Wasps and weeds

Earthenware vase, Denise Wren, 1920s-30s
Earthenware vase, Denise Wren, 1920s-30s

Potters Denise and Rosemary Wren were lovers of the natural world, both plants and animals, extending to the wild and weird. The Wrens had chosen to build their home in the village of Oxshott, surrounded by Surrey countryside, though well connected by train to London. According to Rosemary:
‘My mother fervently respected all living things; the original inhabitants of Potters Croft, the frogs, beetles, flies and spiders must not be hurt although their presence was at times inconvenient. One of my earliest memories is of sharing my supper with the mice who enjoyed the warmth behind the fireplace; cupboard doors were left ajar so that they could get out, since they never had problems over getting in.’ (1). 

This theme recurs in an interview with potter Robert Fournier, who describes visiting the Oxshott Pottery on several occasions to film Rosemary coiling pottery: ‘…We used to have tea out in the open, it was summertime, and lots of wasps about. And I went to swat a wasp and her mother said ‘You mustn’t swat it, it’s one of our friends!” (2). The exterior scene can further be imagined from Rosemary’s comment that Denise’s ‘respect for the tenacious life of wild plants too hampered her annually renewed resolve to make a garden as full of colour as the seedsmen’s catalogues’. (3)

This urge to preserve the living world was part of the Wrens’ dedication to leading a sustainable existence, keeping goats, birds and bees in the garden which stretched between the house and the pottery workshops. Denise was a prizewinning breeder of budgerigars and parakeets. In May 1933 she proudly featured on the front cover of Cage Birds and Birdworld Magazine seated in front of her nine aviaries, each of which boasted a thatched roof. Denise was also a knowledgeable beekeeper who patented designs for four beehives between 1944 and 1950. Birdhouses, nesting boxes and beehives could be all purchased from the Oxshott Pottery. Many items of Wren clothing were hand dyed, spun or woven by family and friends. 

Unsurprisingly, the natural world inspired the Wrens’ pottery. Denise’s ceramics are decorated with stylised birds and fish, painted, incised and slip-trailed. Denise glazed many of the earthenware pots she made in the interwar period in vivid shades of orange, yellow and turquoise. Rosemary explained that ‘She liked these…because in Australia there had been birds with feathers with wonderful rich colours.’ (4). Denise’s parents had migrated from Western Australia to England when she was eight.

During the interwar years, Denise made fashionable moulded figurines of animals including lions, gorillas and a jerboa, a small desert rodent. Photographs showing how to reproduce the latter in a plaster of Paris mould appear in the Wren’s book ‘Handcraft Pottery’ (1928). From the late 1930s Denise moved into designing textiles, and those of her patterns which were not floral usually featured animals. Deer, mice, birds and squirrels were favourite choices.

After a career comeback in the 1950s making wheel thrown saltglazed stoneware, from the mid 1960s Denise became known for her handbuilt elephants, one of which is in the V&A’s collection. These were biscuit fired and smoked in sawdust. Elephants had first captured Denise’s imagination when she watched their daily arrival into the Ceylon Section of the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley in 1924-25, where she and Henry Wren sold their pots from a stall.

Growing up at Potters’ Croft, Rosemary was accustomed to domestic animals from babyhood ‘I had a basketwork cradle on wheels that was put outside and the dog was put in there to look after me. I always did understand animals better than people.’ (5). She had guinea pigs and rabbits for pets which Denise brought into school for Rosemary and her classmates to model from.

When Rosemary grew up, as well as making thrown pots, she learned a technique for building up hollow coiled ceramics from French potters Albert Diato and Francine Del Pierre. She is known for her birds and other wildlife. Pan Casson Henry, manager of the Craft Potters Association shop for thirteen years from 1960, recalled that ‘Rosemary could make really big sculptures – all started from a small coil in the palm of her hand, and by the time she’d finished, it would be like two feet long and three feet high.’ (6) Robert Fournier commented that David Attenborough, for whom Rosemary made ceramic animals, including an anteater, ‘thought she was a marvellous sculptress’ (7).

Rosemary lived her whole life at the Oxshott Pottery from 1922 until 1978. By this time, she and her partner Peter Crotty were caring full-time for Denise, who was then in her 80s. They finally quit Oxshott because they felt that the village had been overdeveloped.  Seeking an even more rural environment, they moved the Oxshott Pottery to Lustleigh in Devon.

Today, the Oxshott Pottery is commemorated in a sign designed for the village by a resident in 2018. It consists of black metal silhouettes of eleven neighbourhood features. In the bottom row is a bird to the left: ‘The Wren mark from the Oxshott Pottery’ and to the right is ‘A pot from the pottery’ (8).

References

1 Coatts, M. (1984) The Oxshott Pottery: Denise and Henry Wren Bath: Crafts Study Centre, p.30.
2 Fournier, R. (2005) Interview with Robert Fournier. Interviewed by Hawksmoor Hughes for National Life Stories Collection: Craft Lives, 2 of 2.
3 Coatts, M. (1984) The Oxshott Pottery: Denise and Henry Wren Bath: Crafts Study Centre, p.30.
4 Wren, R. (2005) Interview with Rosemary Wren. Interviewed by Hawksmoor Hughes for National Life Stories Collection: Craft Lives, 3 of 7.
5 Ibid.
6 Interpreting Ceramics
7 Fournier, R. (2005) Interview with Robert Fournier. Interviewed by Hawksmoor Hughes for National Life Stories Collection: Craft Lives, 2 of 2.
8 FEDORA Magazine (2018) ‘A Traditional Village Sign For Oxshott’, p17.

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