Charles Shaw’s When I was a Child, by An Old Potter’ (1903) is a searing eyewitness account of child labour in the north Staffordshire potteries, where classically themed ceramics were always a major category of output. One of eight children of a Tunstall pottery painter, and born in 1832, at the age of 7 Charles began working 14-hour days in the factory of Enoch Wood & Sons in Burslem, subsequently moving to Samuel Alcock’s pottery. His memoir contains horrifying descriptions of the hunger, brutality, dangerous working conditions and degradation suffered by the workforce, as well as first-hand accounts of the Chartist riots.1

Shaw was no classical scholar. He enjoyed Rollin’s Ancient History, which he came across at Sunday school; Rollin, he wrote, ‘opened a new world, but I never supposed that world had anything to do with the one in which I was then living. It might have been a world whose development took place on some other planet’.2 He acquired most of his education as an adult in the Tunstall Young Men’s Mutual Improvement Society. He became a Methodist minister, and studied further at Owens College, Manchester.

Shaw laments that the pottery industry has a disfigured nature: the

lovely, peaceful, and fruitful valley is now choked with smoke and disfigured by mining and smelting refuse. If Cyclops with his red-handed and red-faced followers had migrated upwards from the dim regions below and settled on the surface amid baleful blazes and shadows, a greater transformation could not have taken place?

The classical figures painted by his father lingered powerfully in his imagination. He described a ruthless local magistrate as one who ‘ruled as thejove of the pottery district’.4 The first Jove on which he will ever have laid eyes was probably this angry, thunderbolt-wielding figurine, produced by his first employer, Enoch Wood & Sons (Figure 21.1). This chapter asks how much the many thousands of working-class Britons like Charles Shaw working in the pottery industry learned from their workplaces about the ancient Greeks, Romans and Etruscans whose artefacts informed theirs. The popularity of classical designs remained steady, whereas alternative crazes waxed and waned; for example, for Italian Renaissance maiolica or Chinoiserie. Even companies which specialised in utilitarian ceramics such as chimney pipes and sanitary ware, the Stiff family’s company in Lambeth, often had a sideline in classical tableware.5

Pottery was a significant industry in Britain during the period covered by this book, yet historians were long misled by its exclusion from Arnold Toynbee’s seminal study The Industrial Revolution (1884).6 He focussed on the Manchester cotton industry and the iron and hardware works of Birmingham. It was not until the mid-20th century that historians began to understand the contribution to the industrial revolution made by the technologies, machinery and workforce management of pottery producers.7 This applied to several large pottery factories of the six towns which amalgamated to form Stoke-on-Trent in 1910, above

Enoch Wood and Sons porcelain Jove, photograph in Hall’s personal collection

FIGURE 21.1 Enoch Wood and Sons porcelain Jove, photograph in Hall’s personal collection.

all to Josiah Wedgwood’s pioneering purpose-built factory, Etruria, and to the Herculaneum factory at Toxteth in Liverpool, which manufactured stoneware with an applied jasper dip in direct imitation of the classical designs produced by Wedgwood.8 But other significant potteries, usually located to exploit the local availability of suitable clay, were swift to introduce new technologies, in Wales, Scotland and Ireland as well as England.9 Such was the consumer demand for classically decorated ceramics.

A rival enterprise to Wedgwood’s was Rockingham Works in Swinton, Yorkshire, founded in 1778, which produced ‘Brameld’ earthenware with white neoclassical figures in relief.10 The Bishops Waltham Clay Company in Hampshire (founded 1862) used the region’s fine red clay to produce beautiful imitation Athenian terra-cotta items.11 The Aylesford Terra-Cotta Works, established in Kent in 1850, made elaborate neoclassical vases from the native clay until 1906.12 Classical iconography abounded on the elaborate ‘Limoges-style’ later 19th-century ewers and pitchers produced by Royal Worcester.13 The Blashfield Terra-Cotta Company at Stamford (1858-1875) provided neoclassical decorations for several buildings, for example Dulwich College, but also made classical vases.14

The many significant potteries in Wales included the Cambrian Pottery at Swansea, which, as we shall see below, aimed to produce reproductions of ancient pottery cheaply enough to be enjoyed by the working classes. In Scotland, the industry started in about 1748 and continued until World War II. It was centred in Glasgow. J. and M.P. Bell & Co. of Stafford Street made excellent earthenware and Parian; their exhibits at the 1862 Exhibition show several imitation red-figure amphoras.1’ Bo’ness and Kirkcaldy also had important potteries, as did Greenock and Alloa.16 The Castle Espie works in County Down, Ireland, used local red clay to make neoclassical terra-cotta items, including a lovely vase with three Graces.17 At Belleeck Pottery in County Fermanagh, Ireland, from 1863 onwards the workers made vases with classical maritime images and Parian Ware.18

