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 (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.”

 

 

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.

GORDON BALDWIN IN STOKE-ON-TRENT

Gordon Baldwin

Gordon Forsyth, who I wrote about yesterday, was well-known to Dora Billington, who taught at the Central School of Arts and Crafts for thirty-five years and who is also famous for her sympathies with factory pottery; but she had an ambivalent attitude towards her home town of Stoke-on-Trent and I don’t believe she ever worked there after leaving Hanley art school in 1912. Nevertheless, after the second world war she made a term in The Potteries a compulsory part of the course at the Central.

The history of studio potters offering their talents to industry is not happy. Michael Cardew, who we think of as one of the most anti-industry potters, was inspired by a temporary interest in Marxism to work in one of the Stoke-on-Trent potteries, but they considered his work too “Art and Crafty”. Lucie Rie had a better relationship with Wedgwood, but her prototypes were not put into production. David Queensberry started on the Central course in the early ‘fifties but found that no-one there knew anything about designing for industry and transferred to Robert Baker’s course at the RCA.

Gordon Baldwin told me about his experience as one of Billington’s students. “We all had a sort of down on what had gone on in Stoke-on-Trent,” he said. “We were breaking free of Leach, we were breaking free of Stoke-on-Trent, doing all manner of things.” But he enjoyed his term at Burslem art school, visiting potteries, finding out about industrial techniques, sitting in in with paintresses, learning rosebud painting and how to put on transfers, all of which he used in a different way.

GORDON FORSYTH: "20th CENTURY CERAMICS"

László Hradszki posted a picture on Facebook of a tile by István Gádor with a leaping horse that he’d bought recently. As it happens, I’d been looking at another picture of this tile (above) (or, more likely, another cast from the same mould) in Gordon Forsyth’s book 20th Century Ceramics, published by The Studio in 1936.

20th Century Ceramics is a good account, one of the best ever written, because it’s an even-handed survey of both factory and studio pottery and it covers studio pottery from around the world in an impartial manner. Forsyth was principal of the Stoke-on-Trent schools of art and a fine designer, known particularly for his decorations in lustre for Pilkington, rather in the style of William de Morgan.

The book covers pottery from Britain, the USA, Austria, China, Denmark, France, Germany, Holland, Hungary, Italy, Japan, Poland, Sweden and Switzerland. It’s good on Hungarian and Italian potters. The Hungarians are Gádor, Géza Gorka, Margit Kovács and Lili Márkus. I was interested to see some of Kovács’s vessels (above), as she is known mainly for her sculpture, but these vessels are decorative pieces rather than tableware. Forsyth shows a bias towards studio pottery in his coverage of the continent, unlike his excellent coverage of the best British factory pottery, and there is nothing from the well-known factories of Herendt or Zsolnay. The Italian potters are Guido Andlovitz and others of the Società Ceramica Italiana, Dante Baldelli, the Cantagalli pottery, Industria Ceramica Salernitana, Giuseppe Mazzetti, Ugo Zaccagnini and others of the Monteolivito pottery, Mario Morelli, Gio Ponti, Ricardo Ginori, and Luigi Zortea. From Austria, there is pottery made by Lucie Rie (below) before she left for London.

Forsyth occupied that thought-provoking position between factory and studio pottery and he expressed views that were common in the 1930s:

“A wholly artificial gulf has been created between the studio potter and the large-scale manufacturer. Sometimes studio pottery is dismissed as being ineffective “Art and Crafty” productions, technically defective. This is in the main wholly erroneous and unjust criticism of studio potters, but it is equally erroneous for studio potters to think that all manufacturers are Philistines and only concerned with commercial and technical success. 

“We feel very strongly that progress in industry has been considerably retarded by unbalanced enthusiasts on both sides, and the time has now arrived for co-operation between the individual experimenter and his collaboration with large-scale producers. The position at the moment is that all such stupid prejudice that has hitherto kept artists and manufacturers apart should be immediately dropped, and that industrialists must find a solution of the problem of incorporating the best artists that can be found and bring them into industry. 

“Many of our first-class studio potters who at present are having a struggle as individual manufacturers could be well employed within mass production concerns without loss of their own individuality or lowering their own ideals, and with far larger scope and far greater security than they at present enjoy. We look forward to the time when there will be no gulf between the studio potters and the manufacturers.”

POTTERY THROWERS OF STOKE-ON-TRENT

I bought a pottery wheel and several other items from an old potter who is retiring, and among them were these slate throwers’ ribs from Minton’s, the factory where he used to work.

