Derry ceramic artist Tom easing off the potter's wheel after 50 years

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A Derry artist who has earned a reputation for the quality of his workmanship and the distinctive style he has developed with his ceramic pieces is easing off his potter’s wheel after five decades.

In that time, Tom Agnew has created thousands of functional pieces such as cups, plates and lamps which can today be found in homes right across the globe. He has also completed and installed public artworks across the north.

And next week people will have the chance to own some of his pieces themselves as he is having a Retirement Sale at St Augustine’s Hall (next to Society Street car park) in Derry city centre.

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Born in Limavady and raised in Maghera, Tom is the son of prominent solicitor and republican Kevin Agnew, who was a central figure in the establishment and progression of the Civil Rights movement here.

Tom Agnew.Tom Agnew.
Tom Agnew.

In his teenage years, the savvy young artist decided that he ‘wanted to be an eternal student for as long as I could’ and so remained at Art College in Belfast from 1968 to 1974.

"It was a rough time I suppose,” he said. “Belfast was not the safest place to be at that time, but then after my six years at college I and two others got recruited to come to Derry to work for a Swedish company, Tilgman. They were brought here from Sweden by LEDU – it was an attempt at job creation and employed about 70-80 young people.”

Tom, by this stage already married to nurse Angela and a young father, wasn’t exactly impressed when he arrived into Derry city. “I arrived into Derry on a wet day this month 50 years ago. I thought ‘what the hell am I doing here?’ I came in along the quay, it was grey, it was desolate looking – it’s transformed now. Back then I was 24, married, had Dan [son], and we got settled.

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But the job as a production thrower on the potter’s wheel at the Springtown Industrial Estate-based company lasted less than two years as the company folded. In that time though Tom had honed his skills under the expertise of “phenomenal” Danish ceramicist Aage Fihl who has been posted to Derry as the plant gates closed Tom took a major punt on a huge purchase.

Tom Agnew's sculpture at Grangewood Hospital in Gransha.Tom Agnew's sculpture at Grangewood Hospital in Gransha.
Tom Agnew's sculpture at Grangewood Hospital in Gransha.

“They were selling off equipment and I bought a Danish kiln which weighed maybe four or five tonnes. I had an aunt who loaned me money to buy that. It was about £3,000. She was sharp and she said ‘Tom is that not a bit like buying an aeroplane when you don’t have a runway’. She was dead right.”

He may have found himself the owner of a massive kiln with nowhere to operate it but for a friendship struck up previously. “I had no runway but I had a friend, Anne McGill, who was studying architecture at the time and her family had this old Mill outside their farm in Donemana. She always had this idea of turning it into an arts centre which didn’t happen. I went down and had a look – it was a former water-powered flax mill and I went to see her dad and moved in in 1976. I’ve been there ever since. I think he probably thought I’d be there for six months!”

It was daunting, he admits, starting out of his own with a young family to support, as the family grew to include a daughter, Bonnie, but within six months he had produced products he was happy with.

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"Northern Ireland wasn’t exactly a cultural hub at that time so I turned my attention to the Republic. We had a hard border of course at that stage. There was a bit of a resurgence of craft appreciation in the south so I would have gone to a big annual trade fair at the RDS and from there I succeeded in doing business with the Kilkenny Design group. That was a government run initiative at that time and their outlet was outside Trinity, and you’d have the tourist coaches all lined up and that was a fantastic outlet for me. It was the cornerstone of the business for 20 years but you always had that worry about all your eggs in one basket.”

Tom's workshop in Donemana where he has been based for five decades.Tom's workshop in Donemana where he has been based for five decades.
Tom's workshop in Donemana where he has been based for five decades.

Back then Tom’s output was strictly functional: lamps, cups, saucers, dinner plates, mugs etc and he had developed his own range, which proved very popular. On the back of this, he ended up employing a few other people. “We never made any money though,” he said, despite doing whatever deliveries he could himself in his trusty Volvo Estate.

"The longest trip we ever did was to Aillwee Caves in The Burren, County Clare. Had a cup of coffee and drove all the way back to Derry. That’s the thing about craft I suppose it takes you to beautiful places around the country.”

He admits those first 20 years was “hard work, heavy work” trying to make a living from his art.

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Developing his own style and experimenting with ideas has been important to Tom, and he was inspired in his student days by the work of Japanese aesthetics and Bernard Leach ‘less is more’ approach.

One of Tom's lamps.One of Tom's lamps.
One of Tom's lamps.

The old mill by the River Dennett has served Tom well and he expresses gratitude to his landlords for his long tenure there.

He said that while it could be very cold in winter, it came into its own in summer time. “It was a, lovely place to be based.”

But beyond the timeless serenity of the mill, by the mid-90s the industry itself, like so many others at the time and since was changing rapidly, impacted by cheap imports flooding in from abroad, and Tom decided, wisely as it so happened, to act early and change course.

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"I had a wee period of reinvention. I was thinking of a different path. I thought, maybe I’ll tidy it up make it look more attractive, possibly run some classes for people who are interested, and I did do all of that but I actually didn’t like it. I liked it to be my patch.”

During his ‘time out’ Tom was far from idle and created a stunning garden at the Mill, which was then featured on the BBC series ‘Secret Garden’. And after talking with a friend from the Arts Council he pivoted and successfully secured public art commissions. His first commission was with ‘Reimaging Communities’ and one of the largest he did was creating eight panels for the Peace Wall on the Lower Newtonards Road in the Short Strand area of Belfast.

"That was daunting because these projects were on a scale I had never had any experience of. I had a bit of a relationship developed with a really good tiler and he installed the work for me and then I eventually installed the work myself."

Tom with an exhibition piece.Tom with an exhibition piece.
Tom with an exhibition piece.

And so for the first time ever, Tom said, he started getting properly paid for the work.

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One of his most stunning works was also his final piece- a depiction of St Columba in a boat with the Peace bridge incorporated which is located near the entrance to Grangewood Hospital in Gransha.

Tom has also been part of the artists’ collective Number 19 which came out of the City of Culture year back in 2013 and which has its own shop in the Craft Village. He plans to continue working there with the other artists for another couple of months.

“It’s a good system for crafts people because there is no middle man. You get what you are content with price-wise for your work and we all play ‘X’ per month for rent, rates and overheads and whatever you sell is yours. It’s a good model and it seems to be happening in a lot of places now.”

The equipment from the mill has now found a new lease of life in the homes and workshops of the next generation of potters.

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"As to the future, I hope to do some printmaking and work on my golf, which is a big passion, and a bit of gardening too.

The Retirement Sale will include a wide variety of pieces for sale ‘at attractive prices’ and Tom has urged everyone to come along. “I look forward to seeing you!” he said.

*The Tom Agnew Retirement Sale will be held at St Augustine’s Hall from Friday June 21 to Tuesday June 25 from 11am to 5pm daily (Sunday, June 23 from 1pm to 5pm).

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