In earlier chapters, we have noted how the taste for ‘Classics’ and the antique entered other spheres of British life—architecture, education, translating and publishing enterprises—at the dawn of the 18th century. The passion for the classical arose rather later in ceramic design, even though the pioneering Restoration potter John Dwight, who experimented with stoneware at his Fulham workshop and probably produced the earliest porcelain in England, occasionally attempted classical figures as well as innumerable busts of contemporary royalty, coffeepots, mugs and noggins. His workshop’s ‘Meleager’ (around 1680) is a 12-inch-high statuette of a nude youth with a hunting horn and boar’s head, cunningly made of brown stoneware salt-glazed to resemble bronze, now in the British Museum.19 Figures by Dwight representing Flora and Minerva, Jupiter, Mars, Neptune and Saturn are also recorded.211 But his workmanship was of a level his contemporaries could not attain. The classical knowledge and technical skill needed to produce the ‘Meleager’ (of which the name of the actual sculptor remains unknown) were not generally available.

Another reason why classical ceramics were slow to become fashionable was the absence of materials suited to detailed modelling, a problem that was not solved until biscuit porcelain was introduced and Wedgwood’s jasper—a fine stoneware usually unglazed and coloured to form a hard body—was perfected in the 1770s.21 It was not until the adoption of hard white unglazed Parian at the Copeland Factory in 1842 that authentic-looking reproductions of intricately carved ancient statues in marble (thus the product name ‘Parian’, since much ancient marble came from the island of Paros) became possible.22 But technological progress was in itself less significant than the ideological shift which took place in about 1763, when the end of the Seven Years War with France produced a revision in the associations of porcelain. It had been intimately tied in the British mind to the old absolutist continental regimes, but could now begin to be embraced by a far wider class base.23 At exactly this point, Pierre François Hugues, the son of a bankrupt cloth-merchant from Nancy (the adoption of the spurious title ‘Baron d’Hancarville’ was a personal vanity) introduced William Hamilton to collections of classical antiquities in Naples, all then conventionally labelled ‘Etruscan’: many were finds from the excavations at Herculaneum and Pompeii. British classically themed ceramic art was effectively created when the images were circulated to individuals, including Wedgwood, which d’Hancarville and Hamilton eventually published as Collection of Etruscan, Greek and Roman Antiquities from The Cabinet Of The Honble. IVm. Hamilton (1766-1767).24 The plates inspired the shapes and decorative art on the vases created by Wedgwood and his rivals, and their bas reliefs, friezes and designs on tableware. Once Hamilton sold them to the British Museum in 1772, they fed the new public appetite for replica ceramics which Wedgwood’s workers and those in other factories across Britain laboured to satisfy.

In the new political context, classically designed porcelain suddenly seemed to embody a purer, simpler, more ideologically progressive ethos than the rococo and baroque porcelainwares of the old European courts.2’ Wedgwood expressed this himself in a 1769 letter to his partner Thomas Bentley, where he wondered whether they would be able to establish a good export business to France: ‘I say we will fashn. [sic] our Porcelain after their own hearts & captivate them with the Elegance and simplicity of the Ancients’. But he doubts whether this can be successful, since he has observed how the French like their ceramics ‘cover’d over with ornament’.26 The fresh, authentic feel of Wedgwood’s ‘Etruscan’ wares to those who saw them in the late 18th century is conveyed in the 1792 discussion by the German antiquarian Carl August Bôttiger of the provenance of the so-called Etruscan vases excavated in Italy. Bôttiger describes a friend’s visit to the Wedgwood showrooms in Soho: he felt as though he had been

transported to a room in ancient Herculaneum at Portici, or into the cabinet of the Cardinal Borgia at Veletri. Catching sight of the most recent vases, flower-pots, coloured bowls and tripods made by Wedgwood and his assistants after the genuine Hamilton antiques, one sees a perfect imitation not only in form and profile, but also in the intention to imitate the paintings through the re-invention of the Etrurian encaustic technique.27

< Prev   CONTENTS   Source   Next >