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


This porcelain tea service was made in 1901-2 from a design by Jutta Sika (1877-1964). The milk jug is 8.5cm high, the teapot 12.5cm, the cup 6.5cm high, diameter 9cm, and the saucer has a diameter of 16.5cm. It was manufactured by Josef Böch of Vienna, 1901-1902

It is in the Museo Internazionale delle Ceramiche, Faenza. The catalogue says, “Jutta Sika was a pupil of Kolomon Moser at the Vienna Kunstgewerbschule from 1897-1902 and one of the founders of the Wiener Kunst im Hause. The Wiener Werkstätte never directly produced glass and porcelain itself, entrusting its execution to the most prestigious Bohemian and Viennese factories of the period, Bakalowitz and Böch. This tea service exhibits simplicity, the use of a geometrical matrix and a pioneering functionality. The decoration, employing groups of white circles against a pale blue background, shows the influence of the Viennese strand of Art Nouveau. The inscription ‘Schule prof Kolo Moser’ is impressed upon the reverse of the saucer.”

The modernity of this tea service is striking, especially when you consider that British potteries at the time (such as Doulton and Pilkingtons) were producing historicist Arts and Crafts pottery.

The Wiener Kunst im Hause (Viennese Art in the Home) created integrated domestic interiors. Their products, which they exhibited at the Paris Exhibition of 1900 and the Vienna Seccession Exhibition of 1902, were praised for their simplicity, practicability and affordability. Artists of the Weiner Kunst were letter part of the Wiener Werkstätte. Its founders, Josef Hoffmann and Kolomon Moser, were inspired by the Arts and Crafts Movement but rapidly went beyond it, embracing machine production and developing a forward-looking aesthetic. The Bauhaus followed a a similar path after the First World War. The early experimental ceramics of the Bauhaus are less convincing than Sika’s, but some of its graduates, for example Margarete Heymann, did striking work.

This was the artistic environment in which Lucie Rie was educated. She studied ceramics at the Weiner Kunstgewerbschule from 1922 under Michael Powolny and came under the influence of Moser, who encouraged her to exhibit at the Wiener Werkstätte.


Monster vase by Jean-Laurent Legeay.

The two-handled vase has an intrinsic appeal for artists. The form is elegant and it may suggest the human form. Artists since the Renaissance have been fascinated by it and the way it can present itself for ornamentation. Enlarged and placed on a plinth, it becomes a sculpture, like this vase (below) of unknown provenance in Floral Street, London. Adding two handles to a vessel defines a front and back that’s useful in decoration.

Floral Street, London

There was a mania for vases in late 18th century Europe – vases used in interior decoration, vases for gardens, vases as building motifs, and ultimately vases as grave ornaments. They didn’t contain anything, they were simply to be looked at or to communicate the taste of the owner. If a vase was useful it was not as a vase but as something else wittily got up as a vase – a knife box or a stove. Josiah Wedgwood said that “an epidemical madness reigns for Vases, which must be gratified.” With characteristic talent and energy he gratified it, making clever and beautiful adaptations of Classical models. Vase Mania drove him to technical innovations in ceramics. In order to meet the demand, he changed his method of production and marketed his products with vigour. With some justification he titled himself “Vase Maker General to the Universe”.

The excavations at Herculaneum and Pompeii had produced masses of material for architects and designers and they helped to create the Neo-Classical style. Archaeology uncovers more vases than sculptures, so vases became emblematic of the ancient world and were studied in depth. The finds of southern Italy (loosely called “Etruscan”) were disseminated through books of engravings. Architects and designers looked for models in Anne Claude de Caylus’s Recueil d’antiquités égyptiennes, étrusques, grècques, romaines et gauloises (1752-1755) and Giovanni Battista Piranesi‘s Vasi, candelabri, cippi, sarcophagi, tripodi, lucerne ed ornamenti antichi (1778) (below).

 Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s Vasi, 1778

Sir William Hamilton, British ambassador to Naples, amassed a large collection of vases, which he donated to the British Museum. His Collection of Etruscan Greek and Roman Antiquities (1767) was intended to influence taste. “We think also, that we make an agreeable present to our manufacturers of earthenware and china and to those who make vases in silver, copper, glass, marble, etc.,” he wrote. “[T]hey would be glad to find here more than two hundred forms, the greatest part of which are absolutely new to them; there, as in a plentiful stream, they may draw ideas which their ability and taste will know how to improve to their advantage, and to that of the public.” There were other vase collections by J.F.J. Saly (1746), J. M. Vien (1760) (below), Wailly (1760) and E.A.Petitot (1764)

Suite de Vases, Joseph Marie le Ven (1760)

Wedgwood owned Hamilton’s Collection and was himself a collector of vases, to the despair of his wife. She wrote, “I am almost afraid he will lay out the price of his estate in vases he makes nothing of giving 5 or 6 guineas for.” Well abreast of the antique taste, Wedgwood called his new Stoke-on-Trent factory “Etruria”. It gave its name to the surrounding district and anyone like me who has spent any time in Stoke-on-Trent thinks of Etruria as a dirty industrial area in North Staffordshire, not as a place in Italy.

