Last weekend I took the train to Scotland to visit Denise Wren’s son-in-law Peter Crotty. He is one of the few surviving people with firsthand memories of living and working at the Oxshott Pottery. He lived there from around 1970 for eight years, together with Rosemary and Denise Wren, until they relocated to Devon.
Peter kindly invited me to visit him in his home, which is full of Oxshott Pottery material, including many boxes of papers and ceramics. I spent two days with him, interviewing him about his time with the Wrens, his and Rosemary Wrens’ involvement with the Craft Potters Association (CPA) and his own ceramic practice.
The small village of Oxshott was home to a number of potters linked to the Wrens. Helen Pincombe, who had taught Rosemary Wren at Guildford College of Art, lived there during the 1950s and 60s at the Forge in Steel’s Lane, close to the Wrens’ home in Oakshade Road. Beverley and Terry Bell Hughes rented a garage at the Oxshott Pottery during the 1970s. David Canter, who was instrumental in launching the Craftsmen Potters Association shop near Carnaby Street in 1960, and owner of Cranks vegetarian restaurant, lived in nearby Cobham. His interest in pottery was first kindled by attending evening classes taught by Rosemary.
I was allowed to look through five boxes of ephemera to see if there was anything relevant to acquire for Kingston Museum. There were early issues of CPA publication Ceramic Review, press cuttings of interviews with Rosemary and Peter, and three letters from Bill Ismay to the Wrens showing the friendly relationship he had with them. In a letter to David Canter, who was then Honorary Secretary of the CPA, Bill Ismay mentions that it was Denise Wren who first suggested that he should join the CPA, following a visit to the Oxshott Pottery. Membership of the CPA would have introduced Bill Ismay to many new potters and they to a collector who hugely appreciated and purchased a wide range of British studio pottery.
Peter also took me to the Art Room at 21 Lamington Street in Tain and introduced me to its owner, local artist and teacher Jennifer Houliston. They showed me a display of Wren pottery in the window which they have just curated to sell to visitors and which will also be available on Ebay.
Scotland felt pretty chilly compared to down south but it stayed light up to 11 o’clock at night. I had time for a quick walk to admire the beautiful shores of Dornoch Firth before going to bed early so I could make the train back from Inverness the next day.
‘It is striking how few letters and archives associated with interwar women makers survive. The papers of…male artists, designers and architects, were carefully preserved by their wives and children. But …. women can drop out of the already fragile history of the crafts with alarming ease.’ Tanya Harrod (1999) The Crafts in Britain in the 20th Century
The Knox Guild has already been mentioned several times in this blog. This group of art students from Archibald Knox’s Design class quit Kingston School of Art in 1912 to form a guild of craftworkers. They were led by Denise and Winifred Tuckfield. Although the committee was headed by men, such as Chair Edgar Holding and Vice Chair Henry Wren (he married Denise in 1915), almost all the other members were women. After five years of Knox’s teaching, the Kingston students felt ready to become craftspeople making and selling their own work.
The Aim and Object of the Guild shall be to encourage Modern Design and Craft on the principles taught by Mr. A. Knox (No. ii of Rules of the Knox Guild of Design and Craft)
The Wren Archive at Kingston Heritage Service contains a copy of a sealed scroll, a founding document with a handwritten list of names of the original Knox Guild members. There are 21 names included, which Rosemary Wren interprets as: May Harris, Maudie Bishop, Mabel Pope, Norah Black, May Holding, Lilian Harding, Annie Begg, Edmund Holding, Marian Coombes, Winifred Tuckfield, Tony Althopp, Elizabeth Ellis, Dorothy Gruchy, Lilian Parker, Annie Parker, ? Williams, C. Ballard, Jessie Smith, Harold A. Winser, Cecil/ Celia Ellis? and Denise K. Tuckfield (1).
The Knox Guild of Design and Craft rented premises at 24 Market Place where they made and sold craft products. They held their first exhibition in Kingston Museum Art Gallery in 1914. The Crafts Study Centre at Farnham holds a beautiful, faded photograph of this group of young women gathered in an interior, one wearing overalls embroidered with ‘KGDC’: Knox Guild of Design and Craft. The Guild’s overalls, fittingly, were ‘in suffragette colours’ which were purple, white and green.
Following World War I the Knox Guild exhibited annually in Kingston Art Gallery until 1935. In 1921, 1923 and 1925 they exhibited at the Whitechapel Gallery in the East End of London. Some idea of the range of craft skills possessed by members of the Guild is illustrated in the catalogues printed for these three exhibitions. Knox Guild members gave many demonstrations of crafts like pottery and weaving to attract and educate visitors. Members also made and sold silverwork, leatherwork, lace, embroidery, enamelling and raffia. Teaching and dissemination of craft skills was of primary importance. The 1921 Knox Guild exhibition at the Whitechapel Art Gallery had a particularly wide reach, showing the strength of popular interest in craft: ‘The London County Council…sent every day 250 school children to see it, while hundreds of the teachers came to see the practical demonstrations of art and craft work. During the month it was open over 54,000 people visited….’ (2).
Archibald Knox, Master of the Guild (1864-1933) Knox was the inspiration behind the Guild. When he quit Kingston School of Art, he returned to his homeland, the Isle of Man, so kept in touch mainly by letter. Knox displayed his luminous watercolours of the Isle of Man during the exhibitions held at the Whitechapel Gallery. He occasionally ventured South to visit his former pupils and Rosemary Wren recalls him coming to the Wren’s home, Potterscroft, to hold a class in lettering for Knox Guild members (1).
