When Suzy and Nigel Atkins started a pottery in Aveyron in the early 1970s, they had no idea it would become so successful, as Debbie Curtis discovers
High on a hill and surrounded by the majestic beauty of the Aveyron countryside, stands the realisation of a dream. Le Don du Fel European Centre for contemporary ceramics is the culmination of a lifetime’s ambition for potter Suzy Atkins and her husband Nigel. They moved to France to start a pottery four decades ago and now welcome some 60,000 visitors a year to their unspoilt corner of the Aveyron department in the Midi-Pyrénées.
Architecturally, the centre makes a statement in its setting. Essentially circular in design, the terracotta-coloured building resembles five tilted thrown pots, nestled close together, with their slanted tops dancing against the skyline.
Housed within are Suzy’s studio and kiln; plus 250m² of display space where regular exhibitions by permanent and visiting artists are held throughout the year. There are also facilities to run courses, studio space for Suzy’s assistants, an information centre and a shop.
“The whole mission here is not just to sell our own work, although that’s very important; it’s part of our identity, but really to show the best of European ceramics in a French context, which means people are constantly discovering things when they come here,” says Nigel. “We have a selection of artists. We work a lot with English-speaking artists, and we work a lot with Spanish artists. We had an amazing programme this year, and we have a huge programme of exhibitions next year.”
Nigel and Suzy’s daily commute to Le Don du Fel is just a short hop from where they began their French adventure in the canton of Montsalvy, in the neighbouring department of Cantal.
In the early 1970s, they wanted to set up their own pottery but property prices made that virtually impossible in the UK.
“We are economic refugees,” laughs Nigel. “It’s what we tell everybody, but it’s the truth. That’s how it all started. In 1971, we just couldn’t afford to set up a small pottery in England, and we were tossing ideas around when some friends came back from a holiday in France. They said they’d had a fantastic time and that they’d bought a simply beautiful house in the Dordogne department.”
Not only that, but they’d bought it for just £1,000: three bedrooms, fully furnished with three hectares of land. Nigel was interested; very interested indeed.
“I told them I didn’t have £1,000 but I’d just sold my professional camera for £500. They said: ‘You’re too poor for Dordogne, but if you go to Auvergne, you can buy a whole village for five hundred quid.’ I believed them, so I got myself a camping car and came over here; found a place; Suzy said, ‘yes’; and we bought it.”
In the end it did cost slightly more than £500, but for a very modest sum, they got 100 acres of land in a hidden valley, a barn and a house, which was also partly furnished –because there was no road to the property, the previous owners couldn’t get the furniture out. It was here, deep in the French countryside, that they set up the first Poterie du Don.
“We bought Le Don in 1972 and we moved in January 1977,” says Nigel. “It’s a wonderful place in a completely secret valley, which has virtually no inhabitants apart from us. Our neighbours are wild pigs, wild deer, and astonishing eagle owls.”
“To start with, we were camping in a glorious ruin in fantastic countryside, using candles and paraffin lamps for lighting. We had no electricity for four years; no water for nine; and no toilets for 13; but when you’re living with the woman you love, doing what you love, in a place that’s completely magical, the fact that you don’t have electricity seems absolutely irrelevant.”
Despite the domestic hardships, their plans for the pottery went as planned, and it wasn’t long before they were welcoming their first visitors, alerted to their existence by the posters they put up in neighbouring towns and villages, and in local hotels.
“We put in a road, which was 2km long and dropped 1,000ft, and Suzy had a kick-wheel and a gas-powered kiln. It’s amazing how you get by,” Nigel remembers. “Those were magical years. Many people have this technological barrier between themselves and reality, but somehow when you throw the whole thing out, and go back, it is absolutely extraordinary. We had a wonderful, wonderful time.”
Nigel describes Suzy’s pots as “domestic ceremonial” and the range she’s built up includes some 130 items from tiny ramekins for crème brûlée to larger cassoulet dishes and terrines.
