Here is a more recent picture of Wedgwood’s house, Etruria Hall, than the one on the plate in my last post.
Wedgwood called his factory estate Etruria because he was part of the late 18th century vase mania generated by the discovery of Pompeii and Herculaneum. He was directly influenced by Sir William Hamilton’s great Collection of Etruscan Greek and Roman Antiquities (1767), which he owned. He was himself a collector of vases, to the despair of his wife. She wrote, “I am almost afraid he will lay out the price of his estate in vases he makes nothing of giving 5 or 6 guineas for.”
Etruria gave its name to the surrounding district, and anyone like me who spent time in Stoke-on-Trent in the sixties thinks of Etruria as a dirty industrial area in North Staffordshire, not as a place in Italy. (Since the Garden Festival, it is no longer dirty or industrial.)
The house was built about 1770 next to the Wedgwood factory, between Burslem, Hanley and Newcastle-under-Lyme. The enlightened and progressive Wedgwood was a promoter of the Trent and Mersey Canal, which passed by carrying clay and coal to Etruria and finished pottery to the customers.
Etruria Hall was designed by Joseph Pickford of Derby, who worked for several members of the Lunar Society, including Wedgwood, Joseph Wright of Derby, Matthew Boulton and John Whitehurst. The house was extensively remodelled in the 19th century. It’s not an outstanding building and its Grade II listing must be for its historical rather than architectural interest. Only the shell has been preserved and there is nothing original inside. Pickford’s own house in Derby (below) is grander.
I’m visiting Stoke-on-Trent for a university reunion and had to choose a hotel incorporating Josiah Wedgwood’s house, Etruria Hall. The Hall is now the hotel conference centre and there’s little left of Wedgwood.
The company moved their factory out of Stoke to modern, spacious premises in Barlaston almost a century ago, to the bewilderment of more conservative potters. When I was student at Keele in the 1960s, the Etruria site still had remnants of the old Wedgwood factory.
Etruria was part of Michael Heseltine’s Garden Festival in 1986 and it has been redeveloped for business and leisure, but I’m glad there’s still scrap of Britain’s greatest potter there.
I’ve been throwing these high-shouldered vases (above) over the last couple of days. It’s a classic shape, often used by Far Eastern potters and beloved of studio potters. William Newland, a great potter who taught for many years at the Central School of Art in London and at the Institute of Education, got his students to aim at it. This is what he said about it in his notes:
“Clay should be like a crocus striking through the ground in Spring. Tip-toed elevated tensions as opposed to saggy hanging over the ankle straps. Based on an aesthetic related to the body and the human desire/preference for the live full and uplifting as opposed to the withered and droopy.”
The shape is a challenge. You have to lift the clay and get the centre of gravity fairly high and to keep a fairly small foot – as Newland said, “full and uplifting”.
Except that not all pottery is like that. The preference for this shape comes from the studio potter’s love affair with China, Japan and Korea. Pottery of the Near East and of medieval Spain has a low centre of gravity, and there is nothing “saggy hanging over the ankle straps” about it. Here for example (below) is a beautiful medieval Persian jug from the Appleton Museum of Art.
The Fitzwilliam Museum has an excellent survey of British studio pottery, Things of Beauty Growing, which I saw the other day. It’s the best survey I’ve seen, and I’ve followed studio pottery since the 1960s. The great change is that the crafts have become a topic of academic study and we now have curators who can combine a dispassionate view of pottery with an understanding of the techniques and preoccupations of the artists.
In the 1960s, studio pottery was a battleground between potters who made different kinds of pottery in different ways and there were futile arguments about the right and wrong sort of ceramics. Pottery is now far more varied and nobody thinks in these terms any more. The full range is represented at the Fitzwilliam, from the late 19th century to the present, and it’s put in context. I was pleased to see work by Christopher Dresser and Keith Murray, who weren’t studio potters but whose work is clearly in dialogue with studio pottery. They would certainly not have been included in the earlier displays.
There is a catalogue with a collection of essays by Glenn Adamson, Martina Droth, Simon Olding, Alison Britton, Kimberley Chandler, Edward Cooke, Penelope Curtis, Tanya Harrod, Imogen Hart, Sequoia Miller and Julian Stair.
My old Harrow colleague Peter Willis asked about the gadget in the back of this photo (above), just behind my left hand. It’s a carborundum attached to a drill and the drill is mounted in a vice. It’s what I use for grinding spur marks off the bottom of pots. I have to sit the pots on little pointed spurs because I glaze the bottoms and otherwise they’d stick to the shelf when the glaze melts in the kiln. This method is a quick way of taking off the marks they leave.
But I’ve now decided to turn foot-rings on the bottom of pots instead, including tall shapes, so that the bottoms can be glazed, the foot wiped clean and the pot put directly on to the kiln shelf. Spurs are expensive because they can only be used twice and and spur marks are ugly. To be honest, I dislike turning because making a foot-ring takes longer than throwing a pot, but I’m applying the principle that you can never take too much trouble.
I noticed the Turning Earth studio for potters when I was exhibiting at the Geffrye Museum in Hoxton last year, but yesterday I went to a talk in their larger studio in Leyton and saw their wonderful premises there. It’s in a no-nonsense industrial estate and although the surroundings aren’t pretty, it provides facilities on a grand scale in an old factory for beginners and aspiring professionals. It has been decorated to a high standard and is well equipped.
This is a wonderful resource and it’s part of the current of ceramics education running against the current of closures in universities. Once there were dozens of BA ceramics courses, now there is a only a handful. (I saw the closure of Harrow, the long-established course at the University of Westminster.) But the demand for training is growing, encouraged by BBC TV’s Great Pottery Throwdown, and starter classes are booked for months, even years ahead. Clay College Stoke was set up by a few dedicated potters and now runs professional courses. Turning Earth is another important initiative.
The growth of interest is part of the desire for meaningful occupation, outlets for creativity and products that are personal and have human marks. It’s all good news for potters.