Winifred Tuckfield (1889-1955) Winifred was Denise Wren’s elder sister. She was the devoted and active Honorary Secretary of the Knox Guild over the entire span of its existence. Although Winifred didn’t pass many of her art exams at Kingston, she was talented at technical drawings, which she made to illustrate the many patents registered by her engineer father Charles Tuckfield. This also stood her in good stead when she worked at the National Physical Laboratory during World War I as a draughtsman, alongside fellow Guild member Maude Bishop.
Winifred was a keen craftworker who made some beautiful objects, such as spun and woven clothing and taught evening classes in leatherwork and cloisonne enamel. She was also a leading member of interwar leftwing group the Kindred of the Kibbo Kift, who favoured healthy outdoor activities. The Museum of London holds two items Winifred made for the Kibbo Kift, her name-sign and a leather binding, as well as a photograph of her running a Kibbo Kift stall at Crystal Palace.
Significantly, though Denise was the better artist, it was to Winifred that Knox turned to complete the design he was working on when he was dying. This was a memorial stone for the grave of Manx novelist Hall Caine. It was a daunting responsibility for Winifred to complete her mentor’s design, yet simultaneously a great honour. She had to travel to the Isle of Man to finish this project. It is not surprising that there was some sympathy between Knox and Winifred, given her loyal devotion to an organisation set up in Knox’s name, intent on putting his ideas into practice. They were also living in similar circumstances, both single, their lives very much devoted to their art and local communities, since Winifred did not meet her partner until later in life.
I will write a longer post on Winifred at a later date as there is quite a bit of material on her and she is an inspirational character in her independent approach to life, and in her determination, like Denise, to get as many people as possible involved in craft activities.
Edgar Thomas Holding (1870-1952) Chairman of the Knox Guild, he secured the Guild’s premises in the Market Place at Kingston when they started out. For some reason his first name is erroneously written as ‘Edmund’ on the Guild’s founding document. However, all the genealogical information available on him indicates that it was Edgar.
Holding was a tailor by trade as well as a member of the Royal Watercolour Society. He painted watercolours of the countryside around Pullborough, where the Holdings resided. He was also a talented amateur photographer who photographed the composer Elgar and his family. There are several photographs by him of Guild members, including his wife May. The Manx Museum has a photograph of Edgar Holding, describing him as ‘Photographer Friend of Archibald Knox’. Holding may have funded Knox’s trip to the US in 1912 when the latter was looking for design work after he quit both Liberty’s and Kingston School of Art (3).
May Holding (b.1869) May Smith was born in Ireland. The Holdings lived initially in Wimbledon, then moved to a house in Pullborough, Sussex which they decorated themselves, in a similar vein to the Wrens’ creation of Potterscroft. May Holding made hand spun, hand woven, vegetable dyed furnishings for their home and orange curtains for the Wrens at Potterscroft, as well as a fine spun jacket which Denise wears in a 1920s photograph. May wrote the book Notes on Spinning and Dyeing Woolpublished in 1922. It would be interesting to find out whether she had any contact with well-known weaver Ethel Mairet, active around the same time, who lived in the village of Ditchling alongside other craftmakers like sculptor Eric Gill. Certainly, Hilary Pepler, who ran the Ditchling Press, used to print exhibition posters for the Artist Craftsman Exhibition, an annual craft event organised by Denise Wren’s husband, Henry Wren in the Central Hall in Westminster. May participated in the 1924 Artist Craftsman Exhibition showing handweaving.
Maude Emily Bishop (1890-1975) She was a stained glass craftworker. In 1921 she was a Knox Guild Committee Member. Maude made decorative glass panels for the Wrens’ house Potterscroft. The beautiful roundel shown here, donated by Rosemary’s husband Peter Crotty, was probably also displayed in the Wrens’ home. The wording around the edge reads ‘The Light Shines Through’. The design is similar to a plate by Denise Wren also depicting a ship in full sail.
In a 1974 letter to Denise Wren, Maude lists her professional achievements. These include working at Christopher Whall’s Studio in 1935. Her first commission was for a memorial window at St. George’s in Palmer’s Green in 1936 and the second in 1947 for a memorial window for Surbiton Hill Methodist Church. Located above the sanctuary, it commemorates Mayor of Surbiton Herbert Samuel Durbin. In 1949 Maude became an Associate Member of the British Society of Master Glass Painters. Craft writer Tanya Harrod points out that that from 1916 onwards around half the best-known practising stained glass artists were women.
Maudie, as she was known to the Wrens, remained a good friend of Denise and of Winifred, with whom she enjoyed going on long country walks. Rosemary remembers her annual Christmas presents of ‘superb children’s books which I Iater realised were classics of illustration of the time’ (1). Maude later moved to Ovingdean near Brighton. In her local church, the 11th century St.Wulfran’s, she painted St Wilfred and St Richard in the gable above the altar between 1957 and 1963.
Mabel I. Pope (c.1888-1970) Rosemary Wren recalled: ‘At the Annual Exhibition Mabel Pope’s table always drew a lot of attention. She made jewellery, mostly, as I remember it, of silver with wonderfully-coloured abalone and semi-precious stones. She demonstrated how silver wire could be shaped, joined or made into little balls by using a tiny source of heat with a blow-pipe and charcoal’ (1). In the 1925 Whitechapel Exhibition Catalogue, Mabel writes about metal working and gem setting: ‘It will be seen that the tools and appliances required are of a simple and inexpensive character, and that artistic jewellery of pleasing form, and with good colour effects, can be produced at moderate cost’. In this way she hoped to promote jewellery making as an amateur passtime. Mabel Pope was also described as a Guild Leather Worker and was on the Guild Committee in 1925.
