The Made in England mosaic

Made in England’ is a project supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Arts Council. It was conceived by the artist and mosaicist Emma Biggs, but involves the skills, knowledge and generous participation of numerous individuals. It is both a historical record and a demonstration of how signs and symbols influence our understanding of familiar objects and inform how we think today.

There are four parts to the project:

Ceramic tableware, the cups, plates and saucers we use every day, is unusual in one respect -- each piece bears an identifying mark which tells a story. Although people may have noticed the marks on plates, they are not generally given a second thought, unless it relates to the rarity of the piece and its financial value. Marks are designed to be overlooked, they are on the bottom of plates because the important aspect is on the top -- the decoration – but there is a fascinating story to be told from looking at the overlooked, the things we simply take for granted. This project aims to do both aspects of what art should do – namely make us re-examine a familiar aspect of our lives and see it in a new way. It should also be visually compelling.

Made in England begins where industrially produced ceramic began: in the pottery towns of Stoke-on-Trent. An art work in mosaic is to be installed in the entrance to the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery in Hanley, which houses a collection of ceramic of international importance, and receives visitors from all over the world.
The marks on the backs of plates -- known in the trade as ‘backstamps’ -- inadvertently convey a social history of England, and ways in which the English have seen themselves, encompassing technology, classicism, empire, nationhood and the pastoral. The name of the project is taken from these stamps. Ceramic was not marked with the country of manufacture until the nineteenth century.

American legislation required that ceramic sold in the US should be marked first ‘England’ and then ‘Made in England’.

This history of the stamps is rich with different registers; by examining the names of the various lines of tableware, one can see the changing nature of their appeal to women -- ideas about nationhood (Lord Nelson Ware, Royal Albert, Crown Ducal, Churchill) and empire (Empire Ware, Colonial Village) are replaced in the early part of the twentieth century by names with a more pastoral appeal, a nostalgia for the English countryside (Riverside, Hedgerow, Roses to Remember, Tudor Village).

In the sixties and seventies industrially-made ceramic mirrors an interest in the arty and handmade (Kiln-Craft, Studio Ware), the glamorous and cosmopolitan (Black Velvet, Manhattan) and moves via the specifically female:

(Hostess Tableware, Geisha) to a contemporary idea of a place for the man in the kitchen (Jamie Oliver’s new ‘Big Daddy’ plate for Royal Worcester for example). You can trace technological development by looking underneath your cereal bowl, from ‘hand engraved under glaze’ to ‘microwave and dishwasher safe’. But alongside the official story told by the names of the lines of tableware -- from ‘Colonial Village’ to ‘Homespun’-- are traces of people who made these goods, the thumb print of a painter, the test stroke of the brush, numbers counting out how many pieces had been made in a shift or a day.

The plates we will use will not be ones of enormous financial value -- it is the fact that the art work draws our attention to a story told by everyday things, accessible and familiar to us all, that gives it its aspect of surprise.

Ultimately the aim of the project is to look at the everyday in a local, a national and an international context. The products of the ceramic industry have a particular meaning to the community of Stoke-on-Trent, thousands of whom have spent their entire working lives in the industry, and many of whom have recently been made redundant as the industry contracts under pressure from the more competitively priced products of the Far East -- particularly China.

But curiously the highly skilled workforce is not alone in being displaced by the retooled Chinese industrial giants -- the traditional Chinese ceramic towns are also withering, and there are fruitful and supportive links between the two communities. The history of ceramic, more familiarly known as ‘china’, is one which cannot be seen simply in a national context: the word tells you about a trading history.

The first part of this project will be in Stoke, the second will be in the London Underground, and the third will take the project to China.