ART IN CLAY, HATFIELD

lukacs-ringel-vase

I usually list my top ten potters from the annual ceramics festival at Hatfield, but this year I’m just posting a picture of a vase I bought from Susanne Lukács-Ringel. Her studio is in the south of Germany where she fires in a multi-chamber, wood-fuel kiln. The variegated surface on this beautiful faceted vase is created entirely by the flying wood ash, which volatilizes at high temperatures and then condenses on the pots, colouring them with random patterns from the minerals it carries.

VOLTAGE DIP

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As my kiln is very big, I bought a tiny kiln like this for glaze tests. It’s even useful for small items, for example, when I had a commission for a bowl from St Albans Cathedral and didn’t want to wait till the big kiln was full.

I’ve been working furiously for shows over the summer, making use of both kilns, and the other day the little kiln mysteriously turned itself off in the middle of a firing and the big kiln went slow.

James Otter of Potclays, who made the small kiln, suggested numerous possible reasons for the failure, but none seemed to apply. Then, prompted by the fact that both kilns failed at once, he suggested voltage dip, a temporary reduction in the power supply. I’d never heard of voltage dip before and it’s not something that troubles the domestic consumer much, but firing the little kiln again and finding that everything was back to normal suggested that it was indeed the reason for its stalling in the first place, perhaps precipitated by heavy consumption during the heatwave

WEDGWOOD’S ETRURIA

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.

Wedgwood Etruria 1966 M Colman

There is a picture (below) taken from a similar angle when the factory was in use:

Wedgwood Etruria roundhouse

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.”

Shugborough Hall

WEDGWOOD’S HOUSE (III)

Wedgwood-works Ewart Morris
Wedgwood’s works at Etruria by the Trent and Mersey Canal. (Photo: Ewart Morris)

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.”

 

 

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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