The Flowering of Pottery: Moorcroft Exemplifies Late 19th C. English Arts & Craft Styles

Eric Knowles
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Moorcroft pottery and I have a history that goes back more than 34 years, to my first visit to the Richard Dennis Gallery in London’s Kensington Church Street. This was unquestionably a mecca for Moorcroft. For a hopeless ‘potoholic’ such as myself it was obvious that I had found nirvana in W8.

Fast forward to the present day and I have made it to the promised-land ,by virtue of being a non-executive director of W.Moorcroft PLC. I am quite simply Willy Wonka in the chocolate factory. Having had the benefit of a sneak preview of The Richard Wright Collection of Moorcroft Pottery, I can reliably inform you it offers a fascinating selection that illustrates the varied output of this much-loved British Art Pottery, with an abundance of rarities.

Above: (detail) William Moorcroft, Cornflower, a large vase (c.1913) fine arts magazine

W. Moorcroft for Townsend & Co.,Landscape, a twin-handles Florian vase (c.1903)

William Moorcroft was born in Burslem, one of the Staffordshire pottery towns, in 1872. After the Burslem School of Art, where William proved himself to have a considerable artistic talent, he moved to London in 1895 to study at the National Art Training School, later The Royal College of Art. Two years later year, he was awarded his Art Master’s Certificate, which would normally propel most students towards a career teaching art. William, however, had set his sights on becoming a potter and when offered the position of designer by the china and earthenware manufacturers, James Macintyre & Company, in Burslem, he eagerly accepted.

Macintyre, who had begun producing art pottery in 1893, enlisted the services of Harry Barnard, the well-respected designer and modeller formerly employed at Doulton’s Lambeth studio. Barnard was asked to develop a pâte-sur-pâte type of decoration that involved the building up of layers of slip in low relief. The technique was already well established, having been perfected at the nearby Stoke factory of Minton & Co by the former Sèvres decorator Louis Solon. Macintyre decided to christen their new art pottery ‘Gesso Faience’, but it failed to excite would-be buyers.

Moorcroft’s initial designs were registered in 1898, retailing under the banner of Aurelian Ware, and incorporated the use of under glaze cobalt blue with iron red-on-glaze and gilt decoration that complemented his new and inventive shapes. Despite the demise of Gesso Ware, Moorcroft recognised the potential offered by slip-trailed decoration and set about producing floral designs applied to radical shapes that sat well with the Arts and Crafts ethos promoted by William Morris.

William Moorcroft, the boy from Burslem

As early as 1899, the young designer’s Peacock Feather and stylised floral designs, retailed as Florian Ware, were attracting international critical acclaim when exhibited in showrooms of the prestigious New York retailer Tiffany & Co.

During the ensuing 15 years, Moorcroft’s fertile imagination unleashed a regular flow of quite often breathtaking designs that were by no means limited to floral. As early as 1902, he had produced a design featuring Japanese ornamental carp made for the London retailer, Osler, and painted in tones of blue and mauve. The Richard Wright Collection includes a similar offering, but in the more elusive yellow and blue coloured palette. A flambé version of this much sought-after design made £16,000 when offered by Bonhams this year.

The year 1902 also witnessed the introduction of the first landscape designs featuring tall trees set amid an undulating countryside and adapted to fit a variety of vases of differing size (a fine example of which can be seen opposite). The pattern was initially marketed as Burslem Ware by Liberty & Co of London and each piece carried Moorcroft’s distinctive hand-painted signature.

W. Moorcroft, Claremont, a tobacco jar (c.1922)

One such vase found its way to me when I was appearing on the BBC TV’s Antiques Roadshow from Petworth House in West Sussex a few years ago. The owner was obviously unimpressed by Moorcroft’s oeuvre and kept the item at the back of a wardrobe. Despite my efforts to convince her of the pot’s artistic merits, this elderly matriarch remained tight-lipped and stony-faced – even after I offered a valuation in the region of £3,000. It’s sad to think that the stuff of a Moorcroft collector’s dream is probably still languishing in the back of a wardrobe somewhere in Sussex.

