Barnaby Barford: In Conversation

I’m pleased to have had a lengthy phone conversation with Barnaby Barford about his practice yesterday morning.  His work was one of my ‘Likes’ last term. Barnaby is probably best known for his sculptural installation, Tower of Babel, at the V&A 18 months ago:

Standing an imposing six metres high, the Tower comprises 3000 (slip cast) bone china shops, each one unique, each depicting a real London shop photographed by the artist. At its base the shops are derelict, while at its pinnacle are the crème-de-la-crème of London’s exclusive boutiques and galleries.

Standing as a monument to the great British pastime of shopping, Barford’s apparently precarious Tower playfully likens our efforts to find fulfilment through retail with the biblical Tower of Babel’s attempt to reach heaven.

Barnaby Barford Tower 2015 of Babel at the V&A Museum


Barnaby graduated from the RCA in 2002 and works predominantly in ceramics, transforming mass produced ceramic items into unique works of art.  He comments on the human condition and consumerism, often with humour and a sense of irony.

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A snapshot of his work from MA to 2016


Barnaby’s work is diverse, so I was interested how his practice had developed. He says he looked at lots of different things, gradually becoming more focused. His MA work – cutting and combining Willow Pattern plates – was initiated by witnessing how mass production of crockery produced huge amounts of ceramic waste.  His interest in mass production and consumerism had begun. After his MA, he moved from plates to porcelain figurines, cutting and combining them to create works that offer a witty and ironic take on everyday life.

His work highlights our everyday, taken-for-granted attitudes, making us aware of them. He says this began  with the questions he asks himself about life.  Indeed, the questions he asks himself form the basis of the impetus for his practice. He then reads about and researches his question, which informs his creative process.

Although Barnaby works predominantly in porcelain, he considers himself to be an artist.  He says his work is ideas driven.  He is not interested in the properties of clay as a craft potter might be, he’s interested only in clay’s industrial use to produce multiple copies.  He uses the products of industrial mass production to make unique works.

I asked him how his relationship began with David Gill Gallery.  He said he was with another gallery which wasn’t working.  The owner of that gallery recommended David Gill. Barnaby wrote a proposal for the David Gill Gallery which was accepted, leading to successful sales.  From this the relationship has grown.

My chance of my having a monumental installation in the V&A is remote, but I was interested to know how it is done.  With great difficulty, it seems. Barnaby wrote a proposal for the Tower of Babel, but, despite having a good working relationship with the curator, Barnaby says it was difficult to get in front of the right people. ‘You’ve got to explain it yourself,’ he says. because ‘You’re the driving force behind it.’  He eventually received help from the then-Chairman of the V&A, for whom he had already completed a successful commission. The Chairman sped up discussions by ‘putting it in front of the right person’. ‘You think these things get easier,’ Barnaby says,’But you know that people who are doing well are working really hard.’ He recommends perseverance.

He also has recommendations for the aspiring artist or ceramicist.  On theme/inspiration he says it’s important to be excited and engaged with your work – if you’re excited and engaged, other people will be to. Ask questions, he says, and cast a wide net – read books, go to talks and lectures until something grabs your interest. And adds that not all work needs a deep and meaningful theme – it’s perfectly fine to make things because they look good. About galleries he says research and find the right place.  And the final bit of advice: ‘Get out there and do stuff’.

Many thanks to Barnaby for taking the time to speak to me.


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