Alex Dufort writes


Stoke on Trent was about 20 miles south of Macclesfield, where in the 1950s and 60s my father was a pioneer in the textile machinery industry. His speciality was polyester yarn. He used to tease the county ladies of the Cheshire plain, answering their inquiries about his profession with the oft repeated one liner “I make the machinery that puts the stretch in your tights.”

Stoke's six towns were on the Manchester to London railway line. All the Euston trains stopped there, in a valley filled with smoke from the innumerable coal fires emanating from the hundreds of bottle kilns still in use.

A huge Victorian factory overlooked the line with “Burgess and Leigh, home of Burleigh ironstone” emblazoned on its side. And in the seconds shop one could buy deckle edged plates printed brightly with shepherdesses and their flocks. Our family had a set in pink, which we used for “ordinary”, the fine china being reserved for Christmas, birthdays, and the visits of machinery customers from Mexico and the USSR. The fine china was in fact a mixture of continental porcelain and English bone china, which had accumulated over generations as my mother’s family moved from country to country in the service of their governments and banks.

My favourite bone china was from Staffordshire (i.e. Stoke) and hand painted in an “Indian Tree” variant, the thick texture of the onglaze enamel standing proud of its surface. I was fascinated by the uniformity on the repeated brushstrokes, aware that decades of practice were required, and knowing that the potteries were extreme examples of the much derided division of labour which I was later required to criticize while studying Marx at university.

The six towns of Stoke (Burslem, Tunstall, Longton, Wolstanton, Stoke  and Fenton) sit in close proximity to each other. They are linked by long roads of uncontrolled Victorian two storey ribbon development and it is hard to know where Fenton for example ends and Longton starts. But they offered a unique advantage to the pottery workers. You could move out of your family home and set up in another town while still being in the same city and still working in the same factory. This unique geographical factor meant that factories were full of relations. Extended families were seldom separated by more than a mile or two, making for a constant interchange between generations. The end result is a remarkably friendly, and generally happy, population with all family members nearby.

My maternal grandmother, a post-impressionist painter of Russian/Polish ancestry, used to invite us as small children to stay by the sea in the summer holidays. She and my American grandfather lived as tenants in the end of an elegant Folkestone regency house, with circuitous terraced gardens leading down to a shingle beach. Her collection of ceramics was chosen with a painterly eye. She particularly liked the Wedgwood “Ivy” print, which decorated her dinner service, and had a number of individual pieces from the Ravilious era. She also had a small collection of early 19th. century “cartouche ware” which followed the motifs of Sir William Hamilton’s treasures from Pompeii. These, including the Portland Vase, were the subject of a craze for all things mythological and Roman, which was taken up with enthusiasm by Josiah Wedgwood and resulted in his “Jasper Ware”, the ubiquitous blue and white stoneware cameo (or cartouche) pottery which can be found in every car boot sale. What cannot now be found quite so readily are examples of the millions of pieces of cheap cartouche earthenware with all their imperfections and thumbprints that quickly found their way to the spoil heaps of Stoke. It was this cheaper pottery that my grandmother collected, and which I collect to this day, whose exquisite shapes are the basis of the Brixton Pottery forms.

The technical perfection of these early eighteenth century thrown and turned wares was always a source of wonder to me. They were all characterized by throwing marks on the inside, turned feet and rouletted beads on the outside, and a blue slip which had been applied when the leather hard pieces were lathe turned on a chuck. One of the pleasing effects of the process was that handles and spouts (or “snips” as they are known in Stoke), could only be added later. A sure sign of slipping on the chuck is a thin blue line around the snip when viewed from the inside.

A visit to Prinknash Monastery’s Pottery’s shop with my devoutly Catholic grandmother was the inevitable sequitur to attending mass there. Prinknash pottery was well known, for reasons we both found unfathomable, and coated in a black glaze. It was modernistic in the extreme, presumably following the fashion for modernism sparked off by Arne Jacobsen in the Danish style that dominated the pages of House and Garden at the time. My grandmother was scornful in the extreme. Born in 1892, she had seen a century of style changes come and go and had a strongly-rooted sense of objective beauty to which these Prinknash pieces did not conform.

