Slipware

This blog post is about slipware. What’s slipware?

ozzy
Ozzy the Owl. Image sourced from here

If you’re fairly old and watch The Antiques Roadshow on BBC TV, you will almost certainly have seen at least one piece of slipware. In March 1990 someone brought an owl-shaped pottery jug along to a show, and the jovial ceramics expert Henry Sandon caused a media sensation when he valued it at £20,000. Quite a lot of money for an old chipped pot.  Ozzy the Owl is now one of the most popular treasures in the Potteries Museum & Art Gallery in Stoke-on-Trent. [1]

But if you don’t know about Ozzy, you might be somewhat in the dark about what slipware is and why anyone would pay £20k for it, or sometimes much more. So I should begin with a brief introduction.

Slipware has been made for thousands of years in many countries and by people of many cultures, but when ceramics geeks use the term these days, they are usually referring to English Slipware, a type of red earthenware pottery made in Staffordshire and other parts of England from around the 17th century. Similar wares were also made in Wales and in Scotland, and a thriving industry also developed in North America from the 18th century.

Here’s how it’s made:

First you find your clay, preferably by digging it up yourself from a clay pit within wheel-barrowing distance from your pottery. Then you prepare your clay for working.

Then you form your clay pot (by throwing, moulding, slab-building, modelling, etc), and then you wait for it to get leather-hard: the stage before firing at which it can be handled and worked on without collapsing.

To make your pot useable for storage and cooking, it must be coated and waterproofed. This is done by first covering it with slip, which is a semi-liquid mixture of clay suspended in water.

If you want to make your pot attractive as well as useful, you can add more colours of slip (normally brown-ish over white-ish or the reverse), with one colour applied over the other. There are lots of techniques that you can use for the decoration, such as painting, trailing, combing, stamping, marbling, calligraphy, scratching (sgraffito), or simply making squiggles in the wet slip with your fingers.

Next, you dip the pot into a bucket of lead-based transparent glaze. These days the old-fashioned lead or galena glaze, which has the disadvantage of making your cooking and eating vessels somewhat toxic, has been replaced by more modern types of transparent glaze.

Now your pot is ready for the final step of firing in your kiln. At the end of the process, you unload your slipware pieces from the kiln once it has cooled. And there they are: naïve (or faux-naïve) glossy brown and/or yellow and/or honey-coloured pots, sometimes plain, sometimes highly decorated, always gorgeously tactile and sensuous.

Isaac Button, Soil Hill Pottery, Halifax. Stills copied from from a 1965 film available here

Slipware was generally made by artisan potters using locally-sourced materials. It was cheaper to produce than tin-glazed wares and porcelain, and was made in huge quantities for the kitchens of the poorer and middling sort of householders. Much of the production was plain and undecorated, but some pieces were made in fanciful shapes (like Ozzy), and some were made with intricate slip-trailed patterns, inscriptions and dates. From the mid-17th century, slipware potters such as Thomas Toft were producing large and highly sophisticated commemorative pieces.

Because slipware pottery is fired at a relatively low temperature it is easily chipped and broken. The wares were used mainly in kitchens, for storage and for cooking, so they tended to be roughly handled. As a consequence, most pieces of slipware produced before the 20th century no longer survive except as sherds. Old slipware in its complete state is scarce. Old decorated and inscribed slipware is scarcer.

Screenshot 2022-07-24 20.38.28
Staffordshire Slipware Royal Arms Charger by Thomas Toft, 1660-’75. Image copied from Christie’s here

Early slipware became highly fashionable in the late 19th century for adorning houses in the Arts and Crafts taste. Prices sky-rocketed, and even today, when the market for old pottery is depressed, good pieces are still highly-sought-after by well-heeled collectors and museums. A Thomas Toft charger was sold by Christie’s in 2016 for £122,000. See what I mean?

By the early 20th century, the industry had all but disappeared, unable to compete against more than 100 years of market dominance by bright, colourful, attractive porcelain, pottery and stonewares mass-produced in huge Staffordshire factories and available to everyone at rock-bottom prices.

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Isaac Button, Soil Hill Pottery

However, slipware production didn’t become altogether extinct. A few old country potteries remained which still made pots by hand in the old tradition.  These makers included the latest of many generations of the Fishley family in Fremington, Devon; and Isaac Button, who continued working in his ancient pottery at Soil Hill, Halifax until the 1960s; and Elijah Comfort at Winchcombe in Gloucestershire.

