Review by Greg Shooner
Country Pottery: Traditional Earthenware of Britain

Andrew McGarva. Country Pottery: Traditional Earthenware of Britain. London: A & C Black, 2000. Preface by Michael Casson. 128 pp.; 66 bw and 105 color illus., glossary, bibliography, index. $60.00/£30.00.

Although common earthenware may be Britain’s “hidden treasure,” it has yet to fire the imagination of most museums and collectors. Overshadowed by whitewares with colorful decorations and elaborate forms, neglected and uncelebrated, it is sought only by the few who appreciate its sturdy, utilitarian beauty. “A continuation of tradition is less noticed than innovation or change,” notes author Andrew McGarva (p. 12). In the diverse history of British ceramics, these wares rightly hold the lowest rank, for since the Middle Ages all British pottery types have sprung from these utilitarian earthenwares. As the country folk traditions of everyday brewing, cheese making, and baking declined steadily during the last century, so did the demand for common earthenwares. By the mid-twentieth century the true country way of life in Britain had vanished forever, and with it the country potters and their earthenware pots. 

Makers of common earthenware over the centuries have rarely been the subject of notoriety. Contemporary records from the United States show that important as they were to their neighbors in providing wares necessary for everyday life, pottery makers could be considered a nuisance, with muddy yards, dangerous clay pits, and ever-smoking kilns.[1] Perhaps because of this perceived “nuisance” status, the inner workings and details of the everyday production in these shops were rarely recorded. Indeed, many individual potters compounded this lack of history by keeping their techniques and glazes a secret. As a result, ceramic research today often employs conjecture or the author’s “best guess” as to exactly how these items were made.

A book has finally appeared that provides us with the missing link between modern potting methods and those techniques of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries often considered lost. Written from the unique perspective of a working potter, Andrew McGarva, the book thoroughly covers early pottery processes from training and wages to the eventual distribution and sale of pots produced. Michael Casson’s preface accurately acknowledges the author’s thorough understanding of his craft and the skills of traditional potters. The tiniest details, often overlooked by the casual observer, such as reaching for a “grab” of clay for throwing, the length of the wareboard, or the mixing and application of slips and glazes, are described in a way only a potter could.

From the dedication to the final index entry, the foundation and strength of this book is clearly in its remarkable photographs. The inclusion of these photos makes this book indispensable to anyone interested in the study of common earthenware, not only of Britain but of Europe and the United States as well. This archive of photographs gives us an extremely rare glimpse into the shops, the yards, and even the kilns of potteries, which had all but disappeared by the mid-twentieth century.

A major inspiration for the book was the 1965 film, Isaac Button, Country Potter, by Robert Fornier and John Anderson. Chapter 6 is dedicated to this lone potter who worked the Soil Hill pottery from 1947 to 1964. The shop was located at Holmfield, between Halifax and Keighley, in Yorkshire. Typical of potters in shops making utilitarian ware, Mr. Button honed his skills and techniques to an amazing level. His standard bread crock required twenty-four pounds of clay and could be thrown in seventy seconds. Anyone who has centered and thrown even ten pounds of clay will quickly acknowledge that Button was a very skilled potter. 

The twelve chapters cover all aspects of production and include clay preparation, tools, glazing, kiln setting, kiln types, and firing. Chapter 2 on training and wages begins by describing a fourteen-year-old’s apprenticeship in the 1880s. Working a minimum of twelve hours a day, six days a week, a young lad could look forward to earning up to ten pence a week during the last of a five to eight year indenture. The big payoff was to become a journeyman. Moving on to another pottery, a journeyman enjoyed a change of scenery, and was introduced to new styles and techniques as well. Here he learned the importance of a high production rate, for all throwers were paid by how much they produced. 

The payment system employed the use of a “cast” of pots. The number of pots per cast was determined by how much time was required to throw them. A cast would be sixty to seventy three-inch flowerpots, but only six twelve-inch pots. A good example is given of this system in operation before the First World War. Throwers at Fremington were paid four pence ha’ penny per cast of sixty small flowerpots, which included making up their own balls of clay in preparation. This is where speed and dexterity paid off. A good thrower could produce two casts (120 pots) per hour, and finish the day with 1,000 pots drying on the racks. A few years later, with the introduction of the jolly machine (a machine in which a spinning mold forms the exterior of a hollow ware and a template shapes the interior), one man would be expected to turn 4,000 three-and one-half-inch pots in a day’s time. Looking back from this age of carpal tunnel syndrome and other repetitive motion ailments, we may well wonder at these men who quietly plied their trade for forty or more years before slacking the pace and seeking retirement. Although we see it through the author’s rather romanticized vision, we can still imagine the mind-numbing tedium and back-breaking labor of this work. The shops where these men worked were often dark and damp and subject to the ever-present danger of lead poisoning.

The author reveals not only production techniques, but also methods of digging and preparing clay, using a roulette wheel to decorate freshly thrown pots, throwing large pots in two sections, and unique methods for lifting large pots off the wheel. Throwing pots directly on the wheel head (as opposed to using removable bats) poses a great challenge when the time comes to remove a particularly large piece. This problem was solved at Soil Hill, as well as at other shops, by the use of a “lifting off stick” or “cow’s rib.” This beautifully simple tool was a slightly curved flat piece of wood about a foot long. While the hands went around the far side of the pot, the stick bridged the forearms and supported the near side. The pot was then cleanly lifted and moved without distortion and could be placed immediately on a wareboard for drying, saving at least one step in dealing with the throwing bat. Another trick for lifting bottle forms was to place a ball of clay over the mouth of the pot, sealing in air pressure which supports the piece from the inside and reduces the risk of deformation. Photographs illuminate many of the heretofore obscure details of this ware’s production.

In the final chapter, Andrew McGarva takes a quick look at contemporary potters who, while not making reproductions of old pots, have been influenced by them and the men who made them. Here the author encourages us to “enjoy what is available today, rather than dwell on what has already gone” (p. 112). This sentiment may leave the modern-day antiquary a bit cold, but in truth modern pottery is the accumulated end product of all ceramics that have gone before. 

Although a map is provided showing the locations of old country pottery sites that are mentioned in the text, an accompanying list of these shops with the names of the potters who worked in them and the dates of their operations would have been helpful to the reader.

Andrew McGarva has given us an important body of information in Country Pottery. Invaluable to the working potter, it also gives collectors a wide range of products to seek perimeters in which to conduct their search, and the student of ceramics a rich overview of the history of this common earthenware. Possibly the strongest point made by this book is that through the study and collection of these wonderful old pots, we can come to a new understanding and appreciation of “all makers of pots and pans; past, present, and future.” In your library or on your coffee table, this book bears proud testament to a humble tradition.

Greg Shooner
Shooner American Redware
Oregonia, Ohio

Ceramics in America 2002

  • [1]

    Rose Marie Springman, Around Mason, Ohio: A Story of Cincinnati (Cincinnati, Ohio: C. J. Krehbiel, 1982), p. 43