|Born in Uganda in 1946 to Danish parents, Svend Bayer spent his childhood in Tanganyika. At 10 Bayer went to boarding school then aged 15, he and his three siblings returned with their parents to Denmark. After his parents separation Bayer was sent to boarding school in England. His interrupted schooling (Bayer went to six different schools in four different countries between 1956-62) made it necessary for him to reduce the number of subjects he studied. The choices he made led to him study Geography & Economics (neither of which particularly interested him) at Exeter University from 1965-68.
It was during his time at university that Bayer discovered pottery, and a gift from his girlfriend of Bernard Leachís A Potters Book introduced him to the pots of Michael Cardew. Over their summer break he and his girlfriend hitchhiked to Cardewís pottery, Wenford Bridge in North Cornwall. The place was empty for the summer but Bayer recalls it being an incredibly romantic place, smelling of wood smoke, redolent of his childhood in Africa.
On leaving university Bayer wrote to Cardew, and after being invited for an interview, was taken on. Bayer has described going to Wenford Bridge as like coming home and Cardew, although sometimes quick tempered and difficult to approach, as the perfect teacher. It was not what could be called a proper apprenticeship. Bayer kept his head down and got on with it, teaching himself, but Wenford Bridge was a great place to learn. With Cardew's encouragement and generosity, allowing Bayer space in his kiln to fire his big, badly thrown pots, his natural abilities soon became apparent. Six months at Brannamís (a traditional pottery in North Devon) followed, before Bayer left the West Country for the Far East.
He spent a year travelling through Japan, South Korea and Southeast Asia researching wood kilns and visiting potteries where huge storage jars were produced in their thousands. These huge jars and enormous kilns struck a chord with Bayer and his desire to work on a big scale was confirmed. He liked the lack of pretension and simple technology employed by the village potteries; it has affected how he works ever since. His favourite pot is a big Martaban jar (so called because of the town in Burma through which they were exported) held by the Princessehof Museum in the Netherlands.
After his travels in Asia, Bayer and his friend and fellow Cardew apprentice, Todd Piker, set up Cornwall Bridge Pottery in Connecticut, USA, building a 600 cu ft. kiln. A year later, in 1975, Bayer returned to England and settled in Sheepwash, North Devon. The area was chosen because of its proximity to the ball clay deposits of North Devon and a sustainable source of wood to fire his large kilns. He has a love of kiln building and has built over 14, from Wales to Australia, all based on designs discovered during his time in Asia. I love the shape of a good kiln every bit as much as that of a good pot. For me their beauty is as important as their function. Fortunately the two things seem to be related.
Bayer took inspiration from the village potteries in Southeast Asia, streamlining their practices and using his focus and determination to produce pots at high speed to fill his huge kiln. His aim was to make lots of functional pots and sell them cheaply - so people would use them and return to buy more when they broke them.
He still makes functional pots for eating and drinking - rich Kaki glaze teapots, intimate Shino beakers, large bellied jugs unglazed on the outside with beautiful blue Chun inside and storage jars with rounded lids that echo the shape of the body. But it is Bayerís undeniable skill at throwing majestic garden pots, many over 70cm high, that sets him apart from many other potters. He describes himself, first and foremost, as a thrower and particularly enjoys producing his big jars. The kiln packing requires concentration and he enjoys the repetitive neatness of wood splitting and stacking.
Firing with wood, particularly in this protracted Anagama style, is costly and time consuming. There can be huge losses; an entire kiln full of pots can be ruined by a mistake made in the last few minutes of the firing. But it produces dramatic results that cannot be achieved through any other firing processes.
Bayerís pots have a story to tell, each side showing something more, something new with each viewing. He packs his kiln symmetrically to take full advantage of the intense changes in atmosphere that occur during firing. Oxidisation on the side of the pot that faces the kiln wall produces subtle changes to the glaze, but the side facing the fire is changed dramatically. Shino moves from soft white to rich shades of grey. Glassy, green drips and runs of glaze show where melted ash has flowed over the potís surface. Celadon changes from a cool grey to a stunning blue Chun, highlighted by flecks of yellow and the ashing on Kaki glaze jars can be blue, green, red and yellow. During the firing pots sometimes explode, showering shards over their neighbours, the shells used for support in the kiln becoming decorative scars.
His pots have a power, a presence that runs all the way from the giant jars to the smallest of bowls. Bayer believes a good pot should reveal something about its maker, that we should look for the same qualities in a pot as we do in a person.
His work is held in major collections worldwide. He has received the John Ruskin award, held workshops all over the world and had residencies in America & Australia.