Annie Louisa Begg (1874-1973) In 1921 and 1925 Annie Begg is listed as a Knox Guild Committee Member and as a Guild Needlecraft Worker and she wrote a piece on Raffia Baskets for the 1925 exhibition catalogue. In 1930 she followed this up with the book Raffia: Methods and Suggestions For Work in the Home, Schools and Women’s Institutes, part of Pitman’s Craft For All series, encouraging people to take up craft hobbies for their wellbeing. It includes ‘a chapter for young craftsmen’ by Denise Wren. The second edition includes a long ‘Appendix on Straw, Grass and Fibre by Denise K Wren’.
She was about 40 at the start of WWI, so fifteen years older than most of the art student Knox Guild members. The article doesn’t mention anything about her creative talents, but possibly she took classes part-time. Henry Wren did precisely this, attending Knox’s Wimbledon School of Art evening classes. The article linked to above details Annie Begg’s involvement in welcoming refugees from Belgium to Wimbledon, showing exactly how the Knox Guild got to know the De Clerck brothers, painter Jan and sculptor Oscar, two of the Belgian refugees who sought shelter in the area following the outbreak of World War I. This was mentioned in my earlier post Creative Responses to Change below.
In 1915, the same year that the De Clercks organised their fundraising ‘Belgian Exhibition of Modern Art’ in Kingston Museum Art Gallery, Annie Begg went abroad to help with the war effort. She ended up in Ajaccio in Corsica as an orderly nursing the wounded until 1916. She then moved to Dundee, where her father originated, between 1916 and 1919, to work as matron in a home helping to resettle orphan boys from Serbia in Scotland.
Next month I will post on members of the Knox Guild on whom I currently have less information.
References (1) Wren. R. (1997) The Knox Guild and Its Background: A Scrapbook of Recollections and Pictures with an Archival Index Unpublished but deposited in several archives including Kingston Heritage Service (2) Surrey Comet (1921) ‘Kingston. Arts and Crafts Exhibition’, 30 November (3) Tillbrook, A. et al (2001) ‘The Later Years’ in Martin, S. Archibald Knox London: Art Books International, p.123
Last night Dr. Helen Walsh of York Art Gallery gave a great presentation on ‘W.A. Ismay The Potters’ Champion’, hosted over zoom by the Decorative Arts Society. The talk covered Bill Ismay and the studio pottery collection he built up over fifty years from the 1950s, bequeathed to York Art Gallery. Over 500 potters are represented in his collection and Ismay got to know many of them. Helen Walsh showed an image of Ismay’s favourite mug, made by Denise Wren, which he used daily in conjunction with a teapot by Richard Batterham. Apparently it contained just the right amount of coffee to fill the mug. Functional domestic pottery, Helen Walsh told us, was Ismay’s main passion.
The talk featured a photograph of both the Wrens with Bill Ismay in the interior of the Berkeley Galleries. As well as buying their pots, Ismay also purchased a 1971 fox by Rosemary Wren and a 1978 elephant by Denise Wren, though generally he was less interested in figurative ceramics. Helen Walsh mentioned during the subsequent Q&A session that she likes the humour of Rosemary Wren’s work. I hope to follow up hearing the talk by visiting the exhibition The Yorkshire Tea Ceremonyat York Art Gallery before it ends in April.
There is more about Ismay in a a multimedia online presentation by York Museum entitled W.A. Ismay Collector and Connoisseur of Studio Ceramics. It includes the information that Ismay reckoned if he had ten or more works by a potter, then they were good, but ‘that they only achieved greatness if the number of works in his collection exceeded thirty’. According to this measure, Rosemary and Denise Wren rank 7th and 8th, with a total of 54 and 53 ceramics respectively.
The presentation does point out that Ismay was constrained by his modest budget, but even so, he was clearly fond of the Wrens’ work. Many potters testify to the fact that Bill Ismay encouraged them by collecting their work and I believe that he initiated a postwar reassessment of Denise Wren’s status.
As mentioned in the York Museum online presentation, three books sum up the history of British studio pottery during the first half of the 20thcentury. These were ‘The Modern Potter’ (1947) by Ronald Cooper, ‘The Work of the Modern Potter in England’ (1952) by George Wingfield Digby and ‘Artist Potters in England’ (1955) by Muriel Rose. All these books disregard Denise Wren, who was not considered to be working in the same vein as either of the two main groupings of potters featured, namely Bernard Leach and his apprentices at St. Ives and William Staite-Murray and his pupils at the RCA.
An article by Ismay appearing in Ceramic Review in 1982 is revealing. He starts by stating that: ‘… it has been a pleasure to me that when Muriel Rose was asked by her publisher in the late nineteen-sixties to revise her book (the second edition appeared in 1970), I was one of the people whom she visited, and that pots I had chosen were then illustrated (including one by Denise K. Wren, a potter previously omitted from the survey which the volume made)…’ (1). Thus through his influence as a knowledgeable collector, Ismay elevated Denise Wren to the position of a recognised studio potter.
