THERE were gasps of amazement … and self-satisfied smiles from those in the know. Small, nondescript Moorcroft pairs of vases decorated with the ubiquitous pansies sell for around £200 in local auctions, £300 if you’re lucky and dealers in the room want stock.
So how come the two illustrated here fetched £2,400? After all, they are nondescript, yes?
Actually, not a bit of it. They might only measure a mere six centimetres in height, but these little rarities pack a punch above their weight.
The secret is in the background on which the pansies are painted. Instead of the usual deep
blue, the ground used for these two little chaps was a muddy green and creamy white.
No, customers didn’t like them either. Production was short-lived and the idea scrapped in favour of the more popular blue.
Such is the case with the other Moorcroft pieces illustrated here, except these are even more rare.
The jardinière is decorated with fruit and vines and although normally seen in a distinctive Moorcroft blue colourway, this is a unique test piece in a flambé glaze.
However, this was another experiment considered less than satisfactory by factory bosses and the idea was abandoned. But instead of the pot being scrapped, the lady involved in its manufacture more than 30 years ago asked if she could keep it.
The two plates are perhaps even more fascinating. Again unique, they were used in the Moorcroft factory to demonstrate the art of a technique called tube-lining to young pupil apprentices.
The plates were fired with the subsequent decorative painting omitted so that the technique could be better understood.
Interestingly, the plates are also notable for their fine and delicate tube-lining associated with older Moorcroft and not seen on the modern productions.
The latter have heavier tube-lining to stop the paint spilling over onto other areas of the piece. The plates each have the impressed mark ‘Potters to HM. The Queen’, which dates them to around the 1940s.
The ceramic term tube-lining is not unlike the process of piping decoration on to an iced cake. But the simplicity of the technique and the way it is explained, belies the enormity of the task.
So skilled were these women at the art of tube-lining that dismissing it as simple culinary chore is an insult to their ability.
There is, however, ground common to the two techniques. Like icing, the liquid clay, or slip as it is termed, is held in a small bag and applied to the object being decorated by being squeezed through a nozzle. The similarities end there, however.
The nozzle, in fact, was a tiny glass tube. It was made to the correct diameter by the girls themselves, by heating and stretching it over a burner.
Tube-lining was introduced in the Potteries in 1895 and was used for a relatively short time, notably, by Wedgwood, Minton and Moorcroft. However, it died out in the 1950s because it was so time-consuming and, therefore, costly.
Moorcroft is one of the few companies to continue the practice today. When applied to a pot, it produced a thin, raised line, usually in clay of contrasting colour to the rest of the pot, which followed the outlines of patterns or pictures to be used in the decoration of the piece.
This formed a frame into which, after firing, enamel colouring could be worked subsequently without the colours running together.
Patterns were applied occasionally freehand, the tube-liner either working to sketched designs or from a model made previously by the designer.
Charlotte Rhead, for example, had been taught the skill by her father, the great Frederick Rhead, and was extremely accomplished.
Alternatively, either the designer or the tube-liner would pencil the design on to the actual pot to be decorated or on to tracing paper from whence it would be transferred to the pot using a pounce.
This latter technique involved perforating the paper with dozens of tiny pin holes along the outline of the shape to be tubed. The paper was then dampened and smoothed on to the piece to be decorated.
With a cloth or pad dipped in soot – the pounce – repeated dabbing forced traces of soot through the holes so that, when the paper was removed, a series of dots were left where the pin holes had been for the tube-liner to follow. The soot was burnt away during subsequent firing.
They were important artists in their own right and some were even permitted to sign their work with their own mark. Interestingly, pieces bearing the Charlotte Rhead signature, so eagerly snapped up by today’s collectors over those that are unmarked, were probably signed not by her but with a facsimile by the tube liner who decorated them.
This is a pity. Such was the skill and dexterity of the tube-liners, that their work deserves to be collected in its own right.