20220729_072359And then, remarkably, Old English Slipware was saved, revived by the indomitable power of gentrification. Along came the Studio Pottery movement, led by two English gentleman-artist-potters: Bernard Leach and his first and most famous apprentice Michael Cardew. Between them they raised the primitive Old English peasant industry of slipware-making into a Traditional Artisan Folk Craft worthy of detailed academic analysis and artistic emulation.

For Bernard Leach, “slipware potters such as Thomas Toft … will always have an honoured place in ceramic history”. Leach even took his love of Old English slipware with him on his travels to Japan, and introduced potters there to slip-trailing:

“This new method of using clay was a revelation, and today there are at least half a dozen potteries in Japan where the slip-trailer is employed.”

When Leach returned to England in 1920 accompanied by the Japanese potter Shoji Hamada,

“our first endeavour was to search for what remained of the English tradition … Gradually, by adapting our previous knowledge of Eastern methods to those of the English slipware potters and through many experiments, one difficulty after another was surmounted … eventually we rediscovered most of the old technique”. [2]

Bottle+kiln
The old bottle kiln at Winchcombe Pottery. Image sourced from here

Michael Cardew took a more hands-on approach. Before going to the St Ives pottery to work with Leach in 1923, he visited Braunton in Devon and took lessons in throwing pots from William Fishley-Holland, a member of the long-established slipware pottery family from Fremington. After he left Leach in 1926, Cardew rented (and later purchased) an almost-defunct traditional slipware pottery for himself at Winchcombe, engaging its elderly employee Elijah Comfort to work with him for the first several years at making pots and training up local youngsters.

By the middle of the 20th century, thanks to Leach and Cardew and their peers, instead of taking an apprenticeship with an old country pottery, aspiring potters could learn how to make slipware and other types of ceramics in undergraduate degree courses at colleges and universities, alongside courses in painting and sculpture.

Although most of the ceramics degree courses have now been discontinued, the spark ignited by the promotion of slipware to middle-class status has continued to burn in a rather gentle way ever since, with several subsequent generations of slipware potters earning good reputations and reasonable livings from making beautifully crafted and decorated brown earthenware pots.

So (you’ll be asking) why’s this blogger going on and on and on about slipware? What awful old broken chipped cracked pots is he gonna drag out of his collection to show us now? Why does he think we readers will be even a little bit interested?

Well, to answer your rather blunt questions, it’s because I think that some of my old and not-so-old slipware pots are fascinating and beautiful objects, and I’m hoping that once you have seen them you will think so too.

Let’s look at three recent additions to my collection. One comes firmly from the centuries-old English slipware tradition, one was made precisely on the cusp where the peasant industry ended and gentrification began, and one will show you what’s happening with slipware right now.


 Slipware jar, 1757

This pot arrived a couple of weeks ago from my regular local auction. It’s a tall cylindrical jar made in red earthenware, 9.4 inches (24 cms) tall, coated with a brown slip, with yellowish slip-trailed decoration of wavy lines and dots, with the initials E*S and the date 1757. The whole is then covered inside and outside with a glossy transparent lead glaze, but left unglazed on the base.

It has clearly led a very hard life, having been broken into several pieces and glued back together. It has been chipped multiple times, so much so that the individual instances of damage around the top rim have sort-of coalesced, and the outer lip has been lost over most of its circumference. The glaze is pitted and scratched, and parts of the slip-trailed decoration and inscription have been abraded away.

And yet, to secure this very special object for my collection, I had to bid higher than my usual spending budget (but also, fortunately, rather less than the maximum bid I had allowed myself).

What then is so special about an old broken brown pot that I was prepared to bust my budget in order to buy it? It’s a simple, almost primitive object without any design interest or aesthetic merit. In terms of condition, it is a complete mess. Why would I or anyone else want to have it?

2022-07-26 14.16.48Well, I really really wanted it, and at some time in the past someone else did too. See that green paper sticker attached to the shoulder? That’s a Sotheby’s label. Yes, this sad old beaten-up pot has at one time been considered sufficiently important to pass through the hallowed portal of the most prestigious antiques and fine art auctioneer of them all. I intend to try to discover when it was in Sotheby’s hands and how it was sold – but this is an exercise which will require considerable research, probably including a visit to London to look at old catalogues and archives. If I get anywhere, I’ll report my findings to you in a future blog post.

But I haven’t yet told you why this jar is special. There are two main elements to this: first that it’s old, and second that it is marked with a date which shows exactly how old. Dated pieces of slipware are rare. Most are in museums and high-end private collections. Finding one with a date as early as 1757 in a general saleroom is very unusual. I don’t believe I have ever seen one before.

