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

The Oldie - - NEWS -

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

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