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Tristram Hunt: Why the British Ceramics Biennial belongs in Stoke

13 January 2017

Tristram Hunt has been named the new director of the V&A. Here’s a Diary piece that the Labour MP for Stoke-on-Trent Central wrote for Apollo in October 2013:

In 1933, the playwright J.B. Priestley arrived in Stoke-on-Trent on his ‘English Journey.’ ‘I do not know what Nature originally made of it,’ he wrote of The Potteries, ‘because nearly all signs of her handiwork have been obliterated…To begin with, it is extremely ugly…The small towns…give the impression of having been hastily put up 70 or 80 years ago, like frontier outposts or mining camps, and then left to be sooted over.’

But the miracle of the Six Towns was what emerged from this dingy forest of brick bottle-ovens and pot-banks: the pristine, ceramic wonders of Wedgwood, Spode, and Minton. ‘The look of these places bears no proper relation to the work that goes on in them’, Priestley continued. For the point of Stoke-on-Trent was what came out of the kilns. ‘They represent the very heart and soul of the district…unless you are prepared to take a deep and lasting interest in what happens inside those ovens, it would be better for you to take the first train anywhere.’

The Clean Air Act of 1956 dispelled the smog and today there is a lot more to Stoke-on-Trent than ‘pits and pots’ – but for those with a deep and lasting interest in what comes out of kilns, then The Potteries remains the place for us. And this autumn more than ever, as the city hosts the 2013 British Ceramics Biennial (28 September–10 November) with a compelling range of international designers, new artists and exhibitions. The heart of the Biennial is located in one of my favourite Stoke spaces: the China Hall of the old Spode works. The vastness of the factory site, ever-present seams of dust, and spectacular skylights create a cathedral to ceramics, a world away from Priestley’s urban grime.

The 2011 British Ceramics Biennial in the China Hall at the Old Spode works. Photo: Joes Chester Fildes

The 2011 British Ceramics Biennial in the China Hall at the Old Spode works. Photo: Joes Chester Fildes

It is only appropriate that the Biennial centres on Spode. In 1784, Josiah Spode I developed the novel technique of transfer printing designs engraved on copper plates. His son, Josiah II, perfected the recipe for bone china, an invention that redefined the industry and turned Stoke-on-Trent into The Potteries – the global centre of industrial ceramic production. And the most celebrated design Spode placed onto their new china-ware was the so-called ‘Blue Italian’ – that curious medley of Italianate and Oriental styling, in blue and white, which proved an instant success from its introduction in 1816.

So it remains today. This summer’s sell-out auction was at Trelissick House in Cornwall, when Ida Copeland’s 2,500-strong Spode collection went under the hammer. The wife of Ronald Copeland (president of Copeland and Spode), Ida was one of my more remarkable predecessors as Member of Parliament for Stoke-on-Trent. First, she was a Conservative – not a habit we encourage around here. Second, she beat Oswald Mosley for the seat in 1931. And, above all, she was a passionate campaigner against cheap, foreign pottery imports produced on starvation wages. ‘Can we allow goods manufactured under those conditions to come into this country and lower the standard of living of our own people?’, she asked in her maiden Commons speech.

With a ceramic workforce down from 50,000 in the early 1980s to 9,000 today, we have been asking the same question. Locally, there is often anger at the loss of jobs to China. I take a more sanguine view: ever since we captured the secret of porcelain, we have been involved in a to-and-fro relationship with the Chinese. Indeed, the clue is in the name. But what we have often lacked is proper artistic co-operation. So, it is great news that the Biennial is hosting a comparative display of vases from the southern Chinese centre of ceramics, Jingdezhen (where even the lamp-posts are made of ceramics), placed alongside works from nearby Royal Crown Derby. What is more, we are slowly witnessing the return of production from the Far East. With every rise in the minimum wage, shipping fees and energy costs in China, another job is re-shored back to Stoke.

But what we also need more of is artists and entrepreneurs. Stoke-on-Trent was so successful in the 18th century because of its ecology of artisans, designers, master-potters, technicians, scientists and apprentices (as well as the coal seams and clay). There were hundreds of small companies all producing works of remarkable beauty. That is the energetic, non-conformist, challenging spirit we need to encourage. It is the spirit which brought about Wedgwood and encouraged John Lockwood Kipling (father of Rudyard) to teach at the famous Burslem School of Art in Stoke. And the Biennial plays an important part in reviving that culture by bringing in talent, discovering new designers, and forcing us to think on an international scale.

That is the future for Stoke. As Priestley himself put it, ‘may the orders pour in; may cups and saucers and plates and teapots rush like magic out of the clay; may the ovens never grow cold’.

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