Tuesday, 25 February 2014


I came across an article by our brilliant author, Stuart Miller-Osborne which he had written a few years ago.  I was so taken with it that I thought you ought to read it and hopefully, get the same pleasure from it as I did.  Stuart has been writing for years and I must say, I enjoy each and every one of his articles because he writes so passionately.  You can actually lose yourself while reading his works. 

Jessie & Charlotte

It was with sadness, that earlier this year I noticed the obituary of Jessie Tait in The Guardian. Having already a great interest in the works of Susie Cooper and Clarice Cliff  I soon discovered the works of Jessie Tait and Charlotte Rhead. Although both were very talented, they are a little overlooked.

Jessie Tait (1928-2010)

Dorothy Jessie Tait  was born in the heartlands of the Potteries in Stoke-on Trent on the 6th March 1928 the youngest of three children. Jessie was from a working class background and in those days many people, no matter how talented ended up in dead end jobs in factories and the like. Jessie was lucky, at thirteen she commenced studies at the Burslem School of Art. It was during this period that for a while she became assistant designer to Charlotte Rhead. However this was not a success and she joined the firm of W R Midwinter in 1946 aged eighteen.

By that time the war had been over for a year or so but the country was exhausted by the conflict. My mother noted that although the precious peace had been gained the whole country was grey and the savage winter of 1947 did little to help. As with the fallout of World War One it was almost a natural reaction that things needed refreshing.

Roy Midwinter, the son of  WR Midwinter around the time decided to take research trip to the west coast of America and not long after became aware of the works of  people such as the Hungarian Eva Ziesel (Who is still with us at the grand old age of 104 at the time of writing). The overtly fussy designs were going out of fashion. People wanted something new, more streamlined. They wanted the clutter replaced. In a sense people wanted to breathe. When I  watch movies from the 1950s (especially some of the Alfred Hitchcock ones) what strikes me more than the plot is the design, the feel of the 1950s. You can almost feel the environment breathing again, you can almost taste the freshness in the fashions, the cars and the designs on the time.

In time Roy Midwinter designed a new set of shapes for some of the plates and cups. The plates resembled the oval shapes of the televisions of the time and this was complemented by quiet unfussy cups.  This new range was launched in 1953 and Jessie started creating the new patterns, although initially she had misgivings about the new shapes. She thought they might be considered too radical.

Although we might not know them by name some of Jessie’s designs became icons of the era. Homeweave (which resembled a gingham tablecloth) and Red Domino were two fine examples. She also with her Fantasy range ventured into the territory of Joan Miro, the Spanish artist with the lively lines and spirals of his work.

Jessie was able as with Susie Cooper and Clarice Cliff to identify the pulse of the times. Her Zambesi design with its zebra stripes (and the occasional splash of red) was in my view slightly reminiscent of certain of the abstract expressionists of  the time. It is a design that we have all seen and recognise and if we are of  a certain age, we can remember these designs in the magazines of the day.

Those who knew Jessie found her a modest and very practical woman who moved with the times. As the 1950s moved into the 1960s then as with everything tastes changed. To some extent the brave new world of the fifties began to feel stale. As a certain prime minister noted at the time “ You have never had it so good ” .  Many homes had televisions, some now familiar household appliances were becoming mass produced. Society had appeared to become more liberal. The Lady Chatterley prosecution had failed. A minor incident involving a girl from near Windsor, an MP, a Russian diplomat and a swimming pool at Cliveden had helped to bring down a Government. There was a massive slum clearance programme  and people were to live in Le Courbusier’s cities in the sky. The consumer wanted different shapes and designs and in view of this Midwinter introduced a new range of shapes in the 1960s

Gone were the streamlined shapes of a decade before. New, more cylindrical shapes were introduced and Jessie created designs such as Mexicana and Sienna to name but two. However, her Spanish Garden was the most memorable .I recently saw some examples of the Spanish Garden range  but still cannot really make up my mind about them . Maybe it is because I was brought up with them in my childhood, but deep down I think it is a longing for the freshness of the fifties designs, again it is personal taste.

Jessie married in 1970 and around this time completed her final designs for Midwinter which was named Nasturtium. Although I have not seen any examples for a while, if my memory serves me correctly it was a rather bright orange floral pattern which was very much of its time. At this time Midwinter was taken over by J & G Meakin  and subsequently by Wedgwood and really the freedom of the designers including Jessie was curtailed with a more corporate approach . Jessie moved to Johnson Brothers (another part of the Wedgwood empire) in 1974 and as far as I can see remained there to her retirement in 1993.

