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).

Double Fantasy – John and Yoko

Last Saturday evening we watched John And Yoko: Above Us Only Sky a documentary film on Channel 4 which tells “the untold story” of John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’. The film also “explores how the art, politics and music of the pair are intrinsically entwined.”

I was particularly interested to watch the documentary as only a few days before we’d visited an exhibition at the Museum of Liverpool – Double Fantasy – John & Yoko – which covered much of the same ground. 

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The multi-media exhibition covers John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s relationship from when they  first met in November 1966 at an exhibition of Yoko’s work at a London gallery right up to John’s death in December 1980. Like the film, it tells their story in their own words, but also includes personal objects alongside art, music and film produced by both John and Yoko drawn from Yoko’s own private collection, and which

explores the personal and creative chemistry of this iconic couple and their ongoing Imagine Peace campaign (exhibition website)

In many ways John and Yoko were an unlikely couple. John a famous popular music star from a lower middle background from a working class city in the north of England, and Yoko a Japanese avant-garde artist from an upper class background. But they clicked with John, perhaps, seeing in Yoko what he really wanted to be (a cosmopolitan avant-garde artist, not an upper class Japanese woman!). The exhibition shows how they influenced each other’s work, with Yoko perhaps having a bigger influence on John than John on Yoko.

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For many Beatles fans, Yoko was not popular, to say the least. Many of them blamed her for the breakup of the band. John took her with him to recording sessions and she, allegedly, offered her own musical suggestions and tried to join in on some of the songs. This certainly didn’t go down that well with other members of the band and probably widened rifts that were already starting to open.

My own view is that Yoko’s input probably accelerated what would have happened in any case rather than being the primary cause. It’s rare for a creative partnership to last forever and the Beatles were already starting to drift apart as they developed their own interests. Yoko was, for many, an easy scapegoat, and some of the antagonism was no doubt because she was Japanese. There was an underlying racism and the memories of WW2, which only ended just over 20 years before, meant that many people had a dislike of the Japanese.  Attitudes have mellowed over the years, but probably hasn’t completely gone away.

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The exhibition was chronological, taking in all the key events of their relationship from their first meeting at Yoko’s exhibition illustrating them with artefacts, works of art and song lyrics, a rolling programme of films and music videos and a music room, overlooking the Mersey, with tracks from albums playing and featuring album cover art. 

Exhibits included costumes they wore at their wedding

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Art works by Yoko and reproductions of drawings by John

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handwritten drafts of song lyrics

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Their politics were really rather naive, but well intended and their Bed-Ins for Peace protests in Amsterdam, not surprisingly, featured prominently in the exhibition

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The story of the music that John created after he left the Beatles, in most cases working with Yoko, featured heavily. It was an opportunity to reappraise what John had achieved after he had left the Beatles. Inevitably not everything was a classic (and that’s true of every act, including the Beatles) but there were some songs which were as good as anything he had created during his partnership with Paul McCartney,   –  Mind Games, Jealous Guy, Watching the Wheels, Woman, Happy Xmas (War is over)  and, of course, Imagine

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Keswick Museums

The Tuesday morning of our holiday we went out on the lake. The offspring and Moss in a canoe, while I followed up on my Anglesey adventure by hiring a kayak – a “sit on” one this time as no “sit in” types were available. Photographs were difficult as we didn’t want to get our phones and cameras wet, but Mitch did manage to get a snap of Moss.

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After an enjoyable hour paddling on the water, we went back to the apartment to dry off, change and have a bite to eat. After that I went with J into Keswick for the afternoon. After looking around the shops for a while we headed over to the Keswick museum. It’s quite small, occupying only three rooms (not counting the reception / gift shop, but worth a visit. There’s a permanent collection – local fossils, geological samples, natural history, social and industrial history exhibits and objects reflecting life in Keswick and the Lake District. Old fashioned, but in a good way!

