Torquay pottery to many is
synonymous with holiday souvenirs or mottowares decorated with cottages,
cockerels, sailing boats or a design known as ‘Scandy’ produced from the
1900s, and in particular the period between the two world wars, for the
tourist industry. These were made by potters and decorators who ‘churned’
them out in large quantities, and who were paid piece-rate. However, prior
to the First World War the South Devon pottery industry, which grew rapidly
during the latter part of the nineteenth century following the discovery of
a fine terracotta clay at Watcombe in 1865, employed several artisans;- some
were specialist ceramic artists and pottery turners who had learnt their art
working in various potteries in Staffordshire. In 1875 the newly established
Torquay Terra Cotta Company at Hele, a suburb of Torquay, appointed
Alexander Fisher head of their Artistic Department. Much of Alexander
Fisher’s work was unsigned but he was noted for his painting of birds. The
depicting a tern flying over a moonlit sea is typical of his style painted
in black and white enamels. The Pottery Gazette of 1878 explained
that Alexander Fisher used colours ‘kept low in tone,… to obtain the
desired effect by the use of browns, greys, and low tints of green, in
harmony with the terracotta body…’. By 1887 Alexander Fisher was the
most highly paid member of staff at the Torquay Terra Cotta Company.
John Holland Birbeck,
known always in Torquay as Holland Birbeck took employment at the
Terra Cotta Company coming from Brown, Westhead, Moore & Company along with
Alexander Fisher. Like Alexander Fisher, Holland Birbeck had items submitted
by the Torquay Terra Cotta Company at the 1878 Paris Exhibition: the
charger painted with a magpie underglaze is one of several pieces he
exhibited at this exhibition.
In many instances the
work produced by Alexander Fisher and Holland Birbeck, who were considered
to be the most talented ceramic artists, was executed onto wares turned by
William Higginbottom. George Allen, who had formed The Watcombe Terracotta
Clay Company Ltd in September 1869, appointed Charles Brock as Watcombe’s
first Manager, and William Higginbottom as turner, and both came down to
Watcombe from Staffordshire. In 1875 William Higginbottom took employment at
the newly established Torquay Terra Cotta Company Limited at Hele Cross, and
in 1876, having been at the Torquay Terra Cotta Company for less than a
Higginbottom achieved his finest accolade.
The Worshipful Company of Turners
which held annual competitions for the best efforts in turning wood, pottery
and diamonds awarded William Higginbottom the Silver Medal – the top award –
and was admitted to the Freedom of the Company by redemption, and also
gained the Freedom of the City of London.
from Faenza Romagna, Italy was a collaborator at an Italian Exhibition held
in Kensington in London in 1888, and in 1889 he was involved with a ceramics
exhibition at William de Morgan’s premises in London. In the autumn of 1889
Dominico Marcucci went to work at the Aller Vale Pottery, where he became
Aller’s chief decorator quickly became involved in the artistic life of the
Aller Vale pottery and Cottage Art Schools. Throughout the early 1890s many
of Aller’s designs reflected Dominico Marcucci’s Italian influence — indeed,
Princess Louise was said to have “at once
noticed the introduction of
Italian feeling into English methods of work”. The plate decorated with
a cameo of a young Italian lady and vase show
this influence. Whilst
it is not known if Dominico Marcucci introduced the scroll design to Aller
Vale – this well known renaissance design was probably copied from pattern
books of the time that were made available to the pottery –
painted many of the early Aller Vale scroll designs. A
scroll design painted in blue slip onto a cream ground is also thought to
have been introduced by Dominico Marcucci: this decoration also became a
favourite of the
Princess of Wales, later Queen Alexandra, who saw this ware
on a visit to the Aller Vale Pottery and placed a special order for it. The
Princess was very pleased with the execution of the work, and at her request
the design became known as ‘Sandringham Ware’ and was marketed as such.
Other artisans were
apprenticed locally, and learnt their art at the local Cottage Art Schools:
Charles Collard, born in Torquay in 1874, was sent as an apprentice to the
Aller Vale Art Pottery in 1886 at the age of twelve, and by the age of
fifteen he had mastered all the processes of potting – there was no aspect
of the work, from preparing the clay to decorating and glazing the wares to
which he could not turn his hand. Nevertheless, Charles Collard’s greatest
skill was as a decorator. The arrival of Domenico Marcucci at Aller in 1889
had a far-reaching effect on Charles Collard, who admired Marcucci’s work
greatly and had the good fortune to study under the guidance of the Italian.
