COLLECTING: Throwing a pot of gold

From the depths of bankruptcy to the dizzying heights of success, Moorcroft Pottery has seen it all. Lucille Grant reports
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Ten years ago Stoke-on-Trent's Moorcroft Pottery, the last independent art pottery in Europe, was given 24 hours to find new financial backers or close down. Today, thanks to a master potter, a corporate lawyer and a ceramics graduate, its workforce has expanded from 16 to 100 people and sales of its colourful vases are booming.

The rescue mission began when John Moorcroft, the youngest son of William Moorcroft who founded the company in 1913, telephoned an old friend to tell him the pottery was in trouble. The friend, Hugh Edwards, who is a senior partner in a firm of international solicitors, agreed to help and enlisted the support of Richard Dennis, a Moorcroft enthusiast. In the following months, John became the world-wide ambassador for the Moorcroft name. Edwards, meanwhile, sweet-talked the banks and expanded the workforce, and Dennis and his wife, Sally Tuffin, set about creating the right design image for the company's products and establishing a Moorcroft museum.

When Rachel Bishop, a talented ceramics graduate, joined the company in 1993, aged 24, it began to gain credibility in the contemporary design market. Now, in Moorcroft's centenary year, prices for old and new vases are reaching thousands of pounds. At Christie's last October a Black Landscape vase from around 1926 sold for pounds 7,200.

William Moorcroft studied pottery and art in London before becoming a designer at James Macintyre & Company in Burslem, Stoke-on-Trent, in 1897. As head of the art pottery department, he quickly made his mark with the Florian Ware range which was launched within a year of his joining the company. William's love of nature meant that his favourite themes included English flowers, feathers, fish and landscapes. He was also influenced by Japanese art, and William Morris's Arts and Crafts style. Distinctive for its thick slip, or "tube-lining" (raised lines which prevent the colours from bleeding into one another), and pale colours, Florian Ware was bought by Tiffany for its store in New York, by Rouard in Paris, and by Liberty in London who became Macintyre's best customer. Pieces now sell for around pounds 300. One design, first known as "Murena", then "Pomegranate", was so successful that it was produced from 1910 until the late Thirties. Still collectable, it auctions from around pounds 200.

William worked so closely with Liberty that in 1913 the store gave him financial backing to open his own factory. The Twenties were Moorcroft's heyday and its trademark "flambe" glazes were introduced. This glaze, invented by the Chinese, produced an exceptionally high lustre and richness of colour. Because of its unpredictability when being fired, each piece is unique. Designs given this treatment are considered among the most beautiful produced by Moorcroft.

After William's death in 1945, his elder son Walter turned flambe into a fine art, but the technique was discontinued in the Seventies when the firm's kilns were turned over to natural gas and it was found that this interfered with the process. Now it is hoped that flambe and lustre finishes will soon be resurrected at the firm.

Moorcroft is the only significant pottery in Europe where decoration is applied to the raw clay before firing. Designs are applied by pressing an ink outline on to the surface of the pot. Liquid clay is then piped on to the outline by the tube-liner, in a similar fashion to icing a cake. Once this process is complete the painter washes powdered metallic oxide colours and water over one another on to the pot to achieve the required shade. After an initial firing at 1,100C, the pot is cooled, and then dipped in a liquid suspension of powdered glass. A second firing gives the finished product its distinctive high-gloss finish, the brilliant colours looking almost like stained-glass.

In spite of Moorcroft's hundred-year heritage, its most successful piece to date, the Lamia, was produced in 1995. Designed by Rachel Bishop it is named after the water nymph in Keats' classic poem and has already been earmarked as a collectable of the future by Eric Knowles of Bonhams in his book Discovering Antiques. Bishop's Arts and Crafts design influences reflect those of the founder, although her ambition is to appeal to younger people. Her designs for the centenary set out to show that there is something for the traditionalist as well as the contemporary buyer in Moorcroft's design portfolio. The highlight of the collection is a carousel of five items, the centre-piece of which is a brilliantly coloured charger, decorated with fruit and flowers used by Moorcroft designers in their pottery over the last 99 years.

Hugh Edward's passion for Moorcroft has gone a long way to keeping the company going. At one point, he had to sell his own collection of over 500 pieces to keep the company afloat. He has written a book on the renaissance of Moorcroft called The Phoenix Years (under the pseudonym Fraser Street, and published by WM Publications Limited). No one can be happier than him that Britain's premier art pottery faces the millennium with such confidence.

! The exhibition 'Moorcroft - A Century of Colour' is at Saffron Walden Museum (01799 510333), Essex, until 15 June. To arrange visits to the Moorcroft factory, call 01782 214323. Moorcroft Pottery is sold at Rumours Decorative Arts (01582 873561), 10 The Mall, Upper Street, London N1.