Moreover, Ismay writes that ‘The potters who, it appears, most often tempted me to acquire their work are…Denise K. Wren and Rosemary D. Wren…’ (1). He then goes on to mention the mug and teapot Helen Walsh referred to in her talk: ‘One’s favourites are not necessarily showy or spectacular but may be modest – I think of my breakfast duo consisting of a small, globular teapot with a stem handle by Richard Batterham…and a cylinder mug (ashglazed and salted) by Denise Wren.’ (1)
Denise must have felt enormously vindicated after toiling in comparative obscurity during the first phase of her career. No doubt this reappraisal also owed much to Rosemary Wren’s joining the Oxshott Pottery from 1947 and her experiments, together with Denise, in making salt-glazed stoneware. Simultaneously, Denise and Rosemary Wrens’ active participation in the founding of the Craft Potters’ Association in 1958 raised their profile among their peers.
Just two years after the Ismay article appeared in Ceramic Review, the Crafts Study Centre, then based in Bath, curated an exhibition entitled The Oxshott Pottery: Denise and Henry Wren. Margot Coatts wrote an accompanying book and catalogue with the same title. Ismay lent some of his Wren pots for this exhibition and Coatts stated that ‘Last year, the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, was fortunate to purchase from their daughter Rosemary Wren, a group of pots that illustrate the development in design and technique of Denise Wren’s work over the course of her life.’ (2). This appears to mark the moment when Denise Wren joined the studio pottery canon.
Two newly acquired Rosemary Wren birds have just been installed in Kingston Museum’s Wren Collection display case. Last year, Bret Gaunt of Buxton Museum and Gallery contacted me to say that he was leading on an Esmee Fairbairn funded project to oversee the dispersal of material from the former Derbyshire School Library Service. Amongst the objects looking to be rehomed were two Rosemary Wren works, a ceramic pigeon and an owl cast in bronze resin.
These birds make a great addition to our Wren display, created in 2019 thanks to a £5K Collections Access Grant the Decorative Arts Society awarded to Kingston Museum. This double case in the Town of Kings Gallery contains 34 Denise Wren ceramics, a textile design on paper, and a poster advertising a 1925 exhibition by the Knox Guild. The interpretation includes information about the Wrens’ life and work and a photograph of Rosemary, aged 4, with her parents and two students packing an outdoor kiln. However, until now there had been no Rosemary Wren objects to include.
The owl is a stylised representation with radiating lines denoting feathers around the eye slits. ‘Rosemary Wren 1970’ is incised on the inner edge of the base. Each bird arrived in a custom made wooden box. The label on the owl sculpture box says ‘Biding Owl’, which I searched for online, to see if it was a species. I didn’t find anything, so presumably it is a description of the owl waiting, perhaps for its prey to appear.
The pigeon is attached to a wooden base with a metal label which reads ‘Pigeon by Rosemary Wren/ Raku ceramic’. Raku is a method of making pottery that originated in Japan. The object is removed from the kiln while it is still very hot and left to cool rapidly. Thermal shock causes cracks on the surface of the ceramic, known as crackling, giving it an uneven texture. The pigeon is glazed in lifelike colours. It was probably also made in the 1960s or 1970s, a period when Rosemary Wren produced many raku animals.
It looks as if Rosemary Wren used raku in conjunction with other techniques. The following description appears in a catalogue for Mallams Auctioneers listing lots for sale in May 2013, including several ceramics by both Wrens and detailing a ‘Runner duck, raku’ by Rosemary Wren. Presumably it was provided by Rosemary herself, or her husband Peter Crotty (as Rosemary died in 2013):
‘This piece was made in two firings – the first a conventional biscuit firing to make the ware mechanically strong enough as well as absorbent enough for decoration. The second a firing where the biscuited pieces, decorated with bright low firing glazes, are put straight into a red hot pre-heated kiln, where the glazes melt and fuse. After which the piece is withdrawn still red hot and plunged into a bin of sawdust to provide (in this case) a strong black background to the strong primary colours. The piece was finally drenched in water, crackling the glaze and producing the finished effect….The Oxshott Pottery made its living entirely from Raku in the early 1970s and this is a classic example of their work.’
These creatures link to the Denise Wren animal figurines made in plaster moulds in the other half of the display case. Among the miniature animal forms are a parrot and a cockerel. All are positioned at a level where children can easily see them. Creating this fresh display has enhanced the galleries by highlighting Kingston Museum’s studio pottery collection for visitors. We have started to include this material in learning activities and it is highlighted on the website which has proved a valuable platform for reaching out to audiences during the pandemic.
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).
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.
In February I gave a paper via zoom as part of the Surrey Arts & Humanities Research Group Spring Seminar Series on the theme of Time. You can read a summary of the paper on the SAHRG site.
One of the seminal figures in Denise Wren’s life was Archibald Knox, the Design Master at Kingston School of Art, which she attended from 1907-1912. Historian of education Stuart MacDonald describes this role as that of ‘the most important teacher… who supervised many of the general classes and all the craft classes.’ (1). Winifred Tuckfield, Denise’s elder sister was another student of Knox and recalled these classes:
‘Mr. Knox’s system of teaching was essentially his own. Instead of insisting on the English method of art education by making laborious copies of scraps of museum specimens of ‘styles’ he made at his own expense three thousand lantern slides, illustrating works of art from prehistoric times down to the gipsy caravans of to-day, showing how Art was produced by the workman in the joy of using his chisel or hammer.’ (2)
While Knox created up-to-date visuals, Rosemary Wren recounts a contrasting story Denise told about the teaching given by the Modelling Master at Kingston School of Art. This was Mr. Pike, an ex-pupil of Rodin: ‘…
‘…he belonged to the old academic school. Each of the students was given a different plaster shape to copy in clay…At the end of term Denise suggested that they should all fit their separate models together….To their amazement the combined models made a vast, magnificent head: in fact that of Michelangelo’s David, though Mr. Pike had not seen fit to mention this…’ (3).
