Renowned the world over for its impressive history of ceramics production, British pottery is some of the most distinctive and enduring in the world. Emma Johnson visits the home of British pottery to meet the makers.
From the Utilitarian earthenware of the mid-1600s, through the delicate decorative pieces of the 18th and 19th century, to the clean modern lines of contemporary ceramics, British pottery has always had its home in the norther town of Stoke-on-Trent. The abundance of coal in the area, needed to fire the bottlekilns, and the good quality local clay, ensured that British pottery has been made and produced here for over four centuries. Today, it is still home to the likes of Wedgwood, Portmeirion, Emma Bridgewater, Burleigh and Moorcroft, and its reputation for pottery has certainly endured. Even local football team Stoke City are affectionately known throughout the game as ‘the Potters’. It was Wedgewood, founded by Josiah Wedgwood (1730 – 95), who revolutionised the “Potteries” – as Stoke on Trent is also known – with his creation of a more refined type of pottery, known as “Queen’s Ware”, and from here new glazing techniques, more decorative skills and vibrant colours (including the rich, cobalt blue colour so tied up with British ceramic production) began to be introduced. In the late 1800s, Doulton started to produce pottery pieces as art, while at the same time other producers were developing their work with porcelain, and it was around this time that the likes of Royal Worcester, Spode (famed for its bone china) and Davenport became established names.
At the start of the 20th century Stoke-on-Trent was still one of the world’s largest ceramic producing hubs with hundreds of factories manufacturing everything from dinner services for royalty to toilets for the war effort. Today, the factories that remain here have changed very little, and the tradition of British pottery has never really faltered. While through the years, techniques have changed, machines have modernised and skills and tastes have evolved, the reputation and quality connected with British pottery has never wavered. “It is very important to me and the business that all of our pottery is made in Stoke-On-Trent following Staffordshire traditions,” says renowned potter Emma Bridgewater whose distinctive printed designs have become a key part of the British pottery lexicon. Most of Emma Bridgewater’s production work is done by hand, and each piece is individually decorated using sponges, so that they are all slightly different, keeping that handcrafted feel, despite the incredible commercial success of her business, worth £11 million in 2010.
Bridgewater’s company is one of the largest employers in Stoke-on-Trent, employing over 250 people, who are responsible for making and decorating over 35,000 pieces each week. “It’s brilliant to see our England manufacturing skills being re-discovered,” Bridgewater says. “Manufacturing in England is still possible with fantastic results, and it’s important to let everyone know about those remarkable technical skills.” Bridgewater started her business 1985, after wanting to buy a cup and saucer for her mother and not finding anything she liked. “That was my eureka moment,” she explains. “I realised there was a gap in the market for pottery that was beautiful and practical – pottery that reflected the relaxed, colourful, mismatched home I’d grown up in.” And so, Emma Bridgewater was born, and today it welcomes over 20,000 people a year to its factory for their renowned factory tours, a chance to experience how her unique pieces of pottery are made and the extent to which so much of it is still handcrafted. “We have had three unbelievably enjoyable Royal visits to our factory, which made everybody that works for us so happy – but actually, I think, showing anyone around what we do in Stoke is a real pleasure because it is such a very compelling and exciting idea that we can still make what people want in Britain”. Some of Bridgewater’s classic designs include her distinctive polka dots and yearly festive motifs, as well as the birds and garden-inspired pieces which are designed by her design partner husband Matthew Rice. “Inspiration could come from anywhere, but normally just from things we have encountered whilst traveling, or around the house and garden. My husband and I are keen gardeners, and in late summer Matthew is particularly devoted to the tomatoes in his greenhouse which have inspired a best-selling pasta bowl. Our life revolves around our home and I think the main thing is that we design things that we would like to have in it.”
While Bridgewater is a modern brand using ancient techniques, there are some companies that are still using the skills handed down through years, and which have been unique to them for centuries. British favourite Burleigh – who has its home at Middleport Factory in Stoke-on- Trent – is now the only pottery in Britain – and, in fact, the world – to decorate their pieces underglaze with tissue transfers. The technique means all Burleigh china, despite being often delicate or intricately designed, is also dishwasher and microwave safe, and has been since long before these machines were invented. It also means that Burleigh is one of the only British ceramics companies that is still truly and completely handmade. “It’s a tricky and highly skilled process, but it means we can decorate the parts others simply can’t,” explains creative director Steven Moore, referring to the fact that Burleigh pottery often has decorated handles, bases or design that effortlessly flows onto both sides of the china. Famous for their blue and white designs, which have echoes of many of the quintessential British ceramics, both their distinctive Asiatic Pheasants and Arden range have been in continuous production since at least 1862, while their Calico and Regal Peacock designs have a timeless quality, invigorated by the addition of new colours, such as black and dove grey. Collectors tend to build up their Burleigh range, which – like Emma Bridgewater – can be used together due to a strong design eye and a commonality of style that runs throughout. Perhaps most icnonic are their teapots, which Moore explains are also unique. “A Burleigh teapot is different from most other teapots. We still hand-insert grids into the spouts, which most other makers have abandoned – this regulates the flow of tea. And, because we hand-finish our spouts too, a Burleigh teapot has an elegant flow, not a dribble.”
