Pottery’s unsung heroes


Rye Museum held its monthly talk at its East Street site on April 13.  Speaking to a full house, Josh Cole, Rye Pottery’s Design and Creative Director, came to give a glimpse of “Post-war Rye pottery and its unsung heroes”.

Josh Cole, who, with his sister Tabby, is the third generation of the family to run the famous business, now in Wish Ward, explained that he wanted to focus his talk in this way, as there was so much to say about the 250-year history and a tight theme was needed. He is also hoping his parents Tarquin and Biddy Cole, second-generation owners, may be considering publication of further material

Very briefly, pottery has been produced in Rye since medieval times and the picture shows some of those wonderful jugs and pots on display in Rye Museum. In fact, there is another display at the entrance to the museum. If this is where your interest lies it’s well worth a look.

Medieval Rye pots and audience

However, what is known as Rye pottery was started at Cadborough, on the outskirts of the town, towards the end of the 18th century. The Cadborough Pottery produced practical farming and building items in the traditional red clays. To learn more of the early history of pottery locally, look at The Pottery Studio online, or Rye museum website

Josh specifically spoke about the period after the Second World War and about John (Jack) Cole (1907-1988) and Wally Cole MBE  (1913-1999), two young craft potters based in London before the war,who decided to buy what is now known as Rye Pottery, in 1947. There were few potential purchasers for such a business at that time, and the economics of it meant Jack had to continue with his teaching role. He had been made Head of Beckenham School of Art during the war, which had its heyday in the 1950s and 60s

Jack Cole, known to all as Mr Jack was described as the thinker and motivator behind the whole project and without his expertise,  it was said that there would be no modern pottery. It was he who was the driving force of the business, with Wally Cole’s simple, natural designs as winners, many continuing in production today. Jack Cole recognised the continuing importance of education and the development of a new generation of highly skilled people. Continuing in his role at Beckenham School of Art helped both the financial aspects of the company and, with Wally Cole, the continuing importance education and training for all the staff team

Josh emphasised the importance of the team in this contemporary, design-led company, which bridges the gap between studio pottery and industry hand-made pottery. He also spoke of his parents, Tarquin and Biddy Cole, who led the business – Tarquin as creative and design director and Biddy as managing director – until 2013. Together, they developed the design ethos that continues now.

Josh then went on to the role of what he described as the forgotten women, without whom the semi-industrial pottery could not have functioned at all.  In fact, 85 women have worked for the three generations of Coles, representing 60 per cent of the work force. Forgotten indeed! We hear of David Sharp or Tony Bennett, of course. Wonderful ceramic artists, but the final product needs many skills and passes through multiple hands.

Turning to the actual production of the pottery, Josh told the audience about these highly skilled women working at the pottery since 1947. At this point, the audience found itself learning about the full range of artistic skills needed to complete a single item, and they understood a lot better why he emphasised the importance of the team

Rye Pottery showroom

He explained about throwing, casting and fettling, decorating and painting, which produce the excellent product and the design detail. Wondering what fettling is? So did the audience. It is the process where the joins in pieces cast in a mould are sponged and trimmed to get the perfect finish.

Imagine trying to paint 30cm-long cottage stripes, so familiar on the jugs, bowls and mugs that we see in the showroom. Karen Wicking has this responsibility.

Sara Lee paints the current collection and contributes to the design development team’s revival and reinterpretation of mid-century decoration.

June Wooley’s bespoke lettering skills were taken over by Julie Catt and Jane Davies rejoined the company and supports the new recruits, who must find such talent and passion somewhat daunting. Josh mentioned others as well, and the names here are of the present talented team. The detail of these decorators and painters is on the Rye Pottery website. Women like Betty Sayer work alongside Josh Cole in the trimming and fettling room, and product designers Joan de Bethel, and Wendy Johnson, who has sadly now died, played their full part.

Altogether, a very full and interesting talk, particularly if little was known about the pottery, except its designs and the pieces made for the discerning buyer. There are examples of work by the ceramic artists and the team in places such as the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the Geffrye Museum. Margaret Howell, the fashion designer, is now stocking the mid-century large lamp base. It seems this gem in the centre of Rye more than deserves our support and custom.

Photos: Gillian Roder

Image Credits: Rye Pottery .

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