Moorcroft’s association with Liberty & Co was to prove a lifeline to him when, in 1913, James Macintyre & Co decided to concentrate its production efforts towards the more lucrative electrical components market and to part company with the potter. It is debatable whether the two parties came to an amicable separation, with William building his own, then state-of-the-art, pottery in nearby Sandbach Road, Cobridge, aided and abetted by Liberty & Co.

W. Moorcroft, Claremont, a silver overlaid picther (1910)

New patterns were quickly introduced including utilitarian tableware using a porcelaneous body similar to that used by Macintyre in their electrical output and referred to initially as Blue Porcelain. The speckled blue tableware was a much-needed success that soon became synonymous with Liberty’s new Tudor Tearooms where it was known as Moorcroft Blue. The advent of the First World War led to an increase in export trade allied with government commissions to produce shaving mugs and hospital inhalers, many of which were hand-potted, thereby allowing William to retain much of his workforce.

It was during the post-war years that Moorcroft developed his reputation for producing richly coloured wares that continued to draw upon floral, fruit and landscape inspiration. Of all his many and splendid designs, the most successful of the inter-war years is unquestionably his flagship Pomegranate pattern.

In 1928, the commercial success of the company was enhanced after being granted the Royal Warrant, henceforth until the death of Queen Mary in 1953. The inter-war years proved to also be a period of continuing innovation, resulting in a relatively unsuccessful endeavour to produce metallic ‘Lustre’ glazes on a commercial scale. The company, however, achieved a much better response to its Flambé pieces that covered standard designs with a deep, almost blood-red glaze and which are coveted by today’s collectors.

The Moorcroft factory, Cobridge, England, 1930

The popularity of the Art Deco style appears to have been almost begrudgingly acknowledged in a series of often pale salt-glazed designs that feature stylised Waving Corn, Yachts, Peacock Feathers and more traditional landscapes, the latter above and below bands of blue and yellow chevrons. However, William Moorcroft’s decision to introduce such neutral ‘earth’ colours was motivated by his recognition that far more serious competition came from the growing number of studio potters such as William Staite-Murray and Bernard Leach than those who might prefer the more geometric or abstract designs of Clarice Cliff and her ilk.

Following William’s death in 1945, the factory came under the leadership of his eldest son Walter Moorcroft. Walter shared his father’s passion for flowers and he proved to be a first-class draughtsman by providing a catalogue that encompassed a skilful array of botanical designs. Moorcroft junior had the advantage of being better travelled than his father and consequently keen to introduce more exotic blooms such as hibiscus and Bermuda lilies against his own choice of distinctive ground colours. He was connected to the company for the remaining 60 years of his life. He finally retired in 1985, and died in September 2002.

W. Moorcroft, Carp, a rare double-gourd vase (c.1902)

During the intervening years, the financial stability of the company began to ebb and flow and ownership passed from family hands during the 1970s before being acquired in 1987 by Hugh Edwards, city lawyer and passionate Moorcroft collector, and Richard Dennis, publisher and aforementioned respected dealer in art pottery. Together they managed to restore the fortunes of the company by installing Richard’s talented wife, Sally Tuffin, as head designer, before she and Richard parted company with Hugh Edwards in 1993 to set up their now successful, Dennis China Works.

Moorcroft Pottery continues to offer an ever-expanding repertoire of quality design that never fails to surprise and please the 12,000 members of its Collectors’ Club alongside an ever-growing international clientele. Yesterday, today and no doubt tomorrow the end result remains undeniably Moorcroft, and The Richard Wright Collection encapsulates the best of this enviable heritage.

by Eric Knowles, Contributing Writer-at-Large

London, England

Broadcaster, Author, Lecturer, Eric Knowles, appears on BBC’s Antiques Roadshow and prepared this article for the autumn 2010 issue of Bonhams Magazine. It appears here with the kind permission and support of Bonhams, with offices in major cities throughout the world.

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