This dryly humorous story illustrates the traditional approach to teaching art and design, setting the students to somewhat mindlessly copy classical sculpture. Knox gave the students art history lectures and would have covered classical and Renaissance sculpture, but it seems that Mr. Pike did not make the connection obvious. Students were presumably supposed to absorb skills and knowledge solely from proximity to and emulation of such exemplars.
At the same time as Knox was acting as inspirational mentor to his students at Kingston School of Art, he was also designing fashionable metal homeware items and ceramic garden ornaments for department store Liberty’s of London. One day when the aforementioned Mr. Pike was ill, Knox took the modelling class. He ‘taught the students the technique by which the prototypes were made (for Liberty’s), first building up large pots with thick coils of clay, with designs in relief modelled onto the smooth surfaces. The whole shape was then cast in plaster of Paris, a process in which the students became skilled, and reproductions of the original were made once again by pressing them very firmly into the moulds.’ (4). This class was what convinced Denise to specialise in pottery.
However, she was hampered by a lack of equipment and facilities. A report written by the Board of Education on Kingston-Upon-Thames School of Art in 1912, notes that ‘there is no room for a muffle furnace for firing pottery, and pots decorated in the School are fired at a local pottery not very suitable for the purpose…A potter’s wheel has been procured, but lack of space prevents its use by the students at present…’. The local pottery mentioned is probably Norbiton Potteries, where Knox suggested that Denise should learn how to throw on the wheel from a Mr. Mercer whose chief occupation was making flowerpots. He also fired the ceramics she made in the pottery’s kiln.
Having read so much praise for Knox’s skill and originality as a teacher from both Tuckfield sisters made me interested to look at the commercial designs he produced for Liberty’s department store in Regent Street. The idea for the paper I gave at the SAHRG seminar was inspired by Knox’s intriguing clocks, which are frequently decorated with time-related messages. Some of these are fairly conventional, such as Tempus Fugit. There is also the paradoxical Festina Lente, which translates as ‘Make haste slowly’.
The more relaxed phrase Time Enough appears on a clock case held by the Manx Museum, perhaps reflecting the slower pace of time on the Isle of Man, still following nature-based cycles. These contrasted with the fast paced deadlines of London, to which Knox returned in 1904, the year he designed this clock case, to take his place as a prolific designer of Liberty’s bestselling Tudric and Cymric ranges of Celtic Revival metalwork, and as Design Master at Kingston. My favourite is the lapidary Never = Forever = able to be cited in an eternal loop, since it replaces the figures on the clockface.
The concept of clocks was an obvious link with the theme of time, hence ‘Knox’s Clocks’, and it allowed me to look at themes of nostalgia linked to the Celtic Revival and 2oth century retro sensibilities.
(1) MacDonald, S. (1970) The History and Philosophy of Art Education London: University of London Press Ltd., p.301 (2) Tuckfield, W. (1916) ‘Archibald Knox’ ManninIssue 7, May, p.381 (3) Wren. R. (1997) The Knox Guild and Its Background: A Scrapbook of Recollections and Pictures with an Archival Index Unpublished but deposited in several archives including Kingston Museum, p.28. (4) Ibid.
This New Year we emerge from restricted festivities into total lockdown. Those of us lucky enough to still have a job are used to working from home by now, but the weather is cold and dull, unlike 2020’s springtime quarantine. Shops, cafes and pubs are shuttered again, and parents are back to home schooling on top of the working week. Anxiety at the rapidly increasing rate of Covid infection alternates with a sense of resigned disenchantment. The shutdown is clearly essential, but life has come to a kind of standstill and the vaccine has not yet made an impact.
Most of us alive today in Western Europe have never faced such a reversal of norms. Denise Wren (1891 – 1979) lived through two world wars and found ways to put her endless creativity and talent for improvisation to good use during these challenging periods.
Denise was a young woman when she co-founded the Knox Guild of Design and Craft in 1912. This was a group made up of classmates and their first action was to quit Kingston School of Art in protest. This followed the resignation of their Design Master, Archibald Knox, who was probably disillusioned with the South Kensington exam board’s criticism of his teaching methods. Pledging themselves to his design ideals, Knox Guild members were eager to prove their worth as craftworkers. They rented a studio overlooking Kingston Market Place as a base for their activities.
The Guild held their first exhibition in Kingston Museum Art Gallery in 1914, where they demonstrated crafts like weaving and pottery. They sold jewellery, needlework, handwoven objects, needlepoint lace, leatherwork, watercolours, lithographs and ceramics. However, their enterprise was abruptly shut down by the advent of the First World War. Guild members watched soldiers assembling in the market place to begin their journey to the Western Front.
Denise and Henry Wren married in 1915 and Henry went to work for Intelligence in the War Department. Denise took on a wartime role at the National Physical Laboratory at Teddington. She was in charge of organising the gauge store, an assembly of objects used in munitions factories to ensure products were manufactured to standard dimensions. Colleagues included other capable young women like her sister Winifred Tuckfield, Secretary of the Knox Guild, and stained glass maker Maudie Bishop, another Guild member.
