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.
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.
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.
I particularly liked this large pot with pictures of pottery workers
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
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.