“If you want a cheap pot to put in the oven to make your gratin dauphinois, you can get it in the supermarket, but if you want it to have human values and a lovely surface and beautiful glaze, you go to a potter,” says Nigel. “That’s the market Suzy’s working for. She designed each and every pot in our range and it took her five years, because it took a lot of work to get it right.”
As interest in her pots grew, Suzy needed assistants to keep up with demand, but gradually over the years, the business began to outgrow its idyllic setting.
“People came and they were entranced, and they told their friends, and people kept on coming,” says Nigel. “Little by little, Suzy’s reputation grew. She was included in museum shows and she won awards. When she exhibited in other parts of France and won prizes, the local newspapers were keen to write about it. She’s become a bit of a local folk hero. It’s marvellous.”
Eventually, they realised they would have to move the pottery to a more easily accessible site.
“We were getting 20,000 people a year and they had to drive down a steep single track road for two kilometres with six hairpin bends,” says Nigel. “It became too difficult, so we decided to move the pottery but stay in the house.”
Thanks to the vision and foresight of the maire of Le Fel, a neighbouring commune just over the border in Aveyron, they came up with an the ambitious plan for Le Don du Fel, the architect-designed, purpose-built studio and gallery that is their base today.
With the maire’s help, Nigel and Suzy were able access regional and national funding to add to their own stake, to make up the €1 million needed to make their dream a reality.
“The mayor said: ‘Why don’t you bring your pottery to my commune?’” says Nigel. “He’s an incredible man; a specialist in innovative farming projects who knew how to knit together all the different layers of the French administration to help us put this project together.”
The new ceramics centre opened on 23 July 2007 and since then, its success has grown year-on-year with acclaim being won not only for the ceramics inside but also for the building itself, which was selected by Architectural Review during the World Architecture Festival in Barcelona, in 2008, as one of the 25 best cultural buildings in the world.
Suzy and Nigel have always felt very welcome in their adoptive country, and now their son Kélian and daughter-in-law Léonor have also come on board to join what has become a 10-strong team. Nigel is conscious of how important places such as Le Don du Fel are to the rural economy and how much they invigorate and revitalise life in the French countryside.
“The creation of work in the countryside is very important,” he says. “We are providing culture, but the people we attract here, they all have to sleep somewhere; they all have to eat somewhere, and fill up their cars somewhere, so the benefit from us being here extends far wider.”
Chatting to Nigel, it’s easy to see how his friendly, outgoing personality would have won him many friends over the Channel, and this has always been so even when he first came over with hardly any knowledge of French.
“When I was looking for my house in France, I was here for two and a half months and I was determined to learn French, so I bought French newspapers; I took a French dictionary everywhere; I only listened to French radio; and I tried reading French books,” Nigel remembers. “When I was looking for houses, I used to walk around with my map and when I spoke to people, I had a magical phrase. You always find a farmer in a field, near a cow, in the French countryside, and so I used to say to them: ‘How beautiful is your cow.’ From that phrase you can build a whole conversation… ‘Qu’est-ce qu’elle est belle, votre vache. Vous croyez?’ And off we’d go. If I asked that question at 11.30am, I’d get invited in for a drink and then being a man alone, the farmer’s wife wouldn’t let me go… She’d say: ‘Ah, le jeune homme, il faut qu’il reste à manger.’ So I’d be talking until 2pm and I’d have wine and a wonderful French meal, and then they’d insist I had a cognac. It was a brilliant way to learn the French language.”
And the overwhelming support they have received over the years has continued unabated.
“It’s been more than that in a way,” says Nigel. “It’s been completely extraordinary. When we moved here, we never expected that all the things that have happened to us would happen, and we’ve just had so much help from the French. It’s completely astonishing.”
In French the word ‘don’ means ‘gift’. “It’s your personal talent: a gift for writing, for pottery, for cooking,” says Nigel. “It’s also when somebody comes and brings you something, it’s giving something from one person to the next… it’s a magical word.”
And it perfectly sums up the relationship they have had with France and the French; they have brought so much to this rural corner of Aveyron and have been given so much in return. And they hope it will continue for a long time to come. LF