SOPHIE CONRAN TABLEWARE

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.

THINGS OF BEAUTY GROWING

c-Estate-of-Lucie-Rie-1024x821
Lucie Rie tableware. (Estate of Lucie Rie)

I went to see the Fitzwilliam exhibition Things of Beauty Growing: British Studio Pottery for the second time.

One of the changes that has taken place in studio pottery in the years since I first became interested in it is that it has become a topic of academic study, a fact regretted by the more downright potters, but a development that has put it into its proper artistic and historical context. We have come a long way from the early books, which simply listed the author’s favourite potters. Oliver Watson’s survey of the Victoria and Albert Museum’s collection (1990) was the first dispassionate account, and Jeffrey Jones’s Studio Pottery in Britain (2007) established a scholarly discourse. Glenn Adamson, Martina Droth and Simon Olding, the curators of this exhibition, develop that discourse.

The individual art pot dominates this show, but there is a small section devoted to tea-sets and coffee-sets, including sets by Leach, Lucie Rie (above), Ruth Duckworth (a very 1950s-style collection made before she turned to sculpture), an abysmally bad coffee-set by Roger Fry, and high-quality factory-made sets designed by Susie Cooper and Keith Murray, the architect-trained designer whose modernist shapes were manufactured by Wedgwood. The latter call into question the studio potter’s insistence at the time that factory-made pottery was bad and meretricious.

The exhibits of tableware point to the dialogue that took place on and off between the crafts and industry between the 1920s and the 1970s, and the discussions in the crafts about whether the craftsman had a contribution to make to manufacturing. It was inconclusive, rarely productive and sometimes acrimonious. It is not explained in the exhibition but it is discussed in an essay by Tanya Harrod in the accompanying book.

In the the post-war decades potters became preoccupied with repetition throwing. Some vaguely imagined that craft pottery might replace factory-made pottery and potters like Harry Davis, those at Briglin, and Leach’s young assistants mass-produced by hand. But by the end of the ‘sixties, government realised that the crafts had little to offer industry and passed responsibility for them from the Board of Trade (where it had rested since the 1920s) to the Department of Education.

By the 1980s, the market for hand-made tableware was in decline and studio potters had aligned themselves with the arts rather than industry. Now few think studio pottery has much to say about manufacturing, though a notable exception is Sophie Conran’s popular “Pebble” range, which has a deliberately hand-made look and was in fact designed for her by British studio potter.

 

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.

 

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.

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.”

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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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.