Of course, for some companies, British ceramics is more about being inspired by the past and references from British production history than anything else. Richard Brendon, a new British brand whose production is also in Stoke-on- Trent, has tried to tread that line between new and old with precision and grace. His design are robustly contemporary in many ways, with striking, strong lines and bold, masculine silhouettes, but he also references the past in a variety of ways, from his typeface – ‘Johnston’ – which was developed for TFL in 1916, to the dark blue he uses across his ranges, which references that iconic Stoke cobalt blue, the most important colour in British ceramics. “All of our ceramics are produced in Stoke-on-Trent, as we believe that the quality of the absolute highest standard,” he says. “We strive to bring heritage craft industries and contemporary design together to create timeless products for a modern clientele.”
Brendon’s Reflect range of vintage saucers paired with reflective cups in gold or silver is one of the most perfect examples of how modern design can marry with the traditional aesthetic of British craftsmanship. “Each saucer in the collection has been meticulously sourced and brought back to life by a highly reflective cup, elevating the antique designs to a whole new level which would have been inconceivable at the time that the original pieces were made,” he explains. Elsewhere modern designers have worked with classic companies to produce standout pieces that feel contemporary and exciting. British designer Sophie Conran, for instance, has collaborated successfully with Portmeirion for several years, and her distinctive white ridged designs are collectible pieces that fit effortlessly into the modern home. “I am particularly proud of the work I have done with Portmeirion,” she says. “The teapot pours beautifully – which is harder than you can imagine to get right – and people are always saying how much they love using the pieces – which is what it is all about. “I think Britain has always been a creative hub for the ceramics industry,” she adds. “With fantastic designers and makers emerging both at the high-end – such as Edmund de Waal and Grayson Perry – to the huge commercial talents of Emma Bridgewater.” Despite all these shifting trends, British design and ceramics is clearly a booming trade.
Ceramics trails in Stoke-on-Trent draw in tourism from across the globe, while many of the most renowned producers offer extensive factory tours – highlights include Wedgwood, Moorcroft, Emma Bridgewater and Burleigh – while everywhere you turn is the sense of the past effortlessly meeting modern day. “British ceramics has changed massively over the last century,” explains Burleigh’s Steven Moore. “Many firms have closed or moved production overseas, craft skills have been replaced by machines and quality has sometimes been sacrificed for cost. However, for us, next to nothing has changed. We still make our products in the same way as we did in the 19th Century. Burleigh is British and will always be. We’ve been made in England since 1851 and at the same place – Middleport Pottery – since 1889. It’s the essence of who we are. Where Burleigh is made is as important as how it made.” This sense of change being both huge and almost non-existent pervades throughout the industry. Richard Brendon adds: “In some respects, the British ceramics industry has changed almost beyond recognition and in other ways it is refreshingly traditional. Our identity now is primarily based on quality, both in our designs and our products. Many of our designs are inspired by British products or designs from the past. I think that British brands tend to be trailblazers, leading the way in innovation and creativity and I hope that we are seen in this light.”
British Pottery Where to shop – Ceramics List
Luxury fine bone china crockery, dinner sets, home décor, jasperware & beautiful gifts
Stalwart pottery company Handmade in England producing its own collection of tableware, cookware and dining accessories.
Modern Brand using ancient techniques. Famed for iconic polka dot design. The brand has two shops in London and factory outlet in Stoke-onTrent.
Burleighware has been produced in England since 1889. It takes 25 pairs of hands to create a single piece of timeless hand-finished Burleigh pottery.
Art pottery, using renowned heritage craft techniques and acclaimed line up of designers, at the highest level in the Applied Arts.
Named after the Italianate village in North Wales, Portmeirion Pottery was founded in 1960. Look out for designs from Sophie Conran and beautiful patterns like Botanic Garden.
A new pottery brand created by Moorcroft. Beautiful contemporary and sophisticated surface design pieces inspired by geometric structures.
Something different. All Lisa’s pieces are hand painted in tin-glazed earthenware, each as unique as the plants they depict
Established in 1845. Royal Stafford is an industry leader in the manufacturing of English cream coloured earthenware, a traditional Staffordshire product.
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