Review by Amy C. Earls
The Vanished Landscape: A 1930s Childhood in the Potteries

Paul Johnson. The Vanished Landscape: A 1930s Childhood in the Potteries. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2004. 200 pp.; 18 bw pen-and-wash illus. by the author. £16.99 (hardcover).

How could I resist a book by noted historian Paul Johnson about growing up in Staffordshire? Johnson’s account of life in Tunstall in the 1930s is not about potters, pottery, or potteries, although these provide local color to his affectionate sketches of the interwar Staffordshire scene. Although written by a historian, the book is not about how or why the industrial landscape vanished, either. Rather, this is a tribute to a traditional potteries way of life on the verge of modernization.[1]

As the son of the Burslem art school headmaster (“Willy”) and his wife (unnamed), Johnson’s middle-class perspective complements the better-known Staffordshire voices of Arnold Bennett (b. 1867), with his grim-smile ironic view of the “Five Towns,” or Charles Shaw, a mold runner and handle maker in Tunstall from ages seven to ten in the 1830s.[2] Johnson’s account begins at age three and ends seven years later with the beginning of World War II. His memories are in rough chronological order, with topics ranging from cinema to park to countryside and beyond, and emphasize the social institutions that maintained the status quo—home, school, chapel, and work.

Little Paul seems to have shared his artistic father’s strong visual sense, memorizing and copying book illustrations and prints, such as Nelson dying at Trafalgar, before he could read. Gazing down on the clutter of potbanks and dwellings at night from his attic bedroom, Paul was fascinated by the variety of fires and their reflections in the dark waters of “the Sytch,” a stygian stretch of furnaces and polluted waste along the Scotia River valley.

Members of Johnson’s family are the principal characters. The youngest of four children in a family of educators and readers, Paul attempts to untangle the meanings of the conversations that he overhears (e.g., the Catholic church “going great guns” suggested to him Nelsonian cannons being dragged up the tower and bombarding the sullen Protestant mobs). This wordplay and the scattering of potteries’ dialect and forthright speech are chief among the book’s delights.

The elder Johnson’s headmaster job entailed bringing art to the people and finding jobs for his students. During the Depression this meant hours spent outside class making friends with the managers of the works, learning about new product lines that might provide openings, and praising his students to potential employers. In the author’s family, art was for everyday use. The headmaster believed that if people “eat off plates and drink from cups which have fine shapes and beautiful patterns and colours, their characters will be softened and their behaviour will improve. So it’s up to us to provide these things and that’s what the Potteries ought to do in its particular sphere” (p. 117). As a result, Paul’s toys included Doulton figures—probably gifts from the works to his father.

In his spare time, Paul’s father loved drawing buildings and landscapes. The potteries gave his father plenty of subject matter ready to hand. He told his son: “The Potteries is hideous, dirty, wasteful and, I suppose, inefficient these days. But it’s beautiful. . . . The French have a word for it, as they do for most things involving art—jolie laide. The Potteries is an ugly woman who has a strange kind of beauty. I shall be sorry when they kill her off” (p. 196).

It may be that distance from the potbanks improved one’s appreciation for this visual poetry. Paul’s mother looked on the district with less benevolence and left after her husband died. The potbanks made more work for her. She complained that

the pot-banks are so low that smoke just tumbles down into the houses. And those horrible pot-banks are everywhere, close up to where people live. They burn disgusting cheap slack instead of real Wigan coal, and you can hear it exploding in the ovens and see it jumping up the pot-banks in great showers of sparks like nasty Japanese fireworks, and coming down everywhere in smuts. . . . What is to be done in a place where a beautifully washed man’s shirt comes back in the evening battle-ship grey, or worse? (p. 5).

Paul’s sisters, Clare the tomboy and Elfride the bookworm, were his frequent companions. When the children were introduced to the Monopoly board game from America around Christmas 1936, the girls made their own versions, one with London and another with potteries street names replacing the Atlantic City, New Jersey, originals. Wanting to teach their brother to swim but thwarted by municipal bath rules against mixed swimming, they once smuggled him in on ladies’ day disguised as a girl (“Polly”). With his sisters Paul rode the old Loop Line from Tunstall to Stoke for his early schooling, practicing drawing caricatures on the misted windows and learning to respond politely to strangers who commented on his efforts or asked about his lessons.

