When a group of student curators at Leeds University started work on their new ceramics display, they were surprised to find a strong vein of democracy running through the clay. So they have called the exhibition Designing Yorkshire Pottery: For the Many, Not the Few.
Yorkshire Pottery was for use and ornament, for people who could afford to have nice things but wanted them to be serviceable as well.
“You pick up these pieces from the nineteenth century, with their willow pattern designs and their romantic English landscapes done in Chinese style, and you’re handling mass market exoticism”, says Beth Arscott, one of the team from the MA course in art gallery and museum studies. “Yorkshire pottery is a real economic indicator of this period, when the middle classes were expanding.”
The small exhibition of just 22 pieces ranges from pierced creamware, such as an oil and vinegar cruet for the well-to-do of the eighteenth century, to a Chinese-inspired transferware plate of the next century. Using transfers instead of hand-painting techniques enabled mass-production and put orientalism on the tables of Headingley, Harrogate and Hull.
Handed down from generation to generation there are blue and white teacups and saucers, creamware jugs and willow pattern plates in corners and cupboards, on sills and sideboards across the county.
Creamware was first produced in Yorkshire in the mid-18th century and was bought by the upper and middle classes. But by the 19th century, it had become affordable for the general population too. As well as the transfer techniques for the Chinoiserie, machine piercing helped to speed up creamware production.
Potteries were mostly grouped in areas with good natural resources and waterways, so that the raw materials were close at hand. By 1835, Hunslet was home to at least eight potteries, all close to the River Aire.
The majority of pieces manufactured at this time were not marked. This makes it hard to attribute pieces to specific individuals and potteries. By the 20th century, the demand for Yorkshire pottery had declined. Other nations had caught up. Foreign competition and instability in the British economy caused many potteries to close.
In this exhibition of pieces from the university’s art collection, there are piercings, twisted rope handles, braidings and flutings on bowls, baskets and dishes. There are signs too of how habits have changed – knife rests to protect tables and cloths, a jelly mould and a tiny floral teapot from the early nineteenth century when tea was expensive and drunk in small quantities.
Perhaps the quirkiest piece is a blue and white plate complete with oriental figures, bridge and sailing junk. And there, in the foreground, is a surprising pair of zebras, a little bit of Africa dropped into China and packaged for a Yorkshire tea table.
The displays are open to the public from 7th December 2017 to 3rd March 2018 in the Stanley & Audrey Burton Gallery.
Open Mondays, 1pm – 5pm; Tuesday – Saturday, 10am – 5pm. Admission is free.
The student curators are Hedea Amiri, Han Yi Jin, Kate Stevens, Helena Perkis, Amarjit Singh Bath and Beth Arscott