The Yorkshire potter who found a fan in 007

Holmfirth potter James Oughtibridge.
Holmfirth potter James Oughtibridge.

Holmfirth potter James Oughtibridge tells Sarah Freeman how the work created in his West Yorkshire studio caught the eye of James Bond. Pictures by Christian Barnett and Ben Boswell.

It was on screen for just a few seconds, but it was long enough for James Oughtibridge. While the rest of the audience who sat down to watch Spectre were mostly concentrating on Daniel Craig, the Holmfirth potter had his eyes firmly glued to the background. He was watching to see whether his series of giant pots had made the cut. They had, although it turned out to be quite a tiny cameo. “They’re there in Madeleine Swann’s apartment in the Austrian Alps. You catch just the briefest glimpse of them, but they are definitely there,” says James of his 007 claim to fame.

The vessels which made an appearance in Spectre.

The vessels which made an appearance in Spectre.

“It all came about because a woman from the props department at Pinewood Studios had seen some of my work at the Contemporary Ceramics Centre in London and then quite out of the blue I got a call to say they were potentially interested in commissioning some pieces for James Bond.

“That’s not the kind of call you get every day and it’s not the kind of call you say no to. They had already commissioned a glass artist and wanted some ceramics to sit alongside, so I quickly created a 3ft-fired sample based on their designs and sent it off to the film studios the following week.”

A few days later there was another call from Pinewood, this time to say James had been successful, but there was just one problem – he had just four weeks to build, refine, dry and fire five big vessels, the tallest of which would be just under 5ft high.

“There was no room for mistakes and certainly no time to make any spares as a back-up. The pieces were gingerly placed in the kiln when they were still damp and were fired over three days. No matter how skilled you are as a potter, once they are in the kiln it’s out of your control. It’s always a bit of a nervous time, but that was totally nerve-wracking. I don’t think I slept at all.”

When James was finally able to open the kiln, his vessels were intact and their brief appearance on the big screen may secure more high-profile work for the potter who grew up in Wakefield.

“Art was always my thing, but we never had the chance to do ceramics. I’m pretty sure there was a room with a kiln in it, but it had been turned into a store room. There was definitely no firing going on. I first got my hands on a slab of clay at Dewsbury Art College where we were taught the basics of making coil pots. I pretty much fell in love with it right there.”

James says his passion for pots was ignited by tutor David Roberts, a ceramicist who is world- renowned for a technique that originated in Japan’s ancient tea ceremony.

“I think what I loved is that clay is the most wonderfully malleable material which you can instantly begin to shape into a vessel. I got my first break while I was still at college when I got a commission as part of the Hebden Bridge Arts Trail. I was still a teenager but suddenly I had work which was on public display and that really spurred me on.”

Buoyed by his success, James was persuaded to apply for a masters at the Royal College of Art, but his career at the potter’s wheel was almost derailed before the initial interview had come to an end.

“At that age I thought I knew everything, but I was incredibly naive. I’d gone down to London and I was sat in front of a panel of these incredible artists, including Martin Smith, who specialises in ceramics and who has staged exhibitions all over the world. At the end they asked if I had any questions and I thought: ‘Right, I better ask them something’ and the next thing I knew I could hear the words ‘So do you get any professional artists in to teach?’

“They would have been well within their rights to have frogmarched me out of that room right there and then. One of them did kindly try to save me from myself, by suggesting that I’d meant did they get any guest lecturers, but as I came home I honestly thought I’d blown it.”

He hadn’t. James’s interview, while not a masterclass in how to win friends and influence people, impressed the RCA enough to offer him a place and he soon found himself heading back to London. “They basically tore me apart before they built me back up, but that’s exactly what I needed. I told them I wanted to do large-scale works, but they said no and told me to come back with some more ideas.

“That’s when I really started working on the potter’s wheel which is great for coming up with ideas quickly. I began making large-scale outdoor seating which was inspired by the Yorkshire Sculpture Park and in particular the Hepworth sculptures. People seemed to love it and the landscape artist Diarmuid Gavin bought a couple. He was working on Home Front at the time, so it was a bit of a coup.”

After graduating from the RCA, James, who will be among a number of potters taking part in Ceramic Art York next week, stayed on in London, but in 2005 decided to return to the North with his wife.

“Neither of us had any direct link to Holmfirth, but we had a friend living here and we knew it was quite an artistic place to be. I’ve got my own studio here and as well as making these large-scale vessels I also run workshops so that other people can have a go.”

James says that ceramics in general is enjoying a renaissance as an art form and TV programmes like The Great Pottery Throw Down have opened it up to the wider public. The BBC2 show, which borrowed the format of The Great British Bake Off, saw 10 amateur potters compete and the series was eventually won by Giggleswick School art teacher Matthew Wilcock.

“I thought it was great and I did see a spike in inquiries when it was on,” says James. “I think people are put off having a go at ceramics because it’s hard to set up on your own, but there are lots of professional studios who run classes and which are willing to rent out some kiln time.

“Really it’s just about getting a lump of clay and having a go. I still don’t design anything on paper, I just work the clay and see what I can come up with and it’s a technique which seems to have worked OK so far.

“A lot of potters who make a living out of their work employ staff to help them get the vessels out, but it’s just me here. That’s the way I like it. It might mean things take a bit longer, but unless it’s for James Bond you can’t rush a good pot.”

Ceramic Art York runs from September 9 to 11 at the city’s Museum Gardens. For more details go to ceramicartyork.org.