Could pottery workers ever afford to buy the goods they created? In the case of the Cambrian Pottery in Swansea, they were permitted to take home ‘seconds’ rather than having to watch them being smashed. Lewis Llewelyn Dillwyn was the Swansea industrialist responsible for a famous line of inexpensive ceramics imitating ancient Greek models, produced in his factory, the Cambrian Pottery, in the mid-19th century. At the time he employed no fewer than 162 workers, including at least 16 women. Using moulds, the potters and painters produced pottery in most of the canonical Greek shapes and decorated them with figures from Greek mythology including Odysseus, Amazons, Poseidon, Eros, Hector, Zeus, Hera and Helios driving his horses."’
Dillwyn had joined the management of his father’s company in 1831. His wife Bessie created the designs after studying vases in the British Museum. Their ambition was to fuse ancient art with the local clay of the family estate at Penllergaer near Swansea, which, when fired, produced a fine red colour similar to the terra-cotta hue of ancient black- and red-figure vases. The pots were not only made by members of the local working class, but also aimed at a much less wealthy class of consumer than, for example, Wedgwood pottery. Dillwyn ware was far cheaper to produce because it was moulded rather than thrown on a wheel. An advertisement in Art Journal claimed the pots ‘promise much towards carrying into the more humble homesteads of England forms of beauty in combination with useful ends, and in placing in the hands of all, ornaments of a high character at a cheap rate’. In fact, they cost between 2 shillings and 3 shillings and sixpence—-just about affordable as an occasional luxury even by the local miners, who earned around £50 annually. The brand soon failed. Perhaps no miner could see the point. People who could afford porcelain assumed that cases made from ‘flower-pot’ clay would be coarse and rustic; others were suspicious of merchandise which looked so refined yet was available at such an affordable price. But Dillwyn ware continued and continues to be viewed in museums from Swansea to Bethnal Green.116
Finally, from the early 19th century onwards, pedlars selling inexpensive miniature plaster reproductions of famous busts and statues became a common sight on the streets of British cities, especially near museums and galleries. Better quality plaster figures had been available for decades at London shops, including the one run by John Flaxman’s father (also named John) at the sign of the Golden Head, New Street, Covent Garden, London.117 A broadside catalogue of around 1803 advertising the 'FIGURES BUSTS &c. IN PLASTER OF PARIS’ available at Robert Shout’s store in High Holborn lists more than 300 items, many of which are classical.118 But street pedlars brought the products to a wider public; from towards the end of the Napoleonic wars, this business was dominated by Italian immigrants. Gangs of beggar boys would be recruited from the province of Lucca in Tuscany by adult figure-makers, who would take them all over northern Europe to make and vend their wares.119 The youth working on London streets who is depicted in John Smith of Covent Garden’s lively etching ‘Very Fine. Very Cheap’ (1815) is therefore, most likely, Italian.120
During the heyday of the taste for classically themed ceramics, the voices of people who worked in potteries are almost silent to us. Compared with, for example, miners and weavers, pottery workers seem rarely to have penned memoirs or diaries, and very few have survived until the early 20th century. But other sources, if read and viewed and thought about carefully, cumulatively build up a picture of skilled workers familiar with a large variety of ancient artefacts and with books visually reproducing and discussing them. At least in the Etruria and Herculaneum factories, pottery workers were encouraged to see themselves as participants in the rebirth of the ancient Mediterranean ceramic arts. They were trained in painstaking reproduction of details not only from ancient vases but from ancient gems, intaglios, ivories, coins, bas-reliefs, frescoes, friezes, statues and sarcophagi. They were familiar with the stories of a substantial number of ancient mythical and historical figures, and the different aesthetic conventions of classical Athenian, Hellenistic and Roman art. Some of them were able to study ancient art in their free time at institutions of adult education and had access to well-stocked workers’ libraries. Some may even have taken products for domestic use, or purchased an inexpensive Dillwyn plate or a plaster reproduction Farnese
Hercules from a street pedlar in Holborn. Recovering the history of intellectual, artistic and cultural encounters experienced by virtually silent communities and individuals is methodologically challenging, but that does not mean we should avoid attempting it altogether.