There were other largely unattractive schools of handmade pottery at the time, which could be classed as “wholemeal”: heavy textured thrown stoneware for sale in Cranks’ gift shop adjacent to the organic restaurant of the same name. One of Cranks' remarkable features was that the only flour used was organic wholemeal, so even the lasagne béchamel had a gritty texture. In her memorable review of Crank's Cookbook, Arabella Boxer (whom I later got to know quite well) observed that the recipes were generally good, but would be much better if refined white flour were used. My grandmother and I felt the same about pottery. The clay technicians of Stoke had, since the days of Wedgwood himself, refined Staffordshire earthenware and bone china a point of such perfection that there seemed good sense in abandoning “wholemeal” pottery, and using the technical resources of Stoke on Trent to revive the English vernacular.

“Why can’t you make some decent pottery one would actually like to drink out of?” she used to ask during our Prinknash visits. She extolled the perfection of form achieved in the 1830’s pottery she collected, which she saw as the result of a positive evolution of form and practice. I had always admired her creativity, playing in the sand at Hythe while she set up her easel and painted post Impressionist seascapes, so her exhortation seemed almost a command, and I resolved to fulfil it at some later point in my life.

About this time, my brother Antony, also a painter, was working for the Museum of London at one of their archaeological sites by Aldgate East in the city of London. The excavation was of a mediaeval dock which had been buried as city expanded and the Thames narrowed. There were middens of oyster shells and clay pipes, discarded coins and buckles, ceramic fragments, and numerous other objects that had fallen from wooden walkways into the dock in earlier times.

Antony soon realised that must be parts of the mediaeval foreshore that had not been buried in development, particularly on the South Bank where the shores were much as they had been in the 14th century. In 1974, He started “mudlarking” there at low tide, between Lambeth and Waterloo bridges, and made some remarkable finds. Among 7 centuries of debris he came across a 14th century dagger scabbard embossed with tooled decoration, but more importantly for me, he collected a number of 19th century Stoke earthenware fragments with a forgotten “potato print” decoration of acanthus leaves and flowers. As his collection of shards grew, we remembered my grandmothers exhortation, and he said to me “you should try reviving this stuff, what with Laura Ashley and the current love affair with all things Victorian, it could become the zeitgeist.”

Later, in 1981, as a portrait photographer, I was commissioned to take a picture of Ivo Mosley, a potter very much in Vogue at the time. A consummate technician, after studying Japanese at Oxford University, he travelled in Japan, and returned determined to make his mark in stoneware pottery. Ignoring the Cranks wholemeal school, he set to work making huge, brilliantly coloured splash decorated white stoneware vases in his Chelsea studio. It was an inspiring sight to record him flinging the dull pigments onto the biscuit clay with his jaw set, aware that, as Jackson Pollock discovered, whatever was done could not be undone. When he opened the kiln, the dull surfaces had metamorphosed into brilliantly coloured, glossy, iridescent fields.

There was a wooden kick wheel in the corner, which had been supplanted by a heavy industrial dual cone electric wheel. Was it needed? No: and Moseley immediately gave it to me, I dismantled it and lifted it to the third floor of my house in Tunstall Road Brixton via the front window using a block and tackle, bought some white clay, and set to work, with very limited success.

And that is the origin of the spongeware revival. It led to the production of millions of pieces of sponge printed pottery, and changed permanently our perception of hand- decorated pottery from 1980 to the present day.

But let's go back a bit. From 1974 -1979 I did 6 years as a chef in restaurants, banks, embassies and the odd Mayfair house. But by 1979, I was tired of being stuck behind the green baize door on thirty quid a week, and I began working as a food stylist for the growing band of cookery book publishers, including Penguin books, the Reader’s Digest, Dorling Kindersley and Hamlyn Books, assembling dishes for the photographs in their lavishly illustrated cookery books. Kodak had perfected Ektachrome film, and Cecil Strobe the eponymous powerful flat flash lights with which every still life studio was equipped. I hustled from studio to studio on my motorbike setting up, among others, Bob Golden’s painterly chiaroscuro shots that had become the leitmotif of his Penguin cookery book covers. It was not long before I found myself working in the Chelsea studio of Tessa Traeger, the Vogue food photographer. And she, realizing that I had done the rounds of the studios, and had learnt every technical trick in the book, offered me a full time job. This had at least two advantages for her. I was a technically knowledgeable assistant who could help her up her game, and I was out of circulation with the competition.

