Brownsword, who has worked for over 23 years at Buckinghamshire New University, was raised in Bradwell, North Staffordshire and began his working career as a Wedgwood Apprentice in Stoke-on-Trent before moving to study Ceramics at the University of Wales and the Royal College of Art in London.
Although his work as artist and academic has taken him worldwide, it is underpinned by a passion to reactivate North Staffordshire’s rich industrial ceramic heritage through numerous high-profile international collaborations and projects. Driven by a deep respect for traditional knowledge and skills that have historically developed in the six towns, Brownsword’s practice embraces elements of performance, installation, documentary film, oral history and industrial archaeology.
This is perhaps most evident in his work ‘Re-Apprenticed’ (2015) when he apprenticed himself to three former industry masters - a flower maker, an engraver and a china painter - in order to archive and re-imagine their craft knowledge. The project culminated in a live performance of endangered factory skills choreographed by Brownsword against masterpieces of Renaissance Art in the V&A’s Raphael Gallery.
He said: “Recent decades have left many high-end ceramic skills that were once the flagship of renowned manufactories, no longer viable to accommodate todays shifts in consumer buying trends.
“As older tiers of highly specialised labour continue to diminish, there have remained very few apprenticeships to secure the effective transfer of these skills to future generations. Its been an ongoing ambition to highlight the overlooked dexterity of these people and celebrate the cultural relevance of this home-grown knowledge."
In 2015, Brownsword’s ‘National Treasure’ - a comment on how factory tourism obscured the realities of UK outsourcing and lost skills - earned him the Gyeonggi International Ceramic Biennale Grand Prize, one of the highest accolades n contemporary ceramic practice.
Performing ‘National Treasure’ in South Korea – a country that safeguards individuals with exceptional artistic ability - provided a prestigious platform to raise greater awareness of Stoke-on-Trent’s intangible heritage, which Brownsword believes is worthy of comparable status and protection.
Another of his projects, ‘Factory’ which involved further collaborations with former UK pottery workers and Korean masters, was shortlisted for the Woman’s Hour Craft prize, also leading to an invitation to become resident artist at the V&A (2017/2018).
Through his new role at Staffordshire University, which has a proud history in ceramic technology and ceramic design, Professor Brownsword is expected to lead in the development of new research and development and exciting overseas collaborations.
He added: “As technology accelerates and brings forward many exciting possibilities, it’s important not to forget about the knowledge of the hand, which has brought about the success of this region as a world-renowned centre of production. It is my vision to create a space where the high-tech/digital collides with traditional ‘know how’ to open up a breadth of new opportunities for research and development in ceramics."
Brownsword is currently involved in a number of projects involving the Heritage Craft Association, Crafts Council and a new commission for the British Ceramics Biennial which takes place in Stoke-on-Trent this Autumn.
His ongoing research centred around the 3D digital archiving of moulds integral to the former Spode factory, form the basis of a new CeramaVision bid which, if successful, will involve exciting new collaboration with a number of European ceramics centres. He is also working towards a solo exhibition at the Potteries Museum and Art gallery in 2021 which celebrates North Staffordshire’s 300-year history as a centre of industry and innovation.
Welcoming his appointment, Professor David Hawkins, Dean of the School of Creative Arts and Engineering said: “We are delighted to have appointed Neil to this role. Neil is clearly a great people person and his work, which focuses on the skills and crafts of local people and how that can be applied to contemporary practice and process in the industry is inspirational.
“His appointment as Professor of Ceramics and his contacts worldwide will help the University play a key role in the renewal of Stoke-on-Trent culturally as a centre for excellence in contemporary ceramics.”