The Artisans of the Torquay Potteries

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     Torquay pottery to many is synonymous with holiday souvenirs or mottowares decorated with cottages, cockerels, sailing boats or a design known as ‘Scandy’ produced from the 1900s, and in particular the period between the two world wars, for the tourist industry. These were made by potters and decorators who ‘churned’ them out in large quantities, and who were paid piece-rate. However, prior to the First World War the South Devon pottery industry, which grew rapidly during the latter part of the nineteenth century following the discovery of a fine terracotta clay at Watcombe in 1865, employed several artisans;- some were specialist ceramic artists and pottery turners who had learnt their art working in various potteries in Staffordshire. In 1875 the newly established Torquay Terra Cotta Company at Hele, a suburb of Torquay, appointed Alexander Fisher head of their Artistic Department. Much of Alexander Fisher’s work was unsigned but he was noted for his painting of birds. The charger Torquay Terra Cotta Company plaque, 11” diameter. Decorated in black and white enamels by Alexander Fisher with a tern flying over a moonlit sea, c1870s, turned by William Higginbottom. depicting a tern flying over a moonlit sea is typical of his style painted in black and white enamels. The Pottery Gazette of 1878 explained that Alexander Fisher used colours ‘kept low in tone,… to obtain the desired effect by the use of browns, greys, and low tints of green, in harmony with the terracotta body…’. By 1887 Alexander Fisher was the most highly paid member of staff at the Torquay Terra Cotta Company.

      John Holland Birbeck, known always in Torquay as Holland Birbeck took employment at the Torquay Terra Cotta Company plaque, 11½” diameter, decorated by Holland Birbeck with a magpie under glaze, c1878. Exhibited at the Paris 1878 Exhibition.Torquay Terra Cotta Company coming from Brown, Westhead, Moore & Company along with Alexander Fisher. Like Alexander Fisher, Holland Birbeck had items submitted by the Torquay Terra Cotta Company at the 1878 Paris Exhibition: the charger painted with a magpie underglaze  is one of several pieces he exhibited at this exhibition.

      In many instances the work produced by Alexander Fisher and Holland Birbeck, who were considered to be the most talented ceramic artists, was executed onto wares turned by William Higginbottom. George Allen, who had formed The Watcombe Terracotta Clay Company Ltd in September 1869, appointed Charles Brock as Watcombe’s first Manager, and William Higginbottom as turner, and both came down to Torquay Terra Cotta Company teaset on tray, with black and gold enamelling and engine-turned decoration, c1875 William Higginbottom.Watcombe from Staffordshire. In 1875 William Higginbottom took employment at the newly established Torquay Terra Cotta Company Limited at Hele Cross, and in 1876, having been at the Torquay Terra Cotta Company for less than a year, Torquay Terra Cotta Company vase, 16” tall, with moulded handles. Decorated with gold enamelling and a transfer printed frieze of classical figures, attributed to Alexander Fisher, late 1870s William Higginbottom.William Higginbottom achieved his finest accolade.

The Worshipful Company of Turners which held annual competitions for the best efforts in turning wood, pottery and diamonds awarded William Higginbottom the Silver Medal – the top award – and was admitted to the Freedom of the Company by redemption, and also gained the Freedom of the City of London.

      Dominico Marcucci, from Faenza Romagna, Italy was a collaborator at an Italian Exhibition held in Kensington in London in 1888, and in 1889 he was involved with a ceramics exhibition at William de Morgan’s premises in London. In the autumn of 1889 Dominico Marcucci went to work at the Aller Vale Pottery, where he became Aller’s chief decorator quickly became involved in the artistic life of the Aller Vale pottery and Cottage Art Schools. Throughout the early 1890s many of Aller’s designs reflected Dominico Marcucci’s Italian influence — indeed, Princess Louise was said to have “at once Aller Vale Art Pottery plaque, 8½” diameter, decorated in slips with a cameo of a young Italian lady; possibly Dominico Marcucci’s wife, c1890.noticed the introduction of Italian feeling into English methods of work”. The plate decorated with a cameo of a young Italian lady and vase show this influence.  Whilst it is not known if Dominico Marcucci introduced the scroll design to Aller Vale – this well known renaissance design was probably copied from pattern books of the time that were made available to the pottery – Aller Vale Art Pottery handled double gourd vase, 8” tall. White clay, decorated with blue slip painted scrolls on a pale yellow ground, 1890s.he certainly painted many of the early Aller Vale scroll designs. A scroll design painted in blue slip onto a cream ground is also thought to have been introduced by Dominico Marcucci: this decoration also became a favourite of the Aller Vale Art Pottery jardinière and stand, 39” tall. White clay, made in two parts. Decorated in slip with blue scrolls – the Sandringham pattern, c1890s.Princess of Wales, later Queen Alexandra, who saw this ware on a visit to the Aller Vale Pottery and placed a special order for it. The Princess was very pleased with the execution of the work, and at her request the design became known as ‘Sandringham Ware’ and was marketed as such. 

