LEONARD BRAMMER was the visual poet of the Potteries. From the spoilt scarred industrial landscape of factory chimneys, bottle kilns, smoke and waste tips, he created between 1929 and 1969 a series of works of art, in wash drawings and prints, from which the Potteries can be recalled topographically and atmospherically.
The very titles of his subject evoke the last years of the Industrial Revolution in the Six Towns - six rather than five because, as he pointed out, while the brilliant pen of Arnold Bennett immortalised the Potteries in his novels, he was never forgiven by the locals for omitting Fenton: A View of Burslem (Bournes Bank) (1929), Canals and Wharfs, Middleport (1931), Longton Five Towns (1936), Wedgwood, Etruria: Ovens, Kilns, Workshops and Old Barge Mooring Post (1951).
Like Bennett, Brammer was a son of the Potteries, born in Burslem in 1906, the son of a designer and builder of pottery ovens and kilns, and the grandson of a potter. He grew up among the streets and small factories, the wasteland and the 'shraff' tips and the canals. From the Burslem School of Art, he won a major scholarship to the Royal College of Art in 1926, where he studied painting under Sir William Rothenstein, then transferred to the School of Engraving, where he was taught by Malcolm Osborne and RS Austin.
Having gained his diploma in 1929, Brammer was awarded a travelling scholarship and chose the very different air and landscape of Le Puy and Avignon. However, it was to his native land that he returned, made aware of the industrial landscape by the artist Gordon Forsyth, who took him to see a group of giant bottle ovens that stood beside the canal at Shelton. One of his finest etchings is his Burslem (1930), which he submitted as his diploma plate when he was elected an Associate of the Royal Society of Painter-Etchers in 1932. When he was asked whether the chimney of Parker's brewery was visible in Burslem he replied that the enquiry had
awakened many nostalgic memories for me. The chimney does not appear in the print as the location of the brewery would be a little too far to the right, the last building on the right is the 'Colliseum', a variety theatre that was about five minutes' walk from the brewery. This, like so much more in the Five Towns, has long gone. As a student I used to often pass the brewery going up Nile Street on my way to the School of Art. The Royal Doulton Factory was opposite the brewery. I can still recollect the lovely smell of malt and hops and the magnificent shire-horses that pulled the drays with the casks. They were beautifully turned out with very interesting headgear and gleaming brass; the carters took great pride in the condition of their horses and their equipment. They added great colour and animation to the streets of the Potteries.
Another source of colour was to be found on the canals,
those arteries through which flowed the material lifeblood of the pottery industry: the great clay wharfs and buildings that received the raw materials from far-off Devon and Cornwall; the 'narrow- boats', so rich with decoration; and the colourful barge community; patient horses, the bridges and locks, and the lovely vistas of the Potteries towns that one got from the canal banks.
Few will now remember that landscape nor the industrial blight of the 1930s which finds expression in The Shraff Pickers (Federation Road, Burslem, 1936). 'Shraff is a corruption of 'shord' or 'sherd','Brammer wrote.
A shraff tip or shord-ruck was the name given to the areas used for depositing the smashed or spoiled products of ovens and kilns. There were groups of people who used to search among the debris for crockery that could be used, and for the coal that would be found in the refuse from the oven and kiln fires. It was a very familiar sight in the old days. Many of the disused marl holes and clay pits were filled with shraff tippings over the years and much new factory development has taken place on what were shraff tips.
It was in 1974 that the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford first acquired Brammer's work. When, four years later, David Sekers came over to the importance of his portrayal of the Potteries and bought a fine collection of his etchings for the Gladstone Pottery Museum, where bottle kilns still survive, in Stoke-on-Trent, he wrote to the artist that 'they throw a great deal of light on to the extraordinariness of the landscape of the Potteries before it all changed'. A drawing of bottle ovens is in the Tate Gallery.
'Light' is the mot juste. It is that element which, against the dark passages of etching and mezzotint, distinguishes Brammer's work, and which captures, for those who remember them, precisely what the Potteries used to look like. For those who never will, Brammer's work will be their most accurate and evocative memorial.
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