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Tuesday, 28 July 2015

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Florence’s absorbing study of area’s potters

THOSE keen to learn about the long-gone pottery makers of Whitehaven and West Cumbria will find much to interest and absorb in the latest book from the pen of local ceramics expert Florence Sibson.

Book launch: Author Florence Sibson, right, with Lady Caroline Lowther, Countess of Lonsdale, who is president of the Friends of Whitehaven Museum and who launched the book last week on Florence's behalf

Florence’s abiding fascination with the West Cumbrian potters of yesteryear has developed from an interest into some absorbing detailed study. This is a hobby that definitely became an obsession. She felt the skill and enterprise of those long-gone potters of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries had been disregarded and too long ignored by those who inhabit the world of ceramics. The honesty of the wares produced, at Whitehaven, Dearham and Broughton potteries, spoke to her across the centuries.

Florence was to put the matter right with her first book The West Cumberland Potteries back in 1991. Now, with much more information coming to light in the intervening years and many more finds being unearthed, either from the land itself, or from family attics and heirloom collections, Florence felt duty bound to share them with the wider public, resulting in The History of the West Cumberland Potteries Volume II, an impressive update of her excellent first title.

Her new book is thicker and includes many illustrations of examples of local ware. It prompts a search of attics and cupboards for that old jug Great Aunt Mary left you. You could be a proud owner of a piece of this industrial history. The value is immaterial, though some better pieces have sold for several hundred pounds at the Cockermouth antique auction rooms. Florence tells you what to look out for: makers’ marks, styles, glazes, patterns – the clues are all there.

As one would expect from Florence, her account is a very matter-of-fact, detailed explanation of her investigations and outcomes, the information she has acquired over the years, some of it scholarly, other parts conversational and speculative, making for an interesting mix. But what emerges throughout is her infectious enthusiasm for the subject. She has almost single-handedly put the West Cumbrian potteries on the map of this area’s industrial history (there’s even a pottery display in The Beacon), no mean feat, and brought the subject to notice much further afield. Florence should feel proud. She points out that pots made around here during the 18th and 19th centuries are now displayed in nine museums in Britain, including the British Museum.

I must own up to having more than a passing interest in the subject as Florence’s famous discovery, of the Clifton Dish, a slipware, marriage plate, dating from 1767, is deemed to have been made by one James Tunstall, who turns out to be my five-greats grandfather and linked to the famous Wedgwood potters of Staffordshire. The dish was sold at a fine art auction for a five-figure sum some years ago and is now proudly displayed along with other examples of local pottery in the Helena Thomson museum at Workington (I recommend a visit).

And how interesting to read of the contribution by the Wilkinson potters who also hailed from Staffordshire and whose thriving pottery at Ginns turned out some good pieces. And Florence is convinced that some of the talented artists of the Whitehaven Marine School of Painters had involvement in the decoration of local pottery too.

The History of the West Cumberland Potteries Vol II contains 240 pages and 350 colour photos.

It is available from The Beacon, Maryport Aquarium, Derwent Bookshop Workington, New Book Shop, Cockermouth, Book Ends Keswick and Carlisle, and the Blue Bell Bookshop, Penrith, price £30.


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