The Knox Guild made contact with contemporary artists Jan and Oskar de Clerck when the two brothers arrived in Kingston as refugees via a fishing boat from Belgium. In 1915 the De Clercks organised ‘The Belgian Exhibition of Modern Art’ in Kingston Museum Art Gallery to raise funds for Belgian refugees. Winifred Tuckfield designed the programme for this display of paintings and sculptures by Belgian artists, including A Rainy Day at Kingston by Jan de Clerck.
Local paper the Surrey Comet remarked sardonically of the exhibition: ‘It needs a cultivated taste, no doubt, to appreciate the value of such works, many of which are repellent rather than attractive to the ordinary lover of pictures.’ Post-impressionist artworks were still not widely appreciated in Britain. However, the display reviewed well in The Times. Later that year Jan de Clerck opened the Knox Guild exhibition, held for a fortnight from the end of May in Kingston Museum Art Gallery.
Denise’s daughter Rosemary Wren recalls that the boyfriends and fiancés of many Knox Guild members were killed during the fighting. Henry Wren saw active service in Belgium, where he was wounded. Thankfully, he was able to return home, and underwent some months of outpatient treatment. In 1920, Henry and Denise purchased a plot of land in Oxshott under the Homes for Heroes scheme. Together they built themselves a house to Denise’s design, named Potter’s Croft, alongside which they established the Oxshott Pottery.
By the outbreak of the Second World War, Denise had spent two decades making pots and moved on to designing textiles as her main income source. She paused her design career to manage a team of Women’s Land Army members who grew vegetables to contribute to the war effort. Denise already had experience of raising goats and was a prize-winning bird breeder and beekeeper.
Cultivating the land inspired Denise to devise a scheme for a self-sufficient smallholding. She created an information poster entitled ‘The Homestead Half-Acre Food Unit’. It depicts a plot divided into areas for producing milk, honey, fruit and vegetables, and extols the virtues of organic farming. This way of living fitted in well with the Wrens’ existing lifestyle as craftworkers in a rural setting.
The Wrens’ daughter Rosemary left school in 1939. She hoped to follow in Denise’s footsteps and attend art school, but had to defer her ambition and undertake essential work instead. Rosemary loved animals and initially worked at Chessington Zoo where she looked after some of the creatures in captivity.
Rosemary was in charge of feeding an ostrich, whose eggs were used for food, and she provided the elephants with cabbages and the chimpanzee with onions. She recounts how one day the chimpanzee snatched her brightly coloured glove and tried to put it on his own hand. Rosemary wanted to give him the other glove, but as clothes were rationed, she had to persuade him to return it. She quit her post in disgust after learning that a goat and its kid that she was caring for had been fed to the lions. Perhaps these experiences inspired some of her later ceramic animal sculptures, of which David Attenborough was a fan.
Rosemary’s next wartime venture was joining the Land Army. Invalided out with eczema, she was able to start at art school about a year before the end of the war, choosing to study at Guildford, under potter Helen Pincombe, who had taught at the Royal College of Art. Helen Pincombe became a friend and later moved to Oxshott where she lived for around a decade from the 1950s.
The Wrens were lucky in that they survived both world wars. They were enterprising, making the best of new opportunities to develop skills and interests even during difficult and frustrating times. Henry Wren saw craft as a healthy outlet for human energies, writing in a letter to exhibitors participating in his 1938 Artist Craftsman Exhibition: ‘It seems to me increasingly clear as the years go by that handcraft training is an essential in education and in life. Only by recognising this can we develop citizens leading complete lives and show that in self-expression in creative work the world has a positive alternative to negative militarism.’
Rosemary, who became first Chairman of the Craftsman Potters’ Association, understood the experience of war as being a motivator for change in the lives of some of her fellow potters: ‘There were lots of men who’d been through the war and wanted to do something that had some kind of imagination to it.’ (1). The Wrens made a conscious choice to be true to their vision of living the good life, even when this was tough. In our own time perhaps a reconsideration of priorities, both individual and collective, will be one of the better outcomes of the pandemic.
(1) Wren, R. (2005) Interview with Rosemary Wren. Interviewed by Hawksmoor Hughes for National Life Stories Collection: Craft Lives
Authored prior to the pandemic, its publication comes at a moment when many of us are finding lifetime routines interrupted and are encountering closures and postponements of the usual activities and events which punctuate the year. A rethink of daily life lived at a slower pace is timely, and the book touches on a number of themes that interest me in this blog.
Denise, Henry and Rosemary Wren lived an alternative lifestyle, which could be viewed as pottering on a grand scale. Making pots was interspersed with teaching, both at Oxshott and at various colleges in the South East, exhibiting and selling pots, growing vegetables, weaving cloth, keeping goats and breeding parakeets. Even when potting, the Wrens considered the end product of their work to be less significant than the creative process which shaped it. Professor Moira Vincentelli sums up the books they wrote for amateur potters: ‘Words such as ‘spontaneous expression’, ‘form and colour’, ‘warmth and humanity’ suggest the kind of values that are being promoted and the potential of the clay to liberate creativity in the individual.’ (1)
The review of McGovern’s book suggests that ‘there is an element of make do and mend’ to pottering, and one of the key points that comes across in the Wrens’ publications Handcraft Pottery For Workshop and School (1928) and Pottery: The Finger Built Methods (1932) is an enthusiasm for improvisation and experimentation. They use whatever is to hand as a tool, such as ‘a piece of old ruler about 3 inches long for trimming wet bases’ (2) and reuse and recycle bits and pieces like empty biscuit tins and marmalade jars.
