Arklow pottery collectors' cups runneth over
Ireland's Fine Arts, antiques and collectables column
Queen Maeve has a hole in her head. That's how she was mistaken for an umbrella stand. She stood in someone's hallway for 40 years with her skull perforated by rain repelling appendages, until someone spotted her, realising that she was in fact an historic and rather royal piece of Arklow studio pottery.
The notion that something made in ceramic has to be functional runs very deep. Thomas Dunne, former employee of Arklow Pottery, tells the story: "I recently bought a statue of Queen Maeve. It's illustrated in Peter Lamb's book on John ffrench and it was designed by his wife, Prim ffrench in the 1960s. It's a lovely little figurine, just 15" high. The woman I bought it from, her mother had it in the hallway and she was using it as an umbrella stand. She used to put a brolly in it! But it's in perfect condition, apart from a little chip on the lip."
Arklow Pottery was opened in 1935, the second Irish pottery producer after Carrigaline to be founded by the Free State. Audrey Whitty, writing in the Irish Arts Review (2003), describes how the factory initially employed around 200 people, including 15 young women who had taken design classes at the local technical institute, and about 30 experienced professionals from the Staffordshire Potteries. There was no strong tradition of ceramics in Ireland, so the English workers were needed to bring on a new generation of Irish designers, makers and technicians.
Although the early pieces show an English decorative influence, by the 1940s Arklow Pottery had taken on a distinctive Irish style. "I love the old stuff," Dunne says. "The older the better. A lot of gold was put on the early pieces - it would all be 22 carat gold - and all of those decorators had their clothes burnt, when they were finished, to extract the gold." The factory's claim to fame was the "Dressier tunnel oven, believed to be the second largest in the world," which could produce between 20,000 and 25,000 objects every week. These were decorated by both transfer prints and hand-painting. In 1937, the Irish Press recorded that: "No one seems to paint a complete pattern themselves, but each article, cup or saucer or jug or bowl is passed from one to another down a long table. One girl does a flower, another a leaf, another a stem and so on…" Once, every home in Ireland used Arklow pottery. Now, you'll often find it in the charity shops. The factory produced ordinary household china until its closure in 1985. This is collectible, but rarely valuable. In general, the backstamp on a piece of pottery - that's the mark on the base - will let you know where and when it was made, but there's no published record of Arklow pottery backstamps. The knowledge exists, but only in the memory of former workers.
"If you worked there, you have an idea," says Dunne. "I worked there from 1969 to 1973. My job was casting and polishing. I've been collecting for 35 years and now I have a vast collection." He's part of a community of collectors, many of them former employees of the factory. "We're trying to get a catalogue of the backstamps. When the older generation go, the knowledge will be lost."
Arklow Pottery made special editions and commemorative pieces as well as everyday pottery. In 2016, a Padraig Pearse commemorative plaque by Arklow Pottery sold at Whyte's for €400, but it's rare for Arklow pottery to make it into the auction rooms, apart from the work of the ceramist John ffrench, who ran Arklow Studio Pottery, an art pottery within the factory, between 1962 and 1969. That's where Queen Maeve came from. Plans to establish an Arklow Pottery centre and museum are ongoing. Planning permission has been approved and Wicklow County Council is currently seeking funding to complete the project.
"The Chamber of Commerce in Arklow put out an open call for donations of ceramics and now their whole basement is full of tea cups!" says Arklow Pottery enthusiast Chantal Fortune. She describes herself as: "An antiques dealer by trade and a decorator by day - but when it comes to Arklow pottery I'm more of a collector than anything else. I love china and ours is Arklow pottery. That was our one! I have it on my kitchen dresser. At home. In use. All of the time!"
She remembers a local festival where she and Pier Leonard of Solace Studio helped people to date their Arklow pottery.
"People were bringing in their cups and plates and asking if they were worth anything. We had to say that they're not worth anything - yet! Some of the pieces might be worth €20, but then you'd find the exact same piece in a charity shop for €1." An early Arklow Pottery whiskey jug might fetch up to €200, but you can also pick up 20-piece tea sets for between €60 and €70.
To find out more about Arklow Pottery, you can join the well-informed and helpful community of collectors on Facebook.
See also fortunesantiques.com