Review by Gordon Elliott
Harold Holdway, 20th Century Ceramic Designer

Harold Holdway and Ruth Holdway. Harold Holdway, 20th Century Ceramic Designer. Ashbourne, Derbyshire, Eng.: Landmark Publishing, 2006. 160 pp.; 300+ photographs; appendixes. £24.99 (hardcover).

From the time that ceramic design emerged as a distinct occupation in Britain, its practitioners generally have operated under a veil of imposed anonymity, a state of affairs that emerged with the advent of industrialization. This anonymity was regarded as necessary because most employers saw no benefit in advertising a particular designer’s skill only to have him or her lured to a rival manufacturer. In the period from 1850 to the end of the nineteenth century, however, some prominent employers—Minton, Worcester, and Spode, for example—recognized that acknowledging their association with the most talented designers could boost their own reputation, even if those designers were already in a factory’s full-time employment—for example, the work of Leon Arnoux and Marc Louis Solon for Minton. Their lesser-known contemporaries, though often equally skilled, had to settle for anonymity and the satisfaction derived from carrying out a job with expertise and dedication. There are, of course, well-documented instances of a manufacturer issuing commissions to artists and others who, in some cases, had no prior experience designing for ceramics. The designs of John Skeaping, Keith Murray, and Eric Ravilious for Wedgwood in the 1920s and 1930s gave a very traditional company a much needed boost in its reputation for innovation at a time of economic uncertainty.

The industry that Harold Holdway joined in the 1920s would have been recognizable to most working potters from two generations earlier. A small number of family dynasties still ran factories such as Copeland. The title “designer” was allocated to a rather exclusive preserve of the most artistically talented, whereas the majority of new designs at this time came from employees with the title “decorating manager.”

I had the pleasure of meeting Harold Holdway when he visited Hanley Museum (now Potteries Museum) to view our frequent temporary exhibitions. Anyone who knew him will remember his great appreciation of anything that revealed high standards in artistry and technical skill, never more so than when the object of his attention happened to be a product of the Spode factory. I recall one occasion in particular involving a superbly hand-painted scene by Daniel Lucas on a porcelain tray that we had tentatively attributed to the Derby Porcelain Factory. He disagreed with this attribution, arguing that its underlying composition of bone china was just too good to have been made by anyone other than Spode. In support of his belief in the supremacy of this company’s bone china is the traditional claim that Josiah Spode was the man who perfected what Bow had initially introduced in the middle years of the eighteenth century. Although the technical characteristics of bone china were determined by the chemist, the designing of shapes and surface patterns was the responsibility of those who had served long periods of apprenticeship that, from the middle years of the nineteenth century, were being increasingly supplemented by training provided by local schools of design. These schools, established in what is now the city of Stoke-on-Trent, enjoyed considerable prestige when their students gained gold and silver medals in national design competitions. Indeed, as far as the provincial schools were concerned, the Staffordshire Potteries towns held the national league record for awards from 1850 to the end of the century.

When Harold Holdway joined the industry in the 1920s, many of its senior members had trained at these local schools. Yet despite this strong local design contingent, there were occasions when men (it was invariably men) who had been trained outside the Potteries schools were persuaded to move into the area and to take positions either in the industry or in art education. When art-school head Harry Tittensor died, his replacement, Holdway writes,

was none other than Mr Reginald Haggar ARCA[,] who had spent a few years as art director at Mintons prior to teaching at Burslem School of Art. He was an expert watercolourist and favoured the delicate portrayal of his subjects and was a particularly fine draughtsman. He had built up quite a reputation for fine work and he was fully versed in what the pottery industry needed. (p. 17)

In this memoir Holdway recalls his early experiences in the industry with impressive clarity. The reader is told later in the book that managing director Paul Wood

felt that Harold was not greatly interested in the modern-day art department. . . . He was more like a diarist and was very ordered and systematic, always recording details such as the price of gold that he plotted on a graph every week. . . . It was as if he was measuring his life in all the details. Paul thought he was recording and storing his experiences for some purpose, to recall in the future. . . . Although never nasty, he noted people’s idiosyncrasies and could mimic people and always had anecdotes to tell. (p. 127)

As someone more interested in people than pots I found this recall of detail—and the numerous descriptions of people—the most interesting aspect of the book. In some cases Holdway has supplemented his written descriptions with skillful portrait drawings. He reveals the rivalries among those seeking promotion, and in particular his frustration at not receiving the credit which he believed to be his entitlement. His colleague Geoffrey Cholerton, who held a more senior position in the factory’s hierarchy, generally was the beneficiary of the praise that emanated from the company’s highest levels of management.

Harold Holdway falls into two distinct parts. The first covers the period from 1926, when he joined the industry, to the years immediately following the Second World War. The second begins in the 1950s and includes the developments leading to his retirement in 1978. Due to his failing eyesight, the job of completing the writing was given to his granddaughter, Ruth Holdway. My only criticism is that the description of his war service seems out of place in a work strongly emphasizing his career in ceramic design.

The book is well illustrated with photographs, including factory scenes, Copeland employees, and a representative selection of the company’s high-quality products. The appendixes provide interesting details regarding pay rates, the various skills practiced in the factory, “Harold Holdway’s diary dates,” and even the names of those in the factory’s cricket and snooker teams.

I suspect the biggest demand for this book will prove to be in the United States, where, perhaps perversely, Harold Holdway’s designs are better known than they are in Britain.

Gordon Elliott, Honorary Research Fellow, Staffordshire University

Ceramics in America 2008