Review by Paul Courtney
Slipware in the Collection of the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery

David Barker and Steve Crompton. Slipware in the Collection of the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery. London: A. and C. Black, 2007. 192 pp.; 300 color illus. £30.00 (hardcover).

The modern city of Stoke-on-Trent resulted from the amalgam of six contiguous towns in the early twentieth century, not five as suggested by the title of Arnold Bennett’s famous 1902 social-realist novel, Anna of the Five Towns. The city’s museum collection was thus formed from the amalgamation of the collections of five separate museum services. In 1956 these were brought together in a single building in Hanley to create the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery, a place of pilgrimage for the world’s ceramists. At the core of the current collection are several large private collections, many of which were formed by local pottery manufacturers. These bequests continue to be supplemented by occasional purchases. The vessels in the collection represent the relatively small and finite number of vessels that have survived as antiques. The odd vessel might have been recovered from house clearance deposits in cesspits recovered by building laborers in the days before powered machines. Unfortunately, such finds are rare in Britain.

Stoke-on-Trent and its surrounding area in North Staffordshire produced a wide range of pottery between the medieval period and the present. Among its most distinctive and famous products are its slip-decorated wares, which also influenced wares produced in other pottery centers, such as Bristol. Slipware concentrates primarily on the classic wares of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries but also covers the later artisan, industrial, and studio wares. While the emphasis is on local products from Stoke and North Staffordshire, also included are comparative pieces from elsewhere in Britain. The gallery’s collection is clearly biased toward the more decorative pieces, those intended to be treasured rather than used. To obtain a realistic picture of what was produced for everyday use, one would have to view the vast number of sherds, collected from the waster heaps upon which the city is literally built, in the museum’s archaeological storage area.

Slipware illustrates 217 vessels, each of which is reproduced in color photographs taken by professional photographer Steve Crompton with multiple views and detailed shots of decoration where appropriate. A few additional items—for example, a dish mold and slip-trailing tools—are also included. Each vessel has a brief description of form, glaze, fabric, and decoration. Likely provenance and date of manufacture, a metric measurement (height or width), and the museum accession number also are noted. The volume is prefaced by a brief but elegant and informative essay written by freelance ceramics specialist David Barker, former keeper of archaeology and city archaeologist. Barker discusses the technology of making classic slipwares of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. He draws attention to the finds of both thrown and press-molded wares from English Civil War deposits of the 1640s, including Dudley and Eccles Hall castles, both in the West Midlands. As new refined earthenwares and stonewares came to the fore, North Staffordshire production of slipwares declined beginning in the 1720s, although slipwares persisted in other regions, sometimes into the nineteenth century. Briefly discussed are the slip-decorated wares (mocha, marbled, and so forth) of the industrial period and the studio slipwares of the 1920s onward.

The bulk of the photographic catalog is given over to traditional slipwares organized into sections by form: cups and mugs, posset pots, fuddling cups, jugs, jars, salt kits, roasters, cradles, flasks and kegs, nested cups, egg holders, chamber pots, money boxes, miscellaneous forms, and dishes. Many of the pieces are of such quality or such an unusual form that one would be lucky to see them at all in a professional lifetime as an excavator, even as sherds. Such examples, clearly treasured across the generations, include the Toft plates and a number of slip-decorated model cradles (some with dates and names), made either as toys or to commemorate births or weddings. Other photographs show complete and undamaged examples of the everyday wares found in vast quantities on either side of the Atlantic.

Most of the pieces are North Staffordshire in origin with the exception of the jugs. The only illustrated jug known to be from North Staffordshire is the famous owl jug discovered in 1990 on The Antiques Roadshow on BBC and now perhaps the Pottery Museum’s most iconic piece. Other jugs include North Devon sgraffito harvest jugs and puzzle jugs from Donyatt in Somerset.

Among the most spectacular products of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were thrown and press-molded dishes. The popularity of decorated flatwares in many parts of Western Europe in this period was probably linked to the popularity of the “dresser,” a cupboard with plate racks used for displaying such items. Four Thomas Toft dishes, two by Ralph Toft, and several other highly decorated pieces of the late seventeenth century are illustrated, as well as a modern fake of a Thomas Toft dish and a considerable number of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century (largely press-molded) dishes. The dates and provenance of later and less spectacular dishes are often difficult to establish as such pieces were produced by many potting centers.

Twenty-five pieces of industrial slipwares from North Staffordshire are selected to show the range of decorative techniques. Sixteen studio pots from the Winchecombe pottery in Gloucestershire and two vessels by Bernard Leach and three by Shoji Hamada, both then working at the St. Ives pottery in Cornwall, are presented. All of the studio wares come from a donation made in 1948 of 556 pots by Henry Vanderveer Bergen, an American who collected and decorated pots.

Local government museums in Britain increasingly have had to modernize and adapt themselves to centrally designed social and educational agendas. This has undoubtedly helped their survival in an increasingly difficult financial climate and made museums more relevant to a wider part of the population. The cost has been that many small museums have become identical clones of each other, and the traditional scholar-curator has become an endangered species. Museum catalogs seem to be increasingly regarded as an elitist luxury, if not a sin. Stoke’s museum is undoubtedly of international importance, and its insistence on visual quality has enabled it to produce, with varied funding sources, this beautifully illustrated volume. It is clearly aimed at a popular audience and deserves to sell many copies. Nevertheless, one cannot help but feel that the lack of even a short bibliography owes more to political correctness than a realistic profile of those actually prepared to spend £30 on a ceramics volume.

In conclusion, if you have the slightest interest in early modern English ceramics, buy this handsome and useful volume before it goes out of print and becomes an expensive rarity. It makes available a very important reference collection at a modest price.

Paul Courtney
Leicester, U.K.

Ceramics in America 2011