Fine art skills lost

Former Aynsley Painter  fears fine art skills have been lost forever

Fred Hughes shines a light on the artistic touch which helped make
Stoke-on-Trent the pottery capital of the world.

The  vision of dereliction at the demolished Royal Doulton factory in

Nile Street, Burslem, is not for the faint-hearted.

This residue of rubble is all that’s left of the work of generations of
artists who were once one of the Potteries’ strongest communities.

But it’s not the brand that has been lost, but the instinctive in-house
skills of thousands of gifted employees. And these are talents that
cannot be recaptured.
“Sharing skills is what inspired the pottery industry,” claims former Royal
Doulton figure painter Terry Abbotts. “It was something you couldn’t
teach from books or by taking an exam.
This was handed-down art passed from generation to generation in acquired skills of
continuity. You picked it up by copying through an apprenticeship for
which you had to pay sixpence a week from your wages.
“I believe those skills have been lost forever now the industry has
collapsed. The question is, if there was a revival, how do you get them
“The answer is you can’t, the whole process would have to be reinvented. The
chain has been broken; the old traditions are lost.”
Terry, aged 70 and from Kidsgrove, left school at 15. Rather than continue in
higher education, his teachers recommended he pursue his talents in the
pottery industry. The best manufactories were those that painted
freehand. And so Terry, as did many more young and budding artists,
went to work at Royal Doulton where he was signed-up by the celebrated
Reg Brown.

“Reg placed me under the tutelage of Eric Webster, an artist then in charge
of animal painting and originator of the Royal Doulton painting
school,” says Terry.

“Although the majority of workers in the department were women, the men were
given the quality artistic jobs because of tradition. It wasn’t that
men were better than women. That’s how the pottery industry began – as
a family business where the man of the household created the work and
his wife and children performed the supporting tasks.

“Under the guidance of Eric and another artist, Ken Shrigley, I learned to
paint figurines before going on to piece work where the wages were
better. Ken had progressed under the same traditional system during his
own development; in other words, learning by old-school methods.
“He’d started at Doulton’s in 1935 and taught me the importance of colour
preparation. Artists like Ken were essential to stability and linking
the generations. They taught each other and shared not only their
skills but pride in their product.”
In later life, Terry became an art teacher at Stoke-on-Trent College. By
this time, Ken had been long retired. But amazingly, in 1991, a
72-year-old Ken turned up at one of Terry’s classes.
“Ceramic artists never stop learning from each other and they never found it
uncomfortable to be taught by someone that they themselves had taught,”
claims Terry. “Ken once told me that in 1935 he’d learned by copying a
picture on a plate painted by Royal Doulton artist J H Plant.

“Incredibly, I came across the very plate at a sale and bought it. I gave it back to
Ken just before he died in 1993. You can imagine his astonishment – a
plate pattern that he’d worked on half a century before. It was
wonderful to hand it back to him.”

Later, something similar happened to Terry.

“I’d worked on a figurine called The Skater in the late 1960s. It may be
obvious, but a ceramic artist would always put his identifying marks on
the base of the object. I was thrilled to see this figure in a showroom
and wanted to buy it, but it was not for sale. Never mind, it was the
first time I’d found something I’d put my name to.”
After he retired form Royal Doulton, Terry worked for Renaissance Ceramics
and Aynsley China, before going into education. But he itched to
recover some of the work he’d done as an apprentice in the early 1950s.

“I searched for some 40 years without success, until two years ago I
managed to buy three pieces, Peggy, Dinky-Doo and Lydia, all with my
apprentice initials, T.A., on the base. And what’s more, I recovered
them at a sale in Stoke-on-Trent. Painters were paid just a farthing to
put their signatures alongside the back stamp, adding to its
Terry even found a plate painted by the man who first employed him.

“It was a plate painted by Reg Brown in 1927 when he was 18,” he says. “I
recovered it in 1993 and it got me interested in finding other pieces.
Later still, I found a rose plate painted by my first tutor Eric
Webster in 1912 when he was 16.”

Perhaps more surprising was Terry’s discovery in a sale of a plate he’d designed
called Wren And Blackberries.

“There were only three made and this is the last one,” says Terry. “The old
industry relied upon teamwork and continuity. Now it’s gone. So where
do we go from here?”