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, 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 those of the studio potter, and understandably so, because there was specialisation in the industry and everyone concentrated on his trade.

 

WEDGWOOD’S CREAMWARE

Wedgwood creamware 1773
Wedgwood creamware, “Frog Service”, 1773 (Victoria and Albert Museum)

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.

WEDGWOOD’S VASES

BLACK JASPER VASE.jpg
Wedgwood Black Jasper Vase

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.

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 (II)

Etruria Hall
Photo: Jill Liddington

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.

TURNING EARTH STUDIOS

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.