by Christopher Proudlove©
What do Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, Rod Stewart, Estée Lauder boss Leonard Lauder and the Sultan of Brunei have in common? Answer: They all collect Moorcroft Pottery. And they’re not alone.
Today, Moorcroft both old and new is more collectable – and collected – than ever. The Moorcroft Collector’s Club was founded in 1987 and has a large international membership who flock to specialist auction sales and to fairs and markets, while specialist dealers buy and sell Moorcroft around the world.
Moorcroft continues to be made in Stoke-on-Trent, in Staffordshire, and founder William Moorcroft’s original bottle kiln is now a Grade II listed building.
Traditional production methods are still used. Pots are turned on a lathe to perfect the shape, and the distinctive tube-lining decoration is applied by hand on to the raw clay.
The colours are also still applied entirely by hand, one colour gently washed over another in order to enable them to blend together at high temperature.
A second firing produces the richness of colour that has been the hallmark of Moorcroft for the last hundred years.
William’s son, Walter, reminiscing about his early experiences working for his father, once described methods of manufacture as “highly secretive and most unorthodox”.
“My father’s methods were a law unto themselves,” he said. But it was an approach that proved extremely successful for more than 100 years and continues to beguile collectors today
The remarks seemed particularly profound when new owners of the company were attempting to modernise production techniques.
In the interests of progress, the old labour-intensive hand-thrown methods were streamlined and the number of designs was drastically reduced.
But modernisation was doomed to failure, as anyone who appreciated the hand-made appeal of Moorcroft’s work could have predicted, and ironically the experiment in 1989 took the company back into private hands.
From then until the present, Moorcroft has thrived and, of all the many early 20th century studio ceramics, it continues to be the most successful.
William Moorcroft was born in Burslem in 1872. He was the second son of a family well established in the Staffordshire Potteries and he inherited his father’s interest in art and talent for design.
In 1897, he obtained his Art Master’s Certificate at the National Art Training School in London, later the Royal College of Art, and also trained in Paris, absorbing the influences of Art Nouveau.
Returning to Burslem in 1897, he went to work as a designer for James Macintyre and Company, who wanted to start an art pottery department.
Moorcroft was inspired by William Morris and the Arts & Crafts Movement and preferred the distinctive Englishness of Morris’s elaborate but controlled designs to the prevailing fussy French Art Nouveau fashion.
Working for Macintyre, he followed on from Harry Bernard’s Gesso Faience range, developing new shapes and patterns for both printed and enamelled ware.
His early designs carried the “Florian Ware” backstamp with his signature, although some transitional and highly sought after pieces turn up with the anomaly of Moorcroft’s signature with the older ‘Gesso Faience’ mark.
The inspiration for the floral patterns stem from Moorcroft’s interest in botanical studies and organic form.
Although pieces are valued by size and pattern, it is the complexity involved with linking the painted design to the potted shape that mainly determines price today.
The Florian range, based around designs of British wild flowers like narcissi and cornflowers, also features designs with butterflies and fish.
Moorcroft further experimented with landscape designs, and these are now highly sought after.
Moorcroft’s success encouraged him to set up on his own in 1910. One of the most memorable designs from this period often seen in dealers’ stock is the Claremont toadstools pattern, painted in shades of reds and yellows on a green ground.
Again the design was worked to fit the shape of the vases. Examples often feature large and small toadstools arranged in bands or clumps, while some vases are individually decorated with several bands of fungi.
Moorcroft continued to produce floral designs into the 1930s, using more exotic flowers. Waratah, a design based on an Australian flower (circa 1932) has particular appeal to Australian collectors, for example.
Introduced in 1910 and produced up to circa 1938, the Pomegranate pattern is one of the most prolific and collectable patterns, featuring on a large quantity of domestic and decorative wares. Well-painted examples are always sought after and a number of examples will feature on a number of stands at the NEC fair.
From 1910, Moorcroft’s company enjoyed success almost immediately and the firm began exhibiting in Tiffany’s in New York, and Shreve’s in San Francisco, as well as Liberty of London.
The company expanded in collaboration with Liberty, and a new factory was built at Cobridge, Stoke-on-Trent, in 1913.
In the boom years of the 1920s, Moorcroft Pottery grew in prestige and reached a height in popularity that was not seen again until the last few years.
The company won gold medals, both in Brussels and in Paris, and exhibited at the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley in 1924.
In 1928, William Moorcroft received the honour of being appointed Potter to Her Majesty the Queen, by Queen Mary, who had been a keen collector of his work for some years.
Even during the depression of the 1930s, Moorcroft continued to pick up prestigious awards and was featured at the World’s Fair in New York.
William’s son, Walter, joined the firm straight from school in 1935. He took control of the business after his father’s death in 1945, by which time Moorcroft was an established name of importance, featuring in museums across the United States, Canada, Germany and Italy, as well as in Britain
Walter’s designs continued with the same quality of decoration and colour associated with Moorcroft, including the lily, hibiscus and magnolia designs.
The post-war years were successful and in 1961, Walter was able to buy out the Liberty interest, and the Moorcroft family regained total control of the company once again.
A retrospective exhibition of Moorcroft was held by the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1972 to commemorate the centenary year of William Moorcroft’s birth.
However, the family business was entering a period of turmoil. In 1984, to save the company from liquidation, a controlling interest was sold to the Roper brothers, a company with extensive interests in the mass-production of earthenware.
The attempt to modernise production methods and take Moorcroft into the volume market was unsuccessful and the brothers withdrew, selling their shares, much to the relief of many ardent collectors and admirers.
The business passed into the hands of collector and enthusiast Hugh Edwards, and John Moorcroft, the younger son of the founder.
Walter retired as design director in 1987, after which Sally Dennis, wife of the collector and publisher Richard Dennis, took up the challenge.
In the same year John Moorcroft, the last family shareholder, became Managing Director. From the late 80s there was a dramatic turnaround in the fortunes of Moorcroft Pottery. New designers were taken on and business rapidly improved.
Picture shows a group of Alhambra pattern Moorcroft vases tube-lined in salmon pink against a dark blue ground. They date from circa 1903 and each is worth £600-800 ($1,200-1,400)