John Bostock takes a critical look at the history and development of the famous Rye Pottery.

Many years ago – in the early 90s before my collecting addiction got out of hand – I dabbled in a number of 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 just have to have it. 

I never dreamed that I would, one day, live within a few miles of the pottery. Since moving to St. Leonards on Sea nine years ago, I have, naturally, 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. 

Rye jugs in Cottage pattern
CREDIT: John Bostock

The pottery still exists, but these days survives mainly on its production of tiles alongside 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, the heyday of the pottery that produced large amounts of affordable brightly painted tin glazed earthenware for the kitchen and home.

Beginnings

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 dark red clay 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. 

Early rye utility ware
CREDIT: John Bostock

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.

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 few people to produce the pottery and took on a number of apprentices many of whom such as David Sharp, Denis Townsend and Raymond Everett eventually went on to start their own potteries in Rye. 

Employee Experimentation

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. It was here, during these sessions, that David Sharp and Denis Townsend showcased their talents, bringing their own personality and style to the pottery.

Traditional Sussex Pig updated
CREDIT: John Bostock

By the early 1960s many of the original apprentices had moved on and branched out on their own, starting 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 its rightful place as one of the great design successes of the post war period.

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 different crises we could all do with some of that optimism and hopeful spirit. So, once again 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.


History of Rye Pottery

Cadborough Pottery was founded probably in the late 1700s by James Smith and his son Jeremiah producing practical farming and building items using  local red clay from which pottery had been made in the town since medieval times.

1830 William Mitchell was hired as manager, buying the pottery ten years later.  He and sons Henry and Frederick began to experiment with decoration.

19th Century “Sprigged on ware”
Courtesy of Rye Museum

Around 1850 the pottery and brickworks became separate enterprises with Frederick developing the pottery using off white green and brown clays to mould acorns and hops and other items of “Sprigged on ware”.

In 1867 the potters won bronze medal at the Hastings & St Leonards Industrial Exhibition. Frederick Mitchell opened the nearby Bellevue Pottery making ever more decorative ware. 

Production continued up until the outbreak of war in 1939 when the Pottery was closed. It was resurrected in 1947 by the Cole brothers as Rye Pottery.

Historical Information from Rye Museum.


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