This is the story of one of Rye’s most celebrated businesses. Its products are still sought after by British royalty and collectors worldwide.
The Rye Pottery is well known today for a wide range of simply decorated pottery and latterly for figures, all of which have a unique style that has made them very popular with collectors for a number of years. Pottery has been made over many centuries in the area of Rye. According to historical references James Smith in the late 18 and his son Jeremiah in the early 19th century were the owners of the Cadborough Pottery producing a range of practical farming and building items using the traditional local red clay. Pieces were also clear-lead glazed over where the function dictated. A notable example of this type of ware is the Harvest Jar dated 1843, with contrasting white clay infilling the impressed printer’s type; this can be seen in the Rye Museum. The culture change from farm and builders’ supplies occurred when William Mitchell was hired in 1830 as manager; he bought the pottery in 1840. He and his sons Henry and Frederick began to experiment with decoration — not always simple and sometimes extremely crude.
Around 1850 the Pottery and brickworks, although adjacent, had become two separate enterprises with Frederick taking over the crock works and developing the pottery. He continued the use of a clear lead glaze but using white, green and brown clays to mould acorns, hops and other natural items of “Sprigged on ware”.
In 1867 Frederick, Henry and their “spinner” William Watson all won bronze medals at the Hastings & St Leonards Industrial Exhibition and it was perhaps this that led Frederick to move down the road and build the Bellevue Pottery and make ever more decorative ware. After his death in 1875 the work was carried on by his widow Caroline with the help of William Watson and later by a nephew, Frederick Thomas Mitchell. On Caroline’s death in 1896 he bought the Pottery and continued in production until he died in 1920.
He was helped during this time by two potters, Fred Masters who left during the first war and Edwin (Bert) Twort. Bert Twort stayed with Frederick Thomas Mitchell’s widow Edith, herself a skilled decorator, and after her death in 1930 when the Pottery was bought by Ella Mills, he continued to produce mainly simple pieces of Sussex Rustic Ware and Sussex Artware with a little lustre.Almost all the 30s pieces were small items, until the outbreak of war in 1939 caused the Pottery to be shut down.
The Pottery was resurrected in 1947 when two brothers John (Jack) & Walter (Wally) Cole purchased it, renaming it the Rye Pottery, both experienced craft potters from pre- war London, John was now Headmaster at Beckenham Art School and Wally was teaching part time at the Central School as well as working on the Britain Can Make It exhibition at the V & A.
The Coles introduced a completely different style to Rye, although several of the traditional Rye shapes were still made such as the Sussex Pig, small jugs and mugs. Click for more on these ‘pigs that wun’t be druv’. Wally Cole had been able to coax Bert Twort back to teach the young apprentices how to make the old shapes.
The pre-war lead glazes were now illegal and the pottery now was decorated in the 17th century Lambeth Delft style –a white glaze decorated with freehand brush work. Apprentices were taken on, including Raymond Everett, David Sharp, and Dennis Townsend, all of whom were to set up their own potteries within the town.
During the 1950s new patterns and shapes were produced and more staff employed. In 1949 Wally made prototypes for the brewers Whitbread & Co Ltd — jugs, ashtrays and condiments all with an applied company motif. At the same time the trade press also noted that the influential store Heals was stocking Rye Pottery. Some inspiration came from the sea with items including two sizes of fish dishes decorated in red & green as well as a blue slipware plate featuring a fish & seaweed border.
The progress of the Pottery at this time has to have been quite significant as fifteen pieces were shown at the Festival of Britain Exhibition in London in 1951. The Rye Festival Jug is a much sought after collectors item today.
Throughout the fifties as the techniques & abilities of the staff developed, more complicated decorating patterns were introduced which skilfully united both the simple practical shapes with the more demanding requirements of a public seeking to escape the drab utility years.
Cottage Stripe, a deceptively simple vertical striped design in various colours has been in continuous production for over 50 years. The Cock Vase, first issued in 1954 but in regular production for more than 20 years, is a much collected item today.
Two other popular designs of this period were the complex Lambeth, a hand painted chequer board with stars inside a latticework and Mosaic, the latter designed by David Sharp under the tutelage of Jack Cole; both were used for coffee sets and various items of tableware. It was during this same period that ranges of vases, jardinières (ceramic pots or urns for plants), lamps, bowls & dishes were being painted in the Scraffito textures for which Rye became particularly known — a method of applying colour all over the glazed area which was then scratched through to the white glaze beneath.
However, it was the from the mid fifties that Rye began to concentrate on complete ranges of tableware; starting with the Cottage & Candy stripes or floral designs which were then joined in the early sixties by the more sophisticated dark metallic Cadborough Brown range and later still by its pale counterpart Rye Stone.
By the beginning of the sixties Rye had over two hundred and fifty patterns listed in the company catalogue and was exporting all over the world especially to the USA.
This tradition continues to the present day through Queen Elizabeth 11’s Silver and Golden Jubilees, as well as various Royal Weddings, Rye being one of the three potteries chosen to supply St Paul’s Cathedral’s special commemorative shop in 1981.
During the seventies the impact of the miners’ strike and the upsurge of the Far Eastern ceramic industry meant that by 1978 when Wally Cole retired, handing over to his son Tarquin, the Pottery was forced yet again to change direction, leaving tableware behind and concentrating on a range of collectable figures and animals.
The Wife of Bath from the Canterbury Tales had already been designed for Canterbury Cathedral, so Tony Bennett, who had trained at the Royal College of Art was asked to produce more of the characters using contemporary medieval sources, all hand painted in a tightly managed colour range. The collection at present numbers over 30 Pilgrims and is widely collected. Tony Bennett was also responsible for most of Rye’s animal figures.
In the eighties Neal French, who had previously designed at Royal Worcester, created a range of important figures for Rye starting with The Rye Lovers and early American History figures including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, both mounted on horse. Later he designed a range of Lovers and Edwardian Country House figures all painted in Rye’s soft lustrous colours.
Rye Pottery is still active, introducing new collectables each year, maintaining the high quality and originality that its reputation has been built on for well over two hundred years. Pieces regularly fetch high prices at auction.