Obituary: Ann Stokes, ceramicist and potter

Ann Stokes: Talented ceramic artist who was inspired by the 'miraculous movement' of ballet
Ann Stokes: Talented ceramic artist who was inspired by the 'miraculous movement' of ballet
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Born: 21 September, 1922 in Gullane, East Lothian. Died: 21 April, 2014, in Hampstead, London aged 91

The influence of Scots-born Ann Stokes’ early training under Britain’s first prima ballerina remained evident throughout her work for the duration of her alternative career as a ceramicist.

Explaining what inspired her style of potting, she described the “miraculous movement of grace and elegance” that eventually emerges from the totally unnatural training of a ballet dancer or acrobat, likening it to the soaring, leaping and swooping of the animal world which featured so strongly in her pieces.

“The spread of the arabesque and the lift, as in a pas de deux, much like the final swoop of the bluebird to her mate; this is what fascinates me in animals; where the line, elegance and grace exist naturally.”

It was a combination that she never tired of trying to illustrate – through her bird mirrors, fish lights, zoomorphic tableware and her delicate trees with their ceramic trunks and graceful plywood branches, sometimes inhabited by a bird or squirrel. Although she insisted: “The performance, of course, falls far short of the dream,” others would disagree. Her works are owned by generations of admirers, including artists, art historians and critics and her pieces are held in the collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Born in Gullane, East Lothian, to United Free Church minister Reverend David Mellis and his wife Margaret, she was raised in a musical family along with her brothers David and Walter and sister Margaret, a gifted artist whose former husband she would go on to marry.

Educated at St Leonards Boarding School, where she was captain of the lacrosse team, she left school at 17 and went to live with her sister and her husband, artist and critic Adrian Stokes, in Carbis Bay near St Ives, where a colony of artists had settled, away from war-torn London.

Inspired by Stoke’s book To-Night the Ballet, young Ann went on the train as a dancer under ballerina Phyllis Bedells at London’s Royal Academy of Dance. However, her dancing career was brought to a halt by a pony riding accident in which she damaged her knee when the pony skidded and fell on its side, trapping her leg.

As a young woman during the Second World War she joined the Women’s Royal Naval Service and served as a radio operator, operating exclusively in Morse code.

The year after the war ended, Margaret and her husband divorced and the following year, 1947, Ann married Stokes. The marriage was considered contrary to the laws of consanguinity and so the couple moved to Ascona in Switzerland, on the shores of Lake Maggiore.

They had two children and it was while they were small that she began to utilise her artistic talents, making balsa wood toys and writing and designing covers for Hobbies magazine

It wasn’t until 1957 that she took an interest in pottery, after accompanying her son to pottery lessons in Hampstead. A decade later she went to classes by the Sudanese ceramicist Mohammed Ahmed Abdulla, at Camden Arts Centre and was inspired initially by Mediterranean influences.

However, she became increasingly intrigued by trees, birds, insects and wild animals which she featured on her cups, jugs, serving dishes, cooking pots and plates.

Her substantial body of work includes a series of life-sized crocodiles which light up inside, mirrors framed by balletic swans and pretty, painterly tableware. She did not feel justified, she said, in making anything that was not useful and even lined the risers of the stairs to her studio with ceramic tiles depicting a day in the life of two pigeons, from first sight to wooing, laying a clutch of eggs and then the young flying the nest. “I have to have some sort of story to do,” she explained.

From 1967 she held a sale of her work at their house in Hampstead each Christmas but did not exhibit formally for many years. Widowed in 1972, she remarried four years later to Orwell scholar Ian Angus, who greatly supported her in her work, and they would spend part of each year in Cortona, in Tuscany, where she had a second home and studio – she at work and he tending his olive trees.

Although she worked largely outside the commercial art world, in 1985 she broke new ground when her work was included in the Hayward Annual, the first and last time a modern potter has been shown at the Hayward Gallery. Finally, from 1995 she had a gallery and in the summer of 2009 a retrospective of her work was held at Camden Arts Centre to mark the publication of a book recognising her unique talent, Ann Stokes: Artist’s Potter.

The ceramicist, who remained a fiercely patriotic Scot, is survived by her husband Ian Angus and children Ariadne and Philip.