Eric Knowles Eric Knowles, Antiquarian


Pots of panache Eric Knowles offers us an insight into the fascinating history of the highly-collectable Moorcroft wares.

Moorcroft pottery has remained a firm favourite with collectors ever since William Moorcroft set up on his own in 1913. His career began back in 1897, when he took up the position of designer at James Macintyre's pottery in Burslem, Stoke-on-Trent. His new celebrated 'Florian Ware', a range of art nouveau-inspired pottery, proved to be an immediate success when shown at Liberty of London's Regent Street store.

The reason why the range fared so well was very much down to William's undisputed talent for creating energetic flower and leaf designs, and then marrying them to equally inventive and exciting shapes. The ware relied upon the use of tube-lined slip decoration to establish outlines prior to being painted. This was achieved by piping the slip (liquid china clay) on to the surface using the same technique and similar tools used to ice a cake. The collectors of today recognise young William's efforts as 'premier league' material and are more than prepared to dig deep into their pockets to prove the point. As with most things, the rarer the subject the more value, as borne out by the sale of a 'Yacht' vase at Bonhams late last year for £11,500 plus 15% buyer's premium, complete with a crack and a small chip.

Although recognised by some as an autocrat, William nevertheless was the driving force behind the success of his pottery and occupied the driving seat until his death in 1945 at the age of 83. During the interim years he proved himself to be not only a gifted designer but also a competent potter, an able chemist and an astute businessman. The reward for his labours was further enhanced when, in 1928, he received the Royal Warrant, and from then until 1936 was able to mark his pots 'Potter to HM the Queen'. The relevant monarch was the indomitable Queen Mary, whose liking for antiques and objéts d'art remains legendary, as does her unfailing habit of asking for any object that might take her fancy. Her Majesty would appear to have maintained a habit of forgetfulness when it came to actually paying, much to William's consternation and irritation, but this was grudgingly accepted as the price of fame.

After William's death, the reins of power passed in to the hands of his eldest son, Walter. Moorcroft junior had found employment in the family firm prior to his departure for military service at the onset of World War II, and had shown himself to be an able and talented designer in his own right. Walter's strengths when using bold design and colour are best typified by his wares that feature exotic flowers such as a hibiscus and Bermuda lilies. His efforts were well received by the company's loyal following over the three decades that were to follow. My personal favourite 'Walter' design is his 'After the Storm' vase, issued long after Walter had retired, to commemorate the firm's centenary in 1997. Sadly, Walter died in September 2002, but his lasting epitaph are the pots that, together with those of his father, adorn the shelves and china cabinets of the Moorcroft faithful.

By the mid 1980s the fortunes of the company had suffered a downturn and the policy of the Roper brothers, who had taken control of the company in the 1970s, was unable to stem the trade of decline aggravated by the ongoing economic recession. In the 11th hour, the tide began to turn as a result of two Moorcroft devotees pooling their resources and making an offer for the proud company, which had been reduced to only 16 employees. The white knights concerned were Hugh Edwards, a respected city lawyer, and Richard Dennis, a publisher and equally respected authority on 19th and 20th century British art pottery. With their offer accepted, the daunting task of first stabilising and then reviving the fortunes of the company soon became apparent. Problem number one concerned artistic direction. Ever since 1913 the company had only used the services of two designers, in the guise of William and his son Walter. It was decided that designer number three would be Richard's wife, Sally Tuffin, who had achieved international acclaim as the 'Tuffin' in the leading fashion partnership of 'Tuffin and Maule' that rose to prominence in the swinging Sixties. Sally's inventive designs proved to be the medicine that began to cure the ills of previous years. In 1992 both Sally and Richard left the company, having sown the seeds of further success, and have since set up Dennis China Works, where they continue to produce fabulous pots. However, Sally's departure created a vacuum and probably a small headache for Hugh Edwards, who was now faced with the task of finding Moorcroft designer number four. Hugh gambled much on a 24-year-old woman by the name of Rachel Bishop, and in quick time found that he was holding a trump card. Her fresh and vibrant designs were of a standard that belied her tender years, although she was mindful of the fact that at 24 she was the same age as William had been when he took up his appointment with Macintyre's in 1897. In the ensuing years Rachel was joined by others, and today heads a design team that numbers eight, working in an environment that now offers employment to in excess of 200 people. Output in recent years has been well above expectations, and the company's future looks set to continue on an upward curve. The members of the design team also continue to find individual favour with an international public that sooner or later gravitate towards membership of the Moorcroft Collector's Club. In recent times the work of Emma Bossons has attracted no end of praise with her 'Queens Choice' pattern, while Rachel Bishop's vase 'Owl Penn Manor', released as a limited edition, was virtually an instant sell out - remarkable for a vase that will set you back somewhere in the region of £2,500. But not all current designs will have you digging quite so deep. Angela Davenport's 'Wood Side Farm' winter landscape has been a particularly popular choice for many collectors, with Philip Gibson's 'Leaping Trout' design already finding its way into the Christmas stockings of quite a few lucky anglers. The present-day team is completed by the collective talents of Sîan Leaper, Shirley Hayes, Nicola Slaney and Sandra Dance. Sandra's work is devoted to those miniature masterpieces hand-painted on to enamel at the Worcestershire-based sister company of Moorcroft Enamels - but that is yet another story.

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