A Guided Tour of the Potteries

I am someone who has never really enjoyed guided tours.  In museums, even the recorded guides that you can carry around with you annoy me.  That being said I was somewhat reluctant to book a guided tour of Stoke-on-Trent. However, on the advice of my colleague I looked into the idea.  I am so glad that I did.  Stoke-on-Trent has so much to see, and very confusing roads.  I would not have been able to get to 1/5 of what I did on my own.  

The famous bottle kilns of Stoke seen from inside of Phil's car.

 I booked a tour with Stoke Tours https://www.stoketours.co.uk/ run by Phil Johnson.  He drove us around to many different destinations.  We started the day by going to 2 smaller studios, Reiko Kaneko (a Japanese designer who works in ceramics) and Anita Harris Art Pottery.   

Reiko Kaneko's Studio.  Reiko is a designer from London who designs ceramic objects and moved to Stoke-on-Trent to be closer to the sources of manufacturing in the UK.

Reiko's glaze tests.

Tableware designed by Reiko for Heston Blumethal (The Fat Duck restaurant) a famous chef.

Anita Harris doing a decorating demonstration for us. She runs her own small pottery in Stoke-on-Trent, after having worked for the larger potteries for years.

Next to Anita Harris’s studio there was a bottle kiln we got to look inside of. 

 We then went for a factory tour at Emma Bridgewater Pottery. I have been showing a film of them casting to my Mold Making and Slip Casting class for the past several years, so it was fun to get to see their workshop in person.  Their designs are not really my cup of tea, but it was still very interesting to see how they produce all of their work.  They use a lot of sponge stamping in their decorating process.  

I got a chance to try my hand at jiggering. Performing in front of a crowd was a little intimidating. It took me 2 tries to get it right.

It turns out that the factory worker was telling me to throw the clay down a harder, but using a word specific to local potters that I had never heard before, and unfortunately do not remember now.

 From Emma Bridgewater, we continued on to The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery in Hanley.  They had an entire floor devoted to ceramics. The collection spanned from the middle ages to contemporary studio pottery.  It was at this museum that our tour guide Phil informed us that the word saggar comes from “safe guard”. Another mystery solved. 

My favorite piece in their collection was this toilet.

Like Wedgwood they included firing mistakes.

Stacking saggars in a probably coal fired kiln.

model of a bottle kiln

After the museum, we went to Moorcroft.  They have a shop and a little “museum” of their history. We did not go to their factory, but they do apparently offer tours.

The Moorcroft pottery outlet with Phil Johnson in the foreground.

Moorcroft vases.

 During the entire time, we were traveling around Phil was telling us about local history, how Stoke-on-Trent became a city, etc.  Apparently, it was a collection of towns that came together to form a city in 1910.  We ended the day in Burslem, apparently the least prosperous of the towns. Phil had arranged to have a local internet radio station interview us.  They were excited to have visitors from so far away.  That took about 5 minutes.  We had a little tour around Burslem then.  Saw some Minton tiles on a craft school that Wedgwood set up, and saw the Wedgwood family home.  There I learned that Josiah Wedgwood was the grandfather of Charles Darwin.  I have to wonder if Wedgwood’s scientific bent didn’t rub off on his more famous grandson.   

The Wedgwood family home.

The last place we visited was the Middleport Pottery which houses the factory that produces Burleigh pottery, has rental spaces for artisans, and is the place they film the "Great British Pottery Throw Down".  They will soon be opening a program called “Clay College” which will be an MA course in ceramics.  The space is financially supported by Prince Charles because it is the only factory still producing pottery in the old way, including using copperplate etching transfers to decorate their ware.  Much of the space was closed by the time we got there, but I did get to talk to a couple of the artists who rent spaces.  In particular I spent a fairly long time talking to Jasmine Simpson who works for Reiko Kaneko as her glaze technician, but is also working on her own body of art.  We talked about the education system for ceramics in Britain, and about opportunities in the US for ceramicists.  In all it was a long and fruitful day.
Middleport Pottery.

Jasmine's work in her studio.

One of the bottle kilns from Middleport.