Monday 16 December 2019

Treasures: The glowing colour craft of Moorecroft

Moorecroft Thistledown vase
Moorecroft Thistledown vase
Moorecroft Queens Choice vase

Ian Baird

What do Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, Rod Stewart and the Sultan of Brunei have in common?

All are dedicated collectors of Moorcroft pottery. These days entire sales are dedicated to the bright and lively rainbow-coloured decorative vessels which have for more than 100 years been in production in the UK.

Sought after by collectors, good examples can go for €400 upwards and besides being a very good investment, the quality of the workmanship alone makes most pieces of Moorcroft a work of art worthy of being included among other treasures in a prominently positioned display cabinet.

Each piece is a medley of pure colour and the choice of designs include landscapes, trees and even toadstools. They seem to glow with life. The early wisteria on a white ground has a simplicity and beauty which makes it a favourite with many collectors and the pomegranate design, another widely hunted variation, was in production from 1910 to 1940.

The richly coloured earthenware decorated with fruit and flowers against a dark background somehow bridged the period and the style between art nouveau and art deco. Moorcroft is also credited with bringing the ceramic branch of the applied arts out of the 19th and into the 20th century.

Born in Burslem near Stoke-on-Trent in 1872, William Moorcroft trained at the National Art Training School in London, later to become the Royal College of Art. He was greatly inspired by William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement. In 1897 he returned to Burslem and began working with ceramics as a designer for James Macintyre & Company. A year after joining he was made manager of Ornamental Ware.

Florian Ware was the title given to the first successful design which used the applied slip or tubelining technique. Slip is simply clay diluted in water. Like cake icing, slip is placed in a container with a nozzle and squeezed onto the surface of the pottery to form a design. With tubelining, a much finer nozzle is used to produce delicate raised lines. The areas between these lines are then filled in with coloured glazes. In this way, Moorcroft was able to separate the colours used in the design.

As the name suggests the Florian range was largely based on wild flowers, tulips, poppies, bluebells, cornflowers, roses and narcissi. But peacock feathers, butterflies, fish and landscapes were also used. Moorcroft followed the best of the art nouveau designers in using nature for inspiration.

And so William got more ambitious in what he conveyed in his uniquely coloured glaze - the first Moorcroft landscape design was registered in September 1902. The trees in a rolling landscape were originally produced in shades of blue with the heights of the trees varying in accordance with the shapes of the vases.

By the end of 1902 green vases were also in production. Also, a catalogue of the time mentioned the 'overglaze of yellow', a feature of early landscape pieces. The landscape design was given the name "Hazledene." From 1904 the colours became richer and darker.

Despite the demand for art pottery Moorcroft realised that a design for tableware could be made in relatively large quantities and therefore appeal to a wide commercial market. He produced the speckled blue tableware called Blue Porcelain which was retailed under the name Powder Blue.

The Powder Blue range, introduced in 1913, sold for four shillings and sixpence per teapot. Powder Blue remained in production for 50 years. Besides Liberty, other department stores where Liberty exhibited included Tiffany's in New York and Shreve's in San Francisco.

The Regent Street department store, Liberty, began to stock Moorcroft pottery at the beginning of the 20th century.

The owners, Mr and Mrs Liberty, ordered a set of commemorative mugs for the coronation of Edward VII in 1902. The London store started to commission their own designs in 1903 and Moorcroft was granted his own Liberty printed stamp.

Liberty was the most important customer of James Macintyre and when the firm decided to discontinue their decorative pottery lines, the owners of the London store supplied the finances for Moorcroft to set up his own factory at Cobridge, near Stoke-on-Trent. They also encouraged him to produce a cheaper range of ceramics for everyday use.

After he opened his own pottery, Moorcroft won gold medals in Brussels and in Paris. During the Depression in the 1930s, he continued to pick up prestigious awards. Besides Britain, examples of his work were purchased by museums in the US, Canada, Germany and Italy.

Find a good Moorcroft at a market today and you could make yourself a few hundred euros. But chances are you'll be enraptured and hold on to it. And look for more. Just like Rod Stewart and the Sultan of Brunei.

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