Just pottering about
Country Life UK|February 17, 2021
Inspired by wedding bouquets, native breeds and countryside walks, it is imaginative reinterpretations of past designs that give today’s regional potteries their distinctive identities, says Matthew Dennison
Matthew Dennison
POTTERY, my mother told me, is the closest thing to farming,’ remembers Tabby Cole. ‘It’s very natural and its results are dependent on the quality of your ingredients. Those ingredients emerge from the earth—in our case, now that a local seam of clay in the riverbed is no longer workable, we use clay from Cornwall, processed in Stoke-on-Trent.’

Miss Cole runs Rye Pottery, based in the East Sussex cinque port, with her brother Josh. The family has owned the pottery since 1947, when, in a burst of post-war optimism, the siblings’ grandfather Wally bought it with his brother, Jack, and set about employing small-scale industrial techniques to make studio pottery affordable. They were inspired by the keeper of ceramics at the V&A Museum, W. B. Honey, and, in Wally’s case, by his wartime experience working alongside distinguished, forward-thinking figures in the art world, including printmaker Julian Trevelyan and architect Basil Spence, at the Camouflage Development and Training Centre at Farnham Castle, Surrey. During the early years of Cole-family ownership, Rye Pottery’s output embraced a distinctive mid-century aesthetic, producing striped tablewares that garnered an international following and remain in production today.

Small, medium-sized and even farm-based local potteries, situated within reach of clay beds, have been a feature of English and Welsh ceramics manufacture since at least the beginning of the 17th century, when clay seams in Essex, the Midlands, north Devon, the Surrey/Hampshire borders and the Vale of Glamorgan spurred on enterprising local makers. Invariably, they copied Continental prototypes: at Harlow in Essex, Bideford in Devon and the Kentish village of Wrotham, potters produced sturdy vessels modelled on Dutch, French and German shapes, with distinctive slipware decoration achieved using a ‘slip’ of liquid white-firing clay, applied, like piped icing on a cake, to the red or brown earthenware body.

This, indeed, was pottery akin to farming: its distinctive colours, as well as its textures, were those of the natural materials from which it was made. Surviving pieces delight with their busy decoration of folk-art motifs and chunky contours coloured like molten caramel. The best examples by slipware potters, including Thomas Toft and Ralph Simpson and their families or the 18th-century Devon potter Edward Reed, achieved high levels of sophistication.

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