Collection

Straw Tankard

Collection: A mug's history of design

Category: Ceramics

Date: c1930

Designer: Keith Murray

Nationality of Designer: British

Manufacturer: Wedgwood

Manufacturers Location: Burslem, Stoke on Trent

Material: Earthenware

Purchase Price: £6.50

Abstract:

 

Mug

Provenance:

 

Stamped with Wedgwood and Keith Murray facsimile signature.  Purchased from eBay.

Personal history/nominator:

 

"I enjoy this hybrid, Murray was an architect - in fact he designed Wedgwood’s ‘new’ Barleston factory along modernist principles, which opened in 1940. His pottery reflects architectural concerns. His work is high-tech in conception but actually quite low-tech in production being thrown and turned individually, utilising the manufacturing methods of the classic Wedgwood wares of the 18th century. Herbert Read (a kind of Ruskin of his time) declared the Straw tankard to be ‘better than anything else in modern ceramics’ a quote which I have always recalled as ‘the best thing in modern design’, now I look it up it’s not really such a big (and ridiculous) claim as I had remembered – damn." Adam Sutherland

Adaptions/renovations:

 

None. Chipped to the inside of the base.

Why it's in the Collection:

 

Murray (1892-1981) was a bit of a landmark as an industrial designer, being a kind of ideological successor to Christopher Dresser – same freelance approach, same facsimile style signature, and same value-added idea of the designer. Murray was less eclectic in style bringing his cool, modernist aesthetics and machine styled production to bear on many different materials and companies.
 
Murray’s work for Wedgwood was particularly interesting. He used the company’s throwers, a discipline that was falling out of use, adding a turning process to get the machine finish on what was still essentially a hand crafted object. The quality of the finish is unmistakably Wedgwood, a combination of design and science, art and industry. The idea of using the handmade to imitate machine production seems a particularly perverse notion, no doubt borne of necessity. This - development in reverse - is widespread in China, where industrial revolution style factories are busy hand-producing machine look components.

About the Designer/Maker:

 

Murray, born in New Zealand, trained as an architect in London in 1919.  Although he qualified easily, a lack of work forced him to make a living as an illustrator for magazines. In 1928 he held his own show at Le Levre Gallery in London but this was not to prove his passion. His trips to Paris, where he saw French and Scandinavian glass were to stimulate his career change.

Murray first approached Arthur Powell about the possibility of working for Whitefriars Glass. His ideas proved unsuitable for their style of glass (what a lost moment). He secured work as a freelance designer at Stevens & Williams in the West Midlands in 1932. The trial pieces were shown in London that year and the 'Keith Murray range' was produced. Between 1932 and 1939 he produced over 1200 designs, though many were only issued in quantities of six or twelve.

Murray was invited to the Wedgwood factory in Staffordshire by Josiah Wedgwood V who had taken over in 1930. Struggling after the Wall Street Crash, Wedgwood had the insight to recognise Keith's skills and he was asked to design some modern shapes using existing techniques. His first job was assisting Tom Wedgwood with a range of dinner and teaware called Annular - plain shapes with horizontal ribbing.

From this design he produced a large series of bowls and vases, which were decorated by lathe-turning, a Wedgwood skill from the previous century. This enabled very precise shapes to be made in large quantities. The new styles of shapes and glazes that Murray was designing were unlike anything else on the market and the wares created a sensation in Britain. A mass of shapes then appeared which became best sellers now hailed as classics, such as the 'Football vase' which was introduced in 1933 and produced until the 60's.

From the beginning Murray's stature was recognised as every piece bore his signature above the prestigious Wedgwood mark.

About the Manufacturer:

 

Wedgwood was established in 1750’s borne out of a key era of Enlightenment and formed by the radical visionary Josiah Wedgwood  (a member of the Lunar Society and abolitionist and often referred to as the first tycoon).

The company specialised in elegant minimalist design and a scientific approach to materials, proving to be highly influential on the Arts and Crafts Movement with its form and function aesthetics and cast in the same mould as the Georgian furniture that so influenced the proto modernists (Morris, Dresser and later Gordon Russell). From early on Wedgwood employed artists to create the decorative elements of their designs most notably Flaxman and more latterly Ravillious and Paolozzi amongst others.

The great success and ultimately disaster for Wedgwood was the ubiquitous Jasperware, originally developed as a copy of the Portland Vase - a cameo vase originally thought to be of Greek origin and latterly exposed as a Roman copy. Jasperware proved to be the staple of Wedgwood and a major cultural influence on the British public, spawning not only 'Neo Classicism' but arguably our more contemporary obsession with all things historic.

It is an interesting footnote that the original Portland vase was smashed with a hammer brought into the British Museum by the man that had for 25 years guarded the vase in its own room. I like to think the guard finally realised the evil this hideous object had wrought on Britain and destroyed it. A more likely explanation is that he realised his life had been wasted guarding a vase whose cultural significance had slid from being one of the 7 wonders of the art world to being an 'also ran in the 2.45 at Haydock'. The vase has been painstakingly reconstructed and can still be found in the British Museum in a mixed cabinet of Roman glass, a bit like a diva ending up in the state old peoples home.

Charles Darwin was the grandson of Josiah’s business partner and married Josiah’s daughter.  It was thus Wedgwood money that allowed Darwin to dedicate his life to science.

Bibliography & Further information

 

http://www.wedgwoodmuseum.org.uk

The Portland Vase: http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/gr/t/the_portland_vase.aspx