Screenshot 2022-07-24 22.57.14
Slipware jar dated 1824. Image sourced from here

It is also special because it’s quite a large pot and because, despite the obvious damage, most of it is still there. And, for an early piece of slipware, it is in an unusual shape. There are lots of jugs and plates and bowls and dishes and mugs, but I have only been able to find one other example of a dated large storage jar such as this, but it is from 1824, and thus 67 years younger than my jar.

And my jar is also special because it has real presence. It stands out. You notice it in a crowd of pots and say: where on earth did that thing come from?

Ah, now, that’s a tricky question. I can’t tell you where it’s from because I don’t really know. Old English slipware was made in many centres whose wares could be very similar to each others’. You need to be an expert and to have handled many pieces over a long period in order to express an informed opinion. And/or you need to be a scientist who can conduct a scientific analysis of the materials from which the pot is made.

I’m no expert and have handled very few early pieces, and I’m not a scientist. I don’t live near anyone who might be knowledgeable about this type of ware, and I’m not prepared to send my splendid pot off in the post. So I have to rely for my scant knowledge upon comparison with images that I seek out online, and upon the opinions of specialist collectors who see photographs that I post in Facebook special interest groups such as The Medieval and Later Pottery Research Group.

20220731_080549Thus, it’s important that you should not rely on my opinion in this matter. I urge you to take everything I say with a large pinch of salt – perhaps taken from a slipware salt pig such as the one that I wrote about in an earlier blog post.

Having hedged my opinion about with some solemn warnings, here it is: after comparing the clay, glaze and decoration of my jar with wares produced in many localities, the best match I can find is with pottery produced in the village of Donyatt, near Ilminster in Somerset. Over an 800-year period from the 12th century to the early 20th, Donyatt potters produced many different forms of pot, but they are most especially celebrated for their 17th and 18th century puzzle jugs and fuddling cups.

But even from Donyatt I can only find one object which seems to be closely related to my jar. This is an odd-looking thing described as a bacon toaster in the collection of the Museum of Somerset in Taunton. You can see a picture of it here (together with pictures of a puzzle jug and some fuddling cups, in case you were wondering).

The images below show detailed comparisons of some of the decoration and the slip-trailed dates on the two objects. For my non-expert (and perhaps somewhat slapdash) purposes, it seems reasonable to attribute my jar to Donyatt. That’s the best I can do.

Left: Donyatt bacon toaster. Right: my slipware jar


Slipware dish, around 1930

This dish was bought recently in a job lot from a local auction in Peebles, a very pleasant Scottish Borders town around an hour’s drive from home. I viewed and bid online, and didn’t see it in person until going to collect it from the saleroom.

There were three other pieces in the lot. One went to a charity shop, and one was sold on eBay where it recovered most of my outlay on the auction lot. I still have the third piece, which turns out to be more interesting than I had expected and might indeed form the basis for a future blog post.

2022-07-26 14.24.17However, my reason for buying the job lot was to get this piece of slipware and I’m absolutely thrilled with it: an oval pie dish 14 inches (35 cms) long, 12.5 inches (32 cms) wide and 2.5 inches (6.5 cms) deep. It is unmarked, except for the figures 17/6 pencilled on the base. Just like so many other Old English Slipware pieces, it is made from red-brown earthenware, covered  with a tan slip, decorated with finger-drawn squiggles made through the wet slip, and finally coated (except for the base) with transparent glaze.

Now, why was I so pleased to acquire for my collection this big anonymous example of simple country pottery cookware? The reason for my delight was that, despite the absence of a maker’s mark, I was pretty convinced from first seeing the saleroom’s image online that this is a pie dish with extraordinarily distinguished origins.

To confirm the opinion that I had formed firstly from the image and subsequently on close inspection, I posted some photos of the dish on the Facebook British Studio Pottery Mystery Pots special interest group and the British Studio Pottery Collectors group. These are places where interested collectors can get the enormous benefit of direct interaction with experts: with writers of some of the standard reference books on studio pottery; with the trade, including some of the most noted specialist dealers and auctioneers; and with distinguished potters, some of whom hold important collections of work by their peers and predecessors.

No-one in these groups was in any doubt that my pie dish is an early product of Winchcombe Pottery, almost certainly thrown by the legendary potter Elijah Comfort, and almost certainly decorated personally by the even more legendary Michael Cardew himself in his signature “river pattern”.

My Facebook posts were “liked” by two of Cardew’s grandsons (Ara and Gaea); by the potter Joe Finch, the son of Raymond Finch, Cardew’s successor as the owner of Winchcombe pottery; by a dozen or so well-known potters including some who had been trained there; and by several leading writers and collectors. The potters Miranda Shackleton and Mark Hewitt shared fond memories of collective meals as trainees at Winchcombe at which rice and junket puddings were served in identical dishes. Supported by all of these opinions, I think it’s safe to make a firm attribution of my unmarked dish to Winchcombe, Cardew and Comfort.