Throwers, who form pots on a rapidly spinning wheel, use these ribs to impart shape and a smooth surface to them. In Stoke-on-Trent the thrower was mainly concerned with the inside shape, and the usual practice was to take the pot when it was firm enough to handle and to impart the outside shape on a lathe.

In Hanley Museum there’s a picture of a thrower, George Myatt, at work at Lockett’s in 1932, with his wife as his assistant, and on the wall behind him there’s a large collection of throwing ribs (below).

In the 1970s Myatt was interviewed by Dr Gordon W.Elliott, who asked him to explain what a rib was.

G.M. The rib is a piece of slate, school slates were always the best, made to represent the inside of the article. They were filed exactly to shape the inside of the article, and the thrower held the rib in his left hand and made it smooth inside. The thrower finished the inside of the article, and the turner shaped the outside. The rib made it that the inside was finished.

G.W.E. Did you make your own ribs?

G.M. Yes, we all made our own ribs because ribs are like pens. It’s very rare that you can use another man’s ribs, very rare.

G.W.E. Is this why so many were inscribed with the thrower’s, or at least, maker’s name?

G.M. Yes, you will find some of mine and some that I left at Wedgwood that have got my name on them.

G.W.E. Was this so that other people wouldn’t take them? 

G.M. It was just that you liked to think that if you had a good rib you’d put your name on it. There was one glorious rib that I had at Lockett’s. It was one of very few ribs that I could use straight away, and it had been made by a man name Jess Amison. On the back of it said “William so and so, born so and so, died so and so. He was a good and generous master.”

G.W.E. So you actually used that rib for your throwing at Wedgwood’s?

 G.M. I did and it’s at Wedgwood’s now. I wish I’d never left it there.

G.W.E. So what was the usual number of ribs for a thrower to have?

G.M. You had a rib for everything you made. I’d got hundreds. You’ll find that at the back of that picture there’s a wall of ’em. You’d got everything egg cups, vases, mortars, every mortal thing that you made, you had a rib for it.

G.W.E. Were the slate ribs preferred to ribs in pottery? I mention this because some that I have seen were actually made from fragments of plates.

G.M. That was before they had any kind of refined slate. They’d even make them from roofing tiles at one time. I had quite a few of those made of earthenware. Yes, quite a lot in the early 19th century were made of earthenware. They were plates that had been trimmed off and made perfect. You had to soak them before they could be used otherwise they stuck to the clay as it went round.


My Minton ribs date from the 1930s, the same date as George Myatt’s picture, and they give me a physical connection to the old throwers of Stoke-on-Trent. Two of them have the thrower’s name on them: S. Lawley. One – the second from the left in my top picture – formed chocolate cups for Tiffany’s of New York. To me it looks like an outside profile, not an inside one – in my picture it’s upside down in relation to the cup (left) so that you can see S. Lawley’s name on it.

Minton’s were one of the old pottery firms that went through mergers before winding up and disappearing completely. They had a grand history and produced top-class work over a long period. After the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, they recruited Louis Solon from Sevres, who was responsible for some of their finest work.

By the 1930s much pottery in Stoke-on-Trent was cast in moulds, but throwers were still employed. In this film from 1935 about the making of silver jubilee mugs, a thrower starts the process by forming a rough pot on the wheel. It’s then dropped into a mould and shaped in a jolleying machine. In this case, the thrower doesn’t have to work precisely but he has to work at speed. He has a helper who forms the ball of clay for him and lifts the pot off the wheel; he centres the clay, opens it out, pulls it up and cuts it off, all in seven seconds. That’s 480 cups an hour – over 3,000 a day if he can keep it up that long.


Stoke-on-Trent throwers were faster and better than studio potters. As a child, I was fascinated by the BBC TV interval film of the potter’s wheel, which may have sparked my interest in pottery, but looking at it again recently I realised that the potter, George Aubertin of the Compton Potter’s Art Guild, was actually a rather bad thrower. More recently, at the exhibition Anarchy and Beauty: William Morris and his Legacy, I saw a film of Bernard Leach throwing and was surprised to see how slow he was, although a bit of a show off. Leach’s best pupil, Michael Cardew, also appears in this film to be slow and laboured.

The Stoke-on-Trent throwers and the studio potters had little to do with one another. In the 1970s George Myatt was completely unaware of studio pottery. His comment on the decline of his trade was, “Today I think there’s only about four or five throwers in England.” Actually, there were hundreds, but he could run rings round them all.

