Lots of people will be familiar with Torquay ware, the little decorated pots from Devon with folksy mottoes on them. I call it tat because in the first half of the 20th century it was churned out in great quantities with the names of seaside resorts scratched on and sold for about sixpence apiece. It declined from about 1950 and by the 1970s nearly all the Torquay potteries had closed. The economics didn’t add up any more: wages had risen but the potteries couldn’t put up the prices of ashtrays, lavender pots, sugar bowls and tiny, teeny milk jugs.

Torquay ware grew out of the Devonshire slipware tradition. Pottery made from the local brown clay was covered in white or blue slip (a slurry of clay mixed to the consistency of cream) and then decorated, either by scratching through the white to make a line of brown, or by painting with coloured slips.
This tradition has been revived by studio potters, who generally make robust pieces decorated in an energetic way, and the Torquay style, which is a bit fiddly, has pretty well died out. Mary Wandrausch is a British studio potter well known for her slipware, who has studied slipware all over Europe; she says that the homely Torquay potters used advanced techniques and that she cannot work out how some of their pots were made. The striking thing is the placing of handles on jugs, cups and teapots: the pots were slipped, and then the handles were put on after. This had to be done while the slip was still damp and the pot still soft, yet it was done without any disturbance of the surface – no dents, scratches or abrasions. As far as I know this method was unique to the Torquay potteries and has never been done since.

A lot of Torquay ware, especially the older sort from the early part of the century, is ugly and over-elaborate, but the simpler pieces are good. Above you can see a small bowl from the Long Park Pottery with a sailing ship and “Watchet” on the front; on the back is the motto “‘elp yerzel tu sugar”; and there is a squat little jug with a cottage on it, probably from Long Park as well, with the motto “Salcombe – Fresh from the dairy” on the back. The jug uses two greens, two browns and black on the cream-coloured slip; the bowl uses blue, green and light brown.  The decorations are well arranged on the pots, which are made with wide foot-rings and a mouth turned inwards from a very sharp shoulder.  The pots were thrown on the wheel, then turned  (probably on a lathe in the Stoke-on-Trent manner), then coated in slip, then painted, then the mottoes and  bands on the shoulders and lips are scratched through the slip.  You can tell that the handle was applied to the jug  and the cream-coloured teapot after the sgraffito was put on, because the sgraffiito band goes right round the jug and under the handle. And all for sixpence!

For those confused by the mottoes, it is English, a rendering of Devon speech. The same mottoes were used on pots going to seaside resorts all over Britain, and I have a Hastings dish with a bit of Devon speech on the back, “Be aisy with tha Butter”. Thus holidaymakers brought back multi-regional souvenirs, marked with the name of their holiday resort on one side and a Devon homily on the other.

There are collectors of Torquay ware and there are a couple of societies devoted to the hobby.  It’s still cheap. You can acquire pieces for under £5.  Better pieces, like the blue, two-pint teapot from the Watcombe Pottery with a kingfisher, will cost you more, but you can build a reasonable collection for £100. I’m not a collector, but a few pieces I saw in antique shops appealed to me. Although they were made just to be looked at, I like to use them. I horrified a serious collector by saying this once – he was a completist who only bought the Torquay ware with cottages on and organised his holidays around collecting. You can’t really be serious about such pretty and charming little things, but what the collector seldom recognises is that this tat was a tour de force of the potter’s art.

D. and E. Lloyd Thomas, The Old Torquay Potteries, Ilfracombe: Arthur H. Stockwell, 1978


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