Encounters with potteries people are presented with the same affectionate touch and plenty of humor. These include portraits of Father Ryan, who built the Catholic church with its high Gothic towers and three and a half domes, and Alderman George Barber, who unabashedly speared the cold ham fat from the plate of visiting dignitary Queen Mary, who apparently did not appreciate this potteries delectable.

Although not the book’s focus, pots and potteries are marks of the district’s uniqueness. Inspired by his sisters’ book that featured a fourteen-year-old girl hiding in a giant Italian garden vase, Paul inquired about local pots’ possibilities as hiding places. Paul’s father told him that “Wedgwood’s made an even bigger vase for Queen Victoria but small boys are certainly not allowed anywhere near it” (p. 35). Father Ryan persuaded the Spode works to make “ritual pottery vessels of alarming size” (p. 57) for his great church. Cinema owner George Barber decorated the lobby with potted palms set in brass tubs encased within Spode jardinieres and the ladies’ and gents’ rooms with Staffordshire tiles. The duke of Sutherland was said to have got Copeland’s to make a special set of stoneware bowls with his coat of arms on them for his numerous dogs.

The chapter “Smoke into Art” provides the obligatory visit to a potbank (Royal Pottery), as well as a visit to the Burslem art school. Johnson remembers peering over the brim of the clay vat, “smelling delicious” (p. 121), and picturing the clay as the raw material for fire and smoke, trade, profit, and art.

The final character is the landscape itself. Careful observation while sketching with his father showed that no two kilns were exactly alike, “even if built at the same time for the same purpose. The curve of the shoulder, the width of the bases, the height of the chimney top—all were variable and each combination was unique. The odd straight chimney provided a contrast” (p. 116). Seven of the author’s eighteen illustrations, plus the cover and endpapers, include potbanks, supplying visual evidence of this discernment.

The built environment would have been a suitable subject for a series of romantic transfer-printed views, given sufficient distance from the gritty reality. When Paul was old enough to travel by bike from the northernmost of the towns, he could reach large parts of Cheshire and Derbyshire. From the highlands the potteries “appeared a vast smudge on the south-west horizon, a band of dirty grey and brown smoke, through which poked the tall chimneys and such landmarks as Father Ryan’s great church tower and the clock tower of our park” (p. 164).

During Johnson’s childhood green fields and Knypersley Lake lay beyond the stone dumps, abandoned clay pits, and coal mines. Paul and his siblings could pick their way along the mineral railways and duck down under the small brick bridges where vegetation was encroaching on the industrial de tritus. Mow Cop, a picnic destination topped with a mid-eighteenth-century folly consisting of an artfully “ruined” tower and arch, would have been the perfect subject for a transfer-printed table service.

Like these sentimental views, Johnson’s scenes are frozen in memory. Returning for a brief visit fifty years after leaving the district, he saw that both heavy industrial activity and slums were missing from the landscape: smoke and soot, coal mining, and secondary rail lines were gone. “Most of all, a thousand bottle-shaped pot-banks, the main and essential ingredient of that unique landscape, had been demolished” (p. 200). The potteries’ jolie laide was dead, and although the forensic investigation is not presented here, Johnson’s book provides an engaging portrait of the lady.

Amy C. Earls, Ceramics in America

Ceramics in America 2006

  • [1]

    The description resembles anthropology’s “ethnographic present” approach, used to describe tribal cultures supposedly before contact with Europeans and their technology.

  • [2]

    Arnold Bennett, The Grim Smile of the Five Towns (1907) (1946; reprint, Harmondsworth, Middlesex, Eng.: Penguin Books, 1985); Charles Shaw, When I Was a Child (1903; facsimile ed., London: Caliban Books, 1977).