Clay history unearthed

Clay Technology magazine
13 Feb 2017

Ancient clay dug up from underneath London Bridge railway station has inspired a new series of artworks. Natalie Daniels explains.

Believed to be around 54 million years old, 360kg of clay found 30m beneath one of London’s busiest stations has been described as ‘having huge value in terms of its potential and with endless streams of inspiration’ by an artist using its history to create contemporary art.

Alison Cooke, a member of the Associated Clay Workers Union (ACWU), UK, was first inspired to start work using the clay having witnessed a Costain piling machine drilling up earth while on a tour of the Thameslink construction site at London Bridge run by Network Rail. ‘I thought it would be great to use clay from the site to make ceramics based on the rail network and the history of the area, with the intention to exhibit the finished pieces above the place the clay was excavated from. I enjoyed taking a material laid millions of years ago and collapsing history by bringing it into the present,’ said Cook. 

The batch of clay was shared with several fellow members of the ACWU to create ceramic works as contemporary art that reference the railway and the history of London Bridge. According to the group, the clay, known as London blue, is challenging to work with, as it is prone to cracking, bloating and discolouration and requires time-consuming processing. ‘The step-by-step process from spoil into workable clay is very basic but extremely lengthy and messy. First I soaked the clay/spoil in water for a couple of weeks. I broke it up into a smooth sludge, pushing it through a fine sieve to form liquid clay. I then dried it out on a plaster batt and wedged it through, ready for use. The team used various techniques, including slab building, coiling, press moulding, pinching, throwing and extruding.’ Resembling properties of a low firing earthenware clay, the designers controlled and formed the molten clay by under-firing, over-firing, melting and all the degrees in between to change its colour and texture. 

Inspiration and reflection 

The collection of clay pieces reflected the extreme differences of what was happening above and below ground. ‘On the surface at the station, there is constant change, noise and movement. But, below ground where the clay had sat, it was still, quiet, dark – nothing happened. As far as I am aware, the only changes to happen in millions of years was the temperature of repeated global warmings, coolings and ice ages.’ Cooke took inspiration from these extreme differences, taking simple visual elements of the current rail network and firing them through different stages of melting, under-and over-firing.  

Cooke was keen to use as much of the clay and waste as little as possible. ‘I couldn’t throw any of the clay away. I recycled every bit and kept all the stones and pebbles that were sieved out during processing and made casts of them. I had a bucket of thick sludge that wouldn’t go through the sieve when processing. I fired some of it, which partly exploded, but have kept the rest.’ 

Knowing the clay’s origin and historical links to the site proved to be of great importance to Cooke. ‘The Thameslink redevelopment was a window of opportunity to access a remarkable clay. Now a concrete-clad polystyrene tower fills the 30 metres above the site where the clay was excavated, making it is no longer accessible. So although it’s still just a lump of earth/spoil, to me it has huge significance as it is no longer available.’

The ceramic works were displayed at Southwark Cathedral from 9 January to 5 February 2017.

Brexit 'n' clay 

Natalie Daniels speaks to Jo Pearl, fellow artist of Alison Cooke and also a member of the Assiciated Clay Workers Union, UK

What inspired your work?

The inspiration for the votive feet artwork came from a 1st Century AD Roman foot-shaped oil lamp found by archaeologists during the preparation stages of the London Bridge Station refurbishment. I began researching Roman votive offerings, visiting the Wellcome Foundation exhibition where there are lots of Roman ceramic votive offerings on display of various body parts. 

The third foot was made the morning after the EU referendum on 23rd June 2016. This one shows a foot with a gunshot wound through it, expressing my view that we have shot ourselves in the foot with Brexit. Two toes, one representing Scotland, the other Northern Ireland, have been snipped off, signifying my fears for the breakup of the UK. 

What were the benefits of using this clay?

Its provenance was its particular benefit, as it gave resonance to the work. Site-specific work often has added relevance and authenticity if it is made with local materials. The universal nature of man’s access to clay for making ceramics, part of a heritage stretching back thousands of years, is a message that it is important to make, particularly in a digital age. 

Did its age make it more difficult to work with?

Yes, the clay was very sticky to work with. It also took a long time to dry and had a tendency to crack in the kiln. We embraced this as part of its charm and authenticity.