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Big Interview: Potter Tom Knowles-Jackson’s life changed after the BBC Throw Down

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Written by: Aled Thomas | Posted 05 January 2016 7:28

Big Interview: Potter Tom Knowles-Jackson’s life changed after the BBC Throw Down

Tom Knowles-Jackson, right at the end of our interview, mentions courage.

After speaking with real love and passion about pottery for 30 minutes, one of the finalists – and undoubted stars – of BBC TV’s show The Great Pottery Throw Down said: “This is what I want to do. If I have the opportunity, and courage, then this is what I’ll do with my life.”

If his love for the art form is anything to go by I have no doubt he’ll succeed – and I don’t much doubt his fortitude.

While Tom’s enjoyment of messing around with clay goes back to his schooldays, it’s actually only quite recently that he started taking it seriously.

Tom said: “I was at boarding school in Bristol aged about seven and I was given a piece of clay by my mother.

“I was obsessed by rugby at that age, so I made all these rugby figurines.

“Then I was lucky enough to go to a school in Dorset where there was a great art department and a brilliant teacher. I did art at A-level and I barely touched any paper, it was all 3-D art. But I’d decided I was going to join the Army so I forgot about pottery for some time.”

After joining the Light Infantry in the late 1990s, which merged with the Glorious Glosters to become The Rifles, Tom served in countries including Germany, Cyprus and Iraq, “all the fun places and some not so fun,” he said, before leaving after 10 years.

He and his wife have two boys and two girls aged between 14 and eight. They lived in the Middle East before moving to St Chloe’s, near Stroud, about four years ago.

Tom said: “I suppose we moved back right to the heart of Rifle country. I’d bought a kiln and wheel when I was in the Army but I hadn’t done much more than make a few beer mugs and christening presents. I’d never had the opportunity to set up a studio before we moved here.

“Minchinhampton Rugby Club was raising money for a new clubhouse. My kids play there and I’m a coach and I thought I’d make tankards to sell.

“I thought I’d sell 10 or 20 for a tenner apiece and we’d make some money. But as soon as I’d offered them I had 200 tankards to make and I placed the club’s badge on the front.”

And then came the moment that might have changed Tom’s life.

He was working – as he still does – as a business consultant, particularly helping companies find and enter markets in the Middle East, when he saw an advert on social media for The Great Pottery Throw Down.

He said: “It said ‘we’re going to do a pottery-style bake-off’ and I was taking a pause in my professional life and I thought ‘it’s now or never’.”

One of the things that always strikes me about programmes like The Great Pottery Throw Down or the Great British Bake Off is how close the contestants seem to become. They’re competing, and presumably hoping that someone else gets voted off, yet they seem to become good friends.

Tom said: “I know it sounds like a horrible cliche but all 10 of us became like brothers and sisters. We were from a diverse background and I took so much inspiration from them all – there’s not one of them I wouldn’t have Christmas dinner with.

“We had some long days, sometimes we’d finish a task at 3am and that stress, and those hard days and long days, and a shared common bond, which is a passion for the material, really brought us together.

“That was underplayed a little bit on the TV show because they want to increase the competition element but all 10 of us are in a What’s App group and there must be 20 messages a day and it’s hilarious.

“We’re all meeting up in North Wales and we’ve all got together a couple of times already since making the programme.”

When it comes to the competitive element of the programme, Tom said: “I must admit I wondered how it was going to work. I’m pretty competitive in my life but that’s the one area I’m not. I wouldn’t dream of putting my pot against that of another maker.

“When I entered I didn’t dream of winning and didn’t dream of getting into the final. I just wanted to stay in as far as I could – I wanted to learn more and try out the techniques.

“We had a little inkling of what the final challenge was going to be and I was desperate to get my hands on some porcelain and try making a tea set.

“But as time went on you can’t not start to look at what you’re doing and what the others are doing – but the main pressure I put on myself was to stay in the competition.

“As we got closer to the final I thought about winning but with Matthew having won Star Potter so many times it felt like we were going to have to do something special if he wasn’t going to win.”

After about five minutes after programmes like this and the Great British Bake Off finish you forget the winner. I predict that won’t happen with Throw Down’s winner Matthew Wilcock.

At 23, with long red hair in dreadlocks, Matthew is the son of two ceramics teachers and is a teacher of pottery at Giggleswick School in Yorkshire. As if that’s not enough he’s made the brave sartorial decision, for someone who works with spinning wet mud, to wear a three-piece suit and tie, often a bow tie, every day, even at the wheel.

Tom speaks of him with real affection and admiration: “That’s not bravado, that’s just the way he is. And I said on the programme he’s got slip [a wet clay used in pottery] in his veins.

“That comes from his parents, I suppose, but the breadth and depth of his knowledge was amazing and the passion he had for his craft was inspiring.”

But Tom fully deserved his place in the Throw Down final – he was consistently praised as one of the most technically adept of the 10 potters in the competition, especially at ‘throwing’ pots on the wheel.

But, he says he learned exactly how much he didn’t know: “I went in as a thrower and it was good to hear I’m a good thrower.

“But now I’m doing a sort of very part-time apprenticeship for a potter called Paul Jessop, who pots at Barrington Court in Somerset. I’m throwing 27 pie dishes at a time for him – and doing that shows me what being a thrower is.”

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