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An explosion of new ceramic design in the late 1920s and early 1930s introduced vibrant colours and dramatic angular shapes to the breakfast tables of Britain and the world. Never before or since has there been such diversity in British ceramics, as hundreds of manufacturers produced exciting new designs that embodied their enthusiasm for the 'bright new' age and continental modernism. Displaying an angular tea-set or a dinner service enamelled in a brilliant geometric pattern became proof that the owner was participating in the 'modern way' of living. Bay windows from John O'Groats to Land's End proudly exhibited the brightly coloured designs and impractical but glamourous ceramics from manufacturers such as Shelley, Wilkinson's, Wade Heath and Myott. This book also includes: information on how to identify and date ceramics at a glance; all the major designers including Clarice Cliff, Susie Cooper and Charlotte Rhead; contectual information on how ceramics were displayed in the home.
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Dr Greg Stevenson wrote his PhD thesis on 'British Ceramics 1927-37' and has lectured and published widely on the subject. The author of the popular Shire title 'The 1930s Home', Greg works as a freelance consultant on period restoration and lectures at the University of Wales, Lampeter.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Chapter: ‘The British Ceramic Industry between the Wars’
Competition was fierce between the four hundred or so pot-banks in Stoke-on-Trent between the wars. A depressed market and increases in imports from Germany, Czechoslovakia and Japan meant that manufacturers had to consolidate an individual identity to survive. Gordon Forsyth, Superintendent of Art Instruction for the Stoke-on-Trent School of Art noted,
‘The war seems to have marked the end of a definite period in art, and we now appear to be at the beginning of the development of a new style. The universality of this striving for new artistic expression leads one to believe that it has the quality of permanency; it is something very much bigger than a mere change of fashion...’
Commercial pressures amongst smaller manufacturers to produce eye-catching tableware designs at affordable prices meant it was they who largely brought Art Deco designs to the British public. New designs appeared by the mid 1920’s echoing exotic continental shapes and patterns. Streamline modernist shapes influenced by architectural and engineering developments appeared in decorative vases. Some manufacturers copied directly from continental designs and others copied each other. It is impossible therefore to trace certain shapes such as triangular handles on teacups to particular individuals. Popular tea-ware gained angular outlines and bright floral decoration. These modern lines would be placed prominently in displays to add prestige to cheaper, traditional lines that sold in greater numbers.
With many manufacturers producing similar lines the key to success was in coupling innovative design with good advertising and marketing. For example, when Wiltshaw & Robinson produced the first ‘oven-to-table’ ware under the Carlton Ware label in 1929 they made sure that customers knew about the development through an advertising campaign. Meanwhile, famous names such as Wedgwood and Spode could rely on regular exports of traditional ceramics to the substantial markets in Canada, the British East Indies and the Argentine Republic.
For decades little new design had reached the popular ceramics market and the majority of output had been transfer-printed copies of eighteenth century patterns and oriental masterpieces. The Design and Industries Association (DIA) was founded in 1915 to improve the quality of mass produced design. The founders, all private individuals, included Harold Stabler and John Adams (later to gain fame with Poole Pottery) and Harry Trethowan, the china and glass buyer for Heal’s later to become the DIA’s spokesman on ceramics. These founder members were keen to defy the strong anti-mechanistic feelings of the Arts and Crafts Movement.
Although many were slow to take up the DIA’s vision of a revolution in design, Gordon Forsyth took on board many of their ideas, favouring a return to simplicity of form and decoration. Though not a modernist, Forsyth encouraged his students to take their own informed decisions about new design. It was these students that became the next generation of ceramic designers.
Forsyth was impressed by the handpainted ceramics that he saw in the 1925 Paris Exhibition and made a concerted effort to train his students in this method. Flatbrush work in vivid enamel colours was used to create bold floral and geometric patterns. Handpainted on-glaze decoration became highly fashionable, and soon the majority of manufacturers were selling lines with speedily painted representations of flowers in bright oranges and greens. Inevitably these ‘cheap and cheerful’ ceramics attracted the acid tongues of design critics. In 1932 the modernist architect Serge Chermayeff addressed the North Staffordshire Branch of the Society of Industrial Arts, warning,
‘form and colour were of a thing and not on it...if [the potters] wanted to introduce a cheerful note of yellow into a tea-set they should have a yellow tea-set; they should not put on each cup and saucer a bunch of daisies or a canary’ (As reported in the Pottery Gazette).
Many companies increased their exposure by exhibiting at events such as the annual British Industries Fair (particularly popular 1926-31 and 1935-6). Larger manufacturers displayed their wares in foreign trade shows such as the 1931 British Empire Trade Exhibition in Buenos Aires. A number of the larger factories organised exhibitions of contemporary design to further stimulate sales and maintain a public image of quality work. The 1934 Harrods Exhibition featured the work of leading artists Frank Brangwyn, Laura Knight and Graham Sutherland on ceramics produced by A.J.Wilkinson under the Clarice Cliff label.
Despite a lull in the ceramic market in the early 1930s, the optimism of the late 1920s returned by the second half of the decade. The more adventurous manufacturers such as A.J.Wilkinson, Shelley, and The Cube Tea-Pot Company, adopted sophisticated advertising campaigns to try and maintain sales. Graphics, slogans, and character advertising such as the ‘Shelley Girl’ and Clarice Cliff ‘Bizooka’ featured in shop windows, housekeeping publications and radio listings magazines.
In the inter-war years there was a gradual change of status for the designer and we begin to see one individual made responsible for the whole design process, from shape design to decoration. Previously many factories had bought whiteware from a limited number of producers and decorated it to their own liking. Manufacturers could now boast lines that could be attributed to the artistic skill of just one person and the designer label grew as an important marketing tool.
Women designers had a real opportunity to demonstrate their skills for the first time. With adverts declaring ‘a woman knows best for a woman’s home’ Clarice Cliff, Susie Cooper and Charlotte Rhead proved a phenomenal success. People considered not just the prestige of the manufacturer in selecting their tableware, but the designer as well. With pieces clearly lithographed or stamped with ‘signatures’ the designer label became a lasting feature of British homes.
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