Chaos theory

The ceramicist Emma Bridgewater is the queen of quirky crockery. But is her rambling Norfolk home as charming as her bestselling designs? Sarah Harris drops in. Photographs by Nick Sinclair
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The Independent Online

There is something deeply, nostalgically British about Emma Bridgewater ceramics. They speak to a mythical era in our culture, when kettles whistled and hens clucked cosily in the yard, while a brood of rosy cheeked children sat around pine farmhouse kitchen tables in front of a warm Aga to eat wholesome soups from earthenware bowls. So when an ancient taxi picks me up from the deserted train station at Aylsham in the driving rain and tells me, grimly, in broad Norfolk that we'll have to travel "10 mile across country" to reach her home, it all seems perfectly fitting.

The car rattles and lurches across acres of flat, rain-soaked farmland until we finally turn down a lane and into the courtyard in front of a rambling early Victorian rectory, in the reassuringly remote village of Wickmere. It's the kind of Darling Buds of May setting we jaded city-types dream of in moments of rush-hour desperation. I find Emma sitting in her studio in one of the outbuildings, in front of an open fire, dog curled up by her side, surrounded by jumbled piles of designs, books, and colourful ceramic tiles.

"I suppose I'd describe my style as 'messy'," laughs Emma as we traipse into the main house past an assault course of birdcages, piles of Wellington boots and racks of jackets and scarves. Inside the draughty old rectory is a maze of cavernous hallways with antique pink painted floorboards and colourful galleries of framed illustrations, collages and Ordinance Survey maps papering the walls. We finally settle at the pine table in the kitchen and dining area, where Emma begins slicing tomatoes (from the greenhouse, naturally) for our lunch.

"Recycled, family oriented and fun, are key notes in our house," she says, gesturing to the jumble of red, white and blue Bridgewater ceramics on the dresser, against pale buttery yellow walls. The old sofa in front of the fire is strewn with throws and cushions; the curtains need changing and, Emma admits, "Sometimes the chaos makes me want to tear my hair out, but I've always had the strong feeling that the important thing is what goes on in the house, that you're having a lovely time - not what it looks like."

She lives here with her husband Matthew Rice, who is also a designer, and their four children aged between seven and 18, along with several sheep, geese, ducks, guinea fowl, peacocks, chickens and a dog. "This is kind of how I remember my mother living, in the first house I can remember in Hertfordshire," says Emma, tearing basil and sprinkling sea salt on to the tomato salad. "Mother's father was a clergyman and she always said she felt at home in a Victorian vicarage - so I suppose it's in the blood." f

We sit down to eat the sweet tomato and basil salad, organic ham and fresh bread from the village shop, while Emma tells me about the shooting lunches her husband throws here for 65 people ("the wildfowling round here is amazing"), the village rounders matches, with afternoon tea in the garden, and the hoards of teenagers who camp out here for the entire summer, "sleeping all over the place - on sofas, floors, and even out on the veranda if it's warm enough". Emma's philosophy is "if the house has been a rectory, then it will always be a rectory, in one way or another. Even if you think you haven't got anything to do with the church, you have got something to do with the village."

The Bridgewater philosophy is so seductively idyllic you almost forget that behind the relaxed, bohemian façade there is a thriving business and factory employing 100 people, along with two successful shops in London that sell the distinctive Bridgewater brand. Hand-sponged speckled hens decorate the borders of traditional creamware soup bowls; lines such as "Hellebore", "Starry Skies" and "Kitchen Garden" conjure images of the kind of cosy, country-living that seem more the stuff of story books than reality. "Each time I drive back from London I think, oh god, I must be mad, and then I get out of the car and it's so lovely, it smells delicious and it's dark and you think, OK, it's worth it."

Pottery is a passion in the Bridgewater residence. In the kitchen every surface is groaning with colourful displays of plates, teacups, saucers, mugs and bowls (and a smooth ostrich egg) all randomly entwined with fairy lights. Every piece tells a story. There is a large Wedgwood serving platter from her mother's wedding list, alongside a bold metallic design commissioned from an art student called Brenda Tailor and, of course, some of Emma's own hand-painted ceramics. Why pottery, and not fine art or fabric? "It's everyday stuff that I love," says Emma, "and there is something wonderfully everyday and practical about ceramics; it's design that you live with and use, and forms part of your everyday routine - and that is incredibly important."

Across the wide hall and into a study, Emma shows me ceiling-high shelves stacked with mainly mid-20th-century ceramics - from bold Fifties china and Marilyn Monroe plates, to Princess Di memorabilia, and ornate gold lacquer teacups.

"I started collecting this stuff because I suddenly realised that all this stuff was going, going, gone. It's so incredibly lovely, and it needs to be taken seriously before it all disappears. We're not making it any more; now it's all mass-produced in China. Is anyone going to be collecting that in 50 years' time? I don't know." Her designs, says Emma, are mindful of this country's strong ceramic tradition. Even the Bridgewater factory is an old Victorian building situated in Staffordshire, the old heart of Britain's ceramic industry. She picks up a Fifties black-and-white Robin Day-esque plate from the shelf. "Someone sat down in a studio and drew this. That doesn't happen any more, which is really awful."

Walking upstairs, light streams through the scarlet Virginia Creeper outside the window, casting a warm glow into the wide hallway, intensifying the dusty pink of the walls. A rabbit warren of rooms lead off in each direction, with glimpses of antique iron bedsteads, stuffed birds in glass display cases, and ornate Indian smocks strewn on chairs, just visible past the doors into the family bedrooms. Down the long hallway hangs a gallery of black-and-white family photos, past and present, "because I love the idea of all the different faces from each generation hanging together", says Emma. There are wartime weddings, seaside holidays and even a faded desert snapshot of Emma's grandfather when he was in the diplomatic services in Sudan. "A lot of these are printed from tiny little photos I found in a cardboard box after my mother died, so I had them all block-mounted. I always think if you frame photos they become slightly more than you want, but if you don't then they curl up and become less than you want. Block mounting means that you have preserved them, without getting tied up in too much sentimentality."

Throughout the house is the double thread of tradition and modernity; a sense of continuity with the past, but with a distinctly modern flavour. It is certainly not the sleek, picture-perfect, magazine fantasy, but rather somewhere to be lived with and enjoyed - rather like her designs. "I've always thought it's quite important for your home to tell the truth. I think sometimes we score an extraordinary own-goal by putting so much pressure on ourselves to be perfect; to have immaculate homes, to be creative with our gardens and have lovely well-dressed children - and what's it all about really? If you're not having a nice time, then it's all completely worthless."