Swallow teapot

When modernism goes bad
Sir Edmund Elton
Nationality of Designer
Sunflower Pottery
Manufacturers Location
Clevedon Hall, Bristol, England (UK)
Glazed ceramic
19 x 28 x 16 cm
Purchase Price


A ceramic teapot with swallow decoration


Purchased by Grizedale Arts director Adam Sutherland on eBay.

Personal history/nominator

An unusual example bearing similarities to Dr Dresser’s South American influenced ware for Linthorpe.

“My mother first alerted me to Elton ware: She gave me a short book on him (as it turns out, the only one in existence) with the words ‘Possibly the most hideous things I’ve ever seen, but sort of fascinating’. Years later I discovered that be-suited naughty men artists Gilbert and George were avid collectors. Part of the appeal for me is the eccentricity of Elton himself, the multiple contradictory influences and his single-minded determination despite making it up as he went along, there were no crafts suppliers in those days. Pottery is probably one of the most frustrating activities in the world. One of the reasons that potters tend to make the same wares for generations is that any change in any technical component and the entire endeavour can go to hell in the kiln.”
Adam Sutherland


Item has been badly damaged and subsequently repaired prior to Grizedale Arts’ purchase

Why it's in the Collection

Sir Edmund Elton fits into the category of maverick creative idiot savant (that’s a category!), his life passions being pottery and the fire brigade, an interesting combination bearing in mind he eventually burnt down Clevedon Court his ancestral home (rebuilt and now a National Trust property).His creations and his creation of them are perverse contradictions and cross-cultural car crashes. Working in isolation, he and his head gardener, George Masters, taught themselves and then developed some of the most complex ceramic effects of their, or anyone’s, time. The production process for these works was insanely complicated. That they used large quantities of gold and platinum to achieve them does not diminish their achievements, although it must have rather reduced the economic viability of their enterprise.

All Elton originals have Elton’s childlike signature, oversized in capitals. The crudity and joy of the signature oddly jars with the technical sophistication of the forms and decoration. After Elton’s death George Masters continued for a few years maintaining all the Elton idiosyncrasies but adding a black cross to the base of the pots – these ‘solo’ pots are generally slightly lumpen and crudely proportioned.

Arguably Elton was amongst the first of the middle/upper class practitioners who rediscovered the joys of craft and repositioned it as a therapeutic ‘value added’ profession .

Elton bears comparison with Edward Bingham whose short-lived Castle Hedingham Pottery specialised in recreating medieval-styled pots with a bit of outsider art nuttiness thrown in.

The work bridges a period between Victorian decorative ware and proto-modernist forms in much the same way as Dresser, Mackintosh or Voysey. The pots embody the notion of this category but perhaps could also fit into a sub category: ‘When Victoriana goes bad’.

About the Designer/Maker

Sir Edmund Elton (1846 - 1920)
The Elton family purchased Clevedon Courtin the 18th century passing it around their extended family due to a lack of direct heirs. There were in the family at one time 5 Abraham Eltons, all brothers and numbered 1 - V. Edmund, exceptionally, did produce heirs, but principally devoted himself to pottery and to the voluntary Fire Brigade. He developed, through trial and error, a bizarre, decorative and supremely complicated product, working with his head gardener George Masters. His influences were Arts and Crafts, the closest equivalent being Dresser’s Linthorpe pottery. However, unlike Morris or Dresser, Elton made these creations with his own hands, at the time, an unusual occupation for a Knight of the Realm (almost obligatory now).

Sunflower Pottery sold principally to the American market through Tiffany, alongside Dresser and his various products. Both must have been an influence on American superstar pottery weirdo George E Ohr.

In common with all quality Victorian and Edwardian eccentrics, Sir Edmund also invented things (especially for people he/they had no understanding of e.g. the poor, foreigners and women). Elton came up with the first forked bicycle brake and a device for keeping ladies’ dresses out of bicycle spokes. Typically, he abhorred the bicycle.

About the Manufacturer

The Sunflower Pottery, so called for Elton’s love of flowers, was set up by Elton at Clevedon Hall in 1879 and continued production, after his death, until 1930 under the guidance of ceramicist William Fishley Holland.

Although the pieces produced at the Pottery appear to be spontaneous and ‘free’, Elton employed a type of transfer methodthat was extremely painstaking. After a pot was thrown and dried, a multi-coloured slip was applied. Then a design from the Elton ware ‘pattern book’ was transferred onto tracing paper and incised onto the wet pot and this design was then built up with coloured 'engobes' (thick slips of liquid clay) – it was after this point that their complex, trademark glazes were applied.

Records show Sunflower Pottery was sold through leading arts and craft outlets such as Liberty’s in London and Tiffany's in New York and the Pottery's tiles can be seen in various pieces of architecture throughout the south west of the UK, including the Jubilee Clock Tower in East Clevedon church.

Bibliography & Further information

Elton Ware: The Pottery of Sir Edward Elton, Haslam, Malcolm , 1989, ISBN-10: 0903685256

Linthorpe Pottery.

Clevedon Court

George E Ohr.