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There were also two temporary exhibitions – one devoted to female mountaineering in the Lake District and the other to the famous mountaineer, Chris Bonnington, who lives locally.

The other museum in Keswick is devoted to a product that used to be a mainstay of the local economy – the pencil.  We visited on the Wednesday, which had the worst weather of the holiday – it rained most of the day.

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Graphite was discovered down Borrowdale, near Seathwaite, way back in the 1500’s and a cottage industry of pencil making began in the area and this then evolved over time to with the UK’s first pencil factory being founded in Keswick in 1832. The Cumberland Pencil Factory was set up in 1916 and would have been a major employer in the town until it was relocated to more modern premises near Workington in 2008. The pencil museum is located on the site of the former factory, having moved there when the original site in the centre of the town was damaged during the devastating floods in December 2015. It reopened only last year at the new location.

It may seem a little odd having a museum dedicated to such an ordinary object, but we found it interesting and spent over an hour looking round. The entry “ticket” is an actual Cumberland pencil.

Exhibits cover the history of the industry and the manufacturing process, starting with the mining of the graphite itself. There’s also displays of the different products produced by the company over the years, as well as various objects related to the manufacture, promotion and use of pencils, including one of the largest colour pencils in the world measuring almost 8 metres

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and miniature pencil sculptures.

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During WW2 the factory were commissioned by British Intelligence to create a special pencil with a hidden compass and maps. It was given to bomber pilots and sent to prisoners of war, the idea being that they could use them if shot down or trying to escape.

There were tables set out with the range of products manufactures by the company which visitors could use and try out. They specialise these days in high end products for artists with graphite products making up only a small proportion of their range. There was, of course, a shop where the products were on sale!

Definitely worth a visit for an hour or so on a rainy day in Keswick.

James Cook – the Voyages at the British Library

Last Tuesday I had to travel down for a meeting in the afternoon. As I was travelling on an “off peak ticket” the first train I could catch for the return journey only leaves at 7:30, so J decided to travel down with me and make a day of it.

After my meeting we met up at the National Portrait Gallery where we had a look around the BP Portrait Award exhibition before heading over to the British Library to visit the current exhibition about the voyages of James Cook.
We have a particular interest in him as he’s in my wife’s descended from one of his siblings and last year we’d visited the Cook Memorial Museum in Whitby as well as his parent’s home which has been transplanted in Fitzroy Garden’s in Melbourne.

It was an excellent exhibition and we ended up spending longer there than we’d anticipated. It covered in some detail all three of Cook’s voyages with exhibits including maps, charts, journals, books, drawings, paintings, many of which were produced by the artists, scientists and sailors on board the ships (including Cook himself) and a series of short videos giving different perspectives on the voyages.

After a brief introduction to Cook and the background, there was a separate section of the exhibition devoted to each of the three voyages.

Highlights for me were the charts drawn in Cook’s own hand

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and his handwritten journals

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and pictures by the expedition artists and other crew members, including the earliest European depiction of a kangaroo.

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One thing that particularly came across to me from this exhibition was the role of Polynesians from Tahiti who guided the British expedition to islands they were already aware of and also helped as translators as well as, to some extent, smoothing the way, when encountering indigenous Polynesian peoples on the newly “discovered” (by Europeans) lands. In particular, Tupaia, who joined first voyage, travelling on to New Zealand and Australia.

There were a number of drawings by Tupaia in the exhibition.

Tupaia Longhouse and Canoes in Tahiti

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The official objective of the 1st expedition (1768–1771) was to observe the Transit of Venus to aid the calculation of the distance from the Earth to the Sun, but the Admiralty provided Cook with secret orders to search for land and commercial opportunities in the Pacific. So Cook and his crew are best remembered for being the first Europeans to discover and chart the Eastern shores of Australia, properly explore and chart the shores of New Zealand and to “discover” a number of Pacific islands. Of course, all these lands had been discovered many years before by the people who were living there when the Europeans arrived.

