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Industry and Design
The densely decorated platter commemorating Queen Victoria’s jubilee year of 1887 announces the precise import and export figures for 1885, in addition to reminding us of the extent of the Empire upon which ‘the sun never sets’. This would have taken pride of place in a Victorian sitting room, and perhaps to a family who fifty years earlier would have struggled to afford ornamental, non-functional objects.
In defiance of Victorian progress and industrialisation is a jug celebrating the Jolly Ribbon Weavers of Coventry. This too would have been a cherished piece for the home, but on this occasion, its owner’s pride is borne out in the personal intervention with object. Over the transfer-printed images of frolicking cherubim, images of weavers and looms have been scratched.
Paul Scott’s plate Closed Spode Shops (2009/2011) is also an intervention. By screenprinting on salvaged bone china from the defunct factory, he comments on the continuing decline of England’s manufacturing base.
The simple, unadorned, unique, humble pot evades easy definition. Soetsu Yanagi attempted to do so when he founded the Mingei, or folk craft movement in ceramics in Japan in the mid1920s.
‘It must be made by an anonymous craftsman or woman and therefore unsigned: it must be functional, simple, and have no excess ornamentation; it must be one of many similar pieces and must be inexpensive; it must be unsophisticated; it must reflect the region it was made in; and it must be made by hand.’
Both young and aristocratic, Soetsu’s philosophy was as much based on his knowledge of western thought and the socialist thinking of William Morris as it was about eastern philosophy and mysticism. Bernard Leach knew and admired Soetsu’s ideas, which in turn drove his own thinking and the development of studio pottery during the 20th century. That Leach and his followers signed and sold much of their work for substantial sums of money and exhibited in museums alongside contemporary artists somewhat problematises their advocacy of the ‘ethical pot’.
Britain has a noble tradition of social commentary through caricature and satire, assisted in part by the sense of growing political freedoms since the 17th century. William Hogarth was the most prominent satirist of the 18th century, and artists such as James Gillray, Isaac Cruikshank and his son George continued this tradition in the 19th century through prints, book illustrations and broadsheets, which were at times also adapted for transfer printing onto mass-produced ceramics.
Politicians remain favoured subjects for derision, from a tiny Napoleon characterised as the ‘Corsican Monkey’ being ‘shewed off’ or engulfed by an enormous muzzled bear, to Gordon Brown as a toby jug chancellor pilfering sacks of cash. The monarchy has also long been fair game for satirists, with Steve Bell’s mug commemorating the birth of a future king as just ‘another royal mouth to feed.’
The Human Form
The 800-year-old face jug was excavated at a priory near Nuneaton and is a fine example of the anthropomorphisation of medieval vessels that was widespread in Britain and in parts of Europe. Its function would have been celebratory and ceremonial, though a specific reading of the iconography is now lost.
The Peruvian vessel in the shape of a head would also have had a ceremonial function, but this time of a votive or totemic nature as it was found at a burial site and would have served to provide sustenance in the afterlife.
Picasso’s two large unique face-plates acknowledge his longstanding fascination with the mask and notions of primitivism. They were made quickly, while the white clay was still very malleable to achieve a highly expressive surface. Produced towards the end of his life when he made many self-portraits, they seem to be an acknowledgment of the deterioration of ageing.
The authenticity of the small Mesopotamian figure is now questioned, but that it belonged to the sculptor Jacob Epstein, denotes its value.
Trade and Taste
China was the first country in the world to produce porcelain over 800 years ago. A large variety of patterns and decoration were specifically developed for the export market often rendering European scenes or symbols in distinctive Chinese style and context. By contrast, the ubiquitous ‘willow pattern’ was designed in Stoke on Trent around 1790 and is based on an English story with no links to China at all, and remains in production today.
The high levels of output of handmade ceramics in England, Europe and China meant the cross-fertilisation of style, taste and fashion through global trade between the 16th and mid 18th centuries, but the purchase of imported goods remained the preserve of the wealthy.
The mass production of ceramics in Staffordshire grew to its height from 1800 to 1860. Serial methods of production and decoration enabled the potteries to standardise their wares and keep costs significantly lower so that more and more people were able to buy English versions of a Chinese idea of British taste for an exoticised East.
Human Rights, Protest, Conflict
Josiah Wedgwood (1730-1795) was an industrialist, nonconformist and a Quaker, and was deeply committed to the movement for the abolition of the slave trade. His anti-slavery medallion was produced in its thousands and distributed widely and freely – including many to Benjamin Franklin to disseminate and promote the abolitionist cause in the United States.
The figures of Uncle Tom, based on the highly popular eponymous novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe (1852), and John Brown, the American abolitionist and killer of five slave supporters who advocated violent insurrection as the only way to defeat slavery, were produced in the mid 19th century when slavery was still legal and widespread. They indicate the level to which human rights issues comfortably found expression within domestic English society.
The small cup and saucer dates from the 1770s and has been appropriated and re-worked by Paul Scott to commemorate the deaths of 23 Chinese cockle pickers in Morecombe Bay in 2004. A tragedy that underlines the fact that slavery exists in the 21st century.
Great numbers of women worked in the Staffordshire pottery industry, primarily as ‘paintresses’ to decorate the pots. The conditions tended to be better than many other industries in the 19th century and their highly skilled labour was acknowledged if not well rewarded.
A number of iconic images of unclad women became popular subjects, such as Lady Godiva, the heroine of Coventry folklore, and also classical figures including Venus, who is seen emerging from the sea. This is a subject that Picasso has also picked up on in his hand painted plate from the Madoura pottery in the south of France.