However, the Wrens do pursue their activities beyond the simple household tasks advocated by Anna McGovern as an opportunity to unwind. For example, they suggest employing DIY skills to throw together a kiln, made relatively easy by purchasing one of Denise Wren’s handy kiln blueprints with instructions: ‘a very efficient one can be built for shillings rather than pounds if you are prepared to be your own bricklayer and if you are open to work under the starlit sky in case of need’ (3). For less resourceful would-be crafters she recommends hiring a handyman to put it up.
I’m not too convinced by the idea that pottering is ‘a peculiarly British pastime’, as there are certainly equivalents in other languages and cultures. (And this may be qualified in the text). But McGovern’s interpretation also ‘anchors pottering to the home’ and considers that it promotes ‘Localism’, both of which are supremely relevant to the Wrens, who built their own live/work space in Surrey. Denise designed Potters’ Croft as a family home which catered for a creative lifestyle, with the studio doubling as living room and built in cupboards whose tops stored imperial sized drawings. The workshops and kiln yards of the Oxshott Pottery were just at the other end of the garden, so potting as well as pottering was carried out on site, with students encouraged to join the Wrens in their idyllic ‘country village’ making pots al fresco, especially in summertime.
Importantly for McGovern, pottering sets ‘no benchmarks for success’ and the Wrens’ approach allowed amateurs to find a way in to pottery which did not set impossibly high standards, but integrated creativity into everyday experience. The Wren’s daughter Rosemary recalls that ‘The top end of the market -the galleries, the artistic cognoscenti and collectors – was for others. My parents worked with the grass roots….At all times they taught that art should be part of daily life, art is neither more nor less than ‘thorough work: and thorough work can be fine art whether on the walls of a gallery or a shirt for the baby’ (4)….’ So while a bit more strenuous than mere pottering, crafting was less about possessing great talents or conceiving groundbreaking ideas than simply keeping on making to the best of one’s abilities.
Finally, the idea that pottering is ‘beneficial to wellbeing’, agrees with Henry Wren’s declaration that ‘Handcraft’s basic spirit of individual creativeness spells… a fuller life for all’ (5). Pottering: A Cure for Modern Life sounds like a book to read with a clear conscience a few pages at a time in those odd moments between more pressing but less pleasurable activities.
References (1) Vincentelli, M. (2000) Women and Ceramics: Gendered Vessels Manchester: Manchester University Press, p.186 (2) Wren, H. and D. (1928) Handcraft Pottery For Workshop and School London: Sir I. Pitman & Sons, p.46 (3) Wren, D. (1925) Catalogue of an exhibition of the Knox Guild of Design and Craft with watercolours by A. Knox and drawings and etchings by F. Brangwen held at Whitechapel Art Gallery, October 17-November 14, 1925, p.6 (4) Coatts, M. (1984) The Oxshott Pottery: Denise and Henry Wren Bath: Crafts Study Centre, p.27 (5) Wren, H. (1937) Artist Craftsman Christmas Exhibition of Hand-Arts leaflet
Working as a curator at Kingston Museum initially brought me into contact with the Denise Wren collection of ceramics and archive. And curating the 2017-18 ‘Hope For Beauty’ exhibition sparked the idea of going in depth and continuing with the research as a PhD at Kingston School of Art. Denise Wren was herself an alumna of the latter, so bridged these two institutions.
For half of the week I work on my PhD. A significant part of the research involves cataloguing the archive. This will result in the creation of catalogue records enabling greater public access. Sifting through Kingston’s archive also allows comparison with material held by other institutions.
The remaining half of the working week is spent as a curator, some of which focuses on the Wren Collection. In 2019 I couriered ceramics to Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft to lend for their ‘Women’s Work’ exhibition on interwar women makers. Also that year the Decorative Arts Society awarded Kingston Museum £5K of funding to redisplay the ceramics collection. Part of this grant enabled a new gallery display of Wren ceramics.
The roles of researcher and curator might seem like they are a good fit, mutually reinforcing each other, and in some ways this is so. It is easier to attract funding and publicity when multiple institutions are backing a project. Yet the differing priorities of these positions can lead to conflict.
Curatorial work aims to make objects widely accessible to visitors. Usually through creating displays, websites and events narrating the people, places or events linked to the objects. Thus the curator is essentially a mediator. What curatorial research does not do on a day to day basis is to radically question the underlying purpose and methods of the museum. This is the role of academic research. Yet the forms which this takes, such as conference papers and articles, are less available to a wide public.
So what might an academic, in contrast to a curatorial, approach to the Wren collection be? A main question of my PhD is why Wren’s interwar ceramics tended to be viewed as amateur. I examine her ‘process’, in other words her teaching, pottery demonstrations, writing instructional texts and development of tools to make ceramics, rather than concentrating on the finished product, the pots she made.
A number of issues relating to studying, collecting and displaying Wren can be unpacked in my role as a researcher in an academic setting. However, as a museum curator I work under a set of constraints which makes such open questioning harder to achieve.
Researching and displaying work by a particular maker has a measurable effect upon their reputation. Since the ‘Hope For Beauty’ exhibition, I have been contacted by owners of Wren ceramics wanting to know about the history of their pieces. If Wren’s name becomes better known as her pottery is more widely disseminated via exhibitions which receive coverage in the national press, this could cause her ceramics to rise in value.
