TURNING

Readers of this blog will know that I have been thinking a lot about how I turn my pottery after throwing it on the wheel. Thrown pots often need the foot to be cleaned up and shaped afterwards, and the way potters do it is to let the pot harden off a bit (the jargon is, till leather-hard), turn it upside down on the revolving wheel and trim it with a sharp tool. Flat items – plates and bowls – must be finished like this. Taller objects – cups and jugs – don’t have to be, but the effect of turning is more elegant than leaving the base as it comes off the wheel.

Most studio potters are ambivalent about turning. In the early days of studio pottery (the 1920s to the 1980s) there was a mystique about throwing, which was considered to impart “vitality” to the pot, and there were reservations about turning, whose effect was thought to be “mechanical”. Those ideas came in part from the reaction against industrial pottery, but they were also influenced by Bergson’s anti-rational, vitalist philosophy, which was was hugely popular in the second and third decades of the 20th century and which made “vital” the vogue word in art and art-criticism. Bergson is not mentioned in Emmanuel Cooper’s biography of Bernard Leach, but Leach’s colleague and mentor, Soetsu Yanagi, was certainly influenced by Bergson and it is clear from Leach’s writing that he was too.

The practice in Stoke of Trent from the late 18th century onward was to get the rough shape of the pot on the wheel, then to hand it over to the turner, who imparted the outside profile on a vertical lathe. This process was described well by George Myatt, an old thrower interviewed by Gordon Elliott, and it is illustrated in the 1935 film (top), which shows an amazingly proficient thrower forming a rough shape in under ten seconds, which is then put in a plaster mould and then turned on a lathe.

In the Stoke-on-Trent production process, the work of the turner was more important in making the final shape, and therefore contributing to its saleability, than that of the thrower, and I guess that he was more highly skilled therefore more highly paid.

My preference for throwing over turning, and that of most studio potters, comes partly from the fact that throwing is easier than turning. Good turning is immensely difficult. The skill of the craftsman in industry was, I believe, superior to that of the studio potter, and understandably so, because there was specialisation in the industry and everyone concentrated on his trade.

 

AN OLD POSTCARD OF STOKE ON TRENT

Writing about Wedgwood reminded me of the postcards that you used to get in the North Staffordshire Potteries  showing the town enveloped in smoke from bottle ovens, with ironic captions like, “Fresh air from the Potteries” and “Beautiful My Country”.

This series of postcards was published in the 1950s by Shaws of Wolstanton, though the photos are at least fifty years older.  Shaws had the negatives and the cards are marked “Guaranteed real photograph”.  The company got good sales from them for a long time, obviously appealing to self-deprecating potters and amused visitors.

Simeon Shaw, in his History of the North Staffordshire Potteries, written in 1829, described the filth produced by the bottle ovens:

“The vast volumes of smoke and vapours from the ovens, entering the atmosphere, produced that dense white cloud, which from about eight o’clock till twelve on the Saturday morning, (the time of firing-up, as it is called,) so completely enveloped the whole of the interior of the town, as to cause persons often to run against each other; travellers to mistake the road and strangers have mentioned it as extremely disagreeable, and not unlike the smoke of Etna and Vesuvius.”

When these postcards were circulating, bottle ovens had already been made obsolete by the rising price of coal and the Clean Air Act of 1958. Electric tunnel kilns had been in use from the 1920s and they were common after 1950. Bottle ovens were incredibly wasteful, 95% of the heat going up the chimney and only five per cent reaching the pottery. There were once four thousand bottle ovens in the Potteries. By 1950, two thousand were still in use. By the end of the 1960s there were none.  Forty-seven remain,  listed buildings and museum-pieces like the one at the Gladstone Pottery Museum.

As these coal-fired kilns were being pulled down, Donald Morris, a local school teacher, was rushing round with a camera, recording them as they disappeared, once arriving minutes after one of them had been demolished. Below is one of his atmospheric pictures, taken in Longton in 1958 before the site was cleared for a shopping precinct.

Longton, 1958.  (Donald Morris)
In the 1960s, some of Morris’s photos were published by students at Keele University in Unit magazine, of which I was art editor.  Two years later, under Tony Elliott’s direction, Unit went to London and morphed into Time Out.  Thirty years later, Morris finally published his collection of photos in The Potteries – A Photographic Record

What you see of a bottle oven is the outer skin, or hovel, protecting from the weather the fire-mouths within. Thousands of pots were placed within the inner cavity and the flames were drawn up through the wares by the chimney draught. To keep them clear of coal ash, the pots were put into fireclay boxes, called saggars, which were piled on top on one another in the kiln in a tall column.

Saggars being placed inside a bottle oven.
Each full saggar weighs about 25kg.
One of Morris’s photographic subjects was Fred Boulton, a saggar maker. His job was to shape the walls of the saggar round a wooden former and then attach it to the base. And, yes,  there was indeed someone called a saggar maker’s bottom knocker – the saggar maker’s less skilled assistant who hammered out a lump of clay to make the base for him.