Wedgwood Black Jasper Vase
Wedgwood Agate Vase
Wedgwood Porphyry Vase
Wedgwood Portland Vase

Wedgwood rapidly capitalised on the taste for vases. Here are representative vases from his output in different ceramic media: a vase in black Jasper ware, an agate vase in which clays of different colours are mixed, an earthenware vase with a so-called porphyry glaze, and the famous Portland vase, also in Jasper ware. Wedgwood developed the Jasper body specifically for imitations of antique vases, taking many years and encountering many problems. It’s a vitreous body that doesn’t need a glaze. He worked to high standards and had difficulty in finding the right craftsmen. (He’s famous for going round the factory and knocking down anything that wasn’t good enough for him.) He had to find ways to make unique designs pay. “It is this time losing with Uniqueness,” he complained, “which keeps ingenious Artists who are connected with men of great taste poor.” He had to improve productivity, driving down the piece rate he paid, but doing his best to persuade his workers that his methods would increase their wages in the long run because they would be making more.

Wedgwood was observed by Matthew Boulton to be “scheming to be sent for by his Majesty.” He marketed his vases to aristocracy and royalty, charging the highest prices possible. At the height of Vase Mania, vast sums were paid for desirable items. In one auction, a tea kettle was sold for 130 guineas.

Decorative vases in the antique style were made by Wedgwood’s rivals in Staffordshire, the factories of Derby, Worcester, Coalport and at Sèvres. Nor was pottery the only medium. Matthew Boulton, the Birmingham metalworker, made teapots, hot-water urns, egg caddies and chandeliers in vase forms. Silver vases were used as ornaments and given as prizes. Wooden knife boxes were made to look like vases and Robert Adam designed a cast iron stove to look like a vase. During Vase Mania and after, the vase motif proliferated in surface design, in marquetry and on textiles.

Silver vase given as a prize
Wooden knife box
Robert Adam Stove

Vase Mania peaked around 1772. Wedgwood saw the way the wind was blowing and decided to make more and to sell more cheaply. “The Great People have had these Vases in their Palaces long enough for them to be seen and admired to the Middling People,” he said, “which Class we know are vastly, I had almost said, infinitely superior, in numbers to the great, and although a great price was, I believe, at first necessary to make these vases esteemed Ornaments for Palaces, that reason no longer exists, and the middling people would probably buy quantities of them at a reduced price.”

Some artists faithfully copied antique vases in their engravings, others invented fantasy vases that never were and never could be. The vase had become separated from function, turned into a marker of taste, an object of contemplation and a stimulus to historical reflection or emotion. In Jean-Laurent Legeay’s Collection de divers sujets des Vases, Tombeaux, Ruines et Fontaines (c. 1770), the antique vase becomes Romantic and mysterious, recalling Piranesi’s imaginary prisons. In Legeay’s drawing at the top of this post, a huge vase and pestle stands in a ruined landscape dwarfing the human figures. The image uncannily anticipates the appearance of a neglected Victorian cemetery, in which the tomb-vase has been routinised. (I’ve written more about the Victorian funerary urn here.) Ennemond-Alexandre Petitot in a different kind of fantasy humanised the vase form (or vasified the human form) in this drawing of The Greek Bride (below).

Ennemond-Alexandre Petitot, The Greek Bride

From stove vases, vase brides and enormous vases in a landscape it’s a short step to vases on funerary monuments. Urns appeared on tombs ten years after Vase Mania had passed its peak. In the Victoria and Albert Museum, there is a monument by Joseph Nollekens, erected 1786 but designed earlier (below), with a fine draped urn, which the V&A describes as “a standard classical symbol of death”. Next to it is a monument in Coade stone to Sir William Hillman (1800), with a vase on a pedestal attended by a mourning woman – a motif that might have been taken from Legeay. The funerary urn was clearly from the vocabulary of Neo-Classicism, a remnant of Vase Mania, and although symbol hunters speculate endlessly about its meaning, there’s no evidence that it means anything except an association with the antique and the bestowal of honour.

Design for a monument by Joseph Nollekens, erected 1786 

Stefanie Walker (ed.) Vasemania – Form and Ornament in Neoclassical Europe, New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2004.
Jenny Uglow, “Vase Mania”, in Maxine Berg, Elizabeth Eger (eds.) Luxury in the Eighteenth Century, Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2001.