Simple Pleasures – Rye Pottery

Many years ago in the early 90s before my collecting addiction got out of hand, I dabbled in a number of collecting areas, Whitefriars Glass, Art Deco pottery and various sundry knick knacks. However, my first abiding obsession was Rye Pottery and although interests have come and gone over the years, presently being Scandinavian ceramics and 20th century British studio pottery, my love of Rye has never wavered. I don’t buy much of it these days, but if I see a rare and unusual piece for the right price I normally have to have it.

When I lived in London, I never dreamed that I would one day live within a few miles of the pottery. Since moving to St. Leonards on Sea nearly 8 years ago, I have of course visited Rye countless times and never tire of its old world charm, despite the artist Edward Burra’s derogatory description of it being ‘Tinkerbelle Towne‘. Interestingly enough he never hated it badly enough to move out and was born and died there.

The pottery still exists, but these days it survives mainly on its production of tiles and animal and pastoral ceramic figurines, all excellently made and hand painted, but not I’m afraid to my taste. It is to the 1950s that I turn to, the heyday of the pottery that produced large amounts of affordable brightly painted tin glazed earthenware for the kitchen and home.

A Group of typical Rye jugs in Cottage pattern

Rye pottery was founded in 1947 by two brothers John and Wally Cole, both art school graduates in sculpture and studio pottery, who took over a disused pottery in Ferry Road, Rye. Pottery had been made in and about Rye for hundreds of years, using the dark red clay which was obtained locally. However, from the word go, other than incorporating a few traditional shapes such as the Sussex Pig and Loving cup, the brothers wanted to create something different to cheer the country up during the austere post-war years.

To do this, they stepped back in time to the idea of 17th century Majolica or Delftware, which had been made using a white tin glaze on earthenware body, but updated for a new age. However, in the beginning due to Government restrictions, it was only possible to produce tin glazed ‘utility’ wares with simple decorations, as can be seen below.

Group of Early Rye ‘Utility Wares’ with simple decoration on white tin glaze

However, once restrictions were lifted, Rye started producing a variety of shapes and patterns that tuned into the optimism of the times, epitomised by the Festival of Britain in 1951, with people wanting to put the horrors of the Second World War behind them. The Cole brothers employed a number of people to produce the pottery and took on a number of apprentices many of whom such as David Sharp, Denis Townsend and Raymond Everett went on to start their own potteries in Rye. Examples of the many types of wares and patterns produced by Rye Pottery in the nineteen fifties can be seen below.

As well as producing the standard ware, all the employees were encouraged to experiment and each week time was set aside for them to be creative, albeit within the parameters of the typical Rye pottery style. A few examples of more unusual individual pieces can be seen below.

Vase on left by David Sharp and on right by Denis Townsend
An updated version of the traditional Sussex Pig
Enormous version of a standard shape and pattern compared with normal pot. Maybe an exhibition or marketing one off pot

By the early 1960s many of the original apprentices had moved on and branched out on their own and started their own potteries in Rye. Consumer tastes were also changing as the swinging sixties took over. It was during this period that I believe Rye Pottery lost its momentum and popularity , which it never really regained.

However, tastes have once again moved on, retro design is all the rage amongst the ‘Elle Decoration’ set and vintage Rye pottery can once again take it’s rightful place as one of the great design successes of the post war period.

Butter dishes in variety of patterns and colours

Rye Pottery played a small part in the great awakening that occurred following the trauma of the World war. Now as once again the World faces a different crisis, we could all do with some of that optimism and hopefuI spirit. So, once again, as we enter another lockdown, I’ll be digging out my collection from the boxes and arranging them on the shelves to cheer myself up and look forward to better times.

Published by John Bostock

Retired and living in St. Leonards on Sea, but still learning about life. All views are my own.

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