A visit to Moorcroft Pottery

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A couple of weeks ago we drove over to Burslem, Stoke-on-Trent for a visit to the Moorcroft Heritage Visitor Centre. Moorcroft are one of the few remaining British pottery companies based in the city (or cluster of towns) which was originally the centre of pottery production. Moorcroft specialise in the production of hand made art pottery using traditional craft techniques. Their distinctive “tube lined” Art Nouveau and Art Deco inspired pieces have a loyal following and some designs can fetch high prices.

One of my Christmas presents last year was a “factory tour” and we’d finally got around to organising a date to visit. The Visitor centre is located on a former manufacturing site and the first thing you see when you arrive is the Grade II Listed Bottle Oven, the last remaining one of several that used to be used for firing the pottery made here.

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These traditional kilns were fired with coal and were very polluting, belching out smoke, carbon dioxide and other gases, so were replaced with cleaner electric kilns following the 1956 Clean Air Act. Moorcroft’s production now takes place in a more modern factory a short distance away, but this site is used for research and development of new pieces as well as hosting factory tours. There’s also a small museum of Moorcroft pieces and a shop.

We started off by looking round the display of photographs showing the history of the site and the traditional production process. And we were able to peek inside the Bottle Oven.

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This is where “ware” twas fired. The individual pieces were initially put into fireclay boxes called “saggars” which were then stacked inside the oven ready for firing at a temperature between 1000° C and 1250° C , usually for two or three days.

We then had a look around the small museum with it’s extensive collection of Moorcroft pieces covering the company’s history.

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I particularly liked this large pot with pictures of pottery workers

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There were also some pieces from the Blackwell collection which had featured in an exhibition at the Arts and Crafts house near Bowness (which we visit regularly) a few years ago

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Then it was time for the tour. The guide, Corrie, was very knowledgeable and took us through each step in the production process which included by demonstrations by the highly skilled workers.

These days the pots are cast using the slip casting technique, so the initial step is the production of the pattern which is then used to manufacture the moulds. A liquid slurry of clay is prepared which is poured into the mould. Water is absorbed from the “slip” leaving a solid layer in contact with the mould. The excess slip is poured off and the mould disassembled leaving behind the cast pot. We’d had a go at this ourselves a couple of year ago during a visit to Tate Modern (of all places!)

The casting is then cleaned up, initially on a lathe and then by “sponge fettling” (a great term!) before the design is traced onto the pot and the tube lining applied. Liquid colour is then applied inside the areas created by the lining. All these process are carried out manually and require enormous skill. And the hand made approach means that each piece, even of the same design, are all slightly different.

The pots are then given an initial firing, coated with glaze and then re-fired to complete the piece. The firing process is where the real “magic” (or, possibly, alchemy) occurs, as the colours are transformed.

No photographs are allowed during the tour, but the following video provides a potted version of the process

and it’s summarised with some good photos on their website.

We finished our visit by looking round the shop. The pieces may seem expensive for pots, but having seen the process, the skill involved and the time it takes to produce the pieces, they seemed well-priced. We were tempted to shell out but we’ve nowhere to display ceramics properly in our mess of a house (perhaps I should stop going out so much and stop home and get it sorted) and, perhaps more importantly, we’d be terrified of knocking it over and breaking it!. However, we decided to buy a plaque we could hang on the wall, selecting a design based on the work of Charles Rennie-Mackintosh, partly influenced by the exhibition we’d visited in Liverpool the previous Saturday. The price was similar to what I’d expect to pay for a limited edition print by an established artist, so not unreasonable for what, in effect, is a ceramic equivalent – and having paid for the factory tour we received a modest discount.

I really enjoyed the visit, being able to see skilled workers in action. (I had to stop myself concentrating on the health risks, mind!). And I can now really appreciate the individual nature of what are really works of art.

Charles Rennie Mackintosh Making the Glasgow style

Charles Rennie Mackintosh

On Saturday we travelled over to Liverpool to visit the exhibition about Charles Rennie Mackintosh and the “Glasgow style” that had recently opened at the Walker Gallery. I’m a fan of the work of this rather brilliant architect / artist / interior designer and have visited a number of buildings that he designed over the years, so was keen to see the exhibition, even though, unusually for the Walker, there was a charge for entry. Despite this we had to queue for a short while before we were allowed in as the galleries were at capacity, so the entry fee certainly hasn’t put everybody off.

There was a lot to see; architects’ drawings, paintings, furniture, other objects produced by Mackintosh and other members of the Glasgow School, plus contextual information (including a number of short videos), and we spent a good hour and a half looking round. Unfortunately photography wasn’t allowed but the catalogue was, I thought, reasonably priced at a tenner, so we were able to take home a good reminder of what we’d seen. A number of “highlights” can also be viewed on the exhibition website.

