The genius of Wedgwood pottery is celebrated by Tanya Harrod
For generations, Wedgwood set the standard for ceramics. Then the cracks appeared, as the company faced ruin. Its golden days are now celebrated in a new book and elegiac artworks, reports Tanya Harrod
To leafy Barlaston, Staffordshire, to see what remains of one of the greatest industrial enterprises created in these islands – founded by Josiah Wedgwood at Burslem, one of the six towns of Stoke-on-trent, in 1759.
In 2014, the fine Wedgwood Museum was in the news for all the wrong reasons. The magnificent collection of documents, ceramics, machinery and paintings were in danger of being sold off.
The Wedgwood firm, by then trading as Waterford Wedgwood, went into administration in 2009. By 2011, the High Court ruled that the Wedgwood Museum, whose employees were part of the Wedgwood company pension scheme, was liable for Waterford Wedgwood’s pension fund deficit, owed to eight thousand employees.
Despite being a charitable trust since the 1960s, the museum was caught out on the ‘last man standing’ principle, by which a solvent employer is held to be responsible for a multi-employer pension scheme, should anything go wrong.
That the collections were saved and given to the Victoria & Albert Museum on loan to Barlaston in perpetuity was due to the hard work of the Art Fund, the handsome contribution made by the Heritage Lottery Fund and, not least, money sent in by many hundreds of trusts and individuals during 2014 – when the deadline for the sale approached.
An industrial archive, however important, is never going to appear as glamorous as a single Old Master painting in our peculiar hierarchy of the arts. Outside the museum, there is a plaque with the names of some of the more generous contributors. It reads like a list of the truly good and disinterested.
The meltdown in 2009 shifts interest from the remarkable but well documented achievements of the great, 18th-century Josiah to his intellectual 20th-century namesake, Josiah Wedgwood V, who became director in 1930 and was the last family member to run the company.
Things were occasionally difficult but, between the wars, the firm was able to adjust to changing fashions – even if the Wedgwood product had been dismissed in 1905 by the art critic Roger Fry as contributing to ‘the final destruction’ of the art of pottery in England by setting a ‘standard of mechanical perfection’. The studio potters Bernard Leach and Michael Cardew, meanwhile, were infuriated that designers and artists such as the New Zealander Keith Murray,
Eric Ravilious and John Skeaping were employed to design for Wedgwood, instead of hands-on practitioners like themselves.
It was Josiah Wedgwood V who moved the Wedgwood works to Barlaston in the 1940s – just as Josiah I relocated his factory to a greenfield site near Hanley (another of the six Stoke towns) in 1769, christening it Etruria.
By the late 19th century, Etruria was a ramshackle affair, as HG Wells
noted on a visit in 1888. The buildings and bottle kilns were ‘the same that the immortal Josiah erected a century ago’ but disfigured by ‘extensions & innumerable patchy alterations’.
JB Priestley, visiting nearly 50 years later on a state-of-england tour, found Etruria much the same. Indeed, he was shocked by the general grottiness of all the six towns of Stoke-on-trent.
For the new Barlaston works, Josiah V appointed Keith Murray as the factory’s architect. He had already designed iconic vases for the firm, using bodies and glazes evolved by Wedgwood’s brilliant production director Norman Wilson (father of the writer AN Wilson).
Together, Josiah, Tom Wedgwood, Norman Wilson and Murray worked on the planning of a rational modernist factory, with no bottle kilns, powered entirely by electricity and with a hundred houses for workers.
When it opened after the Second World War, the future must have looked bright. The post-war variety of designs and the high standards at Wedgwood were impressive.
Even after the firm was floated on the stock market in 1966 (to the horror of Norman Wilson, but to the great financial gain of Josiah V, who then retired), the firm benefited from the financial acumen of Arthur Bryan, the first non-family member to become chairman of Wedgwood.
He was not merely a hard-headed businessman. Artists such as David Gentleman, Eduardo Paolozzi and Wendy Ramshaw were brought in. Glenys Barton, who made some wonderful bone china sculpture as a resident artist during 1976-77, recalls that it was Bryan who helped her realise her ideas.
Did Bryan let the firm down by overseeing the merger with loss-making Waterford Glass in 1986? He certainly ended his days a wealthy man while the workforce at Wedgwood was subsequently cut and cut again. Why did things go so wrong for Wedgwood after his retirement and, living as we do in a blame culture, who was to blame?