Charles Collard was fascinated by Isnik pottery, and the Persian pattern,
given the pattern code A1 when pattern codes were introduced at Aller c.1890
is thought to have been introduced during the mid 1880s and was one of
Charles Collard’s particular favourites.
Marcucci’s departure from the Aller Vale pottery in 1896, Charles Collard
became Aller’s chief decorator. Whilst Charles Collard continued with
Aller’s popular patterns he originated several of his own:
A4 crocus pattern which he introduced during his final year at Aller is
perhaps one of the most obvious of all the art nouveau designs used by the
South Devon potteries.
The local potteries
also copied and obtained designs and ideas from eminent designers of the
period such as Dr Christopher Dresser and Blanche Vulliamy, and whilst there
is no extant documentation proving that Christopher Dresser supplied designs
direct to the Torquay potteries, the influence of his ideas and designs was
felt beyond the manufacturers with whom
he directly collaborated, and a
number of shapes and surface decoration produced by the Watcombe Terra Cotta
Company, the Torquay Terra Cotta Company, the Aller Vale Art Pottery and
later by the Daison Art Pottery are clearly Christopher Dresser designs
which appear to be modified versions of illustrations from his books.
Several of Watcombe’s early terracotta wares copy Dresser’s Japanese
influence and designs, having applied animal masks which form handles.
The application of Dresser’s stylised geometric leaf patterns
painted in gold, white, turquoise and red-brown appear
to be unique to Watcombe pottery and date from the early 1870s.
Christopher Dresser had been working on these designs since the
1850s: he had lectured in botany for several years and his reputation in
this field was such that in 1860 he was awarded a doctorate by the
University of Jena in Sweden, and in the following year he was elected a
Fellow of the Linnaean Society. In 1879 Christopher Dresser was appointed
Art Director at the newly established Linthorpe Art Pottery in Yorkshire.
Christopher Dresser was responsible for design there until sometime in 1872.
The popularity of classical unglazed terracotta declined during the early
1890s which prompted the Torquay Terra Cotta Company to introduce a range of
glazed art pottery under the trade name of ‘Stapleton Ware’.
In her early
twenties, Blanche Vulliamy left London c.1890 where she had been studying
portraiture to stay with her grandparents who lived in Torquay. Whilst in
Torquay Blanche Vulliamy was able to further her art studies, during which
she acquainted herself with the pottery industry in South Devon,
particularly the Aller Vale Art Pottery, and the potteries in Barnstaple,
Towards the end of
the nineteenth century the Victorians were fascinated with the Grotesque,
and it had become fashionable to want items that looked quaint or distorted.
Artists and designers of that period, such as the Martin Brothers, showed
elongated and distorted people, faces and animals– sometimes these were
bizarre and frighteningly grotesque, harking back to the medieval liking for
images of God’s beasts used to decorate pew ends and roof
bosses of our churches and cathedrals. By this time Blanche Vulliamy already
had a penchant for caricatures and making goblin like models. A number of
these produced by the Aller Vale Art Pottery during the late 1890s can be
attributed to Blanche Vulliamy.
The grotesque items, some with monstrous mouths, beady eyes
and large ears and others with open heads and grinning faces with short legs
and no bodies were mostly moulded from white clay, although terracotta clay
was also occasionally used.
Harry Crute started work at the Watcombe Terra Cotta Clay Company as a
decorator at the age of 12½, shortly before the pottery was purchased by
Hexter, Humpherson & Co. In 1914 Harry Crute went into partnership with Tom
Lemon and together they took over the premises of the Tor Vale Pottery
Company Ltd on a new lease. The Tor Vale pottery had started c.1910 but had
had severe financial difficulties at the end of 1913.
In December of that year
the Tor Vale pottery went into liquidation. Lemon & Crute became famous
for their kingfisher pattern, and it is Harry Crute who is acknowledged as
the originator of this design, which was consequently copied by Watcombe,
Longpark and the Torquay Pottery. Bird decoration was a favourite of Harry
Crute, who also decorated wares with Blue Tits which none of the other
potteries copied. Harry Crute is also credited with having been the first
Torquay decorator to decorate wares with seagulls.
The Exhibition ‘The Artisans of the
Torquay potteries’ highlights the lives of these artisans, and the work
they produced. The Exhibition, organised by the Torquay Pottery Collectors
Society is now available in cataloque format at only
£6 - click
here to order online.