So began a very happy if somewhat penurious couple of years, which involved much travelling to France, immersing myself in the world of Michelin starred restaurant kitchens and using my rudimentary kitchen French to coax photogenic dishes out of cuisiniers in remote corners of the French coutryside where the best food was to be found. The pace was relentless: Tessa and I worked round the clock, either in Chelsea, or travelling, with little thought for the time of day, as we waited breathlessly for the sheets of Ektachrome to arrive back from Push One, the local lab. Push One which could process sheet film in 1½ hours, so we waited till we were sure a still life had succeeded before striking the set, or as happened quite often, reshooting the photograph if some unnoticed liquid had stained an immaculate napkin.

A frequent visitor to Tessa’s studio was James Danziger, an intern at The Photographers’ Gallery, who was later to become a director of Magnum. He was working with Cecil Beaton making a definitive book of his life and work, and seemed immensely well connected in the photographic scene. When the time came for me to leave Tessa’s studio, he had become acting picture editor of The Sunday Times Magazine. While working for Tessa, I had been taking portraits and had assembled a reasonable portfolio and he gave me my first professional photographic work, including black and white photos of Craigie Aitcheson, and later some Ektachrome ones of Peter Blake. After Lord Snowdon’s first attempt at Peter Blake had been rejected, James asked me to do a reshoot. The photo is now in the collection of the V & A – a real feather in my cap.

As my prospects as a portrait photographer improved, I was able, with Hugh Palmer, the garden, travel and landscape photographer to rent a studio in Clerkenwell Green. Unimaginable now, but in those days The Green, indeed the whole of Clerkenwell, was a community of artisans, wood engravers and turners, stove enamellers and chrome platers, as well as graphic designers and photographers. Our Italian landlord was the owner of a delicatessen round the corner, and there was a posse of despatch riders outside ready to deliver film and collect it from labs, and we were within easy reach of the old Sunday Times building in the Gray’s Inn Road. In those days the magazine was set in lead slugs on rattling Linotype casting and composing machines by highly unionised compositors the gauntlet of whom we had to run almost daily to get to the Sunday Times art department.

As I became better known, the portrait commissions became more and more frequent and increasingly lucrative. I was constantly in demand taking portraits of CEOs for company reports, and on one occasion in 1982, I photographed a French movie star during a break in filming in. Jean Rochefort was shooting a campaign for the French Electricity board in Paris, and I was given about ten minutes to take a black and white portrait to be used throughout France on 48 sheet posters. I was paid £1,100 for this job, the highest rate of pay I have ever had in my life.

In 1983, I was introduced to vivacious young English student from London University. Ten years my younger, she was highly sociable having lived in Rawlinson Road Oxford and been schooled at Oxford High School. She had met and impressed, the most eligible male undergraduates of several generations, and now that she was in London, and they also, she lived in a glamorous, privileged social whirl. Her name was Emma Bridgewater. It was the time of Lady Diana, and anything that smacked of upper class glamour was highly prized.

I, for my part was a much older, and somewhat different being, living on my creative wits, and saturated with the broad world of the arts. I had moved with my brother Antony into 41 Tunstall Road, Brixton, a squat in the road opposite the tube station, which we later bought. We both had had an urgent need for space, and this ramshackle, 5 bedroom house fitted the bill. There was room for a darkroom, artist’s studio, photographic studio, prop workshop, kitchen sitting room, as well as the space to accommodate our numerous hard up friends and their partners who lived us, sharing the bills, and sacks of onions and potatoes from Brixton Market.

Emma Bridgewater was living at the top of a house belonging to Desmond McCarthy in Wellington Square, Chelsea. She was impressed and umimpressed in almost equal measure, hungry for the glamour of her Chelsea life, but impressed by our creativity and enterprise.

I fell under her spell, and she she moved in with me at 41 Tunstall Road, but it was to be short lived. She found the living rough, and my anxieties somewhat depressing, and she felt she might be trapped forever. However, before she left entirely, she took an interest in some experiments I had been doing trying to reproduce the spongeware fragments my brother Antony had collected on the Thames foreshore.

