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.

An Iconic Church in St Leonards

Walk a short distance Westwards along the seafront from the Victoria Hotel in St Leonards past the early Victorian buildings built by James Burton and his son Decimus Burton, the founders of St. Leonards as a seaside resort. Then look landward between two more recent blocks of flats and you are confronted by an imposing monolithic stone structure, built into the cliff face behind, that is totally unlike any other building in St. Leonards.

Most tourists and probably many residents alike walk past this church without a second glance, but I would suggest that they are doing it a disservice. This church was designed by the celebrated post war Architects, Giles and Adrian Gilbert Scott and is one of many famous iconic buildings designed by them in the style of what is now called “Modernistic Gothic Revivalism”. We will come to that later.

Firstly, a bit of history. Before this church made its appearance in 1961, a church had stood on this same ground for over 100 years designed and built by none other than the said James Burton, founder of St. Leonards in 1834. In order to build the church a large section of the cliff behind was dug out.

The Original St. Leonards Church 1834

By 1944, this church had survived, despite numerous cliff falls, but its fate was sealed when it was struck and destroyed with a direct hit from a German doodlebug sent from over the English Channel.

A commission for a new church was given to the Gilbert Scott firm who were already well known for their churches. Giles Gilbert Scott is a bit of a forgotten figure these days in the age of superstars such as Norman Foster and Richard Rogers, but even those who do not know the name, are very familiar with many of his famous landmark buildings including Liverpool Cathedral, Battersea Power Station and most famously the iconic red telephone boxes.

The new church was commenced in 1953, but it was not until 1961 that the iconic south tower was added, the finished building that stands to this day. Interestingly, it is the only coastal church on the South Coast that has a direct and uninterrupted sea view from its entrance. In 1998 it was given Grade II listed status by English Heritage which defines it as a “nationally important” building of “special interest”.

St. Leonards Church in happier times

However, all is not well. After many cliff falls over the years and deterioration internally, the insurers finally pulled the plug on its use and it was officially closed for worship in 2018 and since then it has stood empty. I have wondered many times why the Architects decided to build directly back into the cliff, knowing the long history of cliff instability even in the 19th century. God works in mysterious ways, but it might have made more sense if man had made an effort to stabilise the cliff before embarking on a major project like this.

View with surrounding cliff
View showing the church built into the cliff
Another Westward view of the church

But what of the future, which despite its Grade II listing looks decidedly bleak. However, there is one ray of hope; in August 2020 the Hastings Urban Design Group came forward with an ambitious plan called ‘Science-on-Sea’ which proposed to make the church, together with an abandoned project next door, a maritime themed cultural hub and visitor attraction, which could also be a seaside outpost of the Science Museum. It is vastly ambitious and would require the buy-in of many agencies, so there are massive obstacles to overcome. Link re science-on-sea

In these uncertain and challenging times, it is difficult to look to the future, but in my mind this is just the type of regeneration project that could give hope and purpose to the community, as well as bringing much needed income to our town in the future. In my opinion this towering monument has a quiet and serene understated beauty. This marvellous and unique structure deserves its continued place amongst the varied Architecture of Hastings and St. Leonards.