William Moorcroft, potter: Individuality by design

Our books Aug 31, 2023

by Jonathan Mallinson

William Moorcroft (1872-1945) was one of the most celebrated potters of the first half of the twentieth century.   From his earliest decorative pottery, a ‘chemical and artistic triumph’ in the words of one reviewer, to his Powder Blue tableware, considered by Pevsner ‘undatedly perfect’ in design, Moorcroft’s work won the highest awards at World’s Fairs, was sought by museums, and stocked by the most prestigious retail outlets in the world.  He was granted a Royal Warrant – an exceptionally rare honour for a potter at the time -, and at his death he was rated alongside Josiah Wedgwood as a master of his craft.

But he was also one of the most individual of potters, a combination of craftsman, designer and manufacturer.   He created his own decorative technique, and developed a unique palette of underglaze colours.   He designed both form and ornament for all his pieces, drew the decoration template onto each shape, and, in the case of his flambé wares, personally fired the kiln.   He oversaw the training of his decorators, and he was responsible for the promotion and sale of his work.   It is through this unique fusion of roles that he bridged the ever-widening gulf between industrial and studio production, commerce and art.

Paradoxically, the very individuality which set William Moorcroft apart in his lifetime is a cause of the relatively narrow view of his importance today.   Because no single category adequately covers the range of his activity, he is rarely included in studies of either industrial design or studio pottery, and tends to be considered largely as the founder of a firm.   This book is the first to look at the potter in his own times, on his own terms.

It divides Moorcroft’s career into three main phases.   Section 1 explores his sixteen years as Head of Ornamental Pottery at J. Macintyre & Co. Ltd., a period which began as an ideal collaboration of innovative designer and progressive firm and ended with the complete collapse of his relationship with the factory’s General Manager and the closure of his department.   Section 2 examines the first half of his career in his own works, established in 1913 with financial support from Liberty’s of London.   It was a time of outstanding artistic and commercial success, achieved despite the challenging conditions of war and the steadily increasing privations of the 1920s; it culminated in the award of a Royal Warrant by Queen Mary in 1928.    Section 3 covers the last seventeen years of his life, characterised by increasingly difficult economic conditions and Moorcroft’s enduring renown both as a designer of modern table ware and as a decorative artist.

This study considers both published and unpublished sources.   Moorcroft’s reputation as a very individual potter is traced through the many reviews of his work in art and trade journals, periodicals and newspapers the world over.   And in his own published statements, from letters in The Times to articles in magazines, we explore his distinctive response to debates about the relationship of art and industry, of craft and manufacture.   Work on the public perception of Moorcroft has been immeasurably enriched by extensive research in a family archive of papers, diaries and letters, never before comprehensively examined and now housed in the Stoke-on-Trent City Archives.   This unique resource provides innumerable insights into the background of Moorcroft’s production: his formative (and turbulent) relationships with Macintyre’s and Liberty’s, the establishment and running of his own works, the material impact of two world wars, and the pressures of creating artworks in the Depression.   Letters sent to Moorcroft throughout his career bear witness to the effect of his pottery on private individuals, and documents ranging from jottings in early notebooks to more extended reflections in later correspondence reveal his deep sense of vocation as a potter.

This research sheds new light on William Moorcroft’s distinctive practice as a potter.   Described in one obituary as a ‘post-Morrisite’, he is seen to bring together two opposing conceptions of the Arts and Crafts legacy, one traced by Pevsner to the modern industrial designer, the other situated by Leach in the individual craftworker.  From his unique position in the space between factory and studio, Moorcroft turned craft pottery into a performance art, the collaborative production of an artist’s vision, each object the individual rendition of a design.

No less individual is the pottery itself, its remarkable diversity illustrated in more than seventy photographs.   This was, in the words of one critic, ‘no ordinary pottery’, not just because it was different, but because it was personal.   Moorcroft’s designs were informed by a desire to express in clay, the quintessential material of creation, his sensitivity to the beauties of nature.   This expressiveness was appreciated throughout his career, likened to poetry by some critics, described as ‘soulfulness’ by others.   It was epitomised in his practice, again unparalleled at the time, of personally signing each piece.   And, remarkably, it was identified in all his work, from exhibition pieces to simple functional items; as one reviewer observed in the 1920s, even a modest piece of Moorcroft’s pottery is ‘regarded by thousands of people as a priceless possession’, a judgement corroborated in countless private letters.   Pottery was not simply a commercial commodity for Moorcroft, it was a means of communication, of bringing beauty into the lives of others.

This is a book about a potter and his art.   But it is a book, too, about a potter and his times.   It follows Moorcroft’s career through the different phases of his nation’s life, as he responds to the optimism of the new Edwardian era, the terrors of war, and the growing cultural and political tensions of the interwar years.   It is the story of a potter’s unshakable belief that (his) art had something to say in an uncertain world – a belief clearly vindicated at the time, and just as relevant now as it was then.

This is an Open Access title available to read and download for free or to purchase in all available print and ebook formats below.

William Moorcroft, Potter: Individuality by Design
William Moorcroft (1872-1945) was one of the most celebrated potters of the early twentieth century. His career extended from the Arts and Crafts movement of the late Victorian age to the Austerity aesthetics of the Second World War. Rejecting mass production and patronised by Royalty, Moorcroft’s w…

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