Denise Wren’s relatives generously donated material to the museum for free. But if its value increases, owners may prefer to sell items, thus making it harder for poorly funded local museums like Kingston to acquire such items. Additional spending might also be incurred from the need to increase the security of the display cases which house these objects and in insuring them.
Denise Wren’s daughter Rosemary donated her mother’s most accomplished ceramics to the V&A and the Crafts Study Centre at Farnham. To Kingston Museum she gave a number of early ceramics representing Denise’s first experiments in potting while still a student at Kingston School of Art. Rosemary’s husband, Peter Crotty, recently donated a large amount of interwar pots so that Kingston now holds the widest range of pieces of any UK collection. As a scholar interested in Wren’s process, I am fascinated to see pioneering attempts at pots, unfired ceramics and crude-looking vessels made by anonymous students shaping the clay by pressing it into baskets.
However, to make a case for outlay on conserving and displaying Wren objects, to colleagues and to funders, I tend to focus on Wren as a maker of beautifully crafted, completely finished objects. Too much discussion of her status as an amateur or an outlier in the history of craft could undermine their confidence and enthusiasm.
As a curator I concentrate on Denise Wren as an individual pioneer, telling a story of her as an early studio craftswoman who established a local pottery. In the context of Kingston Museum’s displays, this narrative complements that of Eadweard Muybridge, the innovative 19thcentury photographer whose photographic material is the jewel of the collection.
But in highlighting Wren, are other figures neglected? It would be simplistic to consider Denise Wren’s contribution to ceramic history without taking account of her husband Henry. Although he made few pots, Henry Wren’s input was vital to the success of the Oxshott Pottery, including the organisation of craft exhibitions at which the Wrens sold their ceramics. Henry helped to disseminate the Wrens’ approach to pottery by writing the text of their two books published by Pitman in 1928 and 1932.
Of equal importance to the family project was the Wren’s daughter Rosemary. She undertook initial experiments in the saltglazed stoneware technique which made Denise Wren’s reputation late in life and she continued to develop the Oxshott Pottery in new ways. The histories of mother and daughter are intertwined.
One way in which the curatorial and the academic might fruitfully come together is in the creation of a narrative for the museum which allows it to reach out to new audiences. Kingston borough has a 28% BAME population and a large student population. Such audiences are on average younger, and art and design is a topic which tends to attract younger visitors, so Wren might help draw some new audiences.
Additionally, displaying Wren alongside the existing studio pottery from the Marsh Collection, including pots by Bernard Leach and William Staite Murray, may be a way to subtly change the dominant studio pottery narrative by foregrounding a woman maker and her innovative methods of making pottery, as distinct from the male establishment.
Undertaking PhD research clearly impacts on my job as a curator in that it allows me to increase my expertise. The way in which collections are formed and defined by the curator’s politics, ethics and aesthetic choices tends not to be overtly recorded within museum interpretation. In order to acknowledge and counter this one-sided view, many museum websites now encourage visitors to create their own content by tagging images of objects or even writing new texts to accompany these. The current pandemic has made digital outreach a vital medium for visitor engagement, so perhaps this more participatory mode can be explored as a method for further bringing together academic research and public outreach.
Partial lockdown, or the semi-limbo in which much of the country seems suspended, ought to be a conducive moment for some pottering. And the uncertain trajectory of the Covid-19 virus and its probable aftermath has reshaped existence so that improvisation and ad hoc experimentation have become the default.
KSA moved all its postgrad teaching online fairly seamlessly and has offered workshops, seminars, presentations and even a couple of reading groups, one of which I joined. The most intriguing of these sessions is the Virtual Writers’ Room, which runs for an hour and a half weekly. Students log on to work in silence, while in the remote presence of other students. I haven’t had the chance to try it out, as it is on a day when I do my paid job.
In July, TECHNE, the consortium which funds my research, organised an entire three-day congress online aptly titled ‘Distanced But Not Alone’, including speakers, panels and questions from the audience typed into the chat box. For me, the only unsuccessful part was the virtual drinks, where the impossibility of reading body language made for awkward hesitations, or people talking over the top of each other, in a way less likely to occur in face-to-face encounters. The biggest technical problem was my laptop overheating on warm days during long Zoom presentations.
Up until now I have had plenty to do; transcribing material from archival visits, working towards my upgrade, general reading. However, none of my plans for the new academic year is really feasible without undertaking some journeys to physical locations such as libraries, archives and museums in city centres.
I am running out of books! Avoiding train travel into London means no access to the click and collect service currently offered by the university library. I hold a SCONUL card for my local university library, but it is suspended due to current circumstances, so I cannot borrow from there either. Meanwhile a long-ago-read interlibrary loan book, due back in April, languishes on my shelf, probably to another student’s frustration.
I have been working from home on my paid job since mid-March and there is still no definite date for starting back at the office. There seems no point in risking travel until I am instructed to return. I somewhat miss my long train commute, always a productive time for PhD work, as it provides a seat and table while cutting out internet and interruption.
Many doctoral students have been harder hit than me by limitations on their capacity to continue with research, and stress about whether funding will cover an extension. Though for some, lockdown has augmented the relevance of their project, or added a new dimension. For example, the Modern Interiors Research Centre #screenedinteriors Reading Group, which I attend, has been looking at how global lockdown has increased the mediation of our interactions via screens and how this ingress of technology into domestic space is transforming reality.