Clearly an admirer of the fictitious Walter White, Rupert Merton’s similarly career changing, yet legal, diversions from apprentice potter to banker, to music mogul, to established ceramicist, are characterised by the same understated intellectualism and macabre sense of humour.
When Merton was ten years old he was given a tiny blue and white Chinese snuff bottle by an eccentric godfather. It was an unlikely but very successful present, and Merton likes to think that it was his reason for seeking out the pottery classes at Eton run by Gordon Baldwin. “We disagreed about almost everything. He made monochromatic abstract pieces – I wanted to make colourful oriental ceramics; he taught me sound technique and showed me that pottery did not have to be functional.” Presumably having succeeded in keeping his corner, Merton continued to accumulate knowledge and skill, with brief sojourns of ceramics between everything else – an apprenticeship at Tingewick Pottery, an art history degree at Cambridge, a course in ceramic design at Thames College, majolica earthenware and throwing pots in Tuscany. His interest has now settled on the more delicate and crisp stoneware and porcelain. His ceramics still have that colourful oriental flavour that has stayed with him since school.
His arrangements, china cabinets that have emerged as contemporary wall installations, show the influence of the groupings of Rupert Spira, Gwen Hanssen and Edmund deWaal, but combined with the colours of Warhol and bright clarity of modern advertising. Merton’s installations stand out in their bold use of colour and the rhythms and patterns of his arrangements. He says that his discovery and understanding of Andy Warhol led him to the Velvet Underground and “15 years in the cauldron of the music business.” Music informs his installations, the repeated forms, all slightly different, are ordered in a way that Merton describes as occupying “a space in my mind between painting and music – they explore rhythm, repetition and colour. The component forms are both different and the same – they all refer to that little blue and white bottle.”
Merton would be the first person to tell you that he had made something while watching TV. This seems shocking, but in fact makes perfect sense when he is producing his small Teashells by the sensation of touch, rather than sight. The porcelain Teashell series, pinch pots that get wonderfully named after whatever he was watching at the time – the ‘Borgen’ series, the ‘Breaking Bad’ series. “I like the contrast between the ritualised refinement of the tea ceremony and the heightened emotions on screen”. He is currently working on a series named after mythical Japanese emperors.
The little Chinese snuff bottle is recalled in his beautifully vibrantPothecary series, named after chemical elements and arranged in the order of their atomic number – another nod in the direction of Walter White. More recent forays into larger sculptural pieces include ‘Daphne’ – a simplified suggestion of the mythological girl who turned into a tree to avoid being captured by Apollo. Not a leaf in sight. Just the merest suggestion of arms, and a curvaceous trunk.