The collector: Rob, Coventry, UK.
The collection: Jessie Tait designs.
The story behind the collection...
I collect pottery from the late 19th to late 20th century, but amongst these Jessie Tait's designs are special.
I was brought up in Stoke on Trent, in a house packed with contemporary and antique ceramics, so pots were day to day life. The main aim of eating a plate of food was to be able to turn it upside down afterwards to see where it had been made. The best dinner set at home in the 1960’s was Jessie’s ‘Red Domino’. My sister’s collection of Midwinter moved me on from Arts and Crafts to post war ceramics.
Jessie Tait was the absolute star of British ceramic design from the 1950’s to the 1970’s. She was born in 1928 and died in 2010. After studying at the Burslem School of Art, she worked for Charlotte Rhead, and then Midwinter Pottery from 1946 to 1974. By 1974 Midwinter was part of the Wedgwood group, and Jessie moved to Johnson Brothers, also part of the Wedgwood group, until her retirement in 1990.
There are several reasons why I think she is so special. First, there was a lightness of touch combined with geometric control. These were not the elegant curves of Susie Cooper, or the angular shapes of Ann Wynn Reeves. Her designs were not as extrovert as those of Susan Williams Ellis for Portmeirion Pottery. She controlled the design in a way that worked with the shape of the ware, to produce ceramics to live with. Hand painting was the order of the day in the 1950’s, even for mass produced tableware. Transfers could not be applied to rounded surfaces, and were not available in full colour. Jessie was able to develop cool contemporary designs through simple motifs, brushstrokes, squiggles, dots and stars. She was able to adapt established designs, such as ‘Toadstools’ which came from a fabric, but developed her own technique that was not derivative of Scandinavian wares of the day. One of the best of these is the distinctive ‘Zambesi’, a bold zebra stripe. Her control over shape and form meant the transition to transfer printing in the 1960’s was almost seamless; indeed, many of her transfer prints were arguably better than her hand painted designs. Third, her passion for pottery and design was inexhaustible. As well as her day job for Midwinter, she worked at home in the evenings, painting pots for the small company Clayburn that was allied to Midwinter. In addition she threw and decorated pots as gifts for friends and family. These displayed her passion and skill at its best, with organic shapes, inspired decoration, slip trailing in brown, cream and black or blue brushwork. I like to think, as she was from the Potteries herself, that her superb slip trailing was in part a tribute to the heritage of the Potteries, going back to Thomas Toft in the late 17th century. Midwinter then produced a series of black and white slip trailed vases and beakers – these were also the only shapes she designed for Midwinter.
I started collecting pots when I was at school. My pocket money was spent at the Moorcroft factory, when seconds and other pieces from the 1930’s to 1950’s were being sold off at prices which were a bit cheap in the 1970’s but seem laughable now. Those have all passed on now, replaced by other designers – William Morris, William De Morgan, Christopher Dresser, William Howson Taylor, Ann Wynn Reeves, Susan Williams Ellis, Kenneth Townsend, Jonathon Cox, Julian Teed and others.
I am inspired by people who can create contemporary designs that are commercially successful products, capturing the spirit of the time.
Midwinter was at the cutting edge of commercial ceramic design in the 1950’s, under the leadership of Roy Midwinter. However, the pottery business is fragile. A world famous name has a financial turnover that is laughably small by comparison with other most manufacturing companies. So it takes very little to make a pottery company go under, and Midwinter did this in 1968. There were two reasons for this. First, they could not meet the high demand for their existing ranges. Secondly, tooling up for the production of new shapes is very expensive. Midwinter had three new shapes in the mid-1960’s, two of which sold only modestly, and the third never got beyond the protoype. This was called ‘Pedestal’, a gift range whose shapes were a bit too too close to the Portmeirion ‘Cylinder’ shape. Jessie produced a series of new patterns for this shape. However, the range never went into production. I have two of these trial pieces, another collector has one, and two are in a national museum collection. I would like some more, especially those with high peaked green lids. If you don’t have one of those, a massive ice jug from the 1950’s with any one of Jessie’s hand painted designs would be acceptable.
Rob can be found on Flickr, where he hosts the Jessie Tait group, as robmcrorie.
Images © robmcrorie and used with his kind permission.