A freewheeling account of life in the pottery business

Warrior Spirit- Stephen Pearce

Spirit Design (a Stephen Pearce company), €40

The East Cork potter Stephen Pearce made his name a top Irish brand, employed hundreds, spouted thousands, opened businesses, saw key ones crash to earth, and is bouncing back yet again, approaching the age of 70.

Pearce has just written his book about it all, from a bohemian childhood through a rock-and-roll youth to a middle-age designing a bed-linen range for SuperValu.

Mostly autobiography, partly a ‘potted’ history of the Shanagarry Pottery founded by his father, Philip, 60 year ago, it’s a smorgasbord of ideas and images.

Pearce was given a free-spirited childhood, courtesy of his mother, Lucy and, crucially, a formative period spent in the so-called Peckham Experiment in London: like the Jesuits’ line ‘give us the child and we’ll give you the man’, it explains much of his unfettered personality. Pearce is no shy, retiring flower: the expression ‘attention-seeking’ is understating it.

Second-generation in a business he threw himself into, his artistry and ambition attracted admirers and acolytes, but with a personality so big, brash and unable to do modesty — or even false modesty — he’s had almost as many detractors and begrudgers, or just those who couldn’t work with him in business.

He crossed swords with planners, and bishops and banks. But, Warrior Spirit?... not sure it’s a title designed to lure in the ambivalent. Yet, with so many life battles fought, including a very painful empire crash and a bruising receivership, it’s almost understandable why he stuck, and is struck with, the title.

Craft-wise, he produced and maintained signature collections of pottery, filling the wedding-lists of a generation.

Add in off-centre circles of overlapping friends, rollercoaster rides of business ideas and ventures through four decades, from a ‘Shanagarry Set’ base, and there’s loads to digest, and disagree with.

Among the celebrations, there’s a measure of regret and reflection here from a man not afraid to admit to feet of clay, but with a fast-spinning mind. Stephen Pearce did raise the bar for craft, and craft shops; his Paul Street shop-venture fostered urban renewal in Cork City’s neglected Huguenot Quarter.

A strong presence in Cork, and crafts, since the 1980s, Pearce’s output and input fills this 270-page read, best digested in smaller doses (and pity there’s no index.) He had the choice of 7,500 quality images, thanks to a long friendship with the late photographer, Kevin Dunne: this could be seen as their last collaboration.

However, the many glossy images almost skew this mixed-bag book towards catalogue; Pearce’s own biography is plenty colourful enough — but where do you draw the line between the potter and his pottery?

* Available www.stephenpearce.com, SP pottery retailers, or €30 at his Shanagarry pottery


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