Jessie’s designs were like pieces of music on the wireless. You recognise the piece but cannot put a name to it. Her designs are very evocative of 1950s and the 1960s. It is strange to consider that what was then thought to be the state of the art is now treated with a soft nostalgia.            

Charlotte Rhead (1885-1947) 

I have always considered Charlotte Rhead to be a modern designer, but she was actually born a generation before Jessie Tait (Indeed in the same year as certain David Herbert Lawrence) and some years before both Susie Cooper and Clarice Cliff.

Charlotte was born into a family that had strong connections with the pottery business. Her father Frederick Alfred Rhead began his career at Mintons as a pate-sur-pate (paste on paste)  artist and became well known around the potteries . Her elder brother Frederick Hurten Rhead also became a well known pottery designer in the USA.

Although she was sickly child suffering from a severe gastric illness and shortly after that a broken leg which caused her to miss a great deal of schooling by the time the new century arrived the Rhead family were living in Fenton and Charlotte and her sister Dollie were studying at the Fenton Scholl of Art.

She started work at Wardle & Co in Hanley (where her brother was the art director). She did not stay long but it helped to develop her skills. By 1912 when she was twenty-seven she had had experience as an enameller, a tile maker and a designer.

It was during that year that Charlotte’s father was appointed art director at the famous company of Wood & Sons. She fine tuned her skills in the following years and by 1922 her name was beginning to appear as a back stamp as Lottie Rhead Ware

In 1926 Charlotte joined Burgess & Leigh and her design output was prolific as ever. Oddly enough there was a major fire at the Woods Crown Works which make have helped her to make her decision or she just felt it was time to move on. Burgess &  Leigh were so excited by their new appointment that they commissioned a full page advertisement in the Pottery Gazette. She selected a skilled team and from this time her name was appearing on back stamps . She was making her mark in the industry.

As the thirties dawned Charlotte was to be found working for Crown Ducal Ware and in the following years she was producing a large number of designs that were popular both in the UK and overseas. She was also a talented businesswoman who understood the marketplace. She developed new glazes (and lustre’s) and her snow glaze received a very favourable reception at the time.

The decade however ended on a sour note as Charlotte was diagnosed with cancer. She received treatment which was initially successful and she continued her career returning to Woods again in 1942. She worked here for the next five years, but her cancer returned once again in 1947 and sadly Charlotte died at the age of sixty two on the 8th of November 1947.

Although Jessie and Charlotte worked together, I have not been able to discover much detail about that period. Both women appeared to have been very modest (although Charlotte was noted as being quite retiring) but their designs were by the accident of time poles apart. Whilst Jessie Tait was associated with the designs of the 1950s and 1960s Charlotte Rhead designs were from the Deco period (although here she was eclipsed by Clarice Cliff and her bolder designs) Charlotte’s origins lay to some extent in the Arts & Craft movement and Art Nouveau.

Although a generalisation, there is something very biomorphic about a number of her designs. There is an organic feel to the designs which is absent to a great extent in most of the works of the time. Although Deco grew out of the Nouveau movement to some degree there is something very traditional about her designs. If you view one of her plates, for instance, a Charlotte Rhead has the feel of the past. Whereas a Clarice Cliff immediately identifies itself as a product of the era.

As with Clarice, Charlotte used bright bold colours but the feel and the look is different. In comparison to Jessie Tait the difference is total (as obviously it would be). Jessie’s designs are for a fast advancing (and to borrow from Aldous Huxley) brave new world and these were likely to be found in the homes of the immediate post war generation. Whereas Charlotte Rhead’s work is more timeless and whilst just as likely to be found in these homes they give the feel that they have always been there. Some of Charlotte’s work is unmistakably Deco and of the period but this lingering feeling (well for this writer at least) does not go away.

Had Charlotte lived beyond 1947, would her style have changed to reflect the new shapes and designs ? This is a hard question ,but I believe that her work would not have changed to any great extent. She would have taken in the shock of the new and in her own way incorporated it into her work.

Although their paths only crossed briefly both Jessie and Charlotte, in their own fashion, contributed to the fascinating history of ceramics during the twentieth century. 
Stuart Miller-Osborne

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