Minds greater than ours have long debated whether or not the present spate of television programmes devoted to buying, selling and collecting antiques is doing the business any good, but I have to admit that they can become addictive.
Whilst not exactly required viewing chez nous, we do find ourselves watching them, if only to enjoy the toe-curling embarrassment suffered by the participants dished out in spade-fulls by the mincing presenters.
But they do provide at least something of a service: it’s thanks to them that collectors like us keep abreast of the latest trends.
Even this presents pitfalls for the unwary, though. The programmes are recorded sometimes months in advance of transmission, by which time what was once the latest must-have collectables are by now the auction houses’ unsold lots.
Some old faithfuls continue to go from strength to strength, but we wonder how high the price spiral can go for such things as Beswick horses, Clarice Cliff Bizarre ware and Royal Doulton figure groups.
We pondered the issue having watched such a programme the other day. In its course we gasped as a couple of pots not unlike the ones illustrated here sold for £100.
They had cost their lucky owner the grand sum of 15p at her local car boot sale.
Aside from cursing that such good fortune never comes our way, we were grateful for the fact that the TV had once again highlighted a collecting area about which we knew absolutely nothing.
It turns out that the pots were made in Cornwall in the 1960s and were retailed under the name Troika.
Suitably inspired, we set about learning more – after all, you never know when Lady Luck might shine in our direction. If that happens, it pays to be able to recognise the fact.
Troika pottery has nothing to do with Russia, although clearly the trio who founded the company in 1963 chose the name for it is Russian meaning of the triumvirate of three equal partners.
Leslie Illsley, Benny Sirota, and Jan Thomspon also appreciated the punchy, sharply angular sound of the word, feeling that it aptly summed up their unique experimental, geometric ceramics that they planned to produce when they took over the Wells Pottery at Wheal Dream in St. Ives.
Despite only Sirota having had any experience in the pottery industry, and then for only two years, the trio each put up £1000 for the venture that those who thought they knew better predicted would collapse within three months.
Confounding the cynics, Troika pottery was turning a handsome profit within a year and was soon a leading light among producers of contemporary ceramics in an industry made famous by such potters as Bernard Leach, W. Staite Murray and Lucie Rie.
The first pieces made by Troika were produced were produced from blanks of tiles and doorknobs left over from the former Wells pottery.
Jan Thomson, an architect, was a sleeping partner and was bought out in 1965. Leslie Illsley had trained as a sculptor and had experience of making moulds, so he designed master moulds of such products as teapots, coffee sets and mugs thrown individually by Sirota,
Sirota also experimented with glazes, surface textures – both rough and smooth – and designed floor and wall tiles
The important London stores of Heal’s and Liberty were the main source of business for the pottery and commissioned orders flooded in.
A further boost came in 1967, when Troika was featured in the year book of the design bible Studio and the following year, exhibitions of the Troika were staged in New York, Stockholm, and Sydney.
Buyers were drawn to the distinctive shapes, coupled with ground-breaking glazing techniques producing either smooth glossy finishes or richly textured surfaces and sometimes a combination of both.
Although almost all production was from moulds, the resulting experimental decoration meant that pieces varied in finish, almost by the batch.
Pieces made from one basic mould were modified in subsequent firings adding other moulds to give textured designs, while the company’s decorators were given a free hand to experiment providing they stuck to certain specified colourways.
An early setback occurred in 1970, when St. Ives Council terminated the lease on the Wheal Dream building, but premises were found in an old salting house in Fradgan Place, Newlyn, which the two remaining partners renovated.
Operating in larger workshops allowed the business to expand and orders flooded in. At its height in 1975, eight decorators were employed to keep pace with demand.
Sadly, however, fashion is fickle at the cutting edge and eventually demand began to decline.
Heal’s dropped Troika from its product range in 1978 and with Sirota running the Troika shop in St Ives, he gradually lost contact with the running of the pottery.
The government decision to double VAT in 1979 and a flood of cheap imports put further pressure on the partnership which ended in 1980.
Sirota kept the St. Ives shop and Illsley valiantly tried to keep the pottery afloat but then came the recession and the staff found themselves on a three-day week.
It got worse in 1983 when the bank called in its loan and Illsley was forced to sell his home. Troika Pottery ceased trading in December that year.
Illsley was subsequently diagnosed with cancer and died in 1989. Sirota, meanwhile, pursued many ventures and continued his fascination for pottery, producing an intriguing range of individual pots during the 1990s.
During the same period there was an attempt to restart Troika, headed by Roland Bence, a former decorator.
However, the attempt foundered when Illsley’s widow, Judith, declined to accept the offer for the company name.
As with all hand-crafted, individually made pieces of pottery that are no longer in production – Clarice Cliff, Beswick and Royal Doulton – to name but three, values for Troika came from nowhere and continue to rise.
Whilst not exactly rare, decent pieces are becoming harder to find and unusual, large and signed pieces attract a premium.
If you’re out and about in Cornwall this summer, call in at the Tremayne Applied Arts gallery in St. Ives.
You’ll find a group of good Troika pieces, together with some of the post Troika ware designed and made by Benny Sirota.
Among the former is a Troika large white cube pot made for the Heal’s and Liberty exhibition of 1968. It is priced at £550 and could represent a good investment. Only time will tell.
Pictures show: Top, Terrific Troika: this impressive group of Troika pottery was sold at Bryne’s fine art auctioneers in their collectors’ sale on Wednesday August 31. The two larger vases at the rear were each estimated at £400-600. They made £460 and £426 respectively. The three smaller examples at the front were each estimated at £200-300. Left to right, they sold for £230, £288 and £265
Below, This piece was intended as a lampbase, the small brass fitting to the neck revealing its purpose. It’s worth £200-300
Bottom, left to right, Many Troika pieces are marked by with the decorator’s initials. Click on each image to learn more