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The objective of the 2nd expedition (1772–1775) was to search for the Great Southern Continent, believed by some in Europe to encircle the South Pole. They travelled further south than had been done before, were the first ships to cross the Antarctic Circle and the Resolution set a record for the Farthest South that would stand for 49 years. They didn’t find land (not travelling far enough south to reach Antarctica)and Cook ruled out the existence of a continent ‘unless near the pole and out of reach of navigation’. The expedition also revisited Tahiti and New Zealand and “discovered” several new Pacific islands as well as South Georgia which he claimed for Britain. The latter was occupied by Argentina during the Falklands War.

The secret aim of the 3rd voyage (1776–1780) was search for a Northwest Passage linking the Pacific and the Atlantic. Again, they sailed into the South Pacific where they visited Tonga, Tahiti, Tasmania and New Zealand and the Hawaiian islands before sailing north to Canada and then Alaska. They crossed the Bering Sea over to Asia and crossed the Arctic circle, but further progress was blocked by ice so they failed in their quest to find a North West passage. Sailing south they called in at the Hawaiian islands. It was here, on 14 February 1779 that Cook was killed on the beach along with 4 marines and 16 Hawaiians, following a dispute over a stolen boat. The expedition carried on without him travelling to Kamchatka in western Russia and China before returning to Britain.

These were epic journeys demonstrating tremendous navigational skills, seamanship and chart making abilities. But there was a legacy. The discoveries and charts enabled the subsequent occupation, colonisation and subjugation of the indigenous peoples of these lands. So it was good to see that the British Library provided some different perspectives other than simply praising Cook in a series of short videos.

Terracotta Warriors in Liverpool

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More than 8,000 life-sized Terracotta Warriors have been unearthed in burial pits at the tomb complex of Emperor, Qin Shi Huang, since 1974 near Xi’ in North West China. They’re one of the “wonders of the world” and a small selection of them are currently visiting Liverpool as part as an exhibition at the World Museum in Liverpool.

We went to see the exhibition last Friday evening. It’s proving to be very popular (not surprising really) and tickets have to be booked a few weeks in advance.

My colleague at work was a little scathing as only a relatively small number of the warriors are on display. He felt that the spectacle was in seeing the massed ranks.

Visitors are allocated a time slot but we still had to queue up to wait to get in. First of all you’re shepherded in to watch an introductory film. Personally I didn’t find it very enlightening and don’t think it set the scene particularly well. However it didn’t last too long and we were soon entering the exhibition proper to be greeted by a horse and its groom.

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We were able to get quite close to the life size figures – within a metre. Photographs were allowed (no flash), and although the exhibition was busy, we were able to get a good look.

Then into the main part of the exhibition where we learned about how China was unified under the First Emperor and about life in China during his reign. There was a good selection of artefacts on display

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supported by information panels

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Then the main display of warriors – seven of them in a row

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Again, we were able to get very close to the figures and inspect their features, clothing, armour etc.

The life-sized figures vary in height, uniform, and hairstyle in accordance with rank. They all have different features although experts have identified 10 basic face shapes.

Although today they appear as terracotta grey, they were original painted in bright colours, like this reproduction on display in the foyer of the Museum,

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which has faded and flaked off. However, by getting close it was possible to see traces of the paint. Most of the figures originally held real weapons such as spears, swords, or crossbows, but very few remain as they’ve either been robbed or disintegrated over time.

Here’s a closer look at some of the figures.

The General

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An Officer

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A Light Infantryman

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A Heavy Infantryman

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A Charioteer

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A Standing archer

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A Kneeling archer

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This wasn’t the end of the exhibition. Some high ranking notables and later Emperors also had their own armies created – although these were smaller than life size and not as realistic.

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and there was a beautiful golden horse found in the tomb of Emperor Wu, the 5th ruler of the Han Dynasty

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Well, despite my colleague’s warning, we were not at all disappointed – quite the reverse. We learned quite a lot about the history of China and the early Emperors, and it was fantastic to be able to get close up to the figures. They were breathtaking.

