We stayed for a few days with our friends in France, where they have an old farmhouse well away from town in a peaceful spot with roses and fruit trees. In the sweltering heat we preferred to stay indoors, protected by two-foot walls, but the evenings were pleasant in the garden under the vines.
Over the years they have built an eclectic collection of china and pottery, for use and ornament, found in antique shops and brocante stalls, and generally bought for a few euros. Here are some pictures, and also pictures of other items from their cabinet of curiosities.
I mentioned Sophie Conran’s Pebble range of tableware in my last post and thought I’d say a bit more about it.
It has been a popular range over a long period and says a lot about attitudes to handmade and factory-made pottery. It is factory-made, but with its wonky shapes and ridges it looks as if it has been thrown on the wheel (except that each piece is identical and has a practical, clear glaze). As factory-made pottery it is good, and highly original, but if it had been made by hand it would be bad.
Factory pottery can imitate studio pottery, and in the 1960s Denby produced some excellent studio-type tableware which you can still find in perfect condition in charity shops. But handmade tableware has to aim for a degree of fineness and regularity even if it doesn’t try to look factory-made. There are potters who are happy to make very rough mugs and bowls, but they are few now. My practice is different and the way I put it is that if you aim at perfection your work will be imperfect, but if you aim at imperfection it will be rubbish.
I also mentioned that Pebble was designed by a studio potter, one I know well. He is not acknowledged and his fee bore no relation to the profits this range has generated.
Much of the history of European ceramics is the attempt to imitate Chinese porcelain. The Ottoman Turks covered buff clay with white slip and a clear glaze. The Moors brought opaque white tin glaze into Spain, from where it spread to Italy, the Netherlands, central Europe and England. Meanwhile, there were experiments in porcelain, adding products like crushed glass to clay. In 1693 a soft paste porcelain was invented at Rouen, and in 1708 a hard paste, closer to the Chinese original, at Meissen.
Wedgwood went in a different direction, aiming for a white earthenware, his experiments finally yielding a satisfactory cream-coloured body in the late 1760s.
I had known that creamware spelled the end of tin-glazed earthenware – Alan Caiger-Smith mentions it in Tin-glazed Earthenware – but I had not known exactly how Wedgwood displaced delftware until I read Robin Reilley’s Wedgwood biography.
Wedgwood could not export to France because the quality potteries were protected by the crown, but trade with the Netherlands was easier and creamware made rapid inroads there. His Dutch agent, Lamertus van Veldhuysen, introduced it to the upper class but had difficulty selling it to “the middle sort of people” because it was too expensive. The Delft potters recognised its superiority and tried to imitate it, some of them bankrupting themselves in the process. Wedgwood was unconcerned. When van Veldhuysen sent him a sample of creamware made by a potter called Zwenck, he said, “With regard to the quality of the body & glaze, they are so bad that we could not sell such pieces at 1 shilling a dozen.” Reilley comments that no Dutch manufacturer succeeded in copying creamware until the nineteenth century and that the Dutch have always been among Wedgwood’s best customers.
In my post on the Vase Mania that swept the country after the discovery of Pompeii and Herculaneum, I mentioned that, as the craze faded away, Wedgwood decided to go down market and to sell his vases more cheaply to the middle classes.
“The Great People have had these Vases in their Palaces long enough for them to be seen and admired to the Middling People,” he said, “which Class we know are vastly, I had almost said, infinitely superior, in numbers to the great, and although a great price was, I believe, at first necessary to make these vases esteemed Ornaments for Palaces, that reason no longer exists, and the middling people would probably buy quantities of them at a reduced price.”
Robin Reilly in his excellent biography explains that Wedgwood’s motives were more complex. Although he had become a hugely successful potter, he never seemed to have any money. Although the business made a profit, he was in debt, and a rumour was going around that he could not pay. He observed that if you lost money you could get it back, but if you lost reputation you would never recover. Up to that point he thought the remedy was better debt collection, but Reilley uncovered the fact that Wedgwood and his partner Tomas Bentley did not understand their business accounts. He was, in fact, under-capitalised, a common shortcoming in rapidly expanding enterprises. Reilley is an ideal biographer because, as well as being a historian, he was a senior manager at Wedgwood for twelve years.
