The best of Dorset in words and pictures

Dorset Lives

Brian Moore talks to ceramic sculptor, Ian Gregory, about his wide and varied career

From city boy to Dorset countryman, via art-school student, film stuntman, TV star, painter, author and internationally-acclaimed ceramic sculptor, Ian Gregory’s life has been well worth the living and, according to this quiet and semi-reclusive, multi-talented man, there’s more to come. In his home, on the southern slopes of Bulbarrow, he tells his story.

‘I was born in London in 1942, where my earliest memories, apart from family recollections, are of the odd V2 rocket landing thereabouts, and of the sound of the siren calling Londoners to take cover. In reality I recall very little of the Blitz, or of the war years, being only three years and three months old on VE day. However, as the years passed, the immense damage caused by the bombing was obvious to any child with good eyesight and an enquiring mind; those early images may have impacted on my future thinking and direction.’

Ian Gregory in his showroom at Lower Ansty

Ian Gregory in his showroom at Lower Ansty

Ian Gregory’s father was an engineer, his mother a professional rower, a career she forsook when Ian and his brother came along. After primary school, Ian went to Southend Grammar, which proved a huge positive in his life. It was while there that he developed a feel for art, especially landscape painting. ‘I think that my leaning toward the arts was inherited from my great-grandfather, John Derby,’ Ian posits, ‘he was an accomplished Spanish artist who gained some positive acclaim after painting the Frescoes in Buckingham Palace.’

At eighteen he was accepted by St Martin’s School of Art, a fine-arts college in London. As he recalls, ‘to help pay my way I applied for a job as a stuntman for films and the burgeoning TV programme-making market.’ He had found a niche in which he was happy. Acting came next, with Ian taking several leading roles in films, both in this country and in Hollywood; the spin-off from the acting was a record contract and, Ian remembers, ‘I had several hit records in the early 1960s.’

This chest of drawers, which Ian made for his daughter, was one of his first ceramic sculptures

This chest of drawers, which Ian made for his daughter, was one of his first ceramic sculptures

While under contract to the BBC and ATV Ian also worked in the theatre, which now seems like another life, a life that gave him the financial security to buy a cottage in North Dorset, near Sixpenny Handley, where he stayed for three years before moving to Lower Ansty, which he now regards as home and where he has been able to express himself as an artist and create ceramic sculptures of the world that surrounds him. As Ian puts it: ‘The dogs, birds, people and inanimate objects, which are part of my life in our home, our garden and the countryside around Bulbarrow Hill, are all represented in my work. I don’t have to look for inspiration; I am surrounded by it.’

Ian gave up the acting in the early 1970s to spend time with his growing family and to concentrate on landscape painting. During this time he was learning about ceramics and firing methods. While selling his paintings to galleries, he learnt to throw vessels, which, he recalls, ‘looks easy, but takes many hours of practice to create an acceptable piece. My advice to any aspiring art lover is this: if you have the urge to create something that will last, try your hand at throwing clay. There is no limit to what you can create and, as balm to the soul, working in clay is a great soother of the spirit.’

Sharing his knowledge is a big part of Ian’s life. Here Ian is with a student from Portugal.

Sharing his knowledge is a big part of Ian’s life. Here Ian is with a student from Portugal.

In 1986, he developed a technique to make life-sized sculpture in salt glaze stoneware, which was a successful move. ‘Museums around the world have bought examples of my work – especially my dogs – and by the mid-1980s I had become what the art world likes to call “established”. Much of my success,’ Ian confides, ‘is down to where
we live.’

Dorset is, he says, a ‘haven of tranquillity and quietude where an artist can live and work as part of nature’. A mile or so the other side of the hill the late Dame Elisabeth Frink created some of her internationally-recognised masterpieces, while the remainder of the county abounds with established and promising artists in every medium.

‘My greatest pleasure is being able to design and make a piece that can be bought  and enjoyed. I have written a series of books about ceramic sculpture and kiln building. Over the years, I have developed small kilns that can be built by anyone to use in their own back garden. The favourite is the Flat Pack Kiln that can be assembled in less than a day.

Ian Gregory’s ceramic sculptures are on view in galleries and museums worldwide including the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. His dogs have been described as ‘vicious’, ‘sinister’ and ‘menacing’, while his pieces of furniture embody the paternalistic touch of the father. Many of his early creations were inspired by his own children; much of his present-day inspiration comes from his wife Lynda, who, although she stays very much in the background, is a tower of strength to this shy and almost lonely man.

The rich, the titled and the famous beat a path to Ian’s door, but it is the down-to-earth ‘man of the field’ who is most welcome to his studio, which is always open to the art lover and the buyer. Ian’s sculpture classes are invariably over-subscribed with men and women from across the globe making their way to Lower Ansty. His fame is world wide but if you meet him and you are a
lover of the arts and of Dorset, you will recognise a
kindred spirit.

As Ian puts it: ‘I urge all aspiring artists to persevere in whatever medium they are working. The next Elisabeth Frink, David Shepherd or even Van Gogh could be living in the next village. It is not impossible so, whoever you are, keep creating.’

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