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!

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And now for some bowls

 

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For some reason I find throwing and turning bowls more difficult than other forms. I can never seem to get the thick clay out of the base and they tend to end up with strange ridges. The pearlescent glaze here was supposed to be a gloss white but looks like it needed more than one layer.

Page 132 The Glaze Book – Gloss white 1290C

Potash feldspar                              60
Dolomite                                         20
Quartz  (flint)                                 15
China clay                                       5
Rutile                                                5

Layered on top of another glaze the opalescent effect might work but I don’t like how watered down it looks revealing the clay underneath here.

The bowl with the oatmeal glaze is my favourite – it’s got rings of different shades of orange with a subtle texture and green tinging where it’s pooled at the base. I like the detail of the running green glaze around the rim too – a touch of Lucie Rie!

Oatmeal 1290C

Potash feldspar                             45
Dolomite                                         88
Quartz    (flint)                               16
Zirconium silicate                         11
China clay                                        6
Zinc oxide                                        2
Chrome oxide                                 1

The green bowl has a pleasant mottled antique green colour – white slip with smooth satin opaque yellow green on top applied to bisque ware. I like the visible brush marks and the colour variation where the thickness is different.

Pop art oil lamps – glazed

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I finally got around to glazing the pop art inspired oil lamps we made earlier on this year with Mick Morgan. The bisque fired vessels have been painted with this clear stoneware glaze from the Emmanuel Cooper glaze handbook:

High alkaline frit                                                    10
Standard borax frit                                                50
Ball clay                                                                    30
Cornish stone                                                           10

I was worried the stains in the coloured slips might burn out at 1280C but luckily they stayed bright. The blue is a lot darker than I expected but works as a dramatic contrast to the pastel colours and I like how the colours and pattern unite them as a set. Perhaps they would look better decorated with matt vitreous slips though, or with a variation of block colour and line drawings, a kind of collage of slips and decals. I preferred the matt surfaces of the bisque ware to the shininess they have now. My favourite view of them is the abstracted one from above – the circles of different colour create a fun composition.

 

Layering slip and glaze

Here I’ve tested to see what effects can be had when layering slips and glazes onto ash white stoneware.

  1. White slip with turquoise glaze on top produces crazing in straight lines underneath a patchy shiny green.
  2. Reversing the above with the white slip on top creates a dry, textured matte surface which doesn’t flake or peel.
  3. My favourite – yellow/green glaze with blue slip painted on top forms islands of matte dark blue over a shiny surface with a very painterly effect. I like this rough, uneven texture which might look exciting on a large scale.
  4. The same as 3 but with turquoise glaze on top – this looks like a painted landscape with lots of variations of blue and hundreds of tiny bubbles encased in the surface.

I expected the slips to run off the surface when fired but the addition of glaze works to stick the raw and bisque fired clays together.

 

Pop art oil lamps

From the rough-hewn and rustic to Roy Lichtenstein – Mick’s next challenge, to make a set of pop art inspired oil lamps, came as a surprise. Pop art is generally defined as an art movement that emerged in the UK and US in the mid 1950s, drawing inspiration from pop culture and advertising and characterised by the use of bold colours, consumer goods as subject matter, the combination of text and image and a change of focus from abstract to representation. It’s ironic, it’s tawdry, it’s Warhol’s ‘Campbell’s soup’ it is, to quote, ‘the inedible, raised to the unspeakable’.

A few years ago there was an interesting culture show documentary called ‘Pop go the women’ about all the forgotten female artists involved with the pop art scene during the 50s and 60s, who’s work is, sadly, overlooked.

I began my research into oil-lamps by using the V and A and British museum collection databases, but found my spark of inspiration closer to home while scouring through metsearch. It’s a tin ‘petticoat’ oil lamp about 10cm tall from Texas. Apart from this there’s very little information but the elegance and asymmetrical balance of the form captured my imagination. The shape struck me as something that could me assembled from a series of thrown cones and bowl forms and led me to explore sketching composite thrown shapes in my sketchbook.

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I went on to throw and turn a variety of shapes on the wheel in White StThomas clay, then played with placing them together like stackable children’s toys, cutting some of the cones and cylinders at jaunty angles like Walter Keeler suggested in his masterclass, in order to give the lamps more character. I then attached pulled handles which will make them easier to use and emphasises the asymmetry which I find attractive.

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Laser cutting

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To decorate, I wanted a design that wouldn’t detract too much attention from the forms. Roy Lichtenstein’s polka dots have always felt iconic of pop art to me, so I tired cutting circular stencils from newspaper for paper resist, but was unsatisfied with how organic they looked. Pop art was about mass-production and sharp, clean graphics, so today I spent some time in soft modelling workshop learning how to use the laser cutter to cut out ‘halftone dots’ into paper. I was advised newspaper might catch fire and blow around too much but standard printer paper is ideal. Like newspaper it can be wet and attached to a rounded surface so slip can be painted over easily. I had to cut it to 600mm x 400mm then masking tape it to an MDF board of the same size for the laser machine, which only took a couple of minutes to cut the design. The singeing on top was caused by the first Adobe Illustrator vector file having too many layers of lines.