Today it is the museum that is the jewel in the crown of what is now marketed as ‘World of Wedgwood’. There is a showroom and shop, a canteen-inspired restaurant, a touchingly old-fashion ‘Tea Emporium’ and a Wedgwood factory tour.
This last offers a chance to reflect on our post-industrial Britain which, in turn, is neatly exemplified by the decline of our ceramics industry. What you see is not a factory running at full tilt, because much of Wedgwood’s production moved in 2006 to Indonesia, where labour costs are far, far cheaper. Ironically, skills in the Indonesian factory were learnt from Wedgwood employees who were then made redundant.
On the tour, we get factory life stripped out and being performed, impressively enough, with a handful of staff – making mugs on an automated jolly, putting transfers on to dinner ware, engaged in hand painting and raised paste gilding. A group of painters were working on a bespoke tea set for the Prince of Wales. Most of these ‘Prestige Wares’ go abroad.
There are turning lathes of the kind Josiah I made famous, but the factory tour is not the scene that greeted JB Priestley in 1934. He had a lovely time trying to lathe-turn some of the firm’s famous jasperware, followed by an attempt to throw a pot on a wheel – to the general merriment of crowds of employees.
Priestley came away impressed by the remarkable skills he witnessed and by something less expected – ‘I never saw people in any industrial area who looked more contented during their working hours than these Staffordshire folk… This is an industry that is still a craft.’
Two years ago, Fiskars, the old Finnish firm, founded as an ironworks in 1649, bought what is now called Waterford Wedgwood Royal Doulton. It might be that Fiskars will bring a fresh vision to Wedgwood. It surely needs a boost on the design side, Jasper Conran’s pleasant tableware notwithstanding.
But nothing will solve two problems. Firstly there is the high cost of labour in the United Kingdom as opposed to the Far East. Secondly, our eating regimes have become impossibly casual in a marketplace where few consumers properly appreciate Wedgwood’s high production standards.
A celebratory book by the museum’s curator, Gaye Blake-roberts – Wedgwood: A Story of Creation and Innovation – is beautifully produced, with exceptional photography and a good introduction by Alice Rawsthorn. The book covers A to Z, including the firm’s latest offering, Laura Burlington’s planters, an amusing take on Wedgwood jasperware.
The Wedgwood Factory Tour suggests that factories and the industrial realm are now exotic – so much so that Tate Modern is staging an installation entitled Factory, as a kind of beguiling, massified spectacle that promises ‘eight tonnes of clay, a wall of drying racks, and over 2,000 fired clay objects’.
Wedgwood’s memory also lives on in the work of the remarkable ceramicist Neil Brownsword. His career began as a tableware modeller at Wedgwood before going to art school in 1990. Since leaving the Royal College of Art, most of his work has commented on the industrial diminution of Stoke-on-trent.
From 2000, Brownsword created his installations Salvage Series 1 & 2 and Remnant, elegiac meditations on lost industrial skills. He turned the detritus of ceramic manufacture – drip trays and trivets, props and spurs used to support objects in the kiln, tangled strips of clay left after turning, collapsed and fused saggars, the ghostly residue left by the process of plaster-lining damaged moulds – into art and commentary. These projects were backed by photography and filming of skilled workers in the Potteries, whose jobs were on the line, and the destruction of factory buildings in Stoke’s six towns.
Brownsword’s recent Re-apprenticed, staged at the 2015 British Ceramics Biennale, at the V&A and at the Ashmolean Museum, is a particularly haunting example of his work. Brownsword honours the division of labour in the ceramics industry that had been so deplored by ivory-tower artistpotters such as Bernard Leach.
His related project Factory (not to be confused with the Tate Modern project), was staged in Korea earlier this year, and it will be reprised at Barlaston as part of the 2017 British Ceramics Biennale (which started on 23rd September and ends on 5th November). It is a homecoming for Brownsword.
There is nothing nostalgic about Factory. Floyd and Adam teach us about delicacy of touch and our intangible cultural heritage. Under Brownsword’s direction, we see the tragic dimension of the marginalisation of their skills.
Factory poses questions that affect us all – what happens when what we know becomes valueless, when what we once did becomes redundant.
‘Wedgwood: A Story of Creation and Innovation’ by Gaye Blake-roberts and Alice Rawsthorn has just been published (Rizzoli, £45)
‘Today, the museum is the jewel in the crown of what is now “World of Wedgwood”’
Traditional bottle kilns, preserved at Stoke-on-trent