Artisans break the mould in Britain's pottery capital
At the 18th century Spode pottery works in Stoke-on-Trent, start-up artisans like 22 year old Emma Price are moving into abandoned buildings and breathing new life into a once-mighty industry.
The 10 acre site in the heart of the Staffordshire city in central England whose name worldwide is synonymous with pottery has become a creative hub that is drawing in a new generation.
“It’s a real privilege to be on this site,” said Price, wearing blue overalls flecked in plaster, as she worked on the mould for a bowl. “This offers me the opportunity to do my own thing and gives me the space to work in and do what I'm passionate about," she said.
“A lot of people now are starting to move away from the mass-produced work and want something that’s more bespoke.”
Iconic Stoke brands such as Wedgwood, Royal Doulton and Spode are renowned across the globe for their fine chinaware.
On a rich seam of clay in England’s West Midlands, Stoke became the world centre of pottery production by 1800.
Now fewer than 10,000 people still work in an industry that once employed 80,000 in Stoke, as factories closed and production shifted to Asia over the last 20 years.
But young artists are making the most of the latent factory space, skills and expertise that still exist in the 250,000-strong city, not to mention the coveted ‘Made in Stoke-on- Trent’ backstamp.
At the Spode works, founded in 1767, a few dozen artisans have moved into the derelict buildings.
Cobwebbed storehouses on the site are stuffed with Spode moulds from the past, stacked on wooden shelves marked with names like Louis XV, Old Comport and Rose Tazza.
The cavernous China Hall, once bustling with people and machines, now stands like an empty cathedral, filled with light and silence.
Ceramic artist Jo Ayre, 34, works in a makeshift studio just off the China Hall, in a space formerly known as Scorpion Alley, so fierce was the reputation of the women who worked there. Besides producing her own works, she runs adult learning classes, teaching groups of locals who want to know more about the craft that made their city’s name.
Among those taking their first steps in learning how to manipulate the clay was 36 year old barber Craig Urwin. “We are doing it in the old-fashioned way, by hand. It’s fascinating,” he said. “We’ve probably got ancestors who did work here or in other factories.”
Ayre, who hails from Stoke, trained at the Royal College of Art in London but moved back in 2015.
“There’s so much space, people you can talk to who know a tremendous amount about ceramics, so it feels like there’s endless possibilities here.”
In 2011, Prince Charles, the heir to the throne, stepped in to save Middleport Pottery, another historic site and the home of Burleigh chinaware. As part of the regeneration project, artists have moved in there too, while the new visitor centre tells people about traditional pottery production.
Laura Cohen, chief executive of the British Ceramic Confederation trade association, said the industry was in good health in Stoke as sales and employment had surged since the depths of the recession in 2010. “It forced those companies that were surviving to look at their business models, to think about how they can become truly world-class,” she said.
Only pottery left
Steph Woodhouse, spokeswoman for the Emma Bridgewater factory, one of the more established brands, said: “We’ve seen a real return of artisan potters coming back to Stoke to utilise the skills and experience”.
Bridgewater began producing ceramics on a tiny scale in Stoke in 1985, and bought the Victorian-era Meakin factory in 1996 as the business expanded.
The pottery now produces 32,000 hand-made, hand-decorated items per week and exports internationally. Some 250 people work in the Bridgewater factory, from the men casting the clay to the women using traditional sponging techniques to press on the decoration. John Buckley, 59, has been working in potteries since he was 16.
“The mining’s gone, the steel’s gone, there’s only this, really,” he said of Stoke’s traditional industries. “I’m surprised this is still going, and it’s coming back, and I’m proud to be part of it.”