Throwing a spotlight on pottery in Beckenham

Garnet Frost was born and raised in Beckenham. Despite travelling across the globe, he’s always landed back in his hometown and can now be found manning ‘The Alhambra Tiling Project’ in his workshop opposite Balgowan Primary School.

When Sarah Amores, the Director of Communications for Mosaic CSE, sat down with Garnet to discuss his passion for art, he dived into his colourful past:

I was born in Beckenham in 1953. I always enjoyed art as a boy, and when I attended the Chelsea School of Art to focus on life drawing and conventional painting / drawing I realised you must be very slick and quick to make a living out of fine art. But I’ve gone on to learn a lot about decorative art my time, including the processes of graining, marbling, muralism, and sign writing. Funnily enough, I was responsible for The Tin Pot Company signage, the former occupants of Mosaic CSE Limited’s office on Beckenham Road.

Scanned photograph of The Tin Pot Company facade; the former occupiers of Mosaic CSE Limited's office on Beckenham Road

An introduction to Islamic architecture

I didn’t become interested in ceramics until my 30s. I began teaching pottery at my old school, bearing in mind I had no experience in it at the time, and I suffered a crisis of confidence at 33. After having to sell my flat, I volunteered with Mother Teresa at an orphanage in Bucharest, Romania, and ‘The Home for the Dying’ in Calcutta, India (now known as Kolkata) for 12 months.

I had a different view on life returning to Beckenham in 1995, most notably a particular fascination with Islamic architectural detail; it’s more elaborate and pattern-based, which is everywhere in India more so than Western countries.

The Alhambra Tiling Project

Randomly turning on the TV one day, I saw a programme from the Open University about symmetry and how there’s only 17 ways that two-dimensional spaces can be divided to recreate repeating patterns or fields. The tiles of the Al Alhambra Palace in Grenada were being compared with modern wallpaper designs from ‘Do It All’ in Milton Keynes, and instantly I knew I wanted to do something with it.

My motive was to try and make these tiles, which led to an in-depth study of clay and pottery classes at The Horniman Museum so I had access to a kiln. I developed a system to make tiles that was simple enough even a child could do it – and with two friends as primary school teachers, I went and did just that.

Sharing the skill of tiling

I ended up visiting seven or eight schools to showcase different tiling techniques and improvised clay modelling. There’s a profound history to this abstract form and, especially amongst children, it’s an eye-opening experience to the world around them and their origins; from my experiences, people are hardwired to want to explore and make things out of clay.

With a grant from the Arts Council and Awards for All, I continued to run classes with school groups at a private studio in Venue 28 until the council closed the space down. As a result, I lost access to my kiln for five years because I didn’t have anywhere big enough to keep it. By chance, a dear friend of mine purchased the workshop on Balgowan Road off eBay, and I was allowed to utilise this as my new studio.

I resumed workshops with the pupils from Balgowan Primary School, Farnborough Primary School, a youth group in Lewisham and a school for severely disabled children in Sutton – creating the mosaic wall that’s currently in the studio today. With help from the Greater London Authority, I also began working with the adults at Living Well on Lennard Road, creating a huge bespoke circular mosaic in their food hall.

Although the Alhambra Tiling Project was taking up most of my time, in 2015 I went on to star in my own hit movie titled ‘Garnet’s Gold’, which went on to win a Grierson Award.

Reigniting an interest in clay

As with everything, COVID halted my work with the schools and food bank, but I carried on by myself as a welcome distraction. I was also able to organise a remote take away pottery class with Ruth Norris, a local pottery novice, as a project to keep her going. This is where the majority of these pieces on display have come from.

In 2022, Matt Taylor joined me in the studio and has been teaching me how to ‘throw’ clay. I’m also pleased to be getting back into clay modelling from life – a pre-COVID past time that has just started back up again.

It’s quite fitting to come back to 76 Beckenham Road, with my deep local connections, and have my artwork on display in a public setting. It would be great to reignite an interest in clay modelling and all hand crafting skills because it feels like people aren’t making things with their hands like we used to; Matt and I would gladly welcome any passersby to pop in and see what we’ve got going on in the studio.

Garnet Frost

You can learn more about The Alhambra Tiling Project here.