I had already made some primitive spongeware on Ivo Mosley’s potter's wheel, and a few spongeware wall tiles for my kitchen. Emma, after she finished her degree at London University in the summer of 1984, was at a loose end. Via Tessa Traeger’s boy friend, designer Terry Stratton, I heard of Sam Spencer, a bespoke earthenware manufacturer in Stoke on Trent, and Emma and I went there together tand asked Sam to make three moulds. One was of a footed mug which I designed and had modelled of in Clerkenwell (I was not altogether happy with it: it was too narrow and tall, and the handle jutted up above the rim, but it remains the Bridgewater standard mug), and also we took a Stoke bowl and Dutch jug for him to copy. Sam made the moulds and biscuit ware samples, and Emma and I decorated them using some cut sponges I had etced from foam rubber with a soldering iron. We rented a stall in Covent Garden market, and they immediately attracted attention.This led us to show them at a gift fair, Top Drawer in the Spring of 1985, where they were an great success, and again in the Autumn of 1985, by which time the look had consolidated. But on the third day of the Autumn Fair, I started chemotherapy for Hodgkin's (B2) disease (see below), and on that very day, Emma appeared with a financier, and announced that she wanted me out of the business, to go it alone. The financer reinforced this. I was in no position to argue, my life hung in the balance and I capitulated, managing however to secure a small sum in compensation.

Just a few details on my brush with death and medical treatment between 1984 and 1986. In the summer of 1984 James Danziger asked if I knew anyone who might come over from the UK to New York City and decorate his flat on the Upper East side. He had been recruited by Tina Brown to work on the picture desk of Vanity Fair, and could not find anyone in New York to do the work. I suggested that I travel over with Jill Swan, a sculpture graduate from City and Guilds as long if he would pay our airfare and living expenses. Jill, one of the many residents of 41 Tunstall Road had long nourished a dream of visiting The Big Apple, and we soon found ourselves scraping and roller painting, camping on the 10th floor in James’ gigantic apartment on East 65th street. There were many excitements, not least of which was a flat warming drinks party James set up, to which he invited Annie Liebowitz, Robert Mapplethorpe, Tina Brown and Harold Evans among others. Characteristically it was very unshowy, with only champagne and potato chips being served. This was followed by a trip to the top of The World Trade Centre that was to prove a turning point in my life.

One morning in September 1984, Jill and I took the high speed elevator up to the vertiginous “Windows on the world” observation deck of Tower One. As the car rode up, I became more and more breathless, and at the top was racked with a choking coughing fit. As I grasped my throuat, I was astonished to discover a large lump just above my collar bone. I immediately knew I had got cancer, and the rest of my stay in New York was spent feeling for other lumps, and there were quite  number in my armpits, and wondering whether to visit George Schwartz, a top New York cancer specialist I knew, or whether to wait a few days till I was back in the UK. In the event I decided that I could speed matters up by going straight to casualty at St Thomas’ hospital as soon as I arrived back in London, which I duly did.

A diagnosis was not long in coming: Hodgkin’s lymphoma of unknown severity (“much as we suspected”, the surgeon told me in SOPD, ) It did not help matters that my own father was dying of terminal lung cancer in the Christie Hospital Manchester. Until I was certain of my prognosis, I withheld any information about my illness from my family, who were preoccupied with my dying father. That certainty came from the then routine and extraordinarily traumatic “staging laparotomy” which involved the removal and biopsy of my spleen. The diagnosis was Hodgkin’s B2, tumours in multiple sites with symptoms, on one side of the diaphragm. At the time, chemotherapy for the treatment of Hodgkin’s was in development, but a B2 diagnosis carried a reasonably high risk of death, and I was advised not to do too much reading around the subject, because what I would read would usually be out of date and somewhat depressing.

Chemotherapy was not recommended, and I embarked on a course of radiotherapy under the linear accelerator in the basement of St. Thomas’ Lambeth wing. It was very debilitating, caused extensive radiation burning (not unlike sunburn), and I was told not to wash with soap or we shave, so as to mitigate these side effects. I became emaciated, and lost great tufts of hair from the back of my head to the revulsion and terror of many of my friends. Indeed one of the greatest difficulties was dealing with their fearful responses. I will never forget the look of anxiety in many faces when I ran into them at parties, and I learned to avoid the most fearful, because I was thrust into the role of therapist rather thn patient.

Once treatment started, on the telephone I explained matters to my dying father, who said I could always join him in his sick bay. This seemed like a death sentence, and I stayed put in Brixton, being ferried to St. Thomas’ by my dependable friend Jamie Muir, who worked next door at London Weekend Television. My fathers invitation was, I think the last thing he said to me before he died.