Paul Atterbury and Maureen Batkin, The Dictionary of Mintons, ACC Art Books, 1999
Gordon Elliott, Potters, Leek: Chernet Valley Books, 2004 
Fiona MacCarthy, Anarchy & Beauty: William Morris and his Legacy, London: National Portrait Gallery, 2014_______________________________________________
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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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"POTTERY: FOR USE AND ORNAMENT." AN ENCYCLOPAEDIA ARTICLE FROM THE 1920s

This is where it all started for me: an article in Harmsworth’s Universal Encyclopaedia.  It was my father’s, and on rainy days in the school holidays I would browse in it. The encyclopaedia was published by Lord Northcliffe, the newspaper magnate who founded the Daily Mail, and was edited by John Hammerton. It first came out as a fortnightly serial, then in a twelve-volume edition in 1922.  There were articles about First World War soldiers, with stiff studio photos, colour plates showing flags of all nations, philosophical essays on Aristotle and Plato, and this article, Pottery: For Use and Ornament, written by H.Barnard and E.G.Harmer.

Hammmerton edited many reference works but was proudest of the Universal Encyclopaedia, which sold twelve million copies in the English-speaking world and was translated into six languages.  Barnard worked for Wedgwood, and at the time he wrote this article was curator of the Wedgwood Museum.

I first read it when I was about nine.  Barnard’s historical survey went over my head, but Harmer’s technical account interested me.  I went out into the garden, smashed a flowerpot to dust, mixed it with water and wondered why I couldn’t make it into clay again. (In case you’re wondering, at 573 degrees Celsius an irreversible physical change occurs in the quartz that is part of the clay.) This interested was stimulated by the 3-minute film of The Potter’s Wheel that BBC TV put on at the time, to cover the gap between programmes.

I had a passing interest in pottery when I did A-level art, but it wasn’t taught.  There was a kick wheel in the art room, a stand-up wheel with a treadle.  You balanced on one foot and kicked the treadle with the other, rocking backwards and forwards all the time.  In this attitude you were supposed to make something.  These wheels were designed to put beginners off pottery.  They are still being made for reasons impossible to guess. From the school library I borrowed Practical Pottery and Ceramics by the ceramist Kenneth Clark, a useful, modernist introduction. Then I went to Keele University, near the north Staffordshire potteries, and learned to work in clay in a studio in the univesity.

Now it’s possible to read Harmsworth’s online, and I discovered Barnard and Harmer again, where it all began.  The article is a very good summary and stands up well after ninety years.

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WEDGWOOD’S "BUTTERFLY BLOOM" AND SUBVERSIVE DESIGN

Plates from Wedgwood’s “Butterfly Bloom” range













Wedgwood’s current design Butterfly Bloom illustrates the constant trade between artists and industry, the studio and the factory, that takes place in ceramics.


Butterfly Bloom celebrates and recapitulates Wedgwood’s 250-year history, taking elements of traditional transfer-printed designs and, in effect, quoting them on contemporary products by arranging fragments of them asymmetrically.  It’s a clever trick, remaining well within the range of what is acceptable to the customers of this venerable company.  As Wedgwood says, it is “Perfect for that indulgent little oasis of calm in a hectic schedule, or for sociable gatherings with friends.”

The design introduces into mainstream manufacture a device that has been used by the ceramic artist Paul Scott for over twenty years.  Scott uses traditional transfer-printed North Staffordshire pottery to make social and artistic comments.  Well-established designs, like Willow Pattern and Spode’s Italian, that had become redolent of vicars’ tea parties and everything nice, have been subverted by Scott, who reproduces them precisely but with small alterations – for example, by putting wind turbines in a cottage landscape, or showing the Spode Works with a “Closed” sign on the gate.

Paul Scott, “After Bypass”

Paul Scott, “Cocklepickers”

Transfer printing was first used in the mid-18th century as a way of putting engraved designs on to pottery.  When Scott’s book on Ceramics and Print came out in 1994, the technique was confined to industrial manufacture and few studio potters used it.  Since then, there has been an explosion in printing on ceramics by artists, probably the best-known of whom is Grayson Perry, who combines sprigging, sgraffito, underglaze printing and transfers on his complex decorated surfaces.

Now, the subversion of transfer printing has itself become such a cliché that it can be reversed into the industry to produce Wedgwood’s charming and inoffensive Butterfly Bloom.