Ian Jack: How the display cabinet killed Wedgwood

The pottery's problem is that they made too much - who wants it once everyone can afford it?

One of the finest short stories by an English writer is The Death of Simon Fuge by Arnold Bennett, which the great chronicler of the Potteries published in 1907. I read it again this Thursday on the train from London to Stoke, for the perfectly good reason that this is also how the story opens. The narrator, a specialist in ceramics, is travelling north to the Potteries for the first time to meet a fellow enthusiast. The narrator reveals himself as rather smug and effete; industrial Staffordshire is to have a transforming effect. When he reaches Stoke - always called Knype in Bennett's fiction - he finds a landscape of coal dust, potsherds, flame and steam: "a squalid ugliness on a scale so vast and overpowering that it became sublime".

That landscape, of course, vanished years ago. It belonged to the era of the coal-fired bottle oven - the six towns that compose Stoke once had 3,000 of them - when 50,000 men, women and children shaped, fired and glazed clay to transform it into crockery for the tables of the world. Nearly 40 bottle ovens have been preserved and poke up next to "factory shops" (sometimes with no factory attached) on bedraggled streets that only occasionally seem built-up and peopled enough to suggest a town, far less a city. There is no Waitrose. Entry by rail gives the best clue to how things once were. You leave a Victorian station to face an old railway hotel in mock Jacobean, and in between a statue to Josiah Wedgwood, who has been standing on his plinth since 1865, a national hero produced by the local economy. Now the company he founded two and half centuries ago has gone bust.

People in Stoke say this is a great shame, a sin, a tragedy that "can't be allowed to happen" to the most famous name in porcelain. Blame extends from the generally unfortunate state of the world to particular causes. Wedgwood should never have been merged with Waterford Crystal; it should never have taken over Royal Doulton; moving some production to Indonesia had been a mistake. Who can tell? All we know is that two of Waterford Wedgwood's biggest shareholders, Tony O'Reilly and his brother-in-law Peter Goulandris, sank hundreds of millions into the company and couldn't make it a success. Perhaps we should be looking at another culprit: the death of the English ornament.

You will remember the display cabinet. Perhaps, like me, you have inherited your parents'. Ornaments were what they displayed - the very best kind, too precious to be stood on the mantelpiece or the sideboard where a casual dusting (and how much this labour of dusting was stressed!) might shatter a ballet dancer's figurine. In the late 1950s, when disposable incomes rose, elegant little items began to appear in the cabinets of ordinary homes that shamed the cruder souvenirs of seaside resorts. Our example was a round box with a lid, perhaps a container for powder or pills (though it never contained either). The surface was matt and light blue in colour, with the decoration (urns, garlands) raised in white relief. "Wedgwood," my mother said proudly. We had moved up the social scale, ornaments-wise, but how little did we appreciate the enormous effort that Josiah Wedgwood had put into perfecting his "jasperware", in his search for a material that shared the surface qualities of a Roman vase.

Wedgwood meticulously recorded 5,000 experiments over three years until he began production in the late 18th century. The rich were crazy about classical antiquity, while the poor were just coming to terms with eating from earthenware dishes. It would have been inconceivable that the delicate classical decoration of his jasperware would ever be affordable to ordinary people, and consequently in itself ordinary and therefore unfashionable and less desirable. It can happen to the finest brand.

The ceramics gallery at the Potteries Museum in Hanley is a good place to understand how fashion works and how it can die. It has the world's largest collection of north Staffordshire pieces - 50,000 of them - and, according to the assistant curator, Andrew Watts, most are the outcome of the pottery business trying to maximise profits by leading or following changes in public taste. And sometimes taste in the most literal sense; it was the swelling consumption of tea in the 1760s that led to the teapot and the teacup and - his big breakthrough - Wedgwood's commission from Queen Charlotte for a royal tea set.

"Fashion, fashion, fashion!" Watts said, pointing out that Wedgwood was an entrepreneurial as well as a technical genius, who set up a London showroom and made sure his wares reached the nobility first so that they became envied objects. He styled himself "potter to Her Majesty" and announced his intention to become "Vase Maker General to the Universe". He had started out as a maker of what he called "useful wares". He never abandoned utility, but it was his second line, "ornamental wares", that captured the public imagination. Commemorative medallions, busts of the famous, copies of classical vases: all the ceramic clutter we associate with museum shops and off-the-page offers in magazines began with him.

That may be the heart of the Wedgwood problem: however well made it may be, they have made too much of it. Where is the cachet? My parents' sense of achievement 50 years ago when they placed their jasperware carefully inside the cabinet - "You can tell it's real Wedgwood" - would echo now in far fewer homes. "Twee" is a word you hear. Wedgwood has a glorious history of lovely and useful crockery, but people insist on remembering the anniversary mugs.

It would be a mistake to imagine that if Wedgwood goes, Staffordshire pottery will come to an end. Spode and Royal Worcester entered administration in November, but about 10,000 people still work "in the pots". Firms such as Dudson, Steelite and Churchill continue to earn profits from hardy tableware for hotels, while smaller "design-led" potteries such as Emma Bridgewater and Moorcroft do well at the other end of the market, illustrating the point that size is the enemy of fashion. At Moorcroft, I watched women skilfully apply colour to the most complex floral and animal outlines - the craftsmanship unchanged since Moorcroft got going with the art nouveau styles of the 1900s in this very factory. The trick is rarity and price; vases sell in limited editions with "Made in Stoke-on-Trent, England" stamped on the bottom, and a jardiniere costs £11,500.

Finally, I took a taxi to Barlaston, where Josiah Wedgwood's successors moved to a big new factory, set amid trees and lawns, in 1940 and where, only three months ago, the company opened a museum built at a cost of nearly £10m. The epigram at the entrance states, "This museum is dedicated to the people of who have made objects of great beauty from the soil of Staffordshire."

The factory next door will probably close. A thousand will be sacked. Whatever mistakes Wedgwood have made, however much they have been caught out by changing aesthetics or British labour costs, you would need a heart of earthenware to refuse to be moved by those words.


Ian Jack

The GuardianTramp

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