I also found online records of very similar but smaller dishes in the ceramics collection at the University of Aberystwyth [3].  They are dated to 1928/’29, and their original prices are noted as 6 shillings and sixpence (32.5 pence) for the 24.5 cms size (catalogue c244), and 10 shillings (50 pence) for the 29.5 cms size (catalogue c242/3).

The 17/6 pencil marking on the base of my example is thus explained as its original price: 17 shillings and sixpence (87.5 pence) for the 35 cms size. The pottery made a larger size too: in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London there is a 43 cm wide dish made in 1938 which has very similar decoration to mine [4].

d89efa600bb34fb5ec72b32352fb55f0
Winchcombe pottery seal and Michael Cardew’s personal seal. Image sourced from here.

Some Winchcombe dishes of this type were marked with the pottery’s WP seal, some with Cardew’s CM seal, some with both, and some with neither. But what makes these dishes so recognisable as a group is their very particular shape. According to the Aberystwyth website,

“these oval plates were made circular (by Elijah Comfort), then a piece was sliced out of the middle and the two halves stuck together to form the oval shape”.

Finding this superb dish by Comfort and Cardew was an exceptional piece of good fortune. Its especial importance is as a rare example of the fruitful collaboration between one of the last surviving representatives of the old country slipware tradition and one of the foremost intellectual craft potters of the modern studio pottery movement. It’s also a very beautiful thing, and I’m very happy to have it alongside a good number of Winchcombe Pottery pots in my collection, including examples by some of their best-known potters: Ray Finch, Sid and Charlie Tustin, Pat Groom and Eddie Hopkins.

A selection of Winchcombe pots in my collection. Back row (l to r): Ray Finch, Eddie Hopkins, Ray Finch (attrib.), Ray Finch. Front row: Patrick Groom, Sid Tustin, Sid Tustin, Charlie Tustin, Sid Tustin

Slipware bowl, 2006

This steep-sided oval black slipware bowl with cream slip-trailed decoration is 8.5 inches (21 cms) wide and 4 inches (10 cms) deep. It came from an Edinburgh charity shop about a month ago. I was delighted to buy it very cheaply and add it to my group of more than 30 pieces by its maker Hannah McAndrew Fitch. This might seem like an unusually large number of pots to own by a single potter, but it happens to include a 24-piece dinner service which Frances and I commissioned from Hannah a few years ago, which is in regular use for entertaining and much admired by our occasional dinner guests, and also sometimes by breakfast, morning coffee and lunch guests.

Slipware dinner service by Hannah McAndrew. The dish and tile in the centre are also by Hannah, and the tall jug is by her husband Doug Fitch.

My new bowl is simply decorated with slip-trailed dots interspersed with some of Hannah’s trademark “birdies”, which can be found adorning many of her pieces. It is incised on the base with The Barm Pottery, with the date 2006, a few years before Hannah started marking her pots with a personal seal. She and her pottery are located near Castle Douglas in Galloway, south-west Scotland. There, she lives and works with her husband Doug Fitch, another celebrated slipware potter. On their website at https://fitchandmcandrew.co.uk/ you will see lots and lots of pictures of their luscious pots.

A few years ago, Hannah and Doug held a joint exhibition at the Leach Pottery in St Ives, which is now a museum as well as a working pottery. Here is part of what the exhibition curator wrote about them:

1.-Fitch-and-McAndrew_Pellet-Jug-and-Flower-Brick_Image-credit-Shannon-Tofts
Image sourced from herehttps://fitchandmcandrew.co.uk/

“Having developed their practice from similar influences, their works are nevertheless clearly distinct from one another. The essential elements of Hannah’s work come from her love of pots with a purpose, pots for use in the kitchen or at the dining table. Her pieces take their influence from English country pottery and medieval earthenware, and draw on the rich heritage of British slipware.

“Douglas’s pots, predominantly large jugs, are thrown on the wheel and simply decorated with appliqué decoration or sgrafitto, using traditional slips made from local materials. They too draw influence from the work of the medieval English potters and the tradition of slip decorated pottery prevalent in this country until the early 20th century.” [5]

But I think it is fair to add to these descriptions that as well as working in the Old English Slipware tradition, both Doug and Hannah are also heavily influenced by the 20th century revival of that tradition inspired by Bernard Leach and Michael Cardew. Here in the 21st century, Hannah makes large commemorative slipware chargers, as did both Thomas Toft 400 years ago and Bernard Leach 100 years ago.

doug-fitch-195-1_400x0
Doug Fitch, oblong platter. Image sourced from here

And for making his moulded slipware pie dishes, Douglas uses wooden moulds which he rescued from the disused Wenford Bridge pottery, owned and operated by Cardew after he left Winchcombe in the 1930s.

