egg cups which I showed to a friend who in turn showed them to a buyer at Liberty. She said that if I had them made she would be able to sell them so I did some research and realised that I need to learn more about the whole process and about clay. I started doing evening classes at Pimlico Pottery and that was when I just got hooked on ceramics. I’m not obsessed by clay as a material in the way some ‘earthy’ potters are but I love it for its possibilities and the fact that it’s such a versatile medium. Around 80% of my work is now ceramic but I also use a range of different materials – metals, plastic, wood, paper and textiles. I use whatever is most appropriate for the work and sometimes combine materials.

What inspires your work?

I am attracted to architecture and history and like the idea of recording the past. Layers of history interest me and I like the idea that you can ‘read’ a building and see what’s happened to it over the years. For example, the ground floor of a building can be a curry house with a plastic frontage, but if you look up you might see a blue plaque recording the building’s 18th-century history. I do quite a lot of research into an area and like referencing its history in the work, so for my Spitalfields series I printed the images onto silk in an echo of the area’s history as a silk-weaving centre.

Your work is inspired by a series of journeys around quite specific locations such as Spitalfields or Bloomsbury, what attracts you to these areas?

I am drawn to a particular area because of its atmosphere or psycho-geography - I mean the continuing presence of something that’s happened there in the past. For example, for my Bloomsbury Journey, I did a journey in Sussex along the path that Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell walked along every day while they were decorating the Berwick Church and I loved the feeling that people had been walking along that same path for hundreds of years.

There are two separate sides to your work, the images and the forms they are applied to. Which comes first?

When I was doing my ceramics diploma, my work was much concerned with surface patterning – I was working with plate and vase shapes - but when I started my MA (at Central St Martin’s) I was encouraged to think more about form and my work became more sculptural. Now the image and ceramic form are both equally important.

My work is journey-based and on these journeys I take a series of photographs which I then edit to see which one means the most to me, at the same time I work out which form is most appropriate to the image. Sometimes the form comes first and I have to go back to find a suitable image for a certain shape. When I did my commission for St Mary-at-Lambeth which is now the Garden Museum, I chose a seedpod form to reference the gardens theme and then applied the images.

How do you apply the images to the forms?

I use a relatively new technology which involves printing finely milled ceramic pigments on to waterslide decal paper using a converted laser photocopier. You end up with a very thin layer of tissue which you can apply to the unfired ceramic form and then when you fire it, the pigments sink into the glaze and become part of it. The end result’s like a piece of two-hundred year old blue and white china as the colours will never fade because they are printed using ceramic pigments and not inks. It also means the images are photographic quality. Previously this type of effect could only have been achieved by using at least six different silk screens which is both time-consuming and expensive – this is much quicker and more cost effective.

Have you ever considered leaving you photographs as flat images?

I do make things which are just flat photographs, for example, sometimes I print on to silk, but I never take photographs just to frame them. I always want to do something else with them like applying them to metal or ceramic or using them in artists’ books. I like the process of taking a 2-dimensional picture of a 3D object and then turning into back into a 3-dimensional object – I think it makes you look at the original photograph in a different way.

How interested are you in doing commissioned work?

I am interested in commissions as you always learn something in the process. There’s always some form of compromise with a commission as you have to take so many different considerations like health and safety into account, but my MA was in design and design is all about problem solving so I feel comfortable with that process. I also enjoy the challenge of a commission and, as long as I have enough time to do some self-directed work, am very happy working to commission.

Some of your recent commissions have required you to scale up your work considerably; how easy has this process been?

It’s quite interesting to see what happens to the work when you scale it up. For the public art sculpture for Bishop’s Square Spitalfields I had to make forms which were 3 metres long when I had been more used to making work 20 cm long. The images become a bit more abstract when scaled up and I like the way they seem a bit mysterious and difficult to read – I wanted people to be curious about them. I also covered one side of the piece with polished stainless steel so it would reflect the image of a street on the facing piece - when people walk between the two pieces they get reflected with the street scene and become part of the sculpture.

Interview by Diana Woolf