Fred Boulton, saggar maker. (Donald Morris)

Pottery jobs were advertised in the Evening Sentinel. But you couldn’t find a job for anything as simple as a potter: you had to be a sponger, a dipper, a cranker, a fettler, a jollier, a pencil-bander, a blunger charger, a cup-mould runner, a large flat maker, a dust grinder or a back stamper.  As a result of specialisation and long practice, craftworkers in The Potteries had extraordinary abilities.  A thrower making teapots on the wheel, for example, could make seven in five minutes.  No studio potter could approach these people’s skill.

Specialization, by the way, has been a feature of pottery making from time immemorial and the “peasant potter” who did everything himself is a myth. The small workshop in which there is no division of labour is wholly a creation of 20th century studio pottery.  The uniquely satisfying nature of traditional craft work is also a myth, for pre-industrial potters often had to mass produce by hand at great speed, working for long hours in filthy conditions.

In Stoke on Trent everyone had some connection to the industry. I first started making pottery in the art room at Keele. The porter who unlocked it for me was a retired mould-maker. He took a professional interest in what I was doing, putting his hand into my clay bin and pronouncing with approval, “That’s a good, fat body.”

People used to say that the Potteries’ great misfortune was that it wasn’t bombed in the war. In 1970 it still had old-fashioned buildings and old-fashioned industries. In the 1980s there were government attempts at regeneration, notably the Stoke on Trent Garden Festival.  Now pottery employment has almost completely disappeared. In 2009, fifteen hundred jobs were lost at Wedgwood. Much tableware is now imported from China. However, in line with other manufacturing industries in Britain, the pottery industry has increased productivity, and I was told recently by the owner of small pottery in Stoke that although there were now few potters, the output of pottery is as high as ever.

Meakins’ works, Hanley, by the Cauldon Canal, before its bottle ovens
were demolished.  Now taken over by Emma Bridgewater. (Donald Morris)

Burslem, once grand in small way, looked to me on a recent visit, with all its demolition sites, as if it had been bombed.  In Hanley, at the old Meakins works, Emma Bridgewater, making her cheerful and popular tableware,  is one of the few local entrepreneurs to buck the trend, ensuring continuity of employment for spongers , fettlers, jolliers, back stampers, and maybe even saggar-maker’s bottom-knockers.

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HAND MADE TABLEWARE: GETTING BETTER ALL THE TIME

The curator at the Nantgarw Pottery museum in Wales demonstrates the use of the jolleying machine, 2006. A craft technique retained in industry or an industrial technique applied to craft?  © Marshall Colman

There was a good piece in Ceramic Review a couple of years ago about tableware and studio pottery. It showed two pieces of pottery by David Leach, a little fluted bowl and the same shape with a handle and a saucer. The bowl cost four times as much as the cup and saucer. The cup is tableware, the bowl is art.

It’s often said that tableware is dead. Few graduating ceramicists make tableware and many skilled makers have turned to art instead because they got tired of repetition throwing or couldn’t make a living from it. But how dead is tableware exactly?

The market for functional studio pottery can be measured. In the mid 1970s, over half the members of the Craft Potters Association (CPA) were making tableware, in the mid 1990s just over a third, today under a quarter. But although the proportion of makers has gone down, the number has gone up. There are more potters and more makers of tableware than ever. Apart from the members of the CPA (which represents about ten per cent of the ceramicists in Britain), there are thousands of potters making tableware for local markets. Some of them are unimaginative and technically weak, and the worst are an argument for factory-made pottery. But the best are very good. They are supplying a growing market for hand-made tableware that is worth tens of millions of pounds a year.

Why, then, is the market for tableware said to be dead? Partly because there was a time when “ceramics” was pretty well equivalent to “tableware”, which is not the case today. Partly because demand fluctuates with the economic cycle. Partly because few potters can make a living from it even at the best of times.

Studio pottery and factory pottery have more in common than the Arts and Craftsy studio potter liked to admit. There has always been an exchange between studio ceramics and the pottery industry, and it shows that hand-made tableware and factory-made tableware are complementary, not opposed to one another. Completely automated production is possible but many factories use quasi-craft techniques, and studio potters use some industrial methods. What distinguishes studio pottery from industrial pottery is not its methods but the fact that some studio potters make a fetish of method. The commonality of studio and factory is such that it’s impossible to say whether jigger-and-jolly is a craft technique retained in industry or an industrial technique applied to craft.

One of the only people to talk any sense about craft was David Pye. He pointed out what should have been obvious, that nothing is made by hand and that everything is made with tools. The distinction is not between hand made and machine made but between the type of motive force that drives the tool and the in way in which it is guided. In the making, the difference is not between craft and manufacture, but between the workmanship of risk and the workmanship of certainty. Things made with hand tools in small runs cannot always be distinguished by appearance from things made with power tools in long runs.

With rising standards of interior design and higher consumer spending, the market for tableware has become more varied and complex. Design-led retailers sell elegant, factory made ceramics that are just as good as studio ceramics and often better. Rather than competing with handmade tableware, this sort of ceramics has lifted the standard of handmade tableware. The new ceramics galleries of the Victoria and Albert Museum have a representative sample of studio pottery from its heyday in the 1950s, demonstrating how bad it was.  Consumers today expect to have a wide choice of good products, both mass-produced and hand made. Marketing events like Origin have helped to bring hand made tableware to this discerning public, to raise its price and, by selecting exhibitors, to raise craft standards as well.