With characteristic energy and resolve, Wedgwood set to analysing his costs, which he had never bothered about too much before. He virtually invented cost accounting and the production of cheaper vases was inspired as much by cost control and the need to improve cash flow as it was by changing fashion.
The picture shows a vase I’ve turned in my new Giffin Grip. What a great piece of kit! How did I manage without one for so long?
Other potters I consulted before buying one were divided between those who advocated traditional methods for holding the pot (three blobs of clay or a clay chuck) and those who said the Giffin Grip was useful. It’s an expensive bit of kit, but I don’t regret buying it and it will soon pay for itself.
The Giffin Grip is beautifully engineered and makes turning pots of differing sizes an easy task. The instructions are clear and operation is simple. Setting up took about an hour and getting ready for a turning session takes three minutes.
For turning the odd bowl, three blobs of clay will do, but for repetition work, where time is important, this device is a huge leap forward. It is quick and easy to place and remove the pot and, unlike wet clay, does not leave a mark on the outside. Placing pots over chucks can also leave marks inside, and in the past I have spent a long time forming the chuck and then drying it with a heat gun.
I have to confess I dislike turning but I have decided to turn foot rings on hollow ware (mugs and vases) for a more elegant finish. The Giffin Grip makes it a more agreeable job.
Such a beautifully designed tool is useful for both the amateur and professional potter. For the amateur it makes centering easier and for the professional it increases productivity. I suspect that some of the opposition to it comes from potters who think their craft should be difficult, but my motto is “Work smart, don’t work hard”.
Josiah Wedgwood acquired the Ridgehouse estate in 1766 for his Etruria factory during a period of commercial expansion, when he had launched his cream-ware and was beginning to get commissions from the upper class. The company traded there until 1940, when they moved to the new factory at Barlaston, and production at Etruria finally stopped in 1950. The estate was demolished in 1960.
In 1966, when I lived at Keele, the site hadn’t been completely cleared and I took a few photos – technically poor, but they give an idea of how it looked then. This (below) is the Round House by the Trent and Mersey Canal with the Shelton Bar steel works in the background. At night, the flames from Shelton Bar lit up the sky like Vesuvius in the other Etruria.
The purpose of the Round Houses – there were two, one at each end of the factory – is unknown, but it’s thought they may have been merely decorative, punctuation marks at each end of the building, “in keeping with the 18th century preference for symmetry in architecture” as the Wedgwood archive put it. “It is possible that the Round Houses were Josiah’s own idea possibly having viewed the elevation of Shugborough Hall (below) the home of his patron Lord Anson which is similarly terminated with circular structures.”
I’ve been reading Robin Reilly’s biography of Wedgwood, which tells us that he must have heard the name Etruria before he read it because, in his correspondence about his new factory and house, he calls it “Hetruria”.
His promotion of James Brindley‘s Trent and Mersey Canal involved negotiations over its route, ensuring that it ran through Etruria, which other landowners opposed. The Wedgwood Museum summarises his involvement:
“In view of the uncertain and poor road communications it is not surprising therefore, to find Wedgwood, an ardent supporter of James Brindley and his latest plans for the development of a system of canals. Brindley known as ‘The Schemer’ was well known in the Potteries as a millwright and a builder of windmills.
“The earlier navigation schemes of the 17th and early 18th centuries had consisted merely of improvements to natural rivers, which were always subject to the risk of droughts and floods, but Brindley’s new scheme in which he succeeded so admirably, was to make canals independent of the rivers by building them so that they could be carried across the countryside at one level, where necessary on aqueducts or through cuttings and tunnels. …
“A greater scheme by far was a canal linking the rivers Trent and Mersey or ‘Grand Trunk’ canal, as Brindley called it, which was warmly supported by Wedgwood, who acted as its Treasurer as he states: ‘at £000 Per ann. out of which he bears his own Expences’. … The proposed line of the canal passed the front of the Etruria Works and afforded an easy means of transport connecting with both the ports of Liverpool on the west coast and Hull on the east coast.”
Mervyn Edwards says of Wedgwood’s Etruria works, “had the rambling complex not been demolished, it would by now have been a world heritage site.”