Although Mackintosh’s work featured heavily, and was no doubt the main draw for visitors, there were some works by the other members of his close circle,
Margaret MacDonald (who he married), her sister Frances and his friend James Herbert McNair (who married Frances). Together, they became known as “the Four”. The group has a Liverpool connection as McNair was appointed as Instructor in Design at the city’s School of Architecture and Applied Art in 1898 and he moved there with Frances. The Walker had previously held an exhibition about the McNairs back in 2007, which I remeber visiting.

Exponents of the Glasgow Style were influenced by a number of artistic movements, particularly the Arts and Crafts movement,  Art Nouveau, and Symbolism , and they in turn, particularly Mackintosh and Margaret MacDonald had an impact on the Continental artists.

Although a lot of attention is paid to Mackintosh, I think that his wife had a major influence on him and it could be argued that they were collaborators. And one of the highlights of the exhibition for me was Margaret’s large gesso work , The May Queen

Other highlights included

  • Architectural drawings by Mackintosh for some of his iconic buildings including the Glasgow School of Art (sadly severely damaged by the fire last year) and his proposal for Liverpool Anglican Cathedral, which I think would have been a magnificent building if his design had been selected,
  • Man Makes the Beads of Life but Woman Must Thread Them, a watercolour by Frances MacDonald McNair from 1911, painted when she was going through a very difficult time in her relationship with McNair
  • Furniture, fittings and stencils designed for Mrs Cranston’s tearooms in Glasgow
  • Drawings and a video about buildings designed by two other architects, James Salmon Jnr  and John Gaff Gillespie 
  • Book cover designs, bookplates and sketches by Talwin Morris

So, all in all, a very good exhibition, well worth seeing. It’s a pity about the entry fee, as I’m sure that will put off some people who’d like to see it (especially families).

Wolfgang Tillmans – Rebuilding the Future – at the IMMA

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After passing through the Mary Swanzy paintings, which I enjoyed very much, I went to look at the Exhibition of photographs by the German photographer Wolfgang Tillmans which occupied the whole of the East wing of the Gallery.

According to the exhibition guide he’s

 one of the most accomplished and widely celebrated artists working today, recognised for major contributions to the development of contemporary photography in terms of subject matter, production, scale, presentation and methodology.

He doesn’t specialise in one style but his work encompasses landscapes, portraits, street photography and abstract images. They come in different sizes too, ranging from very small to gigantic, as can be seen in this photograph (it’s a little weird photographing photographs!)

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Rebuilding the Future comprises over 100 works and captures Tillmans’ unique way of working. This new exhibition for IMMA mixes works from throughout his career and in numerous formats, installed in IMMA’s galleries in direct relation to the physical spaces and atmosphere of the museum. 

He built in reputation in the 1990’s while he was in Britain with photographs documenting the London club and gay scenes but he’s moved on since then.

One of the first image I saw was this large photograph of the sea looking towards the land. Printed in monochrome and quite grainy, it was almost abstract in nature

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Some of the other works that caught my attention

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One of his portraits – this one of the singer Neneh Cherrie

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A wall of photographs from the London music scene

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A couple of the individual photos

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Mary Swanzy the IMMA

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After a busy day on Saturday,I was up early the next morning to drive over to Holyhead to catch the boat to Dublin as I’m back over working in Naas this week. The boat arrived at the port just after midday, so I had an afternoon to do a few things rather than just spend the whole day travelling.

I decided I’d drive over to the Irish Museum of Modern Art out at Kilmainham as I hadn’t been there for a while and I quite fancied seeing the exhibition of work by the German photographer, Wolfgang Tillmans. 

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To reach the Tillmans exhibition I had to pass through several rooms devoted to the work of an Irish artist, Mary Swanzy . She was born in Dublin to a prosperous Protestant family – her father was a distinguished eye surgeon – and grew up around Merrion Square in the south side of the city but during her long life relocated several times and travelled widely. From viewing the exhibition it’s clear she was an accomplished artist, but isn’t well known, no doubt because she was a woman. As she herself is quoted as saying on the exhibition website

 ‘if I had been born Henry instead of Mary my life would have been very different’.

It was the last day of this exhibition and it was clearly popular with the Irish public as it was very busy and the catalogue had sold out. She was born in 1882 and worked right through to her death in 1978. She trained in Dublin and then in Paris and was influenced by the styles that emerged during the early 20th Century. So it was interesting to see her work having just visited the Fernand Léger exhibition at Tate Liverpool the previous day as both artists are particularly known for their Cubist and Futurist paintings, but also created works in other styles, such as Surrealism.

In her early work in Paris, she adopted a Post Impressionist style, as in this portrait of her sister

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Portrait of Miss Muriel Swayzey (1907)

She later adopted the Cubist style

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Young woman with white bonnet (1920)

Besides portraits, her subjects included landscapes and flowers

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Cubist landscape (1928)

In 1920, during the Irish War of Independence, she left Ireland travelling through Eastern Europe, the Balkans, Hawaii and Samoa. One of the rooms was devoted to paintings from this period, which have similarities with Gaugain’s work from his time in Tahiti.