Thus the making of slipware pottery carries on, blending the centuries-old craft and its 1920s revival into a vibrant and continuing tradition. While some of to-day’s makers, including Doug Fitch and Hannah McAndrew, arrived at slipware following their own routes, for others the making of slipware is more of a dynastic affair, passing over long periods from generation to generation. My collection contains some examples:

  • a slipware jug dated 2010 made by Matt Grimmitt, who is today the principal potter at Winchcombe and is the great-great-grandson of Elijah Comfort;
  • a fine 1970s slipware bowl made in Jedburgh in the Scottish Borders by Peter Fishley-Holland, whose ancestor at Braunton taught throwing to Michael Cardew, and whose more distant forebears from the Beer and Fishley families made superb harvest jugs and utilitarian wares at Fremington from around 1800;
  • a slipware tankard made at Lowerdown Pottery, Devon, by Bernard Leach’s eldest son David, and a slipware tray made at Springfield Pottery, Devon, by Bernard’s grandson Philip (or perhaps by his wife Franny).

I’ll finish my slipware story with a potter whose pots don’t (yet) feature in my collection. Dylan Bowen is wholly traditional in his choice of materials and techniques learned from the artisan potters of former times, and at the same time wholly modern in his freedom of form and use of abstract expressionist decoration:

“He is an unpretentious slipware potter who is not bound by any previous convention yet is still thankful to the masters of slipware who have gone before him … His forms are brimming with eccentricity, free thinking and unconcern for any pigeon holed style or tradition. Asymmetry, unbalance, weight and avant-garde character are all present in each offering. His work is fascinating and remarkable and as far from being a derivative of traditional slipware as one could imagine.[6]

Dylan Bowen’s mother was Alison Leach, daughter of Bernard Leach. His father, from whom he learned much of his craft, is Clive Bowen, perhaps the foremost current maker of slipware pots in the traditional style. Clive (born 1943) makes his wonderful pots in his pottery at Shebbear, Devon, using clay from Fremington. Clive in turn was trained by Michael Leach (son of Bernard) at Yelland Pottery and later by Michael Cardew at Wenford Bridge Pottery. Cardew, as we have seen, was apprenticed to Bernard Leach after being taught throwing by a member of the Fishley family of Fremington.

You’re confused, probably. So am I, probably. But I hope you get the point. The point being that after many hundreds of years and many vicissitudes, the making of slipware pottery remains in good health and good hands.

I’m pleased about that. I can’t get enough of the stuff.


References

[1] https://www.stokemuseums.org.uk/pmag/museum-treasures-ozzy-owl/

[2] Quotations from Bernard Leach, A Potter’s Book, Faber and Faber, London, 1940, pp 33-34.

[3] https://ceramics-aberystwyth.com/collection/?pt=pot&sr=winchcombe&or=DESC&ob=title&pg=1

[4] https://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O19193/dish-cardew-michael/

[5] https://www.leachpottery.com/gallery-exhibition-douglas-fitch-and-hannah-mcandrew

[6] Quotation and images from: https://www.thestratfordgallery.co.uk/artists/dylan-bowen/4812/gallery/


3 thoughts on “Slipware

  1. As I live about 15 miles from Winchcombe, I found this post very ‘close to home’, particularly as I have some items in my collection, one of which is an interesting footnote to the Japanese connection. I took someone to Winchcombe Pottery shortly after I’d visited Japan and was interested to notice a bowl with the typical Japanese raised base, so asked them about it. The potters had recently returned from Japan, where they’d been invited to mount an exhibition of slipware, the art of which has effectively died out in Japan. They’d decided to make a few of these little bowls as a ‘homage’ to the Leach/Shoji Hamaja connection and the one I’d spotted was one which they had held back from the shipment. Needless to say I purchased it as a footnote to my own visit to Japan, where I’d seen examples of Leach and Hamaja’s work in a museum near Kyoto. It’s a small (slipware) world, so thank for for the post!

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    1. Thanks Anne. I’d love to see a picture of this bowl. There’s a great deal of research to be done on the mutual influences between Japanese and British potters over the past century. It would make an excellent book, but I’m not up to the task. Are you? 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Yes, it’s an interesting subject, but I’m afraid I’m not the person to do it (not enough of an expert and still on polar books!). What about starting with an article or two and see how it goes …

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