My best teacher;Interview;Sir Terence Conran;Parting shots

12th June 1998 at 01:00
Don Potter taught me sculpture, pottery and metalworking at Bryanston. He was a remarkable teacher because of the warmth of his personality, his easy-going nature and his attitude of "Of course you can do it. Let me show you how easy it is". He's in his eighties now and, as far as I know, still teaching.

He was a pupil of Eric Gill, the sculptor and typographer, and one of the good things was that he was working on his own scul-pture at the same time as being a teacher. He and his wife lived in the old stable buildings at the school, and when we were up through the night to fire the pottery kiln down in the depths of the basement, Don would be there, too, and would join us in a glass of beer when it got extremely hot.

Bryanston was a relatively new school in my day and it was run, as it is now, on the American Dalton system, rather like university, so we all had a tutor and the timetable was tailored to suit each student. The headmaster, Thorold Coade, a particularly sensitive and creative chap, understood Don Potter and gave him the chance to be a free spirit. There was emphasis on the arts. Most of the boys from my prep school (Highfields) went on to Eton, but my mother decided I wasn't that sort of lad and Bryanston would suit me much better, as indeed it did. Several of my children went to Bryanston, and I am now a governor of the school.

I was there during the time of the Second World War, and a number of the teachers were conscientious objectors. There was a wonderful atmosphere in the place. Coade set the style. Although he had a rather austere academic appearance, underneath he didn't quite let anarchy rule - but there was well-controlled anarchy under his direction.

One marvellous thing we did was something called pioneering. On two or three afternoons you could go off and learn forestry, build a Greek theatre or, as in my case, build a boathouse and begin work on an observatory. We learned a lot of practical things, like how to lay bricks and do a bit of plumbing, which have been very useful to me since. As a designer I need to know how things are made and I've done bricklaying and plumbing at various homes I've had. I think it should be part of a normal school education that people are introduced to the practical things of life as well as the academic. Perhaps that's part of the problem with this country - we have believed we can get by with academia alone.

I learned from Don an appreciation of how art and design fit into society and how important it is in society; the importance of good things around you - things that are well made, well designed, aesthetically satisfying. He very much lit a flame in my heart. He became a personal friend, and whenever I go to the school, I go to see him and Mary, his wife.

In his youth, Don looked a bit like a Red Indian. He had fairly longish hair and a very handsome face. He was short and stocky, quite a powerfully built man and very strong. His method of teaching was to set a project and steer us through it. He would come over and talk, and if you got stuck on something, show you how to do it.

Smells are so powerful and I can remember still the smells of Bryanston - of the forge where anthracite coke burned and the smell of the wood-fired kiln in the pottery, and the rank smell of the food in the school canteen.

Bryanston left its mark on me, literally. As a souvenir of my days in the metalwork department, I still have the scar on my little finger where I was trying to move an anvil; it rolled over and my finger got caught underneath and was split all along one side.

There were a number of free spirits on the school staff in my day. I remember a teacher called Andrew Wordsworth, whose subject was Latin, getting so excited as he talked about the sacking of Rome that he set fire to a pile of books on his desk. Once he realised what he had done, he had to go out into the corridor and get a bucket of water to put out the flames.

But when I was asked to name my best teacher for the Governmment's current advertising campaign, Don Potter was top of the list. I am delighted to have been involved in helping in the building of a new art department at Bryanston recently, which, as a fitting memorial to a man who has been so influential to so many generations, has appropriately been named the Don Potter Arts Centre.

Style guru and restaurateur, Sir Terence Conran, 66, was number 264, with an estimated fortune of pound;80 million, in 'The Sunday Times' recently published list of the richest people in Britain. He is a member of the Council of the Royal College of Art. Sir Terence was talking to Pamela Coleman

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