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Afterwards she moved to London before relocating to Dublin at the start of WW2

Her style changed over time, becoming more figurative and in some cases adopting the Symbolist

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This is portion apart (group of sorrowing women) (1942)
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Potato Famine (1940)

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Female nudes with horse and viaduct (1930’s)

After the war she returned to London. The works from her later years, displayed in the final room, are quite different and difficult to classify. Many of them feature caricatures of people and animals. As the exhibition guide tells us

This strange assembly of characters make the images appear like scenes from the world of science fiction rather than deriving from an art historical lineage

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Revolution (1943)
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Reading employment offer column (1972)
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Opera Singer (1944)

One of the paintings from the 1940’s was a portrait of her sister. Quite different to the one she’d painted early in her career, really illustrating the evolution of her work.

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Portrait of Muriel Swanzy Tullo (1942)

Art and about in Liverpool – Part 2

Leaving the Tate we made our way across the city centre, heading towards the Walker Art Gallery. Needing something to eat we stopped off at the
Bakchich  Lebanese “street food” restaurant just off Williamson Square – the second one in the city, the original being in Bold Street.

We wanted to see the exhibition of Leonardo da Vinci drawings at the Walker, which is part of the nationwide event organised by the Royal Collection Trust. A total of 144 of Leonardo’s greatest drawings in the Royal Collection are on display in 12 simultaneous exhibitions in Galleries across the country, including Liverpool and Manchester. In May 2019 the drawings will be brought together to form part of an exhibition of over 200 sheets at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace.

Arriving at the gallery, the room where the drawings were being exhibited was, not surprisingly, very busy and was hot and stuffy.

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So we decided to take a look around the Gallery as we hadn’t been for a while. Here’s a few of the paintings we saw

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Good Time George (2008-9)by Maggie Hambling
A portrait of her friend, Liverpool born George Melly
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A view of Liverpool from across the water by L S Lowry
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French cyclists with a girl (1925) by Christopher Wood
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Kin Cattrall (2017) by Samiro Addo
A portrait of the Liverpool born Canadian actress by the winner of the Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year 2018
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An early self-portrait by Rembrandt
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A bust of Einstein by Jacob Epstein

We made our way back to the Leornado exhibition. It was still crowded but managed to look around (we’ve been in much busier “blockbusters”). There were some beautiful drawings, most of them small but full of intricate detail (magnifying glasses were provided for visitors to use). This one, the head of Leda from Greek mythology was certainly my favourite.

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I didn’t take snaps of any of the others – the crowd made that difficult and the glass covering the drawings was reflective. There were a range of studies – preparatory sketches for paintings and sculptures, pages from his notebooks of anatomical and nature studies and other subjects. Some of the drawings included samples of his writing – it was tiny – famously written backwards and back to front.

You don’t often get the chance to see so many Leonardo drawings all together and I think it’s a really good initiative that they have spread them around galleries across the country. We’re off to Manchester next Saturday and hope to see some more at the Manchester City Art Gallery. I hope it’s not too crowded!

Art and about in Liverpool – Part 1

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Last Saturday we drove over to Liverpool as we wanted to have a look at a couple of exhibitions. It was a fine day and quite pleasant for walking by the waterside to the Tate Gallery on the Albert Dock.

First stop was the exhibition at the Tate of works by the Fench artist
Fernand Léger (1881 – 1955) . There were over 40 works on display, including paintings, collage, book illustrations and film spanning his career. He’s an artist I was familiar with, but hadn’t seen many of his works, so the exhibition was an opportunity to learn more.

Some early works were influenced by his experiences in the First World War between 1914 to 1917 , when he fought on the front-line at Argonne and Verdun, including an abstract Cubist style painting of soldiers playing cards.

The part of Chart, 1917 - Fernand Leger
La partie de Carte (1917)

His early works were Cubist and Futurist and he had his own approach dominated by cylindrical shapes earning the moniker “tubism”. But, as with many artists, his style changed over time

Léger’s work was heavily influenced by his surroundings and his experience of modern life. Included in the exhibition are his collaborations with architects Le Corbusier and Charlotte Perriand. Also on display is his experimental 1924 film, Ballet Mécanique.

He dabbled with Surrealism, often combining Surrealist and Cubist styles.


Leaves and Shell (1927)

He often used bright primary colours,particularly in his later works.

Two women holding flowers (1954)

Politically on the left, fleeing the Nazis he lived in the USA from 1940 to 1945 but returned to France after the war when he joined the Communist Party. Many of his later works were influenced by his politics.

