Can anything be more quintessentially British than Wedgwood? TORI HYWEL-DAVIES visited the birthplace of the iconic ceramics brand that sends its products to adorn dining tables around the world.
Two and a half centuries ago, in 1759, Josiah Wedgwood set up his pottery works in Burslem, Staffordshire. Descended from a long line of Staffordshire potters, he greatly improved the clumsy ordinary crockery of the day, introducing durable yet tasteful items. His cream-coloured earthenware was christened ‘Queen’s Ware’ after Queen Charlotte appointed him as Queen’s potter in 1762.
During his long career, Wedgwood developed the revolutionary materials basalt and Jasperware. The latter usually ornamented with Greek Classical scenes.
Over 250 years on and Wedgwood is now one of oldest companies in the world and continues to produce thousands of pieces of pottery every week using a combination of modern and traditional techniques.
On the factory floor, you’ll see olde-worlde machines and unique craftsmanship used by Josiah Wedgwood himself. Amazingly, some are still in use now. “Some of our tools have been handed down by generations of past master craftsmen; I use one that’s 150 years old!” says Neil Burton, a master engine turner who joined as an apprentice 45 years ago.
Neil is one of a select few master craftsmen and women who are literally, the only ones in the world skilled enough to do their job, taking decades to perfect their craft.
So how does a single piece of clay from Cornwall turn into a finished ‘Made in England’ Wedgwood piece? We went along to the factory in Barlaston to find out…
WHERE OLD MEETS NEW
A statue of Josiah Wedgwood greets visitors approaching the World of Wedgwood. The new build reflects the brand’s ability to successfully converge historic design with present day.
The company has always used white clay from Devon, Dorset and Cornwall. A lorry deposits the heavy packages filled with the rolls of earth into a storage space on site. From there they are transported up to the factory. Most ware is cut from the end of a clay roll.
A teapot is created from two identical plaster of Paris molds. Before it heads into the kiln to be fired, the seams on a teapot (having joined its halves), need to be trimmed with a ‘fettling knife’ and then smoothed over with a sponge. The surface needs to be blemish free because the glaze application, which happens later, highlights the surface’s quality. This is called the ‘white china process’.
CUPS RUNNETH OVER
Cups are made differently to teapots. A cut of clay is placed into a mold before it enters a machine where a robot arm applies pressure to its middle. This process forces the clay to go up the sides of the mold, which in turn creates the sides of the cup – and its hollow. Handles are made separately and ‘bonded’ on to the cups with the ‘slip’– liquid clay – that is also used for the handles. Cups are turned upside down before they are fired.
INTO THE FIRE
Pieces head into the kiln, which fires at a whopping 1,250 degrees Centigrade. The process – which can take up to nine and a half hours – is called ‘biscuit firing’, which refers to the transition from a breakable piece of clay to a solid piece they call ‘biscuit’. It is said to derive from the French word ‘bisque’, which refers to unglazed, fired pottery.
Hand sprayers stain the glaze with vegetable stain – in this instance beetroot juice. Ceramic making is such an exact science that they need to know how much glaze
to add to each piece or run the risk of something going wrong. Here, the hand sprayer highlights areas of the teapot that still need attention by spraying the piece as it rotates on a wheel.
PUTTING ON THE PATTERNS
‘Decal transfers’ provide an easier way of applying designs to the ware than previous time-consuming traditions, which included a copper plate with etchings. The patterns could then be traced on top of the metal plates. The tracing paper was attached with
a short ‘stippling brush’, then washed off before being sent off to the kiln for firing. Since the 60s, these decal transfers have made life much easier for the workers.
Artists need a steady hand to paint the lines on Wedgwood teapots. Christine has worked here for 42 years and knows a thing or two about painting with confidence. “Everyone works differently with their brushes. It all comes with experience.
MAKING THE MARK
Each ‘Made in Great Britain’ sticker is only fixed – by hand – after going through a very demanding quality control process. When artists have been involved in creating the ware they place their signature on the bottom, stamping each one with authenticity.
STROKE OF GENIUS
Wedgwood’s prestige artist and master craftsman, Neil Bruce, has plenty of brushes to choose from. His job title is ‘raised pace gilder’ and involves ensuring the gold has the correct consistency. Neil joined Wedgwood in 2005 after a 30-year career as an artist at Royal Doulton. He is one of only two artists working on the high-end Prestige line. The plate arrives at his desk as plain white porcelain. “After stencilling it with the pattern it has its first firing. It comes back to be hand-painted then it’s fired again. On its third arrival, I apply 18-carat gold paint to the gold guidelines you can see. Every piece needs to be exactly the same.”
EASY DOES IT
Lynne is a figurine maker. She packs clay into a plaster of Paris mold first with a palette knife and then again, more firmly, with a ‘knocker’. She trims the excess and withdraws the figurine with a tool called a ‘wagger’.
Next to the Wedgwood design studio is a shelved space oozing with beautiful samples
of colour that adorn different types of material including glass. You can see how the creative team might feel inspired!
MASTER AT WORK
Neil Burton joined Wedgwood as an apprentice in 1972 and is now a master craftsman in Jasperware, the trademark blue pottery, which first inspired Josiah Wedgwood in the 17th century. “Not much has changed as far as processes go,” says Neil. “We still even use many of the original machines Wedgwood used.”
A PIECE OF HISTORY
Next door to the factory lies the Wedgwood museum, with a glorious array of fantastic artefacts from the company’s rich history. These colour test samples on porcelain show the many experimental shades of blue.
The design studio next to the factory is a fabulous space: light-filled, interesting and inspiring. As well as reworking traditional designs, the team work on some incredibly innovative products including never-been-done-before Jasper plant pots and new ranges.
Here’s some behind the scenes pictures from when we visited the birthplace of the iconic ceramics brand that sends its products to adorn dining tables around the world…