As incredible as it may sound, back in 1968 the rise of fashionable modern plastics was starting to make Portuguese people feel ashamed of their lovely traditional earthenware.

There were only a few potters left in the Algarve and it looked as if this ancient art would be lost forever when the final pot fell off the shelf - and nobody knew how to make them anymore.

Artist friends Patrick Swift and Lima de Freitas saw what was happening and in an attempt to, shall we say, “catch the pot mid-air” - opened a little pottery workshop on the outskirts of Porches.

They restored the locals' pride in their heritage and enlisting their help began a remarkable journey that has meant that now, more than half a century later, I don’t think you can say Porches without thinking pottery.

Indeed, if you are a long term inhabitant of the Algarve you probably have a plate hanging on your wall.

I do! And yet, I’m ashamed to say, I had never actually visited. Until now…

History all around

Walking in, I was quite overwhelmed by the beauty of this old Algarvian farmhouse-style building and by the number of plates, bowls, vases and all kinds of other beautiful ceramic creations covering the tables, shelves and even walls.

Looking closer, I saw they were decorated with anything from flowers and leaves to animals like hares, antelope, fish and, what I later realised was almost the ‘mascot’ of the place: a phoenix-like creature, known simply as the ‘Phoenician bird’ (that can even be found standing guard on either side of the entrance).

What I thought was really wonderful though, is that if you are curious about how all this stuff is made - you can see them making it! The open workshop means you can look in and see a group of lovely Portuguese ladies (many of whom have worked there for more than 30 years) happily chatting away whilst casually working magic with the ends of their paint brushes.

No such thing as a mistake

Porches Pottery is now run by Patrick Swift's daughters, Estella and Juliet. I met Juliet first and she gave me a little crash course in pottery making.

I found out that painting on pottery is tricky for a few reasons. For one thing, the colours change after the firing takes place. A mauve pigment, for example, turns into the brilliant electric blue - found on so many of their pieces.

But also, there’s no such thing as a mistake. You can’t undo or edit (without making it worse).

The trick, therefore, is to have a light but bold touch. From the very beginning, Patrick Swift taught everybody to paint with confidence and flair. To be “Swift in their movements”, you might say.

Behind the scenes

Backstage, I met Brian. Brian is Juliet's son and the third generation to work in the business. Growing up in Ireland, he joined the pottery in 2015.

I found him working on a few different ‘azulejo’ (tile) commissions, including one based on Homer's Iliad. I was particularly enamoured by his painting of Odysseus shooting his bow and arrow through a line of axes (and thus winning back the heart of his wife Penelope).

Brian is also a filmmaker and photographer and to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the pottery back in 2018, he worked closely with author Paul Bond on a book that tells its truly fascinating history. It's Brian's stunning photos that make the book such a joy to flick through - and the perfect thing to have on your coffee table.

Living on in their work

Did someone say “coffee”? That’s a good idea. We met up with Estella and went to the in-house Bar Bacchus (named after the Roman God of wine) where we were surrounded by all kinds of beautiful tile work by Patrick Swift, as well as his oldest daughter Katherine. Sadly they are both no longer with us. However, sat outside under the gazebo in this glorious garden - they kind of are. I find it wonderful that you can still live on in your work like that…

Tracking down the past

Brian told me one of the things that was so enjoyable about working on the book was the opportunity to go and uncover some of the surviving work his grandpa did in the early days.

There was quite a lot in private residences, but you can still find tile panels created in the 80s in a few public places, including the Tree of Life in the Quinta do Lago Country Club, as well as Vikings sailing through the bar of the Pestana Viking Hotel and a blue Lion balancing on two legs above the door of the O Leão do Porches restaurant.

Brian even found a more obscure one of two gangs of rival green-slime fish preparing to ‘face off’ at the foot of the stairs of an apartment building built in 1976 called the Torre Iberius in Armação de Pêra.

But Porches Pottery's work can be found all over the world. Estella, Juliet and Brian still regularly send off their tile commissions but told me they never really know where they end up.

So, consider this a ‘shout out’: If you have any of their work on your wall (or even in use in your kitchen) - I know they would be delighted if you sent them a picture.

50 years is a long time. There’s a lot of history here. Far too much for me to tell from my short visit.

To find out more, please add them on Instagram @porchespottery or visit their website - or buy the book!