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!

Dyfal donc a dyr y garreg

Before coming to CSAD I had no knowledge of how glazes, slips and different clays were made. I’d never packed a kiln in my life and I’d have hazarded a guess that feldspar was a type of supermarket. At the end of my first term, I can proudly say that I feel confident mixing my own glazes from recipes and I’ve had experience of packing a kiln correctly and learning how to put on a firing. I’ve made my own throwing tools in the woodwork and metal workshops but as well as new methods of making I’ve learnt new methods of thinking and developing ideas.

I really enjoyed the ‘local clay’ project- sourcing clay from our local area then subjecting it to a series of scientific tests to learn about its porosity, limestone presence and firing temperature. Going right to the source of the material we work with and learning about how its formed was enlightening.

When I started the course I had very little experience of throwing. The few times I managed to get past the tricky stage of centring the lump of clay, I made a handful of ugly  ash trays, each one weighing about as much as a small elephant. On the Foundation course my practice had centred around hand building – coil building mainly, a little slab building and press moulding too. Sculpture excited me but throwing was just…well…pots. It never occurred to me to try joining together thrown forms in a sculptural way. After watching Walter Keeler’s demonstration at Made by Hand and seeing the work of artists like Gordon Baldwin and Lisa Krigel, this is something I want to try. I’ve developed a new appreciation for the humble vessel form now that I realise the happiness that can be found in throwing something as simple as a bowl!

Now that it’s over halfway through the Christmas holidays I’m itching to get back to the wheel. Throwing has won me over. As I see it, it’s a form of practising mindfulness but with the added bonus of having created something beautiful and maybe even functional at the end of it. To look back at what I started with, I feel I’ve definitely improved (maybe not a great deal but as the welsh saying goes ‘Dyfal donc a dyr y garreg’ (tapping persistently breaks the stone). I can now, with varying degrees of success, do things I never imagined trying a few months ago such as throwing off the hump and making series of bottle forms.

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Wobbly throwing attempts at the start of term
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Biscuit fired – trying out new forms

Slipcasting on the other hand, was something I’d never in my life done before. The process is sometimes frustratingly time consuming as opposed to throwing which feels very immediate. I like the way slipcasting has the ability to capture minute details and it’s got me looking closer at everyday objects around my home to find out how they were made. However at the moment I’m not keen on the neat, mass-produced look of the finished outcome. I prefer how the objects look with the jagged seams of spilled slip still attached. This way they remind me of ancient artefacts freshly dug out from the earth. I feel slipcasting is the technique in ceramics which most embodies hylomorphism – there’s a lot of control imposed upon the clay and I feel it loses some of it’s ‘life’ and movement. This is why I like throwing but hate turning. If I over-turn a vessel it ends up looking strained and contrived. I want what I make to be a dialogue between myself and the material but not a one way conversation.

This first term I’ve had a wealth of opportunities to develop skills from volunteering as a pottery showdown assistant at Cardiff City Hall’s ‘Made by Hand’ craft fair to supporting throwing lessons with groups of students from the art Foundation course. Helping others to throw was itself a method of learning because I was challenged to reflect on my own technique and think about the series of movements involved.

Constellation has been valuable in challenging my long-held assumptions about the role of the mind and body in making. I’ve been introduced to new ideas about how we view the world and the role of our senses but more importantly I’ve been encouraged to question everything  – what kind of environment do I prefer to work in? Why did I draw that line the way I did? Why does it matter?

Now that I’ve been introduced to various working techniques, the plan for next term is to see how processes work together – I’d like to try plaster casting sprig moulds to attach decoration to thrown forms, altering and hand building onto thrown forms as well as seeing if I can throw the clay from my local area. If the consistency isn’t right I want to know what I can add to the clay to change its properties. Also next term I’m making an effort to combat my obsessive compulsive disorderliness to minimise clay dust in my work area.