Collections

Over the summer we’ve been asked to explore the theme of ‘collections’ documenting each of the following five:

1. A collection you have visited in person
My friend’s dad collects old milk bottles. There’s a room beside their kitchen where they’re all kept, lining the shelves from wall to ceiling with even more flowing from crates on and underneath the table. Most come from Wales but some from London where it was discovered the family’s ancestors used to be milkmen. Most date from around the 1930s but some date as far back as he 1880s, the older ones having wider necks. Here the collecting is an action, an ongoing process, collecting for fun.

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2. An historical collection
I visited Middleport Pottery in Stoke-on-trent where they produce slipcast Burleigh ware. There they keep a collection of all the old plaster moulds the factory has used over the years and new designs are often inspired by this collection. It describes how tastes in ceramics have changed over the years from the flowery, intricate complex vessels of the past to the simple and sleek modern ones of today.
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3. An artist who references collections in their creative practice
I travelled down to visit my flatmate in Eastbourne over the holiday and she took me to visit the Towner Art Gallery where I found this unusual collection of discarded dogballs collected by Jo Coles, a Brighton based artist. Here is the statement from her website (http://www.jocoles.com/) : I walk and I collect. I connect with a place through the objects people leave behind. I use these small details from human life to evidence living history. I save these objects for posterity before they disappear into the ground or are collected by street cleaners and whisked away into landfill. I’ve created order by imposing a system of collecting on these seemingly random pieces of rubbish.
Coles’s collections describe our ‘throw-away’ culture, elevating the everyday to intriguing works of art.

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4) An unconventional collection
I came across this creepy collection of mannequin limbs and torsos in a field recently while working at a music festival. The theme of the festival was surrealism so I suppose that’s enough of an explanation for them to be there. It’s an interesting collection symbolically though, in an art gallery context it might be interpreted as a kind of anti- war protest with references to the horrors of concentration camps. Plastic bodies suggest that human lives are as disposable as mass produced goods.

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5) A collection you have encountered in your own home
This collection of junk sits underneath our bungalow, most of it only kept because of its sentimental value. It includes the dolls house dad built for me, the threadbare mustard yellow chair that used to be my granddad’s, random books, CDs, children’s toys and golf clubs that are unlikely ever to be used. It’s a pile of things that don’t really belong anywhere else in the house but to an outsider might communicate lots about the type of people we are. It’s a personal collection that wouldn’t have any resonance with people outside my immediate family and yet you’re likely to find a similar collection of ‘homeless’ objects in any house.

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Middleport Pottery

Burleigh-Red-Calico
Image: http://www.hearthomemag.co.uk

On Wednesday I travelled to Stoke-on-Trent to visit Middleport Pottery, home of the famous Burleigh-ware, named after the partners Burgess and Leigh who took over the pottery in 1862. The site the pottery is on lends much to its success – situated beside the canal, it was easy to import raw materials as well as export the finished pieces from the factory to market. However, the main reason for its success was that this was the first pottery that had a production line from start to finish in the same building.  The raw clay came into the factory one end and finished, glazed and boxed ceramics came out the other.
The company specialised in earthenware tableware, using a white clay body that included china clay from Cornwall and Ball clay from Devon. This way, if the wares chipped they would be white inside unlike white tin-glazed pots, which when chipped would show the brown underneath.
Although only one bottle kiln survives today, the original pottery had seven until a clean air act was passed and meant they had to be demolished. Because the firings used coal, the pots were protected in saggars – large fireclay containers. Nowadays the factory uses cave sized gas kilns.

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Old photographs of the factory workers at Middleport
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Filter press

Clay used to be processed using an industrial filter press which can be found in the slip reclaim room. Today the clay is brought in pre-prepared and fed through a pug mill to the correct size. Wooden canals from the casting rooms above run through the ceiling back into the blungers that are kept constantly whirring, moving the slip beneath the floor so it doesn’t coagulate in the tank underground. Originally, children would have been employed to do this job, keeping the clay particles in suspension by stirring the slip. The slip’s viscosity would have been tested by dipping your arm into the liquid clay, now samples are tested with a more scientific method – a viscometer. All greenware clay is reclaimed and any discarded fired pieces are broken up and sold for filling potholes.

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Greenware ready to be fettled and sponged

Making a teapot on the wheel is still something I’ve never attempted but I’ve learnt a bit about the difficulty of getting one that pours just right. These Burleigh ones have tiny holes in their lids and holes where the spout is attached inside so that they only pour liquid out as fast as air is sucked in, which stops them glugging.

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Cups are PVA’d together at the rims before firing to create a vacuum that prevents warping
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Inside the gas kiln for glaze firing
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The saggar maker’s bottom knocker. This heavy ( I can vouch for that) wooden mallet or ‘mawl’ was used to knock the clay into this iron hoop to make the base of the saggar. A long slab of clay would be wrapped around a wooden mould to form the sides. 
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Men who were in charge of firing the kiln (a big responsibility) were called firemen. They would have used Bullers rings like this one to measure time and temperature combined. To see when the kiln should be opened they would measure the shrinkage of the rings in a pyrometer gauge. 
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Inside the original bottle kiln is another cylindrical tower in which the saggars would have been stacked. 

Having had experience of slipcasting myself I was familiar with the technique but it was still fascinating to see it being done on such a large scale. Even though most things are done by hand, just like a production line in a factory, everyone has a specialised job, be it making the plaster moulds themselves, fettling and sponging the casts, applying paper transfers or packing and unloading the kiln. Even today, most of the mould-making and casting work is done by men while the majority of decorating and applying transfers is done by women. It helps to have small hands!
The original shapes that moulds are made form are turned on a plaster lathe. Plates are made in seconds using a jigger – discs of clay are cut to uniform width continuously on a cutting machine, they’re then spun into flat discs on one mechanical wheel, slapped onto a plaster mould and trimmed in another machine, then placed on a rotating drying rack. The most difficult job seems to be applying the transfer paper for the surface patterns. Once the paper has been attached with soft soap it can’t be moved again because the ink starts to seep in.
It’s a very different way of producing ceramics to what I’m used to seeing with studio potters, and although I wouldn’t argue making things in this way requires great skill on behalf of the individuals involved, I don’t know if I’d be happy working on designs I didn’t create myself. I think I’d rather have understanding and experience of all different stages of the process.

One thing that struck me was how as you move through the factory, each room has a unique smell, usually earthy mixed with the smell of an old building, heavy, industrial machinery and soot. Interestingly the brightly coloured Poole pottery is also produced in Middleport, the opposite end to the country!