He believed the primary purpose of making art is to enrich the lives of everybody in society. In order to bring art into people’s everyday lives he worked on posters and murals as well as on the easel. His paintings depict construction workers and people enjoying leisure activities. These everyday scenes are reflected back to us in a new light and the characters are given dignity in their normality. (Tate website)

In the next room to the Leger retrospective there was a free exhibition of works by two South Korean artists Moon Kyungwon and Jeon Joonho. It was centered on a new film commission Anomaly Strolls 2018, largely shot in deserted alleyways and pubs across Liverpool with some scenes shot in Korea. 

Extending their project News From Nowhere 2009, the artists use science fiction to question the role and importance of art to our present day society. As they have said: ‘Sci-fi is always the fable of the present. By employing a way to look at the future instead of the present, we wanted to address current issues, especially in relation to what art is and what art could be.’   (exhibition website)

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The exhibition also includes Moon and Jeon’s 2012 film El Fin del Mundo (The End of the World).

On separate screens, we see different points in time: a man remains committed to creating art as a global catastrophe unfolds, while a woman goes about a sanitised life in its aftermath. Documenting relics of the past, she comes across a strange object the man had incorporated in his artwork. The encounter triggers profound new emotions in the woman, and her strange discovery connects our two protagonists across time. (exhibition website)

Video installations are not my favourite type of art, but sometimes there’s a work that captures my interest. This was certainly the case with these two works. They weren’t too abstract, telling a story, and I’ve also been a fan of science fiction.

There was much more to see in the Tate, and there had been some changes to the free exhibitions since our last visit. But we moved on as we needed to grab a bite to eat and there was another exhibition we wanted to see at the Walker Gallery.

Martin Parr – Return to Manchester

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After a quiet January due to both of us suffering from a bad cold and chest infection, we had a couple of busy days last weekend. On the Friday we had tickets to see the St Petersberg Philharmonic at the Bridgewater Hall with our son (the tickets were his Christmas present) so we decided to make an afternoon.

First stop was the Manchester City Art Gallery to take a look round the major exhibition of photographs of Manchester and some of the surrounding towns by Martin Parr, the well known documentary photographer, who studied at Manchester Polytechnic (now Manchester Metropolitan University) between 1970 and 73. (He was almost kicked out, apparently, for failing a photography theory course!)

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The city made an impression on the young lad from the suburbs. He’s quoted on the exhibition website as saying

“I remember so well arriving into Manchester in 1970, having traveled from the safety of suburban Surrey. It was exciting and felt very real. “

As a keen photographic student should, he explored Manchester, taking photographs of the city and it’s inhabitants. And since leaving the city he’s returned on several occasions . This exhibition includes photographs from his student days and subsequent visits to the city. And the City Art Gallery also commissioned him to create a new body of work on Manchester and its inhabitants in 2018.

The earliest photos were largely black and white, “street photography” featuring mainly working class locals in the streets and pubs of the city, and several series of photos one featuring the homes and residents of a street in Salford,

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another one of residents and staff in Prestwich psychiatric hospital, the interior of Yates’ Wine lodges in Manchester and nearby towns and a photographic game involving matching up couples who were photographed in Piccadilly Gardens.

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I particularly liked the 1972 series June Street, a project with his friend and fellow photography student Daniel Meadows.  They had hoped to photograph the real Coronation Street, but it didn’t exist. So instead they selected a typical street of terraced houses in Salford – June Street.

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They got the residents to pose in their living rooms. The resulting photos brought back the memories of my youth as the interiors of the houses and the clothes the residents wore were very typical of the 70’s.

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The people appeared to have dressed up in their best outfits and were quite formally posed – quite different from Parr’s later work which are mainly (but not exclusively) informal “street photos”.

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I was never a drinker in Yates’ Wine Lodges which were but did venture inside very occasionally. But the photos, including one from the town where I grew up, really got across the atmosphere of the bare, “spit and sawdust” establishments.

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These days Parr is best known for his photographs emphasising bright vibrant colours, particularly yellows and reds, with his subjects caught unawares or in informal poses. A major part of the exhibition were photographs taken during recent visits to Manchester


……………… meeting people shopping, in hairdressers, in Mosques, in cafes, at markets, in factories, at parties, playing sport and in the gay village. He has captured scientists doing ground-breaking research at Manchester University, fans of the city’s world famous football teams and the state of the art facilities at the BBC in Media City. (Exhibition website)

and was interesting to see the city from his viewpoint.

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He must have took far too many photos to display full size so there was a large selection of smaller photos covering two sections of the wall.

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Here’s a few of my favourites

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At one time I spent hours doing this!

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And these photos taken in the Working Class Movement Library in Salford bring back memories of when I was more active politically

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The exhibition also included a short film with Martin Parr talking about Manchester and the exhibition and showing the printing of some of the photographs on display in the gallery.