In my quest to present the Cotswolds as a living place (with feelings) that does not just sit around looking pretty in the sunshine (though it does this very well when called upon), I went to a pottery. Now, have some patience. A pottery seems, to some, to fit into a similar category as that of morris dancing – quaint, irrelevant, not especially imaginative and barely an art form. Try telling that to the Chinese, or to Grayson Perry. Or, indeed, to the morris. So, please, read on. Just outside Winchcombe is the village of Greet and between it and the main road to Broadway is a small inauspicious looking red-brick building, conspicuous only through not being built of stone and through being surmounted by a couple of stumpy and uneven chimneys. This is the Winchcombe Pottery, whose workaday exterior belies an illustrious history. It is a survivor of the movement in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to revive the traditions of affordable, attractive and practical pottery.
In its current form it dates back to 1926 but well before that, since the late 18th century, there had been a works on the site producing chimney pots and similarly functional domestic wares. It closed at the outbreak of the First World War and did not reopen at its end. Michael Cardew (who had been training under the great Bernard Leach, founder of the celebrated Leach Pottery in St. Ives) rented the pottery buildings and employed Elijah Comfort, the chief thrower from before the closure, and the youthful Sydney Tustin, to rekindle the business. Tustin, the son of a labourer, was not yet fourteen but was taken on, more than anything, for his strength. He went on to start a four-year apprenticeship, becoming a skilled thrower making, among other items, small jugs, porridge bowls, egg-bakers, soup pots, eggcups, butter coolers and jam pots. He remained at the pottery until his retirement in 1978.
Cardew aimed to "make, by hand, reasonably priced domestic pottery for everyday use" in slip-decorated red earthenware, drawing on the more austere traditional work of the north Devon potters rather than the decorative designs of Midland pottery. Over the years the design and ambition evolved into what you see now, which is stoneware that is classically elegant but eminently usable and practical. One of its most pleasing features is its tactile quality – the bowl in the accompanying photograph feels as if it was designed to be cradled and indeed part of its appeal is a desire to simply hold and feel the contrasting textures of glazed and unglazed surfaces on a shape that is like solid air.
The charm of the ware is sensory, but it is designed to be used. To that extent the tradition and connection with the first pottery on the site is unbroken. That sense of continuity, together with the understated refinement of the ware, in an area of the country replete with extravagant beauty, is all too easily overlooked. At the tumbledown shop next to the kiln items are laid out for sale. Winchcombe Pottery items turn up from time to time on the Antiques Road Show but buy them not as investments but as useful ornaments.
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