The National Museum of Finland

We visited the National Museum of Finland on the first full day of our recent stay in Helsinki – on the Sunday afternoon after we’d been to the Didrichsen Art Museum. It tells the story of Finland and its people, going right back to the pre-historic times and is definitely worth a visit to get an understanding of this relatively young nation.

The museum is in a distinctive Finnish National Romantic style building, designed by architects Herman Gesellius, Armas Lindgren, and Eliel Saarinen, directly opposite the Finlandia Hall, close to the city centre. The exterior is rather austere and influenced by medieval architecture but with some Art Nouveau / Jugendstil touches.

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Inside includes murals and other Finnish style Jugendstil features, particularly in the central hall and main staircase. It’s hard to do justice to the ceiling mural in the central entrance hall which depicts scenes from the Kalevala, the Finnish national myth.

There were some beautiful stained glass windows on the main staircase

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The first half of the museum concentrates on the history of Finland from the Middle Ages to the foundation of the independent Finnish State in 1917 (after the Russian Revolution). It’s what I would call a traditional type of museum with lots of artefacts presented in a relatively static way with limited interaction. This doesn’t mean it wasn’t interesting and we learned quite a bit about the history of Finland when it was a colony of Sweden and then, later, a Russian Grand Duchy.

The Medieval room

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A recreated room from the 18th Century when Finland was a Swedish colony – the large white “cabinet” is a ceramic heater – needed in the depths of the Finnish winter!

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The throne used by the Tsar during his visit to Finland when it was under Russian Imperial influence

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The second half of the museum, covering the modern era from the beginning of the 20th Century to the present day was very modern in style with lots of interactive and hands-on displays including this interactive panorama of Helsinki at the end of the Russian era

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and a “book” where the content was projected on to blank pages.

Nationalist feeling was growing in Finland at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th Century – which is reflected in the Jugenstil and National Romantic architecture so prevalent in Helsinki. After the fall of the Tsar, taking opportunity of the Bolshevik policy of  National Determination, Finland declared independence on 6 December 1917. A Civil War followed between “Reds” and conservative “Whites”, the latter eventually being victorious.

At the beginning of WWII Finland was attacked by Soviet Russia leading to a bitter “Winter War” where the much smaller country defeated the Red Army, yet the Moscow Peace treaty ceded territory to Russia. There was a period of peace before war resumed in autumn 1941 when Russia was preoccupied with defending itself from the German invasion.  Power relations had changed and The USSR were now allied with Great Britain, which resulted in the latter declaring war on Finland on 6 December., and Finland was supported by, if not allied with, the Nazis. I felt that although much was made of the hardship and heroics of the Winter War (quite rightly), this aspect was rather glossed over.

After WWII Finland was in a difficult position with a long border with the USSR and and had to balance carefully between the big powers maintaining a neutral stance. Like the other Nordic countries it developed a strong welfare state which largely remains today despite some economic difficulties and the rise of the Nationalist right who are now in Government.

Last year was the Centenary of the founding of the Finnish state and the final exhibit in this part of the Museum was a film show with an image of a Finn from each year from 1917 until 2017 projected on a large screen. Visitors could control both the direction of the film (past to present or vice versa) and the speed.

As we were about to leave the museum we realised we’d missed a whole section devoted to prehistoric Finland, so we went to have a look. Again, it was an interesting exhibition, well presented in a modern way.

Given it’s position in the frozen north, early population was sparse and life would have been hard so no major civilisations developed like in more temperate environments. However there was some migration after the last Ice Age and a number of artefacts were displayed, such as weapons and jewellery.

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as well as displays and models about the environment and how people lived.

We enjoyed our visit to the Museum. There was more  to see and we could have spent longer there, but we were starting to feel tired so it was time to head back to our hotel for a rest and to get ready to go out for something to eat.