      Other artisans were apprenticed locally, and learnt their art at the local Cottage Art Schools: Charles Collard, born in Torquay in 1874, was sent as an apprentice to the Aller Vale Art Pottery in 1886 at the age of twelve, and by the age of fifteen he had mastered all the processes of potting – there was no aspect of the work, from preparing the clay to decorating and glazing the wares to which he could not turn his hand. Nevertheless, Charles Collard’s greatest skill was as a decorator. The arrival of Domenico Marcucci at Aller in 1889 had a far-reaching effect on Charles Collard, who admired Marcucci’s work greatly and had the good fortune to study under the guidance of the Italian. Charles Collard was fascinated by Isnik pottery, and the Persian pattern, given the pattern code A1 when pattern codes were introduced at Aller c.1890 is thought to have been introduced during the mid 1880s and was one of Charles Collard’s particular favourites. Devon Art Pottery (Hart & Moist) vase, 10” tall, decorated with the Persian pattern incorporating a blue rosette flower, c1903.Following Marcucci’s departure from the Aller Vale pottery in 1896, Charles Collard became Aller’s chief decorator. Whilst Charles Collard continued with Aller’s popular patterns he originated several of his own: Aller vale Art Pottery chamberstick, 8” tall, decorated with a crocus in Art Nouveau style (A4) on a brown ground, c1902.The A4 crocus pattern which he introduced during his final year at Aller is perhaps one of the most obvious of all the art nouveau designs used by the South Devon potteries.

      The local potteries also copied and obtained designs and ideas from eminent designers of the period such as Dr Christopher Dresser and Blanche Vulliamy, and whilst there is no extant documentation proving that Christopher Dresser supplied designs direct to the Torquay potteries, the influence of his ideas and designs was felt beyond the manufacturers with whom Watcombe Terracotta Company bottle vase, 9” tall, with moulded dragon handle. Decorated with Dresser’s flying crane design and an Oriental woman and baby in enamels, c1875.he directly collaborated, and a number of shapes and surface decoration produced by the Watcombe Terra Cotta Company, the Torquay Terra Cotta Company, the Aller Vale Art Pottery and later by the Daison Art Pottery are clearly Christopher Dresser designs which appear to be modified versions of illustrations from his books.

Watcombe Terra Cotta Company vase, 10¼” tall, with moulded grotesque animal masks, their tongues forming handles. Decorated with celeste, ochre and gold enamelling, c1871-1875.Several of Watcombe’s early terracotta wares copy Dresser’s Japanese influence and designs, having applied animal masks which form handles.

  The application of Dresser’s stylised geometric leaf patterns painted in gold, white, turquoise and red-brown appear to be unique to Watcombe pottery and date from the early 1870s. Watcombe Terra Cotta Company tapered vase, 10” tall, with moulded animal mask handles and decorated with Dresser’s geometric leaf design painted in gold, white, black and turquoise enamels, c1875.Christopher Dresser had been working on these designs since the 1850s: he had lectured in botany for several years and his reputation in this field was such that in 1860 he was awarded a doctorate by the University of Jena in Sweden, and in the following year he was elected a Fellow of the Linnaean Society. In 1879 Christopher Dresser was appointed Art Director at the newly established Linthorpe Art Pottery in Yorkshire. Christopher Dresser was responsible for design there until sometime in 1872. The popularity of classical unglazed terracotta declined during the early 1890s which prompted the Torquay Terra Cotta Company to introduce a range of glazed art pottery under the trade name of ‘Stapleton Ware’.

      In her early twenties, Blanche Vulliamy left London c.1890 where she had been studying portraiture to stay with her grandparents who lived in Torquay. Whilst in Torquay Blanche Vulliamy was able to further her art studies, during which she acquainted herself with the pottery industry in South Devon, particularly the Aller Vale Art Pottery, and the potteries in Barnstaple, North Devon.

      Towards the end of the nineteenth century the Victorians were fascinated with the Grotesque, and it had become fashionable to want items that looked quaint or distorted. Artists and designers of that period, such as the Martin Brothers, showed elongated and distorted people, faces and animals– sometimes these were bizarre and frighteningly grotesque, harking back to the medieval liking for the gargoyle Aller Vale Art Pottery chamberstick, 6”, in the form of a grotesque devil’s face. Moulded from white clay. Shape number 1532, decorated with a green glaze, c1898 Blanche Vulliamy design.images of God’s beasts used to decorate pew ends and roof bosses of our churches and cathedrals. By this time Blanche Vulliamy already had a penchant for caricatures and making goblin like models. A number of these produced by the Aller Vale Art Pottery during the late 1890s can be attributed to Blanche Vulliamy. 

Aller Vale Art Pottery match holder, 5” tall, in the form of a grotesque droopy mouthed creature. Moulded from white clay, decorated with green glaze, c1898 Blanche Vulliamy design.The grotesque items, some with monstrous mouths, beady eyes and large ears and others with open heads and grinning faces with short legs and no bodies were mostly moulded from white clay, although terracotta clay was also occasionally used.

      Harry Crute started work at the Watcombe Terra Cotta Clay Company as a decorator at the age of 12½, shortly before the pottery was purchased by Hexter, Humpherson & Co. In 1914 Harry Crute went into partnership with Tom Lemon and together they took over the premises of the Tor Vale Pottery Company Ltd on a new lease. The Tor Vale pottery had started c.1910 but had had severe financial difficulties at the end of 1913.

In December of that year the Tor Vale pottery went into liquidation.      Lemon & Crute became famous for their kingfisher pattern, and it is Harry Crute who is acknowledged as the originator of this design, which was consequently copied by Watcombe, Longpark and the Torquay Pottery. Bird decoration was a favourite of Harry Crute, who also decorated wares with Blue Tits which none of the other potteries copied. Harry Crute is also credited with having been the first Torquay decorator to decorate wares with seagulls.

 Daison Art Pottery bowl, 12¼” diameter, decorated in pigments with a peacock on a blue ground, the outside of the bowl painted black, c1927.  Lemon & Crute vases, 14” tall, decorated in slips with seagulls and local views of the Natural Arch and Corbyn’s Head,

The Exhibition ‘The Artisans of the Torquay potteries’ highlights the lives of these artisans, and the work they produced. The Exhibition, organised by the Torquay Pottery Collectors Society is now available in cataloque format at only £6 - click here to order online.

Updated 28 April 2008