Story and photos by Manos Angelakis
Moorcroft Bishop & Lovatt vase images courtesy W. Moorcroft Ltd.,
North Staffordshire is the heart of the celebrated English pottery industry. Unfortunately, pottery production is now a shadow of its former self; it employs just 6,000 individuals in an industry that only 25 years ago used to occupy over 60,000 residents in full time jobs. The once familiar Stoke-on-Trent provenance has been dying out as world-famous brands are disappearing from the marketplace and factories are been abandoned, closed down or combined. Unfortunately this is not just a local phenomenon. Germany, another country which has been producing world-collectible crystal, porcelain and bone china for centuries, has seen manufacturers with a long history being absorbed into other companies, sold or just closed. And France is unfortunately following suit.
The decorative European porcelain industry started in the late 16th century when traders traveling the Silk Road brought back from Cathay (China) fine decorated porcelains from the Far East to grace the palaces and tables of Royal houses and European aristocracy. Porcelain from China and Japan represented wealth, importance, and refined taste. As the competition for prestige between the European monarchies heated up, demand for these decorative products also grew. King August II of Poland, Elector of Saxony “invited” Johann Friedrich Böttger an alchemist who was assisting Ehrenfried Walther von Tschirnhaus - a mathematician and scientist experimenting with producing hard-paste porcelain - to create a factory that would supply decorative items and tableware to the Elector’s palace. In 1709, the Elector established the first European hard-paste porcelain manufacturer by placing Böttger's laboratory at Albrechtsburg Castle in Meissen. Production started officially in 1710.
Augustus' patronage attracted to Meissen some of the finest painters and sculptors throughout Europe, as staff artists. The first successful ornamental items had gold decorations applied upon the fired body and finely engraved, before they received a second firing at a lower temperature. Multicolor enameled painting imitating oriental designs was introduced by Johann Gregorius Höroldt in 1723, with an extensive palette of colors in what is now viewed as a fanciful chinoiserie style. This marked the beginnings of the classic, much coveted, Meissen porcelain.
Least you think industrial espionage is a modern treachery, Samuel Stöltzel, a kiln master at Meissen, stole and sold to Claude Innocentius du Paquier, a minor court official in the court of Vienna, the secret recipe developed by Böttger. By 1717, a competing factory, part of the Viennese Imperial Palace, was set up by du Paquier. By 1780 about 50 porcelain manufacturers were operating in Europe. Each Palace had its own porcelain workshop, which is the reason many of today's better known brands have the words “Royal” or “Imperial” as part of their name.
The formation of a solid middle class in Europe during the 19th century expanded the demand for high quality decorative porcelain and crystal to decorate their residences. They were not aristocrats… they did not have palaces… but they desired to decorate their homes the same way the aristocracy did.
During the Victorian and Edwardian eras, the demand for decorative items and elaborately designed homeware continued to grow throughout Europe. In England, numerous entrepreneurs opened porcelain factories and decorating workshops in the Stoke-on-Trent area where clay, sand, wood, coal, and other source material was readily available. Numerous well regarded artists and artisans were hired to create forms and designs, and by the early 1900s there were over 100 factories and workshops operating in towns around Stock-on-Trent. While a number of the best known producers are no longer in business and exist today only as antique collectables or brands produced by other factories, for example Royal Doulton, Minton, Meakin, Royal Worcester, Coalport, Spode etc., others still operate here and create exceptionally beautiful products.
Wedgwood Drive, Barlaston,
Stoke-on-Trent ST12 9ER
+44 (0)1782 282986
As part of our visit to The Potteries, as the area centered on Stoke-on-Trent is still known, we visited the Josiah Wedgwood & Sons factory that late in 2008 re-opened a redesigned museum on the Wedgwood Barlaston campus. Wedgwood is now part of the Waterford Crystal, Wedgwood, Royal Albert and Royal Doulton Group currently owned by Fiscars of Finland, a consumer goods producer that also owns a number of well known porcelain and glassware producers such as Royal Copenhagen, Arabia and Iittala. Thanks to meticulous production and design notes, and samples that the Wedgwood family and the factory managers had retained throughout the years, the museum now houses a very impressive collection, from very early products created in the 1800s, to items from the current lines.
The handsome Barlaston campus also contains the present-day factory where decorative items, homeware and jewelry are still created by skilled artisans based on techniques and craftsmanship developed in the mid-18th century. Part of the current collection includes designs by Jasper Conran and Vera Wang. We arrived late from London on a Friday and only had sufficient time to visit the museum and no time to do the factory tour that is one of the most interesting parts of a visit (I did that tour 6 years ago). But if you are interested in iconic premium dinnerware or porcelain decorative items, a guided tour of the factory is indeed a must.
Please note that even though the majority of the tableware designs created up to the mid-2010s have been retired and are no longer in regular production, I have been told that once a year and on special order, the factory will fabricate fill-in plates, platters, and other serving pieces of the retired tableware designs so that replacements are still available to complete a Wedgwood dinning set!
Moorcroft Heritage Visitor Centre
Sandbach Road, Burslem, Stoke-on-Trent ST6 2DQ
+44 (0)1782 820500
The highlight of our Stoke-on-Trent trip was a visit to a little known producer of very collectible pottery art, Moorcroft. Moorcroft is a “creator of art pottery, fiercely independent, small and almost alone in its pursuit of quality at the highest level” to quote their promotional material. They have been creating exceptional collectible art pieces for more than a century.
The company was originally founded as a studio in 1897 within a larger ceramic company James Macintyre & Co. Designs came from 24 year old William Moorcroft who personalized each piece of pottery with his own signature or initials. In 1912, Moorcroft moved his staff to his own factory in the town of Burslem, where Moorcroft pottery is still made today. Money for the company came from Liberty of London, and Liberty continued to control Moorcroft until 1962. W. Moorcroft Ltd., is now controlled by the Edwards family, and has been since 1993.
Catherine Edwards, the daughter of the present owner, is Director of Marketing and Publicity, and she was at hand to guide us through the workshop and studio. Every piece is hand-decorated from start to finish and signed… it is an amazing process and can be seen by appointment. It is a fascinating view into a bygone time before assembly line production. The production technique is unique and is reminiscent of a vividly colored cloisonné piece, but made out of clay. Many of the designs are in an Art Nouveau style, and are created in limited and/or numbered small-production editions. While every item is a valued and valuable piece of art, sadly it also means that each design has a limited life. We met four of the currently five full time and two part time designers.
Rachel Bishop, a very talented young artist, is the Senior Designer in the team and her Art Nouveau styled writhing plants and flowers grace many of the best-selling Moorcroft collector pieces. Also at the meeting was Vicky Lovatt, another of the talented young designers whose clarity of design lines and imaginative use of color makes her work very desirable for Moorcroft collectors. Emma Bossons FRSA, is the only artist in the studio with a formal fine-arts education; her Queens Choice and Anemone Tribute (dedicated to the late Walter Moorcroft) are vivid examples of high quality decorative art. Paul Hilditch has an impressive oeuvre of work and we were fortunate to watch him at work fashioning one of his creations.
Time did not allow us to visit any of the other still operating factories. In order to get a good overview give yourself at least five full days for exploring this fascinating industry.
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