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I’ve painted the lamps above in blue, orange, yellow, green and black slip, using the cut up laser cut stencil to make polka dot patterns. The effect wasn’t as clean as I hoped but I found leaving the slip to dry before removing the stencil stops splodging. I might try using the stencil with underglaze colours to add more pattern, Pop art after all seems to be a bit about going over the top.

Colouring clay – pastel slips

This morning I opened test kiln no 3 that I fired to 1060C on Friday. The cone (06) bent at 1063C so the monitor was an accurate reading of the kiln’s temperature this time. These test pieces are a series of LF bowls thrown off the hump and painted in coloured slips then coated in an EW transparent glaze to an Emmanuel Cooper recipe:

High alkaline frit                            10
Standard borax frit                        50
Ball clay                                             30
Cornish stone                                  10

After admiring the work of Chloe Peytermann and Ben Fiess I painted a series of gouache abstract patterns in a similar palette of pastel colours then tried making these colours in slip to apply to clay.

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For the coloured slips I mixed Ball clay and China clay in equal parts then added 6% stain in primary colours: cobalt blue, red/orange and yellow. I’m disappointed with the results. 6% makes the colours soft but they’re no where close to the shades in the painting. The black slip (made with red clay recipe not stain) turned out brown and watered down while the pink is a sickly, fleshy colour although I can see it working nicely on sculptural forms. I feel a matte surface would complement the colours better – the shininess looks tacky.The colours didn’t mix as I expected either. The green turned out turquoise and the purple stayed pink.
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The flatness and precision of this decorating style bothers me but then again I’m tempted to cheat and just paint gouache straight onto bisqued clay, sticking two fingers up at Christopher Dresser’s principle of ‘Truth to materials’ in order to get better vibrancy of colour. I like the illustrative qualities you can get by painting slips and they can look stunning like on the domestic ware of Isabel Merrick, but the results are boringly predicable.

The only surface I’m happy with is the turquoise with the eye pattern below. Paring down to three colours looks more sophisticated and these cool, calming tones remind me of the seaside.

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There’s many a slip

Our ‘There’s many a slip twixt cup and lip’ brief requires us to produce a series of cups for a cafe of some kind. While I was away at university I suffered bouts of homesickness and especially on weekends, longed for a break from the busy city. I’d never lived in a town with more than 3,000 people before. I also drank a lot of tea while I was away, but early on found out I’d left one of my favourite cups at home. It wasn’t something I expected to miss.

There’s a distinction between a cup and a mug. While cups are usually used for drinking tea, their bigger siblings – mugs, are used for coffee and hot chocolate, although the only place I’ve drank from proper cups with saucers are cafes. It feels dainty and sophisticated to drink from a cup while a mug has a more down to earth feel. I’d call my cup from home a mug.

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My mug from home

The mug has a wider base than lip and a curvy barrel shape which keeps in the heat of the drink and prevents it from spilling as you carry it. This sense of security is further embodied in what the mug represents – the security of being with people I love and a place I feel safe. The lip is thick and smoothly rounded –  it feels almost as if you’re been given a kiss when you sip from it!  It appears to have been made from a mould based on a thrown form. The glaze is a little lumpy where the colours have overlapped and there is a small amount of pin-holing where the glaze has left tiny craters.

I began without a reference. I drew what I imagined the shape to look like and attempted to repetitively throw these forms with the aid of a pattern I had cut from the side of an old debit card. I then asked my family to take a photo of the mug and send it to me. The difference between my memory of what the mug looked like and reality startled me and this opposition is something I’d like to further explore.
If you ask me if I know what my family members look like, of course I know but could I draw them accurately? Very unlikely. What I worked from was a sort of caricature of the mug I knew, the ridge at the base and curves emphasised. This made me realise how completely unreliable my mind is. Similarly to this post my mind fills in the gaps in its knowledge with what it expects to find. How can i capture this essence of how the memory works in cup form?

If a cup had a memory it would remember all the drinks it has contained, the times it’s been knocked over and liquid spilt, maybe the chips would read as the wrinkles of old age. The life of a cup or mug in a house is entwined with the lives of those who live there.

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I’m designing my mugs for an imaginary cafe – a piece of home for me in the city, someplace I can go when I miss the countryside of North Wales. What could be more appropriate than to make the mugs from clay sourced from the area where I live? So far I have been throwing these forms in LF (low firing) white earthenware clay. My plan next is to try throwing with the clay I sourced from my local area in Snowdonia. I’m also interested in coloured slip decoration and it’s potential for illustrative qualities as my mugs would need to be colourful and cheerful to fulfil their purpose. I’m going to photograph textures and patterns from around my home for inspiration.

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Beautiful, minimal slip decoration, Craft in the Bay