Tuesday, November 13, 2012

A Word to the Wise

QUESTION: I collect teapots. Recently, I purchased a small one on which is hand-painted a saying, “Actions speak louder than words,” with a picture of a cottage on the other side. The mark on the bottom just says “Made in England.” Can you tell me anything about this teapot?

ANSWER: It seems you’ve stumbled on a piece of Torquay pottery, specifically Torquay Motto Ware.

Torquay is the generic name given to 20 potteries centered around the popular seaside resort of the same name in South Devon, England, that made red earthenware with slip decoration in the form of a picture. Many also sported brief sayings on them, thus the name Motto Ware. Of these potteries, Watcombe, Royal Torquay Pottery, Aller Vale, Longpark, Lemon & Crute, Torquay Terra-Cotta Company, and St. Marychurch are the most well-known.

The designs on the Motto Ware often depict cottages, flowers, animals, boats, and windmills. While the Torquay potteries produced these mainly as souvenirs, not all were souvenirs of Devon. 

In 1867, G.J. Allen discovered dark red clay around the town of Torquay. He had it chemically analyzed and found out that it exceptional for producing earthenware. He built a pottery which he named the Watcombe Terra Cotta Clay Company. Other potters soon followed suit and opened their own pottery works in the area. In 1897 the Aller Vale Company acquired the larger Watcombe Pottery, making Watcombe the largest of the pottery producers.

They began by making art pottery—classical vases and busts—popular with Victorians at the time. But as the demand for these pieces declined towards the end of the 19th century, they had to adjust and adapt or go out of business. Victorians loved to travel and bring back small items as souvenirs of their adventures, so the potteries began making stylized souvenirs for this new market.

Torquay pottery followed a number of themes, including the subject matter of cottages, place names,  florals, animals, and sometimes grotesque images. They also came in a variety of decorative styles—faience, barbotine, terracotta, and molded cottages. This allows collectors to assemble groupings by subject and/or style, and many of them seek out pots by specific decorators or potteries.

Motto Ware didn’t start in Torquay. It had been around for some time. In fact, the Romans often inscribed their pots with humorous sayings. There seems to be an endless number of mottos on Torquay pots, some are pearls of wisdom, others are humourous, and still others are classical quotations. Some potters even inscribed personal messages for their customers. Companies soon discovered that household items with mottoes on them sold best.

After forming basic shapes on the potter's wheel or in molds and allowing the clay to harden, workers dipped each piece into slip, a creamy mixture of white clay and water. After the slip set, artists hand-decorated each piece, using a nail to scratch proverbs or folksy sayings through the slip to the red clay, a technique known as sgraffito. They then fired the pieces in kilns, allowed them to cool, then glazed and re-fired them. Artists, paid by the piece, worked feverishly, engraving mottoes on up to seven dozen pieces an hour.

The earliest Torquay Motto Wares have a rustic individuality, with mottoes scrawled in childlike handwriting.  Besides famous quotations, motos also were humorous, such as “ "A hair on the head Is worth two on the chin," seen on a shaving mug. Some were a play on words, like this one: "A car on the road is worth two in the ditch.” Even Shakespeare didn’t escape Motto Ware. "The night is long that never finds a day," is a quote from his play “Macbeth.” While early Motto Ware had inscriptions written in normal English, companies later used an exaggerated Devonshire dialect to appeal to the tourist trade.

Today, collectors seek sugar bowls and creamers, teapots, jugs, candlesticks, perfume bottles, cookie jars, tobacco jars, vases, plates, and children's dishes in prices ranging from $2 to $500, depending on the item’s condition. Advertising and commemorative